Moving Too Fast – Aiding an out-of-control accompanist

by Richard Carsey

When I was a kid, I loved “The Jetsons”. For those of you too young to know, it was a television cartoon about a family living in the future. They had flying cars, robots that served as housemaids, and moving walkways to take them from place to place. During every episode’s final credits, our hero, George, took his dog, Astro, for a walk on one of those walkways. It was like a treadmill. The treadmill started going faster and faster until poor George could no longer keep up. Astro was smart and hopped off, but George was trapped. As he struggled to keep up, he would shout for his wife: “Jane, stop this crazy thing!” Produced by Hanna-Barbera – blackout!

I’ve seen this happen at auditions. The treadmill is the pianist, and George is the singer. Or vice-versa. Just like George, you are suddenly scrambling—and Jane can’t come to help! This column will address “damage control” for singers.

There are no hard and fast rules about how to “fix” a tempo while you are singing and things are going wrong. It’s easier to list what NOT to do first.

–DON’T start snapping your fingers at the pianist. It’s degrading to be snapped at, and it seldom accomplishes your goal. Believe me, it will reflect poorly on you as a colleague. You might (MIGHT) be able to get away with this if the song is a swing tune and you can mask your tempo correction with Sinatra-like style. But I wouldn’t recommend it as your first option.

–DON’T turn to glare at the pianist in order to make sure the auditors know it’s his or her fault, not yours.

–DON’T turn away from the piano to try to block the sound out. The only thing this accomplishes is to make it certain the player can’t hear you.

So what DO you do? My suggestion is to move toward the piano a bit (even if that means taking a step back while facing the auditors), turn slightly toward the player, and sing (gently but insistently) the tempo you prefer. By moving to the pianist, you attract their attention. By turning to them a bit, you make it easier for them to hear you. And the gentle insistence on the tempo you intend will provide a guide. You are reining in a galloping horse, not whipping it.

If this doesn’t work, or the pianist is crashing and burning behind you (wrong notes, wrong key signature, wrong rhythms), you have a couple choices. If it’s a short selection, my strong advice is to see it through as best you can. Under extreme circumstances you can choose to stop. How you do this is crucial. “I think we’ve gotten off a bit, may I start again?” is a good neutral thing to say. It acknowledges the problem without affixing blame.

It’s hardest if you are being drowned in wrong notes. There’s no great way to address it once you’ve stopped, and no matter what you say, the pianist will probably not magically read the song better once you start again. The important thing is to say what needs to be said without being insulting, patronizing, belittling, aggressive, or passive-aggressive. This is particularly hard as you will probably be as flustered as the pianist. Try practicing what you might say. First, excuse yourself to the auditors. “Excuse me. I would like to stop and start this over if I may. May I confer again with the pianist?” If that’s successful (and it will be), go to the pianist and ask to hear your starting pitch. Ask her to play your first line for you. If what she plays is incorrect, maybe try, “Oh, that’s not how I learned it. Is that right?” If the auditors behind the table are smart, they may graciously offer you the opportunity to pick another song. If not, you may ask to make a change. Or you may bravely soldier on.

If it’s clear the pianist was not up to the technical challenges of your first selection, it may be time to switch your plan. If he was flummoxed by “The Miller’s Son” from “A Little Night Music”, do not choose your Jason Robert Brown selection next! Make sure you have something in your book that you are SURE most pianists can play. Your Richard Rodgers song or simpler pop selection might be your best friend! Even if it says on your audition sheet that you will sing “Fable” from The Light in the Piazza, this may be the right time to suggest “I Dreamed a Dream” or “Hello, Young Lovers”.

The people behind the table are not idiots (generally) and they know what’s happening in front of them. They want to hear you at your best. If you need to stop or to change a selection, they will likely understand why. What’s important is HOW you handle the situation. You will be respected for diplomacy and graciousness under fire. In all likelihood, if they discern your talent and you handle this bad situation with aplomb, you will be called back for another chance under better circumstances.

© 2013 Richard Carsey

Next up, a column for pianists—what to do when a singer is in trouble.  And what to do if the trouble is you.

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