by Richard Carsey
When you are a pianist playing auditions, it’s a day of sight-reading. Singers with high hopes and jangling nerves parade through the door, put a well-thumbed binder in front of you, point to a (hopefully) well-marked spot on the page, give you an approximate tempo, and then step to the front of the room to be judged. They are all praying the judgment will be positive, which means they can pay their rent, buy their kids a Christmas present, and get health insurance. They’ll get to be in a show of some kind, which may lead to even more work. And they are counting on YOU to provide accompaniment that will be supportive, insightful, exciting, and (primarily) accurate.
That’s a lot riding on your sight reading, pal. By the way, there’s a new person walking in every 5-10 minutes. Good luck with that.
How do you prepare yourself for this situation, and what do you do when things go wrong? The first step toward success is to get all the information you can from the singer during your few seconds of interaction before they begin. When they come to the piano with their book, make sure you know where on the page they’d like you to start. If they don’t know (which is surprisingly frequently), tell them you’ll give them a starting pitch and begin with their first line. Generally the singer who doesn’t know where they want to start doesn’t know what the piano introduction sounds like. You can play it, but they may still not sing when it’s time. Better to just let them start.
Next, look for cuts and an ending point. If they don’t tell you, ASK!! “Are there any cuts, and where do we end?” It only takes a second—get the information you need! Make certain you can see any cuts, and that they make sense to you. Turn the pages. There’s nothing worse than flipping a page and seeing a big black X over a whole section, and you don’t know where to look next.
If it’s a song you don’t know, get the tempo. I try to quietly play along with the singer as they demonstrate—this is an easy way to find out if the singer is actually giving you the tempo they intend. They are nervous. It’s not their fault. Help them help you.
Then the sight-reading begins. Many pianists don’t spend much time sight-reading on their own, but it’s a skill you need to cultivate in order to work in any capacity outside of a practice room. Keep your eyes MOVING. You can only look ahead, not behind. Simplification is your friend. If you are encountering music for the first time, it’s guaranteed that you will not play every note. Sight-reading is not about perfection. It’s about clear rhythms, keeping the bass line going and providing the right chord structure. This gives the singer a firm foundation, regardless of whether you miss the flute cue written in tiny notes perched on a stack of ledger lines.
If a singer becomes lost, it’s your job to find them. Keep an awareness of the vocal line. If they are clearly not singing something that corresponds to your playing, look for the words and then JUMP. Same thing for a wrong entrance. Get to where they are. In this situation you win no points for being right.
If a singer is rushing ahead of you, one of two things is happening: either they want you to go faster, or they are in a panic. Move with them first. If they continue to rush ahead, chances are it’s not intentional–it’s nerves. Try to give a solid rhythmic foundation to help them find the center of the beat. Be gentle and do what you can.
If the singer has moved ahead and clearly wants a quicker tempo, it’s you who needs to adjust. If this pushes you past a tempo where you can comfortably play what’s on the page, SIMPLIFY. Keep counting, read chords and keep a bass line going. Above all, you cannot stop. Do your best, don’t give up, play what you can.
Another disaster I’ve witnessed is a pianist who mistakes a singer’s back-phrasing for a signal to slow down. Generally this happens during music theater or pop ballads. The style of these pieces is an accompaniment that keeps a constant rhythm while the vocal line “plays” over the top. I’ve heard pianists slow the tempo to accommodate every back-phrased entrance, which means the singer must slow down for the pianist. Then they back-phrase again, the pianist adjusts the tempo down again, and we finally are grinding along at a snail’s-pace until it all finally ends. This most frequently happens with a classically trained pianist who has been told by all their teachers to “follow”—they have been taught that a soloist’s late entrance means “slow down”. But Stephen Schwartz plays by different rules than Mozart.
Music theater songs will often have some indication when you are to follow the singer: “freely”, “colla voce”, “dictated”—look for these key words. Generally, if there’s a clear rhythm in the piano part, you are expected to keep things moving. Listen as closely as you can, and use your instincts. If it feels like the singer is waiting forever between phrases, chances are they are waiting for you.
A pianist in an audition situation will face the unexpected—that’s the only guarantee. Good judgment can only come with experience. Play with as many people as you can, listen to everything you can so that you have a breadth of music in your ear and your fingertips. Above all, be brave, willing, and forgiving!
© 2013 Richard Carsey
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