Play the Ink, or Go and Sin No More

This blog is a part of The Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, found online at www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com

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“The sin against the spirit of the work always begins with a sin against its letter.” – Igor Stravinsky
 

 

I have a confession to make: I don’t always play every note of a score as written when I accompany my musical theatre students, as I recently did for voice juries. I don’t improvise up a storm, but… sometimes I take liberties. Or simplify.

This might not seem like a big deal to most, but as we come closer to the beginning of The Directory’s first major workshop at Marymount Manhattan College (which I’m musical directing), it’s a guilty habit I must immediately break as our cast of 21 students and I prepare to premiere works by four fantastic writers (Sara Wordsworth & Russ Kaplan, Will Reynolds and Clay Zambo). We’ll also be featuring individual songs by other Directory writers, many of whom we expect will drop by and work with the students. That’s a lot of (perfectly played) notes!

The concept of “playing the ink” (which, I’m told is a phrase used by jazz cats…) made more of a blip on my radar last spring, when I had the joy of interviewing John Bucchino for our blog and website’s video content (see a trailer here; Directory members can view the entire interview by logging onto our website). In answering a question about performing his work, John said, “Encourage your pianist to play all the notes that are written. The chord symbols were insisted upon by the publisher – if I had my druthers they wouldn’t be there at all. My music is more horizontal than vertical, and every line of counterpoint is as important as each word of the lyric.”

As a writer, I couldn’t agree more. I spend a lot of time carving out very particular musical textures in the vocal line and accompaniment. If I’m doing my job as a writer, these musical textures should be a silver platter on which the singer can set their interpretation. The subtext or the character’s emotional life is built into the accompaniment. I would be (and let’s face it, have been…) mortified if (or when) someone took liberties with my music. Would I have the gall to alter or simplify the music of Mozart, Schubert, Brahms or Debussy? Ummm… no! Then why would I consider messing with Gershwin, Loesser, Bernstein or Bucchino?

And you better believe I’m all over my students about accuracy, especially with classical and musical theatre scores (pop/rock score notation is a discussion for another day!). In these idioms, the composer often gives the singer very precise information, especially when it comes to the melody. My biggest pet peeve is having to correct a student’s mistakes when they haven’t taken the time to properly learn a song.

So given all this, you would think I’d hold myself to a higher standard when it comes to accompanying.

And yet, there are some logical reasons why I sometimes don’t play what’s on the page. Ever try playing the piano reduction to “I Believe in You” from HOW TO SUCCEED…? Not fun! Sometimes it’s physically impossible to play everything written out on the page, even for someone like me, who has hands the size of Franz Liszt. Other times I do my best to flesh out an accompaniment if it’s an over-simplification of the full score. I try to make informed decisions based on the orchestration, especially if I feel it’ll support the singer. And I’m a pretty decent sight reader, but there are things I’m simply going to miss in an effort to keep up with a singer. I’ve heard many pianists trying to sight read every note on the page, and they invariably end up burying the singer. I’m not a fan of accompanists who don’t know their job is to support the singing artist.

Excuses aside, I could stand to step up to the plate and give it a better go at the keys. It will stretch me as a pianist – something I studied in college, but often took a back seat to my dual degree in voice and composition (sorry, Professor Goodrum!).

So, for those of us who accompany or musical direct, I’m encourage us all to trust the composer’s instructions and “play the ink.” I think I’ve stumbled onto my New Year’s Resolution…

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2 thoughts on “Play the Ink, or Go and Sin No More

  1. This is a good point. But we know that not all piano arrangements live up to the standards of the compositions themselves. I would say that strong piano writing is the exception rather than the rule in musical theatre. Often the kinds of arrangements we have easy access to (particularly the “downloadable” kind) are really not designed for professional use. These culprits are often obvious: the melody is in the piano arrangement at all times, the “groove” is created by a continuous stream of 16th notes, the chord symbols are drastically simplified or even just wrong. The more experience we have the better we’re able to discern what’s “right” as we accompany singers on piano.

    1. This is very true, Jonathan. You have writers like JRB, Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa who write exactly what they want to hear and other writers who are more flexible, or don’t always have the skill to notate the score the way they should. We have to be literate enough to know the difference, which can be a challenge. Thanks for your comment!

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