I’m a good pianist. Not brilliant, but solidly good. I play a lot: I accompany the lessons I teach, play for classes, auditions, music direct, etc…
Given that I run ContemporaryMusicalTheatre.com with Laura, it probably won’t surprise anyone that I play a lot of contemporary repertoire. Correction: I play as much of it as I can play.
I’m always flummoxed by accompaniments that are overly challenging to play. I’m not suggesting I should be able to sight read everything but, even after a closer look, some of what is written these days is just not playable. Not by me. Not by most people.
And why is that a problem?
First, it has the potential to limit a song’s exposure. Songs with unduly hard accompaniments will be avoided in audition situations. True, performers could sing the song in other situations, like a cabaret, but that’s becoming more of a rarity these days. If the challenging song is from a show, it’s probably only going to get heard if/when the show gets produced, which is (unfortunately) even more rare.
Second, it has the potential to bury the singer. Busy or poorly notated accompaniments almost always get played loudly and singers end up having to push to be heard. If the point of a musical theatre song is to communicate one concise idea, it’s going to be pretty hard to do that when the listener can’t hear the lyric.
Finally, it encourages people to make up their own alternatives. I’ve had many composers say to me, “Oh, I can’t play that either! Just give us the idea of it – that’s what I do.” Because I’m also a composer, I can usually finesse an accompaniment without losing the flavor of what was written. But that’s a lot of power to put in the hands of a pianist. I readily admit I’m a control freak: I want people to play precisely what I wrote.
Here are some of the common problems I see:
Toooo Many Notes
I have hands the size of Franz Liszt, yet there are times when it’s impossible to wrap them around the thick chords and awkward leaps written in today’s accompaniments, especially when they happen at the same time in the right and left hands.
I recently tried playing a piece that had a repeated obligato in a fast 3/4 (essentially in 1). It was impossible to play the pattern at the marked tempo. I went online to see how the composer performed it (as I knew they had played it in concert many times). They didn’t even play what they had written! Why, then, should I?
When I write for the piano, I think orchestrally. But there’s only so much 10 digits can play. I almost always have to go back and pare down what I’ve written, saving the first version for when I actually do orchestrate the song. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having different versions of the song as far as I’m concerned.
Here’s an example of an accompaniment I wrote several years ago that is over-written, followed by a more manageable accompaniment. I believe they communicate the same thing. The only difference is the latter is playable.
You can see this is much easier to read now that I’ve kept the left hand in the lower clef and made the right hand 8va to avoid all the ledger lines.
Rong Kord Spelings
Did it take your brain a bit longer to figure out the above section title? Exactly my point. Weird chord spellings make the pianist’s brain begin to think vertically rather than horizontally. It then becomes harder to shape phrases and collaborate with the singer. There’s nothing worse than having to write in your own chord spellings into an accompaniment because what was written is the enharmonic equivalent, laden with double flats and sharps.
Of course, this requires a strong understanding of harmony, knowing how each chord functions in the context of the key signature and particular phrase. Not every composer has that kind of music theory background. I happen to, thanks to my professors at Syracuse University. If chord spellings are not your bag, put the song in front of a music director and see what they think (when in doubt, ask the boots on the ground). You can also add chord symbols to the score to help the pianist. Just make sure the chord and the chord symbol actually match (that’s another conundrum altogether).
Here’s an example of how correcting chord spellings can make a huge difference in how the score is read (or not) by the pianist.
Poorly Notated Rhythms
This is the next door neighbor to wrong chord spellings. Poorly notated rhythms often obscure the beat, making it hard to delineate where syncopations fall. We are already in the age of obscuring the beat in contemporary musical theatre. That’s why it’s all the more important to make it clear exactly how the beats are divided in each measure.
Here’s an example of how a score is easier to read with well-notated rhythms.
None of this means we necessarily need to “dumb down” what we write. We do, however, have to ask ourselves, “Is this pianistic?” And sometimes we aren’t the best judges of that. That’s when we put the scores in front of our music directors and ask them to give it to us straight. What comes of this conversation, I think, is the necessary burning away of excess, which will make the song even more emotionally potent.
Performers, just to be clear, this affects you as well. You have to be aware of these kinds of things when you bring music into an audition. If you aren’t, it can reflect poorly on you. Help the audition pianist do their job by presenting them with scores that are well-notated and clearly marked.
I will gladly admit that some songs are beyond my technical abilities as a decent pianist. You’ll never see me music directing The Light in the Piazza. It’s simply beyond me. Others can do it better, and I tip my hat to them.
I choose, however, to see my skill level as a pianist a gift, especially as I write. If I can’t play my own accompaniments, chances are others will have trouble too. How can I go about mitigating that so people pay attention to the storytelling, and not just the music?
I believe that’s part of our job as musical theatre writers.
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