Performance Practices

February 13, 2011

My friend and fellow musician Bruce Mayhall interviewed me for a lecture on performance practices. I was so interested in the intelligence and specificity of his questions that I really took my time answering them. Read and take note, kids.

So, first: what would you say are the most significant tasks of conductors/performers in transferring your notation to realization? Do you regard the score as rather proscriptive, carefully notating what you want and expect adherence to it, or do you view it more as a skeleton to which re-creative artists add the flesh and dress? What about rhythmic or pitch ornamentation (do you permit, want it?)

A lot of my writing is style writing, meaning it’s the job of the performer(s) to identify the style of the piece and adhere to the performance strictures of that style. I often write in my scores tempo and expression marking that give clues — “in strict time” or “freely” or “with growing urgency” — but it really does demand a lot of the performers to know whether or not this is piece that has room for embellishment. I always say to singers that if you feel the need to add notes to the ones that are already there (pitch ornamentation, riffing) you’d better have a strong acting reason that supports it. If I want the singer to riff, I use slash notation and say “vocal improvisation.” Because most of my work is for the musical theater, I will always embrace the strong acting choice over the strict adherence to a detail in my score, so long as the intention of the musical gesture is intact and the style is consistent.

Do you prefer to have conductors consult you about questions they may have about interpreting your work (by either collaboration on the project, or discussions with you about specific concerns) or do you want them to bring their own best skill to the process?

I try to be accessible for questions and comments that come in through my website, but I’ll confess that I’m not always able to answer every email in a timely manner. If I get the same question more than a few times I’ll answer it in a post on my blog, so I recommend at least a google search before asking. Every now and then I’ll hear a performance of my own material that doesn’t match my intentions, and I’ll wonder if I was unclear in the score or if my notations have just been ignored. I always go back to see what’s actually on the page and then I try to imagine how the performer (conductor, pianist, etc.) could possibly have misinterpreted me. If I can think of a better way to express myself, I’ll change the score. I am always amazed that people cannot just read my mind.

Secondly, how does vocal quality differ in Broadway performers from say, pop singers or operatic/oratorio style singing? What are the most important skills for a vocalist to develop to appropriately present your work?

Musical theater is all about the storytelling. We musical dramatists focus on expressing an idea to an audience through the use of music and lyrics. I will use a less perfect singer before I will use an unclear actor. I know in other performance styles more emphasis is put on the goal of singing something perfectly. I will emphasize singing it honestly. I’m more interested in WHY you sang that note that whether or not you approached it flawlessly. That said, if your acting choice is getting in the way of your vocal technique, that’s not acceptable, either. The baseline is that you have to be able to sing well — in tune, with accurate notes and rhythms, with intelligent musical phrasing. If you can’t do that, even great acting skills won’t save you. I can’t bear it when a singer sings through punctuation. Trying to prove to me that you can sing a long phrase is useless if it means you’ve sung through two separate ideas without contemplating why there’s a comma between them. I tend to direct singers often to “speak sing” a bit more, to “sing conversationally.” And the key to that is knowing when to sing conversationally (in wordier, notier sections which are usually less melodic and more densely populated with lyrics, often the verse intro) and when to sing lyrically (the more melodic sections, the places that have longer notes, sweeping musical lines, climactic lyrical statements). The contrast of those two singing styles in the same piece is captivating to me. Finally, while musical theater does demand singers use their belt voices, I don’t really care how high you can belt. I just need the thrilling notes to be thrilling, the loud places to be loud, and the moments with the highest stakes to be supported. Usually that’s a belt, but if you can convince me of it otherwise, go for it. But make sure you’re singing musically and that belt has a contrast somewhere else in the song. You do not want your audience to be fatigued because you’re singing loud and high the whole song. Boring.

What instrumental combinations are best for your work? Live players and acoustic, traditional instruments – and/or synthesized, programmed computerized sound, and/or electrified instruments? Do you orchestrate your own work?

I write for acoustic instruments, with only a very few exceptions. I do orchestrate my own work but I have also worked with other orchestrators. The size of the pit orchestra is determined in balance by the needs of the show (is it a rock & roll score? a swing big band? a contemporary guitar-based pop sound?) and the budget of the producers. At the Broadway level there are union rules determining the minimum number of musicians you can use in a show. I tend to believe the more musicians you can get, the better. I have played synth in pit orchestras and yet I’d still rather have a live harp than a synthesized one any day. I’m a bit of a traditionalist.

Tempo: do you mark M. M. = ; or do you use objective/subjective words to convey your tempos? Is tempo fluctuation desireable (according to emotional content of the text? or other factors?), or do you (again) specify in your score and expect conformity?

Both. I do use M.M = and I often couple it with descriptive words. Tempo fluctuation, again, completely depends on the style of the piece. A lot of theater and pop writing is groove-driven. If that’s the case, then no, tempo variation is awful. Often in master classes my first wish is that I could turn on a metronome and make the pianist keep better time. The pianist’s job is to provide a bed of support for the singers, and if the pianist isn’t keeping steady time, how can the singer possibly make appropriate choices, sing syncopations accurately, or put an accent on a downbeat? But then if the piece calls for rubato playing, I very much want the performers to make expressive and musical choices. I try to notate the difference as often as possible but I also expect the performers to understand the style of music they have chosen to perform.

Rhythms: do you notate “swung” rhythm or would you expect (as in pop and jazz notations) performers to understand what is appropriate to your style?

In theater it is standard to notate swing rhythms as eighth notes and then write a parenthetical comment (“swung eighths”) at the beginning of the section. I have also seen dotted rhythms (dotted eighth/sixteenth) used to denote “swing” time, but rarely do I see swung things written out in 12/8, as would be most accurate. I usually prefer to notate the rhythms as straight eighths with written commentary, and I try to be consistent in style for the entire piece.

What are any other aspects of performance practice are of concern to you?

Vibrato should be natural. Dynamics are not arbitrary. And finally, the most thrilling performances of my pieces are the ones that teach me something I didn’t know about the song. Find the place where the truth of the song and the truth of the performer meet. If it feels false to you, it probably is.

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