The view from behind the piano

August 5, 2007

It seems to me that theater people are always looking for work, and then as soon as they’ve settled into something that’s running for a while, they’re looking for a way to get out of it. The SOUTH PACIFIC run (which ends today) wasn’t long enough to build up that kind of anxiety. There were only three performances, after all. But my job as rehearsal pianist ended on Thursday at five pm, right before the performances started on Friday. It’s a weird thing to be a rehearsal pianist. You’re one of the most crucial people to the rehearsal process. You play the same songs over and over again while the dancers learn their steps, the singers learn their tunes, and the chorus learns its harmonies. If, God forbid, you’re late, rehearsal doesn’t start until you get there. And then, when the orchestra comes in to play the performances, you’re done. Everyone else goes on and gets into costume and moves into their dressing rooms, and you’re officially unemployed. (Sometimes you get to play WITH the orchestra, but in this case, the 55-piece orchestration did not call for a piano.)

Sometimes during the rehearsal process a pianist will have to play things in several different keys. That happened this time for me. Before the rehearsal period started I was practicing SOUTH PACIFIC out of the published copy of the score I have at home, and about two days before rehearsal started, I looked at the copy of the score that the Hollywood Bowl had sent over. It was marked with cuts in the dance music and the underscoring, and, to my surprise, it had several indications at the beginnings of songs that said things like, “Down a whole step in the key of D-flat.”

For those of you who aren’t pianists, I’ll try to translate. What that means is that the music is PRINTED in the key of E-flat, but you’re expected to play it in the key of D-flat. It’s not an impossible transposition, but sight-transposing is one of those skills that you have to practice doing to be able to do it well. I haven’t done it in a while, so for the first few days there were clunkers every now and then (“a hundred and one, pounds of fun, that’s my lit-tle Honey STINKY NOTE!”) To his credit, conductor Paul Gemignani would look at me and laugh, knowing exactly what had happened and trusting that I would get it right next time. I did.

In one such moment, I looked over at his laughing face and said, “You know, I’m not Paul Ford.” (Paul Ford is one of New York’s finest pianists and has the enviable reputation for being able to play any piece of music in any key, even if he’s never heard it before.) Gemignani, who has been Stephen Sondheim’s primary music director since the 1970s, said something like, “You know, even Paul Ford couldn’t do that when I met him. I told him that if he wanted to play auditions for me he had to learn how to transpose. So I guess he took me seriously and he taught himself how to do it.”

By the end of the two-week rehearsal process I had gotten really good at transposing, and I’m inclined to follow Paul Ford’s lead and fine-tune (so to speak) this skill. I’ve spoken to other musicians and it’s amazing to me that even though we all are asked to do transpose at some point or another, none of us thinks about it in quite the same way.

(This next paragraph might get a little bit music-geeky, so if you’re not notationally inclined I won’t be offended if you skip it.)

If I’m given a piece of music to transpose at sight, I tend to think of it as having been written in a different key signature. Up or down a half step and I just change the key signature. A piece written in E that you have to play in E-flat is easy. Just think three flats instead of four sharps. Re-reading accidentals takes some getting used to: sharps become naturals, naturals become flats, flats become double-flats which you have to re-spell in your head anyway. Up or down a third and I just imagine there’s another line on the grand staff, and I read it accordingly. But once you get into transposing more than a third, you’re in confusing territory and you kind of have to rely on your ears instead of your eyes. (Am I going down a fourth or up a fifth?) Other musicians I’ve known have told me that they do it all by ear, but I imagine that gets tricky if the piece you’re playing is something you’ve never heard before. I’m so fascinated that not everyone thinks of music theory in the same way. Write in to the comments section if you have something illuminating to say about all of this.

(Welcome back.)

Actors sometimes need their music transposed for the purposes of auditions. A song that’s just a bit too high in F might sound fantastic in E. Or someone who wants to show off her belt might be disappointed that the high note in her song is only an A, and raising the key a whole step allows the climax to mean something in her voice. I encountered a situation in my class this week where someone was singing a song that tends to be the make-or-break song tenors use in auditions, and he wanted to transpose it down a step. In that particular case I advised him to sing something else, rather than have all the musicians behind the audition table scratching their most-likely-masculine chins and wondering why it sounded so low. Sometimes transposing doesn’t matter. Sometimes it does. Sometimes a bright song can seem darker when you change the key, or vice versa. Regardless, if you’re an actor, you should NEVER EVER NEVER EVER NEVER take a piece in to an audition and say to the pianist, “I usually do this in the key of G.” You might get a pianist who’s great at it. Or you might get “Sing for me, my Meadow-CLUNK.” Better to be in control of your own destiny. Either have your music printed out in the proper key or take along a pianist who isn’t going to stomp all over your audition.

All right, I’ve ranted long enough. In closing, I’ll pass along this one-liner I love. Another musician once told me, “You know you’re a musician when you can’t see a dot on a page without hearing it in your head.”

The question then becomes, “In which key?”

10 thoughts on “The view from behind the piano”

  1. Brent Crayon on said:

    That’s why I travel with my Korg Triton…lol… One turn of the knob and I’m in any key… I don’t know why we aren’t taught these practical skills in college, while you’re practicing your Beethoven or Prokofiev. Then, boom! You’re working…and you need to know how to transpose, sight-read, arrange, become a MD, learn FINALE, LOGIC, etc., etc. I think we need to start our own school…..

  2. lcreekmo on said:

    This is such an interesting post. Obviously I’m such a different kind of pianist [8 yrs of lessons growing up, play for fun now], but I have always loved transposing. When I played out of the hymnal growing up, I would transpose them for fun. And I never really thought about how my brain was doing that before.

    I really don’t have a very good ear for pitch, so I can’t tell you necessarily what note I’m playing. If I’ve heard the piece, I know if it’s right or not. 🙂 And maybe that’s why, at one time, I was a really good sight reader.

    So I think most of the time, when I transpose, I imagine I’m playing in the key that’s written in the music. But in my head, I’m reading intervals instead of notes. So that’s where I get the right sharps and flats from…. So I’m playing 1/3 down from the top note, or the next note moves up a half step….does that make sense?? I am thinking in math, almost, in the spatial relationships of the notes.

    That may be weird, I dunno.

  3. A.G. on said:

    I have often heard people say that they read in terms of intervals so when they are transposing on site they are reading the same intervals and not thinking in terms of notes. I find it very fascinating and agree that when you are dealing with half steps and wholes steps, no problem….make it a a forth away and I better know the tune. While I was in grad school we had a class that dealt with alto, tenor, baritone clef etc. If you know these various clefs well you can imagine the treble clef to be one of these clefs and voilà, you have some new transpositions at your disposal.

  4. Emily on said:

    I’m probably most likely to try to fool myself with reading tricks when transposing. (I’m better at sight reading than playing by ear.) However, I think my undergrad piano program would have encouraged transposition using roman numeral analysis, the reasoning being that if you can recognize I-IV-V-I, you can transpose it to any key. I’m not sure my brain works fast enough to do all of that on the fly, though.

    As for being a rehearsal pianist, I enjoy it as long as the actors and creative team are good and the music is interesting. It can be hard to resist feeling like a trained monkey when playing the same vapid dance number for a 4 hour rehearsal. On the up side, even if you are unemployed when the show opens, at least you may actually get to see and enjoy the finished show.

  5. David O on said:

    I agree, this is a totally interesting post, and I thought I’d chime in on it as well. I do a LOT of transposing, in classes, in auditions, in rehearsals, and yes, at times on the fly on stage (we were dealing with all sorts of changing voices in “13”…).

    I think of it similarly to Emily (above), in so much as when I sight-read, my brain usualy thinks of the music as chords in the first place rather than individual notes. (Probably due to my background as an untrained rock & roller…) Anyway, thinking of the music in chords, when I have to transpose, I always have the transposed tonic in mind simultaneously to the printed tonic — and I quickly calculate the relationship between the printed chord and the printed tonic — and my fingers figure out the relationship between the transposed chord and the transposed tonic. (OK this is real music geek territory…)

    This of course is much easier when the chords are written into the music — in which case I only keep half an eye on the actual notes, which I use as a kind of a rhythmic reference. It’s also easy with straight ahead rock- and jazz- based tunes where it’s easy to immediately “see” the chords on the page, but much more difficult with a lot of Sondheim’s pieces and other songs which perhaps wander around in terms of key, or have a lot of unusual or hard-to-intuitively-define chords.

    Most importantly, I guess I pretend that the unavoidable CLUNKS were meant to be there… And I glare back at the unprepared singer (whose music is in the wrong key) when he/she glares at me. For God’s sake, singers, at least bribe someone to pencil in the transposed chords into your music, if not actually print it up in the new key…

    Thanks, Georgia, for bringing this up! Cool to discuss.

  6. David A. on said:

    A reliable source of irritation and frustration. Electronic transposition is a strange experience for anyone with anything resembling perfect pitch, so I try to refer to the intervallic relationships. But I’ll still struggle unless there are chord symbols available, and those are often unreliable. As confident as I am of my musicality and instincts, sight-transposing a Sondheim piano score will put me in a sweat every time. Your tips re swapping key signatures and adding a line above or below the staff are excellent. In this day and age, the burden should increasingly be on every singer or composer to get their music printed in the appropriate key. Thanks, G.!

  7. Valerie on said:

    Fascinating stuff! I don’t know how you pianists do it at all – as a violinist I’ve had a few occasions to sight-read in viola clef (ONE staff at a time, of course, not two), and I’ve gone into complete mental hyperdrive, calculating intervals with manic speed and trying to stay ahead of the music with my brain by a bar or two, with only limited success. There is a good reason I’m not working as a violist. 🙂
    My father did a ton of musical theater accompanying, and never cared what key something was written in – he was an unprepared singer’s dream! I asked him once how he did it, and he just shrugged and said “I can hear how it’s supposed to go, I guess.”

  8. Anonymous on said:

    I hate it when people just assume you can transpose at sight! I often find it’s a good party trick that I’m re`ally good at and then when I actually have to do it ‘under pressure’ I go to pot completely, so not very useful really!

    I’ve just played Bloody Mary in South Pacific for a charity event called the 24 hour musical where we learn, rehearse and produce a musical in the space of 24 hours. Also ended up rehearsal pianist-ing at about 4.30am having never seen the score before – everyone was so tired by that point they didn’t notice the barrage of very wrong notes in ‘Younger than Springtime’ (“I sing it down a third…” “Not when I’m playing it you don’t…”)


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  10. Sana Sparks on said:

    I’m glad I found this. I attended Georgia State University with Paul Ford. He and I worked together in a GSU production of Anything Goes. He was for a very brief time my voice lesson accompanist. We had mutual friends but never knew each other well. In the brief time he was my accompanist, he was frustrated because I did nothing with the music. He didn’t know I was having a terrible time with my voice teacher, who thought bullying was a good teaching method. I know now she thought it would weed out weak singers, but it just confused me and gave me no reason to sing. This carried over in practice sessions. One day Paul blew up at me and asked “What are you going to do with it?” That was the end of him playing for me. He never realized I was not being taught to do what I would do with music. That burst of anger has been my mantra ever since that time. I got out of GSU and found my own music. It was only one of many things I’ve done over the years, but now, I’m coming back to it full time. And every time I start to make music? “What are you going to do with it?” Is in my head. I love this blog post. Thank you for writing it.

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