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.
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?”