To Bring or Not To Bring?

October 22, 2007

In a session of THE GYM this week, a question came up that I found I couldn’t adequately answer for my students, so I thought I’d open it up to you people to see if I could gather a consensus of opinion.

Often times when I’m working one on one with an actor, I’ll point out if a piano accompaniment is particularly challenging, and I’ll explain why it might be difficult for an audition pianist to sight-read it. If the song is really well-known, like say Stephen Schwartz’s “Meadowlark” (tricky with seven zillion page turns) or Andrew Lippa’s “Life of the Party” (requires the pianist to have a great sense of time), I’ll say that it’s probably not a big deal because the pianist is bound to know it. But if it’s a new, just released piece (like Adam Guettel’s “The Beauty Is”) or an original piece (perhaps something the actor did in a reading which has not yet been released for public consumption) or a strange arrangement or a chord chart or even a not-fully-notated transposition, I’ll suggest to the actor that he might consider taking his own accompanist to the audition.

When I lived in New York and I was playing auditions all the time, it was not uncommon in the course of an eight-hour day for me to move aside for another accompanist at least once or twice. Sometimes I rolled my eyes when an actor would bring her own pianist for a song I’d already played three times that day, but I understood that removing one element of surprise from the audition process probably made the actor feel more comfortable and more in charge of her own audition. And that was fine. And, actually, I didn’t mind the break. And sometimes, the pianist didn’t even have music and you just knew the two of them had been doing this one particular song this one particular way for seventeen years, and you were grateful that the actor wasn’t standing there trying to explain to you how it went when nothing was accurately written down, anyway. I never once had a casting director scoff at an actor’s choice to bring her own accompanist. They scoffed at everything else, but you know what I mean.

In my class in LA this week, however, several of the actors agreed that they had been told that bringing their own pianist to an audition made them seem rude and presumptuous. More than one had been told by a coach that under no circumstances should they bring their own accompanist, and they even seemed to feel that doing so might sabotage their audition. The assumption, I think, was that once they left the room everyone would be annoyed that they had brought their own pianist, as it somehow disrespected the already-hired pianist and perhaps even the other people who were in the room.

So my question is this — what do you think? Actors? Musical directors? Casting directors? Has the audition climate changed since the days when I was playing auditions? Or, maybe, is the NYC audition code of propriety different from the one in LA? I’m very curious to hear what’s up.

I’ve only been out of the NY market a short time, but when I was there, headshots were in black and white, the Variety Arts was still in business and nobody had yet heard of Max Crumm and Laura Osnes. So, you see, I could use your help.

15 thoughts on “To Bring or Not To Bring?”

  1. Boris the Tortoise on said:

    Personally, I would say that going without your own piano player shows the panel something more about your confidence in your abilities. Instead of being with someone who knows exactly how you want the song to go, you are confident that you know every bit of the song and you can sing it no matter how its played (even if you aren’t completely confident). That’s just me though.

  2. Caroline on said:

    I know of one leading West End actress who tells people in her masterclasses wo take their own accompanist. But i have to admit to never having the nerve or the inclination. Although, funnily enough, I have been contemplating the music from “The Light in the Piazza” and wondering how I would go about taking that into an audition. Perhaps it would be a case of getting it taken down on tape. but I would feel very rude usurping the pianists place and risking the scorn and mockery of the panel!!

  3. James Donegan on said:

    I wasn’t going to comment, but the two before me really shocked me.

    I think it may be Coast thing. In New York, the most established performers are the most likely to bring their own pianists. I don’t think that’s reflective of their confidence or self-esteem.

    I think that anyone who thinks it reflects badly on the performer is, simply put, ignorant. Singing isn’t a solo sport; it’s a collaboration between singer and pianist. I’ve never brought my own pianist, but I’ve often wish I had.

    If you don’t know you’re going to have someone like Georgia Stitt at the ivories, then why run the risk?

  4. david o on said:

    It seems that there is a weird vibe here in LA about bringing your own accompanist, which I don’t get either. The only thing I can think of is that sometimes when I am playing an audition, the auditioning actor and/or their hired accompanist comes in with the attitude of “you won’t be able to play this right for me…” and then the hired accompanist sucks. That would rub me the wrong way, but it speaks more to people’s audition ettiquete than anything. If you bring your own accompanist, for God’s sake make sure you and he/she are not rude about it.

    Sometimes if I am playing the audition and am also the M.D. it’s very useful for me to get a feel for the auditioning actor with my fingers on the keys. If you’re not willing to play around in the room, it basically tells me I don’t want to work with you.

    Re: LA auditions – I would go one step further than Georgia, however, and say, yes, do bring your accompanist if you’ve rehearsed a song with a complex piano part – many songs that NY pianists know (such as “Meadowlark,” “Life of the Party,” even a lot of Sondheim standards), LA pianists don’t necessarily know – many LA pianists hired for auditions are not primarily musical theatre accompanists, and may be very good, but may have never played “The Miller’s Son,” in which case you’re screwed.

  5. Georgia Stitt on said:

    You guys, David O, who commented above, is one of the top theatrical music directors in LA, so his opinion holds a lot of weight for me. James is an actor I’ve worked with in NY, Caroline is a prominent actress on the West End in London, and Boris is a Canadian college student. You’ve got lots of points of view here. This is exactly the kind of dialogue I was hoping would emerge. Keep it up!

  6. Boris the Tortoise on said:

    I went to some of my professors in the last week, and some of them said that at an audition, the song meant more than the pianist, so they wouldn’t mind. Our acting head is strictly against bringing your own accompanist, i guess for the same reasons i said before (not sure)

    Our music head told me that he has gone as far to call the company he was going to be auditioning for ahead of time, and ask for the pianists name, then payed them for some playing time to go over his songs with him before the audition. He was in opera, so i assume there is a smaller field of pianists that play those auditions, so it would be easier than with Musical Theatre auditions, but if you have a piece you are really worried about, it is always an option.

    p.s: as someone who is soon going into the world of auditioning for parts, its helpful to get some different opinions. Its all too obvious that Opinion changes from panel to panel.
    Awesome topic Georgia! Keep them coming!!

  7. Anonymous on said:

    I think this a great question. In many years of auditioning (and NYC and beyond)… I’ve never brought in my own accompantist. I think each time an actor tells a story via song, new life is brought to that story by what the pianist provides. As an actor, if you simply listen to the accompaniment growth is possible. And sometimes the imperfections help lead you to a better performance. I love it when an accompanist plays it differently than I expected. It only makes me work to my fullest and forces my performance to remain real.

  8. Jose Delgado on said:

    I must say that of all the stimulating topics that you’ve been putting up here, Georgia, this one pulled me in most strongly. I’m a music director, vocal coach/teacher, and accompanist in the Boston area who plays his own auditions and is also hired to play for auditions all the time and my 2 cents are:
    1) James D. is dead-on about the collaborative nature of an audition between the actor and his/her accompanist. Going further, you need to keep in mind that each auditioner is only given anywhere between 1-3 minutes (if they’re generous) to make your impression – make it count and bring your own accompanist if your piece is extremely challenging or lesser-known.
    2) I also agree 1000% with David O.’s comment that as an MD it’s much easier for me to see how an auditioner responds to my suggestions, be they spoken or played, if I’m at the piano myself. Someone who’s inflexible at an audition usually remains so in rehearsal.

  9. Michael Donovan on said:

    As Georgia and David O both mention, it is rare that an actor brings his/her own accompanist. When an actor does do that, I often get a sense (from behind the table) of “Oh, boy – here we go” – sort of “Why?!” – or “what are they hiding?” Certainly we have all been exposed to the the, shall we say, inexperienced (??!!) accompanist – but, thankfully, they are few and far between. In L.A. you have some really good accompanists: Georgia and David of course, and Steven Smith, Steven Applegate, Jerry Sternbach – just to mention a few. I think it’s a good idea to ask, before you go in, who the accompanist is – and ADJUST your audition accordingly. (After a few auditions, you’ll have a pretty good sense of who can play what.) If you know it’s particularly difficult material, on some level I would question if it’s a good choice. Why have everyone struggle?

    There are some actors who do regularly bring an accompanist – some who are a “name”, or some who have a long-term relationship with their accompanist – and, from the casting perspective, after a few auditions watching that particular performer, you kind of expect him/her to walk in with that pianist – so, it stops being an issue. But they are very few and far between. It’s a choice – and it is the actor’s. But I do think you really raise the expectations in the room.

    I also want to comment on something else David said — I think there is a wealth of information for the musical director in seeing how an actor handles auditioning with the accompanist that everyone has dealt with all day long – it sort of levels the playing field. And certainly if it’s the musical director playing, he/she can really get a sense of what the performer can do.

    So – my vote? Probably take your chances and go with the accompanist at the auditions.

  10. Mitch Hanlon on said:

    As a pianist who played auditions in LA for many years, I used to see a person bring an accompanist once in a while, but that was several years ago. Now for many years I’ve been MD on the other side of the table and I don’t see it as often in LA.
    Personally, as a MD, I don’t care if a person brings their own accompanist. Mostly I don’t recommend it because of expense. It really adds to the cost of an audition if besides your time and gas you are shelling out for a pianist. It puts a bit of pressure on the audition for the performer. But if it is an important audition (aren’t they all?) and you can afford it, I say go ahead.
    Here is the catch: If you show up with an accompanist and do an only fair job or worse, then you look REALLY bad. LIke a jerk who has money but no talent (nor discernment!). If you even do just an OK job, it does put up a red flag saying “is this person a weak musician?”
    As an accompanist, I have stepped aside for a singer and their accompanist whose audition was horrible and sat thinking thank goodness I wasn’t part of that train wreck!
    If you nail the song and it has subtelty and teamwork then everyone in the room is happy. This is the only case for bringing an accompanist.

  11. Mitch Hanlon on said:

    2 more thoughts:
    When sending people to audition for some Southern California companies where the history is to provide an accompanist that is sub par (or shall we politely say “limited in material they do well,”) I advise my singers to have a song in the repertoire folder that is so simple no one can screw it up. Remember it has to show off the singer well, but it pays to have an easy accompanist piece in the folder.
    Also, the performer needs to know that if the pianist screwed up your audition, the likelihood is high that they’ve been bad for lots of people that afternoon and the people behind the table know. It might not be the death knell you think.

    I find it is part of my mission in life to train pianists to be accompanists for musical theatre. Over a couple decades as both teacher and musical director, I now have several pianists who are out there working that have spent several years or semesters with my musical theater students who bring in a wide variety of material. Knowledge of the literature of musical theater is key for a good accompanist (just as it is for opera pianists.) Even opera accompanists and classical pianists will be thrown if they don’t know the song beforehand by Maltby and Shire, Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel, and Michael LaChiusa (to name a few.) And it is surprising how some noted accompanists from other fields have never heard of musical theater material that we find common.
    Musical theater is two generations past the “sight-read any theater song because its easy” days. Even if a pianist is only a decade behind what is current, they are missing a lot of music that will be difficult without prior study. (The number of wrecked Gimme Gimme auditions because the pianist doesn’t know the tempo changes is testament to that.)
    To young pianists out there, there is always room for another good accompanist that actually knows musical theater songs. Start listening and keep practicing!

  12. DANIEL TATAR on said:

    Similar to the “headshot debates” that come up (i.e., the old B&W vs. color, 3/4 vs. close-up, hands in or out of picture, etc.), there’s various opinions and methods. All are right for different people.

    As an actor, the comparison I make to bringing in your own accompanist is this: when you audition for a play, you don’t bring in a scene partner. You use the reader in the room, or get paired up at the callbacks. And you don’t know what they’re going to do, either. David O said something similar, when he’s MDing a show.

    Some music selections may be hard for accompanists, like David O said, and thus warranting your own pianist. But I’ve also heard of people bringing in a “backup selection” for a more basic accompanist.

  13. Justin H on said:

    I see no problem with an actor bringing in his or her own accompanist to an audition, nor would I think a creative team member would. As David O said, as long as everyone is gracious and kind there should be no hurt feelings.

    Casting “The Color Purple” proves to be very difficult at times because most of the actors I audition are not “musical theater” actors, so they will bring in a gospel or church piece or even just ask to sing something they do not have music for. In that case I PRAY they have brought someone that can play for them so everyone is happy!

    So, while there are MANY competent accompanists in NY (and many in LA also)…I ask the actor to do a little bit of homework and determine which scenero will showcase them in the best light for the audition. At the end of the day, I just want to hire GOOD, TALENTED, NICE people…so whether you use MY accompanist or YOURS, it does not matter to me.

  14. Georgia Stitt on said:

    All right, I’m outing everyone, but I just want you readers — especially the actors — to see what an opportunity you’re getting here. Michael Donovan casts many of the musicals in Los Angeles, and Justin H is one of the casting directors at Bernie Telsey’s office in NYC. Jose and Mitch are both extremely well-respected music directors, and Daniel is an actor in LA I’ve hired over and over again.

    Finally, Mark Simon, of Mark Simon Casting, wrote me this morning with these comments, which I’m including here. Thanks, everyone for the debate! I’ll have to try to think of another contentious topic for us to discuss!

    MARK SIMON said…
    For the most part I think that most of the pianists playing auditions are very good. I usually do not suggest bringing your own pianist unless you are singing very difficult material. I do suggest asking the casting office who will be playing your auditions and phoning that pianist. Let him/her know what you plan to sing and see if you can arrange a coaching session in advance. That works especially well if you are asked to prepare music from the show.

  15. Calvin Remsberg on said:

    OK! I have to jump in here, because I am both an actor and director and have been on both sides of the table MANY times. I feel there is no real “black and white” answer here, so I’ll just give my opinion.
    As an actor, I have always felt that bringing in my own accopanist reflected my concern over the difficulty of the material, or in reading the material. I remember my audition for the national of SWEENEY TODD, where in auditioning for the role of the Beadle, I felt I needed to show off my high notes, as the role is ridiculously high. I had in my repetoire an aria from an original opera by Roger Ames that I felt was dead on for that, but it only existed in hand written manuscript, and I just felt the opportunity was too important to screw up. So I took in the brilliant Randy Mauldin (sadly no longer with us,) which calmed me down immeasurably, and allowed me to concentrate on what I was doing rather than having to pull the pianist through it.
    I agree whole heartedly with David O, though, about attitude. I usually ask the moniter to inform the pianist that I will be using my own accompanist, and walk quickly into the room and try not to comment upon it or throw off any attitude about it…. just sort of matter of fact.
    Now I wouldn’t dream of going to the expense of doing this if I were auditioning, say, for MAN OF LA MANCHA, and going to sing “To Each His Dulcinea.” But if the music is difficult to read, or has a zillion tempo and key changes, then why not be comfortable? It allows me to put my best foot forward, and concentrate on being in character. It’s one less thing for me to think about.
    Now as a director, I have to confess I am so focused on the person auditioning for me that I couldn’t care less if they bring in their own accompanist. I do hate it when pianists screw up material, as I always can tell, and it takes me right out of it. My heart always goes out to the poor actor who is coping with the struggling pianist, and I want to say “Bring in your own accompanist if the music is that hard.” I was at an audition once where the pianist couldn’t even play music from the show for which we were auditioning!! So whoever had hired them to play got a stern lecture from the creative team that day, I assure you. I also feel that if you need to see how they work with you with “your fingers on the keys” or how flexible they are, then you can find that out in a callback situation which is usually a little looser. I ahve been known to sit down at the piano myself and work with the ctor myself to get that very feel. (Even though I am sure I am one of those miserable accompoanists that I commented on above.)
    A difference in opinion depending on coasts? I think probably so. New York has always felt a bit more used to the idea of bringing in your own pianists…..L.A. being the land of attitude, I definitely see far less of it here.
    Just my two cents worth on a fascinating question…love that you give us such a forum to discuss these things, Georgia!!

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