Notes On Notes: Talking To Your Audition Accompanist

Noel Katz

Every accompanist wants to support you, wants you to be terrific.

But he doesn't work for you. He's paid by the producers, who may be telling him to move things along. "We have 50 more people to see before 5. Cut off their instructions, Keys."

It's exhausting, playing that many auditions. If they're any sort of an empath, they pick up on people's nerves. If the people behind the table are looking for a specific type, and you're not it, the pianist may know your audition is a waste of everyone's time. But you won't be able to tell if he's rushing you for this reason, or whether he's been instructed to.

You bring your music to the piano. It lies flat on the stand because it's in a three-ring notebook, using both sides of the rings. (Sheet protectors are OK, the non-glare kind preferred.) The page turns are as few and as easy as possible. If your song is two pages long, there should be NO page turns. If it's four, there should probably be one: left-right-turn-left-right. Some page turns are difficult because of what's going on in the music. That sudden key change to E-flat in Move On throws me every time.

Know what a key change is. Nobody's asked you to learn to play piano yourself, but there are a bunch of musical terms every singer should know. Some are Italian. Crescendo, modulation, ritard, pick-up note, railroad tracks, etc.

Many, most, or sometimes all of your instructions to the pianist can be clearly written on your music. That's going to shorten the time you spend at the piano. Musicians can read. It's insulting to assume otherwise. Yet, frequently, a singer will say "This is 'Tea for Two' and the tempo is Andante" when all of that is on the page and they didn't need to say any of that.

Circle Theatre

Circle Theatre

But about that speed: Look out the window at pedestrians on the sidewalks of New York. Ever notice how different people go down streets at different speeds? So what does "walking pace" mean? (And if you don't know what those words are in Italian, look it up.) While there are some familiar songs everybody always does at the same speed, chances are you're going to need to give a tempo.

Ad lib, rubato, freely, colla voce all mean there is no rhythm. NEVER give a tempo on a section marked with any of those. Nor one that's full of fermatas or railroad tracks. Find the hook of the song, the main part, where the rhythm is clearest. And point to it. Now, using your own body as a drum, slap out the beats, singing along, quietly, until the pianist says "I got it." Make sure he knows where you're starting and where you're finishing. If there are repeats, or cuts, or jumps to a coda or segno, point them out.

How to start? If given no instructions, most pianists will start right away. But if you ask nicely, you might be able to set up a different cue, such as, "when I unfurl my fist" or "I'll give you a nod." This lets you control when your audition starts.

You can ask for your starting pitch at the piano, or a bell tone. Know what these are. Once the pianist plays the bell tone, or a chord with a fermata, he's waiting for you to begin. The instruction "We'll just start together" is difficult to follow. So don't do that.

Other don'ts: Staples injure fingers. To a pianist, a staple on a page is equivalent of your propmaster giving you a very sharp knife. (It's the unkindest cut of all.) Never ask a pianist to transpose on sight: It's your audition; you should bring in music in the key you plan to sing it in. And whatever key anyone else has done it in doesn't matter a whit. Sing the lyrics and music that are on your page. If you want to do a different set of lyrics, write them in, below the notes on the vocal line.

Which reminds me: No lead sheets. Proper sheet music has one staff for the vocal above two for the piano. Chord symbols are helpful, but not required. But if your Xerox has cut them off, or any part of the score, that's making things more difficult than they had to be.

Since you’ve rehearsed your song about a hundred times, and the accompanist is joining your team without even seeing your music in advance, it’s something of a miracle when everything goes right. And yet it does, 99% of the time. So it’s fine to thank your accompanist. But don’t automatically thank the people behind the table because they haven’t done you a favor and there are some places where gratitude is completely inappropriate.

Thank you so much for reading this. I really appreciate it. Just…Thanks.

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