Tuesday, April 17, 2018

View from the pit: Even the changes change

I expected to be the weak link in the chain. I was a last minute substitute for the keyboard player in the high school musical pit, so naturally I assumed that I would be buoyed along by the rest of the gang. Not just assumed, more liked hoped and prayed.

The last time I had played in a pit orchestra was decades ago. It's the one kind of ensemble playing that I often avoid. Let's face it, most pianists aren't trained for this kind of playing. We learn to collaborate with duet partners and soloists and the occasional small ensemble. We play for choral ensembles and congregational singing. Unless we have experience playing in a band or orchestra, we have little experience playing a part with multiple measures rest and only one measure of cue notes to follow. We like to know what is going on in the other parts at all times. We are greedy for notation.

The first rule of being a collaborative pianist is that the pianist is always wrong, even when the pianist is right. We like to see all the parts because we know that it will be up to the pianist to correct for errors in other parts. That means watching, listening and being ready at any moment to jump forward or backward in the music. When beats get dropped or added, or tempos make drastic, unplanned shifts, the pianist has to be prepared to make the best adjustment possible at the moment. If we can't see the other parts, this job of correction is much more difficult.

Knowing all that, I walked into the first rehearsal with a backlog of memories, not all positive, from previous shows. My brain took me as far back as creating a two-piano pit with my high school choral teacher. And here's what I remember: the one time she asked me to transpose a song down a step, and I worked and worked on it. By rehearsal I could only get through the first verse, so I waved to her to come to her piano and finish it. But, alas! She went back to the original key! I can still feel the blush coming into my face, feeling so wrong after working to be so right. First major lesson: get all the changes straight, because even the changes may change.

And when rehearsal time is limited, remembering the changes is even more critical. Working from a rental score means being careful not to damage the pages with ink or pencil that can't be erased. One of my strategies was to use translucent page flags to mark critical repeats, meter changes, and vamps. An excerpt illustrates this post. I also played from the piano book but referenced the full piano reduction for vocal cues and instrumental lines. Since I was playing from a keyboard, I was able to set up two music stands to accommodate both scores side by side, and I used matching colored page flags in both scores at critical junctures. All this done, I was ready. Or was I?

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