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As Audition Season has started to kick into high gear here in NYC and elsewhere – and it actually started earlier this year! – here are a few quick tips and fixes for your “book” – your physical book – from a pianist’s point of view.

NOTE: The “fixes” below are all bits of practical advice, common sense, if you will. I don’t go into the areas of song selection, acting, personal coaching. Nothing should take more than a few minutes to make right. However, these very practical bits are things that can and do end up derailing an audition for both the singer and the pianist – and they are easily fixable, preventable, and avoidable.

And, yes, I will be back at the piano for the upcoming Unified Professional Theatre Auditions (UPTA) in Memphis, TN – my 19th year! – as well as for the Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) Professional Division Auditions – my 24th year! – in Mobile, AL.

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That one favorite song that has been falling out of your binder for the past year or two (or more!) due to a worn out hole-punch and/or sheet protector: fix it NOW! Stop apologizing for the condition of your sheet music. Get thee to a copier or printer! -And if one of the rings of your 3-ring binder happens to no longer close as tightly as it used to, get a new a binder as well.

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If you know that the copy of your sheet music is hard to read:

-it’s more “gray and white” than “black and white”
-the bass clef/left hand part of the piano is missing on every other page
-it has a bunch of old markings scribbled on it and not completely erased
-there’s a coffee stain in the middle of it

…Then just go and get a better, easily readable copy of it.

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NO LOOSE SINGLE SHEETS!
NO.
LOOSE.
SINGLE.
SHEETS.

Put it in a binder, or mount it on a piece of cardboard or manila folder.

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That song or cut of a song which is just two pages long – and always has been and always will be two pages long – but that you have set up in your binder as back-to-back pages thus requiring a page turn: rearrange and/or re-copy it NOW so that the pages “face” each other, thus eliminating the page turn.

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All of those those songs that you downloaded from SheetMusicDirect, MusicNotes, OnlineSheetMusic, Scribd, etc., that have been in your binder as single-sided pieces of paper for weeks, months (or years!) after you first printed them off: spend some quality time with those pages and arrange them as if they were in a book: facing pages, complete with the occasional page turn. -And there will be less page turns now as well.

***

If something doesn’t feel right about the way you’ve cut a song to work in an audition, then tape yourself singing it, then listen to yourself. Really Listen. Does the grammar still make sense with your cut? Does the melodic and harmonic grammar still make sense? -Better yet: have someone else sing your cut so that you can hear it a bit more objectively AND subjectively. Sometimes a “Frankenstein’d cut” can indeed end up sounding monstrous.

***

Know that that copy of your favorite song from the show you just worked on that was given to you by your conductor/music director may not provide the most piano-friendly accompaniment out there. In fact, many recent shows use a piano-conductor score that is meant more for conducting from rather than playing from. All of the notes that you need and want to hear while you are singing – all the “information” that you want the pianist to play for you – may simply not be on the page. If you see a lot of small, cued notes in the “accompaniment” then that’s usually the first sign. A few of the big “offenders” in this regard are “Thoroughly Modern Millie”, “Beauty and the Beast”, and “All Shook Up”.

***

Look at exactly where you’ve written “START” and “STOP”. Are those your start and stop points? Or the pianist’s? There is usually a difference.

***

While I appreciate the service that MusicNotes provides, I still recommend going right to the two online sheet music stores that are directly aligned with the publishers:

Sheet Music Direct* which started off as the digital offshoot of Hal Leonard’s SheetMusic Plus.

Online Sheet Music which got its start as the digital home for Warner Bros. and Alfred. (Alfred does have it’s own digital shop, but I find their offerings and functionality limited.)

And because SMD and OSM have a more direct line to the publishers, their single-song price is also cheaper than it is on MN since MN licenses much of their catalog for resale from the Big Two. And due to the incestuousness nature of the music publishing biz, there is a big overlap in the catalogs of SMD, OSM, and MN. It’s worth the extra mouse-clicks and keystrokes to check all three sites for the song that you’re looking for.

*Note that SMD now offers unlimited transpositions and printouts of your purchased titles since they switched over to a PDF format. It’s also worth looking into the SMD PASS program which not only allows you to purchase single titles at a discount – usually 50% – but also grants you internet browser access to most of SMD’s digital library. The monthly or yearly fee can easily pay for itself with your first couple of discounted(!) downloads, purchases. (And you could always split the fee with a friend of two.)

***

Finally…

My two cardinal rules for audition prep – which essentially distill down all of the above:

1) I – the pianist – should never be the first one to play your sheet music for you.

2) If the first two words out of your mouth when you come up to me at the piano are, “I’m sorry…” then that’s already two strikes against you.

***

See you in the room!
Have Fun!
Be Brilliant!

A few weeks ago, I gave myself what you might call a self-administered reality check. I went to my shelf of music books, and pulled out a few "old friends": Bach’s "Two-Part Inventions" and "English Suites", Mozart’s "Rondo in A-minor", and Brahms’ "Fantasy Pieces, Op. 116". I had studied and performed a couple of Bach’s "Two-Part Inventions" early on, as almost all piano students do and will continue to do. I occasionally dabble with the English Suite in A-minor (Bach for grown-ups!), and the Mozart has always been one of those pieces that I know I will play some day. As for the Brahms, they were part of my Senior Recital in college (along with some Bach, Ravel and Ginastera).

My own "Classical Period" basically ended almost as soon as I graduated from college. Since then, I’ve made my living playing shows and show music. Broadway shows, tours, some cabaret work, and lots(!) of auditions. Due to orchestrations and economics, whenever I play in a pit of a show, I’m usually playing on an electronic keyboard (synthesizer), and not a real piano. Consequently, my fingers get and have gotten lazy over the past couple of years. No matter how "good" the feel and action is of a weighted keyboard, it will never truly feel the same as playing on a real piano. The vibrations just aren’t there. Of course, what do I usually practice on? -A Kurzweil PC-2X that I bought a couple of years ago. It has a decent piano sound, a decent "feel", but it is still nowhere near like playing a real piano. Not even the beloved Chickering upright my parents bought when I first started taking lessons. (Alas, my parents gave away that Chickering a few years ago without telling me. Even though it was not really my piano, it still was my piano. I still remember how I felt that day when I came home to visit, and noticed that the piano was no longer in the garage. An old, dear friend had gone away, and I never got a chance to say, "Goodbye.")

Even though I still listen to Classical music on practically a daily basis, I don’t play Classical music every day. So, every once and a while, I go back and read through some of the music that I grew up on just to keep my fingers "honest"; to remind me of how I used to play, and to reclaim (hopefully) some of the dexterity I’ve lost since finishing my degree.

I started with the Mozart. What a truly magical and mystical piece of music. Thankfully, it fits well under my fingers, and, technically speaking, it’s not that difficult. So, it was an easy read, and once I was done, I felt like I had spent enough time with it for the time being, and put it away. I would definitely come back to it again later.

I moved onto Bach. I started to read through the A-minor English Suite, and about eight bars into opening Prelude, I sadly realized that it had become a stranger since the last time I had pulled that score off the shelf. It was no longer in my fingers. OK! Moving on —

As soon as I started playing the first Two-Part Invention in C-major, there was something automatic, something very familiar. -And after that debacle with the English Suite, there was also a welcome sense of comfort and relief. After I finished the first one, I just kept turning the pages, playing each of the succeeding ones, sometimes stopping to fix things, sometimes just playing on. After I had read through all of them, I went back to the one in F-Major. The F-Major Two-Part Invention is one of those pieces that just says, practically yells, "I’m Bach!" And I’d bet if a person only knew one or two pieces of Bach, this would most likely be one of them. Or they would at least be able to identify it as Bach if they had not heard or seen it before. -Thank you, Wendy Carlos!

I went back to one of the fundamental ways of practicing: hands separately. I started with my right hand, playing that single line that is sometimes melody, sometimes accompaniment, sometimes both. Then I did the same with the left hand. Then it was back to the right hand. Wow! Was this piece this difficult when I was ten-years old? My brain just started to notice things it never noticed before, and those two lines of music became so much more than the sum of its parts. When I finally put both hands back together, I had a few train wrecks, a few stumbles… Oh, the counterpoint!.. Oh, the figure does this here, then this there… Hmm, I would love to check another edition to see if that note might be different… After spending more time on that than I ever thought I would – and after playing it through with almost no finger slips – I moved onto the Brahms. My fingers were warmed up, and my brain was most certainly in gear.

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