How to lead, by John Legend

Here is what John Legend says about the balance needed to lead other artists, on an interview for Big Think:

"The challenge is to not make them just clones of you; not try to make them sound just like you, or exactly have your creative imprint on everything that they do, but to allow them to be themselves. (...)

Part of my philosophy is just to allow them to shine, but still be a good editor. Help them when I feel they're lacking in one area. Help them make the right decisions with their career."


4 things you can learn from Marathon Training

Athletes, even non-professional ones, all follow a strict training guide to get ready for marathons, triathlons, etc. Actors end up having one, called rehearsal process! As musicians we are not surrounded like actors and we don't have anybody telling us what to do. That can be great, but often times when getting ready for a recital we do more guessing each day than planning ahead of time where we need to be with everything in order to be ready for the performance.

Here is what we can learn from athlete's training guides.
  1. How many weeks does your plan go for? Marathon training guides are usually built for either 18 or 22 weeks. This helps you keep focused and avoid procrastinating, and keeps you moving forward. It also guarantees that you keep on improving on all of your pieces at the same time, without becoming so centered on one hard piece or on specific musical details of another one. 
  2. How much to rest? In marathon  training, there tends to be a full day off a week to recover, or a comparative rest day, which is when you do some work but a lot less than the other days. As musicians we are hard workers, and for many of us it seems to be counter-productive not to practice. Rest is important for your body, your mind and your soul. With a plan, you can see your daily and weekly improvements, which makes it easier for you to feel good about time off instead of feeling guilty about it.
  3. What is your pace? The pace of runners is one the most important thing to them, and tempo is a very big part of what we do as well. Indicating on your plan when you should be able to run the piece at half tempo, at intermediary tempo and finally up tempo guarantees a comfortable process which will lead to a secure performance. No more rushing to play up to speed when it's too early, or realizing too late that we're not playing that section up to tempo. 
  4. Are you building up stamina? Marathoners will run a different amount of miles per day, from 3 on Monday, to 5 on Wednesday to 10 on Sunday for example. This translates for musicians as memorized practicing. A few weeks before the performance, you want to have it in your plan that you play this one movement from memory on Tuesday, these two pieces on Thursday and the first half of your program on Friday, all from memory and in a row. By the last weeks, add more and more pieces to your program until you run it entirely through at least a few times before the performance.
Here is some last marathon wisdom that applies to music:

"Training works best if you start easy and build up gradually"



Have you ever thought of piano tuning? Part 2

Actor singer Laura Jo Trexler talked in the first part of this interview about how she got into tuning pianos, what the learning process is like and what it takes to build a clientele. In this second part she gives us the reasons why performing artists should consider it for ourselves, along with the advantages and disadvantages of doing it. 

How do you make yourself known as a piano tuner? Who hires you?Your first targets are schools, colleges, churches and theaters. I do door to door marketing, putting up flyers in cities and music stores, taking my card to piano teachers and music shops, craigslist and I bought a sign that I put on my car. The best way to get yourself out there is to get all the people that you know to figure out who in their family and friends near them have pianos, and for them to give me their phone numbers and names so I can contact them.

"It takes about three years to build a clientele"

It takes about three years to build a clientele. It's not about tuning a piano once, you have to keep on getting hired. I try to call people six months after I tune their piano, and tell them that their piano is due for a tuning. Concert tuning is a complete different thing. It’s its own entity because there are some tuners that do it but many that won’t until they’re at the head of their game. They do it when it’s a steady career and they had years of practice. It’s critical because at a concert you'll have the players, other musicians and critiques, and everyone is very critical of the sound. It scares away young tuners like me because if you upset anyone you loose business.

"It is easy to make it match 
your performing career"

Would you recommend piano tuning it to anyone?
I recommended it to a few of my friends. There are only a few piano tuners that are female in my area, and I’m the only one under the age of 50. I recommend that skill to a lot of performers because it’s your own business, you can take it anywhere, you can make money if you build up your clientele. It’s really nice when I go on vacation and I can tune a piano, nice to get the extra money. It’s so much better than waiting tables. You make your own schedule and it’s easy to make it match your performing career.

Have you learned anything by being a piano tuner that translates into your work on the stage?

I have it on my resume under my special skills and people always find it interesting, and it has started conversations with auditers before. I tuned the piano at a theatre and after that they knew who I was which is always a plus if I have an audition with them later on. A lot of music directors that wouldn’t come up and talk to me will after I’ve tuned the piano. It helps getting to know people from that because people respect what I do as a piano tuner.

"I can tell if the person that tuned a piano before 
me has used an electric machine"

Any last word?
It’s really popular for most piano tuners to tune with machines now, electric tuners. I learned the old school way which is with a pitch fork, because I feel it’s much better because everytime I tune a new piano I can tell if the person that tuned it before me has used an electric machine or not. If they have the beats aren’t the same, some notes are sharp and some are flats, which is unusual because most strings fall or go sharp at the same time. Those people charge the same. Regular households will be fine with whoever but if it’s for musicians, they ask your method, and they’re happier with fork. I prefer a pitch fork.



Have you ever thought of piano tuning? Part 1

Laura Jo Trexler is an actor singer who realized one day that there was a side job she could do that would let her be her own boss, stay connected to the arts and make more money than any "normal" side jobs: piano tuning. She is now a piano tuner while maintaining her career as a performing artist. Here is how she did it and why you may want to look into it as well. 

What made you think of becoming a piano tuner?
I play the piano and one day one of my keys was broken so I looked down into the piano and literally a light bulb went on. It as simple as that. I knew the woman who tuned my piano, Joan Wagoner, so I asked her if she would teach me how to do it and she said yes. She had maybe taught a couple of people before but she hadn’t taught anyone in ten to twenty years. We had a mutual acquaintance so she accepted to teach me but it wasn’t a regular thing for her. I learned in about six months for standard tuning and adjustements. I'm still learning about anything that involves taking the action out of the piano and replacing hammers.

"The most popular program is an online program"

What was your approach to learning how to tune pianos?

A lot of people go through schooling. The most popular program is an online program by Randy Potter. There are also two to three schools throughout the country. The studies last usually between one and two years.  I learned everything by shadowing Joan. She would come over twice a week and she would show me simple things.
At first I learned the basics of tuning. I also had a book that showed the mechanics of the piano (pianos have more parts than cars). I paid her roughly $1,500 total, which is much cheaper than the classes, and I wrote it off my taxes. She still helps me today when I need help. She also bought my orginial tuning hammer and all the basic tools that I need.

"You're training your ear to listen for something
you've never heard before"

What was hard and what easy to learn?
Everything at first is hard to learn. You’re training your ear to listen for something you’ve never heard before. As a pianist you’re not listening for tone and as a piano tuner you’re listening for beats. Learning the temperament scale (in the middle of the piano) was very difficult because every fourths, fifths and thirds have different number of beats and they have to be exact for you to be able to tune the piano to the correct pitch.
Bass notes are also really difficult at first because there is so much fuzz and so many false beats (other noise and extra beats), but those became really easy pretty quickly. The highest octave is still difficult because it’s harder to hear beats up there.

"There is potential for a lot of money in piano tuning,
maybe $70,000 a year" 

How much does a piano tuner make?

It depends on how many piano you do per week, and it changes per geographic area. In Denver, it’s between $80 to $100 per standard piano tuning. The average piano tuner tunes an average of three to four pianos per day. Repairs are another thing, that’s where you make the most money. For example, I had to fix a couple of pieces in the action on four notes, and you charge people for new pieces plus commission, and the hour (I charge $35 an hour). It’s unlike tuning but after two hours I had made $200 just simply because of the parts. Depending on what it is I charge more.
Some things are very tedious, because pianos might need “felt” or new bridal strap for every single key, and there are 88 of them so you could basically be watching a movie at the same time, and at the end, you clock in the hour! There is potential for a lot of money in piano tuning, maybe $70,000 per year.

"I get into a zen state when I tune"

What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a piano tuner?

It is very solitary. You don’t have a group of people around, you’re working on your own. It’s hard to tune if you have a headache or you’re not feeling well and when you’re not focused. It is also really hard on the back if you can’t learn how to tune sitting down, which isn’t how I was taught. It is better for the string if you are upright and pull it to your right as opposed to just having it be parallel to the top of the piano and pulling it down, but that really hurts the back.
At the same time I get into somewhat of a zen state when I tune which can be very nice. I love to tune a piano that’s very out of tune and play it afterward. I love hearing people’s reaction, particularly when they don't know what a tuned piano sounds like and suddenly they are amazed by how great their piano sound.



How to get paid what you want

To get paid what you want, you have to offer your clients a cheaper and a more expensive option.

In his book Predictably Irrational, author Dan Ariely shows this ad as an example of price relativity:

It seems to make no sense that both the print subscription AND the print and web subscription are both at $125. Dan Ariely explains that "most people don't know what they want unless they see it in context."

We don't know whether the web subscription for $59 or the print subscription for $125 are good or bad value, but we know for sure that both print and web subscription for $125 is better than the print only for the same price.

Now the goal is to turn that relativity to our advantage. If you give somebody one price for one service, it will be harder for them to know if it's a good deal or not.

For example, let's say that you're playing a private party. You know that you want $100 per hour per person. Here is how you can put it in context to help you land the gig at that price:

$70 for a half hour
$100 for an hour
$180 for an hour, client picks the music

If you're teaching and you want to charge $40 an hour at your studio, here is what your teaching "menu" should look like:

$30 a 1/2 hour at the studio
$40 for an hour at the studio
$80 for an hour at your home

First figure out what it is you want, and then create some options around it to create relativity in order to get paid what you want while your customers are sure to be getting the best deal.



The ONE thing you need to make it as an artist

As artists we all have some good and some bad performing days. It's the nature of being human really. The question is how much does your performance truly vary from one time to the next?

Are you the kind of performer who can have incredible break-through, amazing, touched-by-grace kind of performances, who at other times has poor and forced performance? Or are you someone who has performances that are overall at the same level, with some performances a bit better or a bit less good than others?

If you are the second kind, congratulations! Here is why consistency is the most important quality you need to keep on getting hired as a performing artist.

People want to hire artists that they can count on, that will be strong day in and day out. If you were a concert organizer, would you hire the person who for sure would give you what you hired them for, or would you take a gamble on somebody that sure might give you more than you hired them for, but who could also give you a lot less than you hired them for?

The opera singer Maria Spacagna once told me: "what makes the difference between artists is that at the highest level people are never ever allowed to perform below 80% of their capacity without having terrible consequences for their career."

If your audience, stage manager, or conductor were asked, would they say that you were consistent? If you considered the average of all your performances of this past year, what percentage of your ability would you say you usually performed at, 60%, 80%? When someone hires you, do you trust yourself to deliver no matter the day and what is going on in your life? Are you truly a consistent performer?


Picture from http://studentbranding.com/marketing-ideas-and-how-to-make-them-work-for-you/


How is your team doing?

As artists we spend most of our time working in a group such as an orchestra, a theater, a chamber group, a choir, etc. Our work means a lot to us which means that we care a lot about what is going on and we take everything that happens at a personal level. Therefore the process towards the performances and the performances themselves can become a source of either deep fulfillment or of terrible doubts and stress.

When people are stressed their tendency is to shut down, which can become a true danger to the work at end and create awkwardness in the team, particularly when processes happen in a short amount of time when time is spent with the same people.

Therefore it is crucial to know as a team how the team is feeling.

In this article on the 99 percent blog, author Scott Belsky comes up with the solution to taking a team's temperature. It is a circular visual on which you add an arrow that anybody in the team can turn towards the part of the circle that matches how they are doing at the moment.

Depending on where the arrow is the team knows whether things are going great or whether it's time to take it easy, or to start figuring out different ways to approach some of the work so that people keep a handle on things without getting burned out. 



Why schools of music are hypocritical

Schools of music are meant to teach classical music while other schools are meant to teach other styles of music.

The classical schools of music are now putting required pop music questions on exams, even at the doctoral level, which should be the most focused degree of all. But they don't provide the classes to give students that knowledge.

The reason schools of music have started asking questions about pop music  is to show that they embrace all types of music. In reality many teachers in private lessons are very quick to dismiss pop music. The few that are ok with it oftentimes only give their blessing to older pop like Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Jimmy Hendrix.

The way for schools of music to show their embrace of pop and non-classical music would be to allow students who are interested in jazz and pop to explore it further in lessons and recitals, while leaving the students that care about classical music to study classical music.

Current curriculum don't allow for that to happen with the precision of the requirements for degree recitals.

For a school of music not to be hypocritical, it would need to match the curriculum with the exams questions. If pop music and jazz become exam requirements, the recital requirements should allow for those types of music to be integrated into recitals.

When recitals requirements are rigid about classical music, the exam questions should reflect that and stay within the knowledge and the given education of the students.

Picture from http://manvsdebt.com/big-fat-hypocrite/ 


Happy Bastille Day!

It's Bastille, la Fete Nationale Francaise! I am the only French person in this town (literally), so this post is my celebration of my country! Woohoo!
Here are three versions of La Marseillaise (the French National Anthem), so you get to pick!

Here is the classical music meet military version

Here is the famous version by French singer Gainsbourg

Here is the famous excerpt from Escape to Victory

And you like oldies, namely Casablanca, follow this link!

Happy Bastille Day!!!



The 3 ways a music director matters

"People don't think about it but you're part of the show too!"

I'm sure many pianists and music directors have heard this "compliment" before.

A pianist or a music theater conductor is as much part of the show as the actors on stage because what he does or doesn't do impacts the experience of the audience and of the actors tremendously.
Let's look at three important examples of  how music directors matter for both the audience and the actors.  

  • For the audience: if the pianist is too loud, the audience can't hear the action; if the pianist is too soft they can't hear the music.
  • For the actors: if the orchestra is too loud actors will loose their voices trying to get heard; if the band is too soft the actors will lack the support they need to reach some higher notes or to make it through a phrase.
  • For the audience: If the tempo is faster than necessary they won't be able to understand the text, if the tempo is slower than necessary they will get bored.
  • For the actors: Choreography is made accordingly to a certain tempo, therefore playing the song consistently is crucial for safety reasons. A song played faster can lead the actors to injure themselves and getting out of breath, and playing it too slow can completely ruin the choreography.
  • For the audience: The way in which the music is played can either draw attention to itself like it is needed in a song, or help support the action as is needed for underscoring. Confusing those two can mislead the audience as to what to listen to and may cause them to miss some important information of the action.
  • For the actors: The style in which the songs are played directly influences the way a singer will approach the song. Giving cues such as playing louder to lead somebody into their entrance after underscoring, accentuating beats in a clear and consistent way throughout the song or starting a song with the correct style right way are all ways in which non-spoken communication occurs show after show. If the music director misses those, the actors will start wondering what went wrong and will start doubting their performance.


How to get hired

As performers we apply for jobs all the time, and most of the time we don't even get a reply from it. Of course it's got to be hard for an employer to realize how great and special we are while sorting through the thousand emails they got for that one job. And who knows what tips the balance in our favor or against us during an interview?

Here is the one thing you can put to your advantage: Loss Aversion Bias. It is described as referring to "people's tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains."

How does that help you get a job? Well, when an employer tries to hire someone, he is looking to acquire a gain: a new employee. Our tendency us to want to show him how great you are and how you're gonna help him acquire more stuff (more audience members, more students, more money, etc.). But if you take in consideration the loss aversion bias, you realize that you might be better off showing the employer all that he could loose by not hiring you.

How do you show an employer that he would avoid losses by hiring you? Here are three ways.
  • You're applying for a teaching job: if you already have some private students who would be willing to follow you, it's easy to show an employer that if they were not to hire you they would loose a few extra students. If you have a higher degree than anyone else on the employer's roster of teachers, you can indicate that the school could loose some higher level students who would only want to study with someone who holds a higher degree.
  • You're applying for a musician's gig: if you're auditioning as an accompanist and you already know most of the rep for a specific instrument (trumpet) or group of instruments (brass), you can tell the employer that he would loose money and rehearsal time if he was hiring someone who didn't know the rep instead of you. If you are auditioning for a small ensemble group or a band and you have specific knowledge in social medias and marketing, you can show the employer how they would loose audience coverage by not hiring you. 
  • You're applying for an acting/singing job: if you're applying for a play that needs a specific accent and you happened to have spent time in that country or you are a specialist of that accent, you can show how the company would loose money hiring both an actor and a diction coach while you can do both. If you're applying to do the first play in your hometown in years, you can tell the employer that he would loose media interest by not casting someone from that region. 
Of course, once you show the employer what he could loose by not hiring you and he gives you the job, make sure you follow through on your promises!


What to wear on stage?

Have you ever been to a concert where you wondered what the performers had in mind when choosing their concert clothes?

It's not easy for people to find the time to hunt for clothes that are the right mix of classy and pretty, yet conservative and up to date.

If you ever have a doubt about what to wear on stage, you can now ask for advice at fashism.com, where you can post a picture of the outfit you're planning to wear and get feedback on it for free.

You can even keep your privacy, like the many people who hide their faces with their cameras, or the ones who put a picture of the outfit hanging from a hanger.

Picture from http://shortcuts101.blogspot.com/2010/05/hanging-on-petite-sized-clothes-hangers.html


How to decide which way to go

Can't decide in which main direction to lead your career to? Full time orchestra job or full time teaching job? Freelance gigging on your own or creating a quartet for events?

Consider this quote from the Harvard Business Review.

"People are often successful not despite their dysfunctions but because of them. Obsessions are one of the greatest telltale signs of success. Understand a person's obsessions and you will understand her natural motivation. The thing for which she would walk to the end of the earth."

So the way to know is by looking at what you do for fun. Do you go to orchestra concerts as often as you can? You guessed it, take as many orchestra auditions you can and land an orchestra job (by the way, there are lots of open orchestra positions this year). Do you love playing with children and your preferred non-artist job is as a babysitter? Working in a school of music or opening your own studio will make you the happiest.

What if you realize that in your free time you don't spend much time related to your art? That doesn't mean that you should give it up, but rather that you have to find a way to connect your art with what you do for fun. Spend every minute of your downtime reading? You could become an editor for a music or or a theater magazine. Love to play video games? Maybe you can write music or record voice over for them. Like to write? Be a reviewer of concerts or plays. Love sharing your knowledge but not in front of people? A classical music radio might just be looking for someone like you.

What you do for fun is what makes you different from a lot of people. Knowing what makes you different from a lot of people is how you can find your niche. Finding your niche will bring you more work, and more satisfactory work.


Are you the athlete type or the artsy type?

We all know that there's the athlete types and there's the artsy types. But should we rather be a mix of both?

Consider this quotation from the book A History of Western Music by Burkholder, Grout and Palisca. 

"Plato and Aristotle both argued that education should stress gymnastics to discipline the body and music to discipline the mind. In his Republic, Plato insisted that the two must be balanced, because too much music made one weak and irritable while too much gymnastics made one uncivilized, violent and ignorant."

So, fellow performers, on to the gym!


The ONE thing to put on your business card

You need to add one more word than just the basics on your business card.

In the book "The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing" authors Ries and Trout indicate that you must follow what they call the Rule of Focus,  which is "owning a word in the prospect's mind."

To do that, you have to use a specific word to describe yourself and the way you do what you do, such as reliable, funny, classy, friendly, etc.

Just make sure no one else has already taken that word in your market, and people in your area will remember you over somebody else next time they need a musician!

Picture from http://www.freeprintablebusinesscards.net/showcover/Music

How to work a 9-5 as a musician- Part 2

Stuart Anello found the best way to lead a secure, stable and fulfilling life as a musician: being a guitarist for the Navy Bands. The first part of the interview focused on what happens before you get in the Navy, and this second part tells you what comes once you passed the audition. There is also this great article on working as a musician for the Army.

Once you got in, did you have to do anything else in order to be officially in?
            Getting the audition was one thing, and after that you have to do your military entrance processing. That's a long day, where you go the night before and stay in a hotel with  bunch of other enlistees. As a musician, you stick out like a sore thumb! You take the ASVAB test, which is made to determine where enlistees may function in the military. Because I already had a job, I only had to get a 35 out of 100. A 92 will qualify you for almost any job. This test has nothing to do with music; it asks you about math, electronics, english, mechanics, etc. I got an 88!

"Any kind of health issue could disqualify you"

You have to do medical processing as well. They want you to disclose absolutely everything, so you must be very honest. Any kind of health issue could disqualify you from enlisting;  for example: allergies, eye sight, rashes, past fractures or broken bones. You need records for everything for the doctors to accept you. Once you're in, you have full health care benefits, so they are very careful about who is allowed to enlist. That was much more intense that I anticipated, because they could have disqualified me. You want to make sure you're on top of your paper work, very healthy, and definitely drug free. They do a blood test, hearing test and a full physical. There's also a background check. If you're a good person and you're healthy, you should be fine.

"Anyone in the Navy goes to a school before they 
get posted to get training for their job."

What is the process gonna be like before you get on post?
            I will go to basic training for 8 to 9 weeks. Then I go directly to the Navy School of Music in Norfolk, VA. From what I hear, the school of music is where the training is. Anyone in the Navy goes to a school  before they get posted to get training for their job. The school of music is for the Navy, Army and Marines.  It was originally created just for the Navy, but once the Army and the Marines created music programs, the began to enroll as well .

Of the music programs in the military, there are only two you want to work for. I got in the Army on my first audition and that was really easy, but you could get posted on anyone of the 52 posts, so you're not necessarily in a band program. You' re given the opportunity on your base to do something with your instrument, but you can be deployed, and you're there primarily as a soldier. Same for the Marines, they're more soldiers than musicians.

"You perform with well-known musicians, 
at festivals, for high profile government figures" 

The Air Force is a great band program to be in, with great benefits. You audition directly for the band you will be stationed with. They don't have any vacancies right now but you can monitor it on the USAF Band Program website. It's well put together and they do great music at a high level. The Navy also has a great system of websites for every band, and they're very active. Your primarily duty is as a musician so you won't be deployed for combat. As far as bands go, there are twelve of them: eight in the states and a few abroad. Once you're accepted into the program, you go to basic training, attend the school of music and are stationed. Each band has a rehearsal facility with huge rehearsal halls, recording studios, and practice rooms. There are many opportunities to perform with well known musicians, at festivals, for high profile government figures and for the general population.

"If you want to pursue a career as a military 
musician, it's between the Navy and the Air Force"

In the end, if you want to pursue a career as a military musician, it's between the Navy and the Air Force, these are the serious programs. Most of the people in the Navy Band have a college degree, so they start at a higher rank, and the average age of acceptance in the Navy and the Air Force music program is about 25.



How to work a 9-5 as a musician- Part 1

Ever wished for a 9-5 and thought it was a lost cause because you're a musician? Do not despair! Stuart Anello found the answer: as a new recruit for the Navy Band, he realized that being in the Military as a musician is like working a 9-5. 

How did you first hear of the Navy Band, and what made you want to audition for it?
I heard about the premiere bands, which generally don't hold auditions because they're already filled. I would look at their website and I would see openings for guitar, but the audition would be a month later and I knew I wouldn't be ready for it.

Then I found another posting for an audio engineer position for the Coast Guard and I applied for it and got to the 2nd round of interviews. Going through the interview process and talking to them about their program got me excited to not only be their engineer but also to write music for them.

I did more research and I realized that there were extensive band programs in the military, and I looked at the Army and the Navy bands. I was accepted into the Army band, which was exciting but I wasn't comfortable joining because of the structure of their program. I then looked into the Navy and was more impressed, so I auditioned for them.

"The audition process is tough. You have to show
that you can play anything"

How was the audition process for the Navy band?
It was tough. It took me three auditions before I figured what they wanted. They list their audition requirements on their website, and they may seem specific but they're actually pretty vague. You have to show that you can play anything, except classical music. As a guitar player, you have to play with the right tone, style, rhythm, etc.

"The focus for the audition is to show different 
styles and fulfill every aspect of it" 

For my third audition I had five or six prepared pieces. I started with a standard pop tune, Bon Jovi's Living on a Prayer. After that I did a more advanced rock tune by Robben Ford which included a very technical solo. Playing the recorded solo shows technique, even though you won't be doing this for any performances.

Then I played Johnny Be Good, followed by a funk tune. The focus is showing different styles and fulfilling every aspect of it. You have to be flexible. For the jazz piece I played Wave, a blues in a Latin style which I played along with an Abersold track. I played the melody, comped and  improvised over several choruses.

For the solo guitar piece, which was completely written, I played Dolphin Dance, arranged by Barry Galbraith.  For this last piece it was important that I extended the written music with ideas of my own.  After each song, the auditioners ask you to change or to improve things, or emphasize different notes. The key there is to do what they want right away.

After the prepared pieces, they have a packet of sight reading, with several examples in several different styles, all in quick tempo. For example, constant eight notes in 9/8 at 120 per quarter notes, chord reading and rhythm figures. They're basically all clips of big band charts.

If they give you a tempo you can't do, the best thing to do is to show them how you would begin to approach learning the example. You also have to play scales, as fast as you can!

"The key for sight reading is to make 
quick decisions and stick to them"

The last section is interpreting a lead sheet: playing on your own, it is important to represent the melody and harmony together. So you really have to know when to focus on the melody or the comping, and figure out a creative way to approach the whole song.

They gave me All the things you are, On green dolphin street and a Cole Porter tune (standards you find in the real book). It is important that the style is clear. They may ask that the first eight bars are played straight and the next eight bars in a latin rhythm.

You'll  have to improvise over the changes as well, all this without a rhythm section or any accompaniment. This can be hard because there are so many ways to play the music . The key for me was making quick decisions and stick to them: decide the octave, voicings,  when to add chords or embellishments.


How to play for an improv comedy show

"Play the piano for the company's improv comedy show". Why did that have to be on my contract for the summer?

I would have to make up music when my greatest strength is to sight read, come up with different sound settings on the keyboard on the spot, and somehow forget that the pianist who did it two years ago was a genius at it.

I went straight into denial.

And then I was scheduled for rehearsal, two days before preview.
So I did what I always do in times of struggle: I turn to Google for answers.

And Google answered me with two amazing websites, solely on musical accompaniment for improv comedy shows: http://musicalimprov.com and http://www.musicalhotspot.com

Rehearsal came and the inevitable happened: people were super funny, I laughed the entire time, which really relaxed me, and that was it: I was hooked.

Here's what I've learned so far:
  • Timing: for each scene, you've got to know who the characters are, where they are and what they want before you can even consider coming in for a song. Preferably come in during a brief pause in the dialogue, which is there either because emotions are high, or because there is physical stuff happening. Coming in while people are talking weakens both what they're saying and the role of the music. 
  • Style: the style of the song is what makes it funny and it comes primarily from two things: the sound patches (cheesy orchestra for love song, accordion for a scene with foreigners, steel drums for reggae, etc.) and rhythm (tango, blues, waltz, etc.). The chords can't create too much of the style besides adding some sevenths because if it gets too complicated the actors can't understand the structure and find matching pitches as easily, which takes away from the meaning of their words.
  • Bring up the unspoken: the music has to emphasize something that exists in the scene but that is unspoken. It might be the truth of a character (harpsichord for a highly cultured character, guitar for farmers), the relationship between two characters (tango for tension, love song), or the environment (reggae if the scene is on an island, dance music if the scene is in a club). 
  • Support: once a song has started, it has to keep up with the words and actions. For example if an actor sings a verse and the other character says that he wrote a song too, there isn't enough time to switch sound patches and really play a new song, but just changing the rhythm will get the point across. If somebody comes in and kills somebody in the middle song, the music has to stop abruptly. You really have to tune in to what's happening on stage to match up with it or even add something to the action (if somebody picks up an instrument, you can add some wrong notes to indicate they can't play for example). 
After being so afraid of it, I am now so excited about doing it for the rest of the summer. The best part of it too is that it opened new doors for me in terms of jobs I can apply for once I leave here. I'm really grateful that I was forced into doing something that I would have never done on my own, and that turned into something so great for me.

Have you ever had to do something new that you were afraid of that turned into something you loved? What have noticed work or doesn't work in improv comedy shows?
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