Andrei Strizek

Music | Musings

Accompanist Woes

If you know me, you know that I thoroughly enjoy accompanying people. If you know me, you also know that I enjoy accompanying people on musical theatre pieces more than any other genre.

I've played for countless auditions over the past ten years, for musicals ranging in style from rock and roll to "classic" Broadway, for show choirs, etc. I've had to deal with a number of issues accompanists get used to seeing, from poorly executed auditions, strange cuts and jumps, music so crumpled that it doesn't stay on the stand, etc. Yet the thing that I find the most annoying is music that is poorly published.

We've all had to deal with bad page turns, lack of measure numbers, etc., but that's not what I find most frustrating. I've grown tired of publishers who simply copy and paste an accompaniment throughout a piece, without adding any sort of variation and without any regard to the original orchestrations. I've also come to expect the piano part doubling the vocal line verbatim. Ask any experienced singer and they'll tell you that they don't want the pianist to play the vocal line with them.

I've encountered this so many times that I've become adept at adjusting. Sometimes there are chord changes given and I improvise an appropriate accompaniment. Other times I look at what the chords are and where they're going and figure it out in my head. (This is easier to do on older showtunes or rock-based tunes - much more difficult when dealing with the likes of Stephen Sondheim.)

Other times I've played a piece numerous times, or heard it numerous times, that I can play what is a close facsimile to the original orchestration. Popular, from Wicked, has been set in front of me at almost every audition I've played since the show came out, and I can still play a majority of it from memory. (I get thrown off when I have to play a piece, like If I Were A Bell or My Favorite Things, that I only know from jazz versions - i.e., Miles Davis and John Coltrane - and I have to work hard to avoid slipping into a swing feel and improvising like I would if I were playing with a jazz combo.)

I bring this up because I'm recording tonight with Sam & Karen, and one of the duets they're singing is The Song That Goes Like This from Spamalot. As I expected, the published version holds only minimal similarities to the original version.

At this point in the song, the tune gets more sparse and lighter, for about 8 bars (at about 2:15 in the link above). Yet it's clear that the publisher simply used copy and paste for the accompaniment here, adjusting for the key change. The bass is low on the piano like it is throughout the entire piece, and, in addition to copying the vocal line, the accompaniment consists of 8th notes outlining the chords. The only thing that makes it like the original are the chords and the melody.

This is really too bad, because this song has some great countermelodies. Yes, it's tongue-in-cheek, but the string lines, especially, add to the piece. Some of the humor and irony is lost in this version because those are not there (not to mention that playing the same 8th note pattern for 3 minutes is boring). I realize that not everything can be performed on the piano, but it would be nice to see more effort put in to trying. Instead, for tonight's recording (and the potential future public performance of this piece) I'm resigned to sitting in front of a piano, earbuds in, so I can get some of the countermelodies that help make the song what it is.

I have seen some good published music, though, which gives me hope that we aren't being dumbed-down. Hal Leonard publishes The Singer's Musical Theatre Anthology in several volumes for all voice ranges. (They also have started publishing recording accompaniments, which I find beneficial for practicing but hope aren't used in performances.) These accompaniments are what I like to see: accurate to the orchestration, not doubling the vocal line.

Also, the published music of Jason Robert Brown is refreshing to see. One of the things I like about Jason Robert Brown's music is that that published version is almost exactly the same as the version you find in the performance edition, and what you hear on the original cast recordings. I recently co-directed and performed in Songs For a New World. I've played some of the songs before for cabaret-style performances and at auditions, and I was familiar with much of the music. That didn't make it any easier (especially with the examples given here, King of the World), but I was pleased to see that the music is almost the same.

This first example is from the songbook of Songs For a New World. The accompaniment is difficult, but notice how it doesn't copy the vocal melody in the right hand.

Now, compare it to the same passage from the "official" version on rental from MTI:

The main difference is that in the official version there are percussion cues. Otherwise this piece is the same in both published versions.

There was a big debate this summer about copyright: Jason Robert Brown and his wife Georgia Stitt led the charge to crack down against illegal sheet music trades. Without getting into that debate too much in this space, I do want to say that I can at least understand some of the rationale behind wanting "original" copies of the music. They're more accurate and more fun to play (and, I'm assuming, sing along with). Give me an original accompaniment over a cookie-cutter publication any day, even if it means reading orchestra cues and playing a more difficult accompaniment. I enjoy sight-reading at auditions, and the more challenging the piece is, the more excited I get about it. (Perhaps I should see someone about that ...)

I've seen some books published both in "piano/vocal" and "vocal only" arrangements, but I'm not sure why these aren't more prevalent. And I get that sometimes people want to buy a book of showtunes just to play at the piano, which makes versions like The Song That Goes Like This okay. After all, even if you're not a playing with a singer, these can be both entertaining and educational to play.

But I wish publishers would put a little more effort into making songs like the original. There are plenty of pianists around capable of playing the original accompaniments, and we'd appreciate a little more respect than we seem to be getting.

And don't get me started on low-quality pep band arrangements.

(My apologies for the photo qualities. They aren't the best, but I hope they're sufficient. Also, please note that the musical excerpts above are copyrighted by their respective holders, and are only here to serve as examples.)

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