A view from the keys

October 2023

Simon Fraser accompanied most of our singers at this year’s In2Drama Summer Academy. But how did he prepare?

This might surprise you, but I’m not a great sight reader. Never have been. I can read music reasonably well, as long as it’s not too complicated and all the notes are congregated in the octaves around middle C, but when the composer starts writing really high or low notes, I run into trouble. Is that a G or aB? An A or an F? I have to count the lines to work it out – not easy when you’re supposed to be playing. 

Then there’s rhythm, and this has always been a real problem for me. Basic crotchets, quavers and minims (and subtle variations of them) are fine, as long as I keep a solid beat going in my head, but when you start mixing up dotted quavers and triplets with rests of varying lengths and joined notes thatstretch over the bar line, I’m sunk. I simply have no idea.

However, all is not lost because I’ve always been able to play by ear. In fact, taping songs off the radio in the 1970s (yes, that dates me, I know) sticking the cassette recorder on top of the piano and playing along, inevitably rewinding the difficult bits repeatedly, was what gave me most enjoyment. I didn’t need sheet music; I could work it out for myself. Bizarrely, I’ve often regarded buying sheet music as cheating, the musical equivalent of reaching for the dictionary or an online app when trying to finish a cryptic crossword. But sometimes, a chord will completely defeat you, no matter how many attempts you make. So, you bite the bullet, purchase the sheet music (downloading music is so much easier than trekking up to Chappell’s in Bond Street) and ta-da! That’s how you play it!

So, once I’ve heard a song, I’ll know how the rhythm works, and those complicated note combinations will sort of make sense – I’ll know what to play when I see them.In fact, once I’ve got a song in my head, I’ll probably just need the chords to keep me on track. Fortunately, most sheet music nowadays has the chords printed above the stave - C, F7, Gmin7 etc.

 Add the listening and the reading together and I’m away. But then comes a wrinkle. I meet the singer for the first time and discover the song’s original key is too high or too low. Fortunately, most electronic pianos have transpose buttons which will do the work for you. It certainly makes life much easier, but it can be dangerous. There have been several occasions when I’ve been playing the piano for the Ewhurst Players and forgotten to un-transpose my keyboard after a particular song. The next singer has then been rather surprised to find themselves singing in a very different key to the one they expected. Acoustic pianos don’t offer such benefits, and playing a song blind in an unusual key can be a bit of gamble. I’ll probably be able to get most of it provided it’s not too complex, but the middle eight will probably trip me up. And if it’sSondheim, well that’s another matter entirely.

For the academy, I had about 40 songs to learn. Fortunately, there was only oneSondheim, and one or two songs (Castle on a Cloud, Part of your World) popped up several times. However, some of the sheet music supplied (thank you to those who sent it through) didn’t match up with any Spotify recordings I could find.Some songs simply didn’t suit a piano accompaniment and some included pages of music to accompany dance routines, which presumably I wouldn’t have to master.Even so, I found myself having to restrict the time I spent on some pieces so thatI had time to spend on the others. I felt a bit like a class teacher spending all their time focussing on one demanding child; it didn’t seem fair on everyone else. Plus, you can’t just play the easy ones over and over again and kid yourself all is well. You have to, literally, face the music.

But when the academy finally arrived, I was ready. Just. Given the time we had available, I knew that the students would only be able to perform one of their chosen songs, so I was, occasionally, silently praying that the more complex choices would bite the dust.

So, off we went. And what did we start with? Of course. The Sondheim.    




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