4 weird rehearsal moments from the piano bench

4 weird rehearsal moments from the piano bench

Jenna Simeonov
Rehearsals are a lot of things; they’re stressful, fun, boring, inspiring, and weird. The last one is probably the most true, and opera folk tend to get de-sensitized to the weird stuff pretty quickly. Obvious examples are hilariously pouffy rehearsal skirts, sopranos who mark with bass-like chest voices, and the generally weird shorthand between the artists (“are we going from vrum-da-DUM or from tinklytinkly?”). I thought I’d share some of these odd moments that I’ve experienced from my seat at the piano.

Ambiguous Upbeats

I’d say, as a general observation, that approximately one in ten upbeats given is ambiguous. The conductor isn’t trying to be a jerk, or psych out the pianist; ambiguous upbeats are some of the joys of making music with human beings. What do I mean by ambiguous? Often the upbeat is so slow that the huge container of space between upbeat and downbeat becomes an abyss-like void in which I forget to subdivide. Or, the upbeat is so quick that it’s basically imaginary.

Lingering upbeats, too, those are tricky; they start with a really decisive tempo, and just as the maestro’s hand looks ready to flick towards a downbeat, it gets wishy-washy, like the rhythmic equivalent of forgetting what you were just about to say. Those ambiguous downbeats get weirder when the pianist misses the cue, and then there’s a shared moment of wide-eyed wonder between conductor and pianist, both baffled by their miscommunication.

When the director asks, “Can you just play me that music?”

Good opera directors use the music as well as the text. In rehearsal, sometimes demonstration is the best method to communicate a director’s vision to the singers. When a director asks something like, “can I just hear that music?” a weird phenomenon happens. All of a sudden, the pianist is in the spotlight, which is something we all sort of agree to avoid.

Plus, when the director is demonstrating his use of said music, I get insanely curious as to what he’s going to do. Now I’m playing “that music” with a much-too-attentive audience listening, while being totally distracted from my score because I’m trying to sneak side glances at what’s being done during said music. Is he going to do a little dance? Stab someone? Steal their hat? It could be anything, and so I’m super interested.

It means my heart is in the right place, but my sudden and inexplicable decline in pianistic skills garners some weird glances from the maestro. Sorry, maestro.

Filling in for absentee singers

Sometimes a scene is staged during a rehearsal to which not all of the singers are called. They may be sick, unavailable, or not necessary to the goal of the current rehearsal. One of the jobs of the pianist (and often the conductor) is to sing the missing vocal lines in order to keep the rehearsal going smoothly. This is weird. It’s weird because pianists are rarely singers, and their untrained, octave-lower voices are often hilariously hideous in comparison to the professional voices in the room. Even weirder, is when the conductor takes on this job.

For the most part, I’m more than happy to cede the singing to an eager conductor, even if my voice is marginally more beautiful. On a couple of weird occasions, the conductor and pianist will fill in the multiple roles that aren’t being sung by the proper folks. All of a sudden, there’s an awkward, multi-tasking, yelling match in the guise of a duet happening between two non-singers. Totally weird, and I’m sure everyone in the room is suppressing laughter. I know I would, if singers took over for me at the keys with a combination of keyboard-mashing and air piano.

The drifting director

There’s an unspoken rule that the line of sight between pianist and conductor should remain unsullied. When I was just starting out playing opera rehearsals, there was a sickening panic in my gut every time someone (meaning no harm) wanders close to that sight-line. It still happens, although it’s a reaction similar to when I’m walking on the sidewalk, impatiently trying to scuttle around slow walkers. Mooooooove.

The weird part comes when the culprit is the director. Often the director will be watching a scene unfold, and he or she will mindlessly drift into the conductor-pianist sight-line, and it’s not kosher to snap at the director for doing so. It’s his rehearsal, after all. The director usually intersects the sight-line perpendicularly, by drifting forwards or back wards slightly, settling on a spot that’s just in the way.

When I see out of the corner of my eye that this may indeed happen, I attempt to stop it telepathically: Oh no, he’s moving forward. Oh God not now, this is terrible timing, there’s so much rubato happening. I really need to see. Please stop moving forward. You’re still moving…ok keep moving then, keeping moving and then I can see again. Oh no, you’ve stopped.

Often the conductor doesn’t realize this is all happening, since it’s not his job to look at the pianist. He does look up, though, when he’s wondering what’s happening with the music and why the pianist has suddenly gone rogue. The weirdest part? Deciding between taking the blame for the music blunder, or pointing the finger at the director. Yikes.

What weirdness have you seen in rehearsal? Leave it in the comments below, and spread the weird.

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