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English: Sweely, Shipman & Co. present Dorothy...

Image via Wikipedia

Many readers have expressed an interest
in detailed practice notes.
So… let’s try it!

For the next few weeks, I will be accompanying rehearsals for Haddon Hall, a light opera by Sydney Grundy and Arthur Sullivan. Since it has likely not been performed in the United States, no one in the group has sung the piece. I had not heard or played it.

What follows is more detail about how I am learning the piece. I will discuss the playing skills needed to play effective rehearsals. After that, special attention is given to preparing for specific types of rehearsals, such as a run-through, chorus rehearsals, and soloist rehearsals.

Haddon Hall

Image by sjdunphy via Flickr

Skills

Certain types of playing are rehearsal-specific. In this case, the singers need clarity. To accomplish that, the keys will be struck more percussively much of the time. Less pedal is needed, as it obscures note duration, dynamic changes, and even range differences.

Rehearsal playing often has less to do with good piano playing than you might think. Playing well to reach the goals of the rehearsal, of course, is crucial. But this is not a performance for you or anyone else. This is note-learning time, when entrances become secure, rhythms become sharp, and dynamics become second nature.

Our job as rehearsal pianists is to listen to what is going on in the rehearsal and facilitate that. Listening to everyone else is far more important than assessing our own performance.

An “effective rehearsal” is one in which the singers hear their cues and are able to learn their parts easily. It’s not about us.

Scene from Grundy and Sullivan's Haddon HallScene from Haddon Hall ~ Image via Wikipedia

Run-through

As I wrote in a prior post, I listened to the recording in order to gain a general idea of the piece. After listening, I practiced enough to play the first rehearsal. All the singers were sight-reading, for the most part.

I played voice parts more often than not. The piano reduction is not needed in early rehearsals except during interludes, and can sometimes confuse the singers.

Haddon Hall cover

Chorus rehearsal

I practiced the last phrase or two before each chorus entrance. That could be a solo line with some of the piano reduction, or the reduction alone. The chorus needs to hear its cues.

Example of a chorus cue:

Note:  Click on each musical example to enlarge the score.

Haddon Hall pg 10

Then I practiced chorus parts, circling unexpected key changes, tempo changes, unusual accidentals, and sudden pattern changes.

Clarity of who sings what is more important than playing all the notes.

The solo parts need to be played in the correct octave. (If the altos get their pitch from the last tenor note, don’t make them transpose an octave.)

Sometimes there will be a tenor or bass solo, say, printed above the soprano line in the chorus. It is crucial to play the solo, the chorus parts, and enough of the piano reduction so everyone knows what key they’re singing in. (This piece is chromatic, changing key level without warning. So adding chords makes a big difference in the way the singers hear the piece.)

Example of tenor solo (printed in treble clef, played one octave lower) above chorus parts.  I make breaks between the solo and the chorus.  That can be done without taking extra time.  Connecting the lines confuse the singers, and that’s not what the performance will sound like, anyway.

Haddon Hall pg 36

Example of chromatic writing ~ accenting chord changes helps the singers.  Here I played the vocal solo part and percussive chords on downbeats.

Haddon Hall pg 26

Soloist rehearsal

The soloists need to know what the music sounds like leading into their entrances. So we need to play chorus parts sometimes, and also the piano reduction.

Make sure to note unusual or difficult rhythms. When we play them correctly in rehearsal, the singers will learn them correctly. Correcting mistakes after several rehearsals is something to be avoided.

Sing every solo before the first rehearsal. When we feel where time is needed and experience where to breathe, the music makes sense right away. Second-guessing is no fun, and slows things down.

In this example, all vocal parts need to be played.  The soloist learns his entrance by hearing the chorus, so he doesn’t need to count.  And the chorus hears a continuous vocal line as well.  So, no matter whether this is a chorus or a soloist rehearsal.  Just play everything!

Haddon Hall pg 159

Conclusion

No matter how much practicing goes into our rehearsal preparation, that is not enough.  We must also:

  • always listen.
  • always anticipate what is needed.
  • be able to jump to a different part quickly.
  • know when to accent and when not to.
  • distinguish between solo, chorus, and orchestra parts with our playing.
  • play what the singers need to hear in order best to learn their parts.

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