Use Your Piano Skills in Musical Theater!


Let me ask you a question:

Ever thought about playing piano for a musical?

The Musical – Live Production! (photo by Charr Crail)

You may or may not know this, but there are many opportunities for able pianists (even non-professionals) to play for theater productions in community and school theater.  I have done many such musicals over the years, in everything from community theater to high school to college productions.  In fact, I recently finished playing for a musical with a high school in Elk Grove.

Theater is the ultimate act of creative synergy.  In theater, there are many elements needed to pull off a production, including:  lights, acting, singing, dancing, costumes, sets, mics and sound equipment, the audience… and of course, live music.   At it’s best, theater combines these elements in a way that is truly magical.

In my latest production for the high school, there were numerous roles that I played, namely:


The band (including yours truly) during the show (photo by Charr Crail)

  • playing the piano part (as well as playing some incidental organ and chime sounds on my electric keyboard)
  • helping the singers learn their parts during rehearsals
  • leading the band during performances and rehearsals (in this case, a drummer and a bass player in addition to me)
  • cueing the singers during the performances so they know when to start singing
  • playing cues for scene changes or the start of each act

These various roles are all learnable.  The fact is, there are many pianists who could be involved in theater if they wanted to.  Many haven’t had the chance to do so. So, let me ask you the same question I started this post with:

Have you ever thought about playing piano for a musical?

If you haven’t already, I hope reading this gets you thinking.   I consider myself truly blessed to have been involved in theater for most of my life.  Some of my peak creative experiences have been in working in theater (not only as a musician but also acting in musicals when I was a child).

Perhaps this all sounds interesting, but maybe you are wondering, What exactly does it take to play for musical theater?  Here are the main skills that come to mind:

  • Reading ability.  In addition to playing ability, I would say that most of the time you have to be a good sight-reader if you are going to play piano for a musical.  At the very least, you need to be able to go home and learn a score so that you can play any song or part (including the singers’ parts) when asked.
  •  Experience accompanying singers.  It helps a lot to be comfortable playing piano while others are singing. If you haven’t ever done this before, you can start by accompanying your own friends or family (That’s what I did, playing piano for my brother to sing when we were children).
  • Preparation and Flexibility.  There are a lot of details to handle when accompanying a musical.  You need to be prepared with the score but also adapt spontaneously when things change in the moment (and they often do!).  There might be times when you have to start playing earlier than you expected, or wait for a singer to start singing, or jump ahead a few measures to follow the singer, or extend scene change music until the lights go up while the actor changes costumes, or play a melody part for a singer if they need help to stay on key. Furthermore, you are part of a bigger chain of communication between you and the actors/singers, and sometimes the light and sound crew, and even the other musicians.  Needless to say, there are many moving parts!

Where it all starts: The Musical Score

In addition to these, I would say there are two other skills that REALLY help:

  • Improvisation ability.  Improvisation can enliven a performance, help you learn material faster (instead of always having to master each page of the score note-for-note), or even help you improvise music or extend music during costume or scene changes.
  •  Love of theater.  It really helps if you enjoy theater, especially interacting with the diverse community of people playing various roles, from actors to stage hands, from sound people to directors. Also, it helps if you enjoy hearing live theater (I say that because in all likelihood you won’t be able to SEE much of the play—you will be too busy playing and looking at the score!)

I hope this gives you at least some basic ideas about what it takes to get into playing musical theater.  If you have never done it before, I can understand if this seems daunting.   Ask yourself, do you genuinely desire to be able to accomplish this?  If so, I promise, there is a way to make it happen!  You do not have to be perfect at it, you just have to be willing to give it a go.

If you have any questions about how you might ready yourself to play in a musical or accomplish any other musical goal that is important to you, I encourage you to contact me.  Let’s talk about how I can help YOU get where you want to go!



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