Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Perils of Orchestral Piano

One of the trickiest engagements for a pianist is that of orchestral pianist. You're stuck at the back of the orchestra, usually near the percussion or trombone section, wait for pages and pages of rests, watch and count frantically, hoping that when you enter, it will be in the correct place and in time. Jonathan West on Horn Thoughts has compiled a list of 8 simple rules for playing in an orchestra. Following are some of the ones that pertain to pianists, with my annotations:
5. Don’t gossip (CF: but sitting in front of the trombone section means that you'll have the pleasure of hearing plenty, especially during concerts)

4. Keep to the same speed as the conductor (CF: assuming you can make out their beat, which is why the first thing I do in a rehearsal is locate the concertmaster, whose bowing is often more reliable and rhythmic than the maestro's baton)

1. Don’t play in the rests (CF: 256 bars rest, then you play in an exposed section. If you miss your entrance you'll never work again...)
What advice would you give to young orchestral pianists?


  1. Anonymous10:53 PM


    One of the biggest challenges I find in playing in the orchestra is finding the timing of the delay that the orchestra plays in relation to the ictus of the conductor's beat. My first experiences in orchestral playing I found myself inevitably playing early, especially on downbeats when I reacted directly to the conductor's beat pattern. The orchestra plays, depending on tempo and character of the music, sometimes as much as a half second delay behind the ictus of the conducted beat (though this varies depending on orchestra.) I find it amazing than 80 musicians can "react" with equal delay and play precisely together, but they do it! Great experiences I've had, and I recommend that all young pianists take advantage of any opportunity to play orchestral piano that comes their way.


    PS--If you're called to play piano for Ives Central Park in the Dark see if you can split the part duet-style with another pianist!

  2. Thanks Anonymous! It's always a challenge figuring out whether to trust your ears or eyes with the orchestra.

  3. Anonymous11:43 PM

    Is there a good list somewhere of orchestral music with piano parts? I'd love to explore this genre in the hopes of someday having such an opportunity.

  4. I tend to have the same visual/aural mismatch problem as Phil. The very first time I played as an orchestral pianist, I was doubling strings and I couldn't figure out why I was always ahead of them, when I was following the conductor -exactly-. Finally realized it the next rehearsal. At least with this group, I've learned to listen more than watch. I especially listen to the bass and percussion so at least I know where the downbeats are (hopefully!).

    #1 is also a biggie for me. Yes I can count, but sitting for 5 minutes to play for 30 seconds is not something I'm used to! I've learned to note where the entrances are, and write many -many- notes to myself about what happens before. Oboe solo, syncopated rhythms, percussion changes, what my neighbors are doing just before my entrance! Anything noticeable that I can use to keep myself aware of where we are in the music. It's too easy to zone out, listen to the music and then notice your cue too late.

  5. Shane8:54 AM

    I agree about the cues - during 246 measures of rest, it's not enough to write in simply what happens just before you come in. At landmark moments in the music, I will write in what is happening. And don't rely on the few cues that may or may not be written in. Sometimes we cannot hear the cues that are written in because it's on the other side of the orchestra.

    It's also really important to listen to a recording with the score so you can write in those cues and see where your part fits. I was recently playing Respighi's Roman Festivals, which has 2 piano parts - the 2nd pianist had a few measures near the end of a movement, which was just 4 dotted half notes in a row in the bass. Not important, right? He miscounted on the first run-through and thought nothing of it, until the conductor jumped down his throat for missing such an important part!! Turns out it was extremely important!

  6. To the person who asked about resources for orchestral piano parts, I can strongly recommend the Orchestra Musician's CD-ROM Library. It is 11 volumes of complete sheet music parts to just about all the major orchestral works that are out of copyright. So you can buy a CDROM with all the harp/keyboard parts for the works covered by that volume. that isn't excerpts, it is complete parts. They are in PDF format, so you can print the part and practice it ahead of being given the music by the orchestra.

    I have a nearly complete set of the horn CDs, and they have been extremely useful to me.

    With regard to item 4 on the list, this can be a problem for players of instruments who aren't often in an orchestra. I remember an orchestra course I participated in many years ago. We were doing Mahler 5, and the harpist quite simply had no idea at all how to follow the beat, and so in the informal performance at the end of the week, the other conductor sat next to the harpist for the Adagietto, and very quietly said "1, 2, 3, 4" throughout the piece in order to keep her in time.

    So, if you play another instrument as well as piano, take every possible opportunity to play it in any kind of student or amateur orchestra, just to get used to following the beat.

    If you are an orchestral pianist who can reliably keep with the beat, I promise you will be very much appreciated!

  7. Thanks for the link, Jonathan. A lot of young pianists are looking for resources on how to learn piano parts to standard orchestral works - now I know where to send them.

  8. I play piano for our small-town community orchestra, and I agree with the comments made by more big-time players! Due to the amateur nature of our orchestra, the conductor makes CDs available of all the current works for us and the smart ones among us listen like crazy to pieces during the weeks-long rehearsal process. (We are unpaid and most have day jobs, so we need lots of lead time. But we aren't half bad). I write in all kinds of notes to myself, as others have mentioned. We are currently rehearsing Petrouchka and mercifully, our conductor tends to rehearse things in from-the-end-forwards chunks, which makes it easier to learn what comes just before an entrance.

    Though I don't get to play every concert, I look forward to joining the group, even if I am just playing celeste or one page of not-much. Piano ensemble is fun, chamber music is more fun, and playing with a whole orchestra is just plain thrilling. For me, sitting in the midst of that mass of gorgeous sound is absolutely glorious, an experience not to be missed.

    The benefits of increased confidence to come in out of nowhere with a totally exposed lick, and the fun of hanging out with the 'boys in the back' (I am generally seated with the percussion, due to the layout of our rehearsal hall) are great. And of course one's counting skills take a necessary leap!

  9. Anonymous8:50 AM

    A question for those of you who are more experienced... I've never played as an orchestral pianist, but I've played rehearsals for a couple of opera productions, and the singers have had some trouble getting used to an orchestra that played behind the beat once they got into rehearsal with the orchestra. Do opera repetiteurs ever play behind the beat in rehearsal to imitate the orchestra?

  10. Anonymous10:07 AM

    Agree with much of the above. Orchestral piano parts are definitely nerve-wracking! A lot of counting, tricky entries, getting the balance right, being a long way from conductor and other key players. I've recently had experience with Barber violin concerto, Copland clarinet concerto and Strauss Intermezzo. Technically not that difficult but rhythmically complex. I found the best preparation was downloading recordings on to my ipod and playing the parts through on a turned off Clavinova a lot before going into full rehearsal. Talking the parts throught with the conductor before starting was also very helpful. Having a lot of experience with chamber music is helpful but getting the ensemble right here is quite a bit more difficult.