Seven Weird Things I’ve Learned Playing Piano for People

Suga Jam Music Directing Your Show. Photo by M. Mason

For over a decade I have been a music director. Most of my work has come from the comedy community in Toronto. I am also a comedic performer, but there is definitely a different vibe you get from people once you step off the stage, out of the light and sit down at a piano. Here are some interesting things I’ve noticed about how people treat me.

1. Some People Think You are Amazing:

I’ll start this list off with a positive. Truly some people are wonderful to work with and they appreciate that you have come and helped them with their show. They tell you flattering things like,  “it really changes the atmosphere” or “it holds the show together”. Even audience members will come up to me after a show and tell me how much they enjoyed my playing. It was nice to be noticed even though I was stuck in the back of the theatre and they forgot to thank me.

2. People Will Think You Know Every Song Ever Written:

The expectations people have of what you can play are pretty amusing. I’ve had people walk on stage and just announce they are going to sing a song and for some reason they assume I have all of Frank Sinatra’s back catalogue in my mind ready to play in the exact key that is perfect for their voice. Don’t get me wrong, I DO wish I was a robot jukebox who could do this, but honestly people it’s a little much to expect anyone to do this. I’ve also had performers just shove books of music in front of me just before a performance expecting that we are somehow going to pull off a polished performance without either of us having run through the music. Bizarre.

3. People Will Think That is the Only Thing You Can Do

For some reason, once you sit down and score a show, people lock you into some stereotype of what a piano player/music director is. It’s almost like you have been locked into a box. Suddenly people are shocked that you also perform, or produce, or direct, or write. Even if you do these things really well and have an impressive resume of accomplishments and education people still just think you are a piano playing monkey. Some of them seem to be genuinely surprised that I even speak.

4. People Will Be Surprised That You Speak and Have an Opinion:

I’m not sure why but a lot of people assume you are some sort of a dunce because you play the piano. I don’t understand this because last I checked it takes a lot of skill to perform in front of people with all of ten of your fingers moving at once in the right rhythm and in the right positions. It takes a lot of work to learn how to do it, and it takes talent to make up original music on the spot. How does this equal “stupid” to some people?

The last year I did this as a job, I noticed more and more the performers would sit and speak to each other in groups and pretty much pretend I didn’t exist before a show. I think this is one of the reasons I left that job and now I write and perform more. I actually have quite a lot of opinions and an ego that needs to be in the spotlight from time to time. And believe me when I say I have definitely taken quite a lot of flack for some of the things I have written and have even had performers tell me I should shut my mouth. I find this insulting and it is basically egotistical performers trying to put me back into the place they have organized for me. It’s okay for them to act like assholes on stage and off, but once the piano player has an opinion then CALL THE AUTHORITIES!

P.S. When they tell me to shut up it makes me louder and more opinionated.

5. “Your Music is too Loud!”:

Sometimes when I do a show people will come up to me afterwards and tell me that I was too loud. The music director is often positioned at the side of the stage and is not hearing the show the same way you are. My ears are often closer to the performers than they are to the speakers. So from my perspective the performers are loud and the music is quiet. Sometimes I can’t even hear the music I am playing because of the sound set up. Almost every time I go to an improv show as an audience member I think the same thing. I wonder why the music director is so loud. Then I remember why. Longer tech times and proper monitors would help this situation. Tech talk.

6. They Won’t Bring You into the Television Version so Watch Your Back:

The carrot people dangle in front of me has often been, “You know when we get on TV you will get to do the music”. I just want any budding music directors out there to get statements like that in writing. The television network and producers will have their own ideas and their own friends who are musicians. And that is who they will choose. This has happened to me several times in different scenarios. Just make sure you are protected. And don’t believe lies like that. Sometimes they’ll just take music you’ve written as well. Yes that really happens.

7. Beautiful Women Love Musicians:

Despite my complaining the truth is that women love musicians. And my wife is beautiful. So even if I am angry and griping about how I get treated sometimes, in the end I win.

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