The secrets of working as a West End rehearsal pianist
By Jeremy Fisher
What type of work is available for a professional pianist? Obviously there are concerts and recitals, or getting a post as an orchestral pianist. But there’s a lesser-known area of work that can be fun and very satisfying.
I worked for almost 20 years in London’s West End as a rehearsal pianist, and this article focuses on what a rehearsal pianist is, and how to become one.
A rehearsal pianist plays for the rehearsals of West End or touring shows, in the weeks of production before the band arrives. Any show that contains live music will need a rehearsal pianist, but the most famous examples are the big musicals. I worked on Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, Me and My Girl, Carmen Jones, and a host of productions both in the West End and on tour.
The contract usually runs for four to six weeks, from 10am to 5pm five or six days a week. During the technical week (the week before opening night or the first preview, when all the sets and costumes are added) the hours can extend quite dramatically – I would sometimes be working 12 or 13 hour days.
As a rehearsal pianist you have to be very patient, and to enjoy watching the process of performance creation. You also need to play to a high standard, and be able to repeat musical numbers consistently. And you need to like working with actors! You may or may not have a conductor there, and occasionally you are given the task of training the singers, or playing for the dance calls.
And since most musical productions need at least two rehearsals every week, you are often called in to play during the production run, especially if there is no keyboard player included in the orchestra.
So how do you break into rehearsal pianist work?
When I moved to London in the late 80s I wrote 750 targeted letters asking for employment. Although most of the production companies no longer exist, the methods of contact I used are still valid.
Remember first that you’re looking for companies or organisations that produce events, musicals, plays with music or short films, that would need a musician.
In the UK, the place to start is the British Music Yearbook, published by Rhinegold and usually available in a good local library.
Once you’ve exhausted the BMY, then Contacts, published by The Spotlight, has a good up-to-date list of repertory theatre companies.
I also wrote to film and production companies (with the emphasis on Production) offering my services and asking them to keep my details on file for when they might need a film pianist.
You might consider approaching somewhere like Pineapple Studios in Covent Garden, who are always hosting rehearsals. They won’t provide you with employment but they have so many production companies hiring their space that they might be able to put you in touch with people needing your brand of skills. In fact it might be worth checking out all the bigger rehearsal studio venues in London.
The other possibility, and one that is often overlooked, is to contact the West End orchestral fixers. An orchestral fixer will liaise with the producers of a musical to book the musicians for the run of the show. They will sometimes employ or recommend pianists for the rehearsal period, even if they are not booked for the performances.
Once I was established on the scene, I got a great deal of my work from one West End fixer, who knew about or was involved in lots of productions. I didn’t necessarily play in the production itself, but was hired for the rehearsal period and the “overlap time” between the bandcalls (in the final week of rehearsal) and opening night. There is a very short list of West End fixers – if you can’t find it, check out the Musicians’ Union.
In short, start thinking out of the box. I got the contracts by writing to as many people as I thought had the budget to pay me. And did my mailout 20 years ago work? Out of those 750 letters I received 49 replies, and one interview for a job in the West End which lasted for a full 8 months and led to a busy 20 years in and around London’s Theatreland.
© 2014 Jeremy Fisher
For more information and coaching to succeed in London’s West End theatreland, visit Jeremy’s coaching website at www.WestEndPianist.com