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  • Writer's pictureNathan

Piaf - Part 1

In October 2023 I was approached to orchestrate ‘Piaf’, a play about the French singer by Pam Gems. It’s been produced professionally a number of times, most notably in the early 90’s with Elaine Paige in the leading role. The soundtrack of that version is available, but our Director, Stuart Wood, wanted to base our version more on the original Piaf recordings than any previous musical version.

Piano Vocal Score cover for Piaf
Piano Vocal Score cover for Piaf

10 minute read


No Reliable Source Materials

Although ‘Piaf’ has been produced as a musical several times over the years, no official music score exists or is licensed with the show. As such, it was up to Producer and Director, Stuart Wood, and myself to find what we could and go from there.

It turns our that what we could find was not very much, or at least not particularly useful. Many of the Piano Vocal arrangements available for purchase online and in hard copies are very old, and often don’t resemble the Piaf versions in many ways at all: Wildly different keys, time signatures (usually compound vs. simple) tempos, structures, harmonisation, lyrics, language - you name it… This is understandable, since many of the songs were not originally written for or performed by Piaf, and/or have been recorded by other artists since. But this wasn’t the best starting point for us.

Thankfully, when it came to reference tracks, there is more material available. A lot of recordings, including some live, are on major platforms such as Spotify and YouTube. Stuart chose the versions that best suited our production, and these became the basis for my arrangements.


Score Template

My first task on any scoring job is to create my score template. For this project I used Sibelius. I have a basic template that I use for Musical Theatre (MT) that includes all of the relevant text fields, instrument staves, lines, fonts, margins and other minute details just as I like them, which saves me HOURS, if not DAYS, later in the process.

I copy the template from my template folder (or the last project I used it on), delete anything I don’t need, add extra things I do need, and change all of the project details - then I’m basically ready to go.

I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to get all the info into this template score right at the beginning, taking some time to think through every stage of the project and what will be needed. This is something I’ve learnt from experience, so now I know pretty much exactly what I’ll need and what to change each time. At some point I’ll write a post about how I made and use templates.

Sibelius template for Piaf
Sibelius template for Piaf

Once the template is setup, apart from every file looking the same and ensuring consistency  and the whole project feeling as one, its main benefit is that it removes almost all friction to me beginning a new number. I am a MASSIVE procrastinator, and any tiny hurdle that I have to tackle to begin a new section of a project could cost me hours in lost time that day. It’s generally fine at the start of a day or just after lunch, which feel to be like natural starting points for new things, but if I finish a number at 11:30am or 3:30pm, the reward system in my brain triggers really strongly and I really struggle to start anything new. Apparently it wants to congratulate me hard on completing a task - so hard I can’t start a new one! By having the template ready, with my only input needing to duplicate the template file, rename it, and update the song title and number in Sibelius (lookup text wildcards for a major timesaver), I can do these simple steps and get straight back into writing with minimal friction, so I’m not left celebrating my little win for too long.


Piano Vocal Transcriptions

For rehearsals (beginning in March for the full cast, but ASAP for lead Mia), a Piano Vocal Score was needed. In MT, this is the definitive version of the score that is used by all departments, including the Director, Choreographer, Stage Management, and Lighting (and sometimes Sound, although they may prefer a full score). They will all reference song numbers, bar numbers, tempos, instrumentals/dance breaks and lyrics as they appear in the Piano Vocal Score. So I need to get them as close as possible to what we need first time!

Bar numbers are probably the most important of the things referenced between departments. Much further down the line in tech rehearsals, the Deputy Stage Manager (DSM) who ‘calls’ the show (synchronises all aspects of the show by giving ‘standbys’ and ‘gos’ over comms, usually to the Stage Management team and lighting operator) will use bar numbers to tell everyone where to pickup from if we’ve stopped mid-song. This is a super efficient and clear way of getting everyone on the same page, and time really is money during tech rehearsals, when you have upwards of 25 paid freelancers in the room.

Although it sounds simple and obvious, it’s important that music numbering is always sequential. In MT, generally the songs are given ‘big’ numbers, i.e. 1, 2, 3 … 17, 18…, whilst underscores, scene changes, play-offs and the like are given ‘small’ numbers, i.e. 2a, 4a, 4b etc. In a production process such as this one where the music’s location isn’t completely decided and could be changed during rehearsals, this process requires a bit of fluidity, and can result in a lot of a, b, c, d lists where music gets inserted between songs later on. Often, this numbering system is updated (corrected) when shows tour or are revived. But generally it stays the same during a production to avoid confusion.

Since there was so little pre-existing written material available for most of the songs, most of my Piano Vocal arrangements were transcriptions. For this, I use an app called ‘Transcribe!’. This is so useful and has fitting into my workflow so well, reducing ap changes and external distractions so much. It’s a massive timesaver and a strong recommend! I first head of this app through the Scoring Notes Podcast, in an interview with Dave Metzger. Another strong recommend for this interview as a whole. Dave’s wealth of experience and general loveliness as a person really comes across, and he’s so generous in the advice and recommendations he shares.

Long story short, Transcribe! allows me slow down, transpose, marker, play, stop and cycle music tracks, all triggered from a Korg nanoKontrol2 (the new version is the nanoKontrol Studio) that I bought about 12+ years ago, without ever needing to leave Sibelius. The workflow dream.

The purpose of a Piano Vocal score (PV) is to be an estimation of the resulting orchestration, to give the performers and production team the best representation of how things will sound and feel once the band are in. Often this will be exactly what the piano plays during the show (which is quite common for a smaller lineup of 6 like we had). But sometimes there will be differences, and the Music Director (MD) will play from a different Piano Conductor score (PC) for the show, where they will play a different piano part.

Key elements for the PV are the melody and lyrics (obvs), bass line, harmony and pulse/groove/feel. This last trio is probably the trickiest to distil, and requires the arranger to listen to the sum of all the parts of what’s going on in the track and work out of way of making it sound something similar with just the piano. This might involve adding repeated notes, arpeggio patterns or accents to simulate a drum groove, even if the piano/background harmony is actually more still, for example.

As well as these elements, the PV often also includes important countermelodies going on in other instruments. Sometimes these are on cue staffs (ossias), or they appear as small notes on the piano staves, depending on readability and what’s already going on in the piano. Since I knew I’d be orchestrating these songs after I’d done the PVs, I included a lot of these lines to save me some time further down the line.

The first page of Sous Le Ciel De Paris Piano Vocal Score that I transcribed
The first page of Sous Le Ciel De Paris Piano Vocal Score that I transcribed

I was surprised that one of the first hurdles was often working out what time signature the pieces/sections were in. With today’s often very obvious, rhythmic grooves and most things being to click, it’s usually pretty obvious within a few beats what the time sig is. However, some of the Piaf songs caught me by surprise. As with many songs of the era, they often have an opening section that is completely different to the rest of the song, then they go into the main refrain. Cole Porter is a great example off the top of my head. I guarantee there are songs you know really well that will never have heard the ‘intro’ verse to. Furthermore, with the Piaf songs, a section will often start quite sparcly, implying a time signature in simple time (probably 4/4), then as it develops, something in the rhythms or even the vocal line will wander into compound time (probably 12/8). A few times I found myself having to go back and convert a few bars of simple into compound. There’s even a 9/8 through one section (not all that common).

A bit of a gripe of mine with PVs is that they can sometimes (often?) be unplayable in places, or even throughout. For example, there are many old shows (and some newer) where the PV is essentially an orchestral reduction, and no thought has been given to its playability. This has its uses and can be great to conduct from if it’s written well. Also, there are many, many amazing MT pianists who will be able to see this overload of information on the page and distil it into a really great piano groove all by themselves. But as a starting point for someone who doesn’t know any of the songs, they can be really unhelpful.

The originals of the Piaf songs are very orchestral, but I wanted to try my best to make them as playable as possible and get the gist of the pieces, and include any extras as ossias or small notes for those more ambitious pianists to fill in the gaps.

I really enjoy this part of the process. I consider myself more of a ‘groove pianist’ than anything else, so hearing the groves and transforming them into piano lines comes quite naturally to me.


Piano Vocal Music Prep

In my opinion, how music looks on the page (or tablet screen) is as important as the notes it’s telling you to play/sing. Layout and formatting (typesetting) makes a huge difference to how playable and memorable a piece can be when working on it.

Within my template I have a PV dynamic part which pulls in the rehearsal piano part, vocals and any cue lines. Any instruments that aren’t needed for this number (e.g. it’s instrumental only, or doesn’t have any cues) will be hidden/removed from the part. Bar numbers are setup to show on EVERY bar, in a very thin, narrow, sans serif font to cause the least obstruction possible. This is pretty standard in MT now, and deliberately different to classical and other published PV scores. In theatre, time is money, and having the bar number written on every bar saves everyone involved having to count from the left, especially if systems have different numbers of bars, or bar number changes have been inserted.

I usually aim to have landmark moments such as key changes and double bar lines hit at the start/end of a system. Where this isn’t possible or would look really strange (e.g. too many bars crammed in or too few bars stretched out), I’ve become a big fan of just ending the system where I want it to break (cmd+enter on Mac - can’t remember if this is a custom or default shortcut… ), then dragging the bar line to where it should be in the system, and leaving the rest of the system blank. So a forced system break with manual layout override. I know it’s not great practice to drag anything in Sibelius, but this seems to be the best way to get a good looking score for these instances that I’ve found.

Indented final system
Indented final system. Would look strange stretched across the page width.

The idea for this came from a lot of the Disney Live with Orchestra gigs that I play for. They quite often use this technique, and it really helps to have big musical hit points land with visual clues on the page, like line breaks/double bar lines. I always assumed that the white space left after the forced break would offend me in some way, but it really doesn’t… I think the Disney scores are prepped in Finale not Sibelius, so I don’t know whether this is common/easier in Finale. I think this is actually the default in Dorico, that if there’s a system that isn’t full, it truncates the line to end naturally where the bars should land, rather than forcing it to the right margin.

In the past I’ve tried sticky to a forced 4 bars a system method, and for pop/rock style things this can be fine, but it really doesn’t suit everything. My tendency now is to favour phrase length, as long as everything else still looks good and is readable. For some of the songs in compound time for Piaf, they are very wordy, and the lyrics require a lot of horizontal space, so these often ended up as 3 or even 2 bars a system.

Something I’ve become more and more aware of when I MD shows is how triggering the pagination and layout of a piece can be when it repeats (e.g. each time the chorus comes around). For me, if the system breaks, location on the page and left/right page setup is the same each time, I find it far easier to recognise that it’s the same idea being repeated, and therefore less to learn, and it triggers my memory when playing/teaching/learning that section. This isn’t always practical and can result in excessive white space/page turns, and therefore I don’t usually worry about this too much in simple/smaller sections. But for sections with complicated harmony or piano figures, I do try to work this in when I can.

For this project, the MD requested a bound hard copy - he prefers not to work from a tablet. This meant that page turns needed to be considered. Musical theatre tends not to follow the traditional music typesetting of always starting a number on a right hand page. Instead we just start on whichever page means fewer/easier page turns, and use blank page inserts where appropriate to avoid awkward page turns. There is a bit of an art to this, ensuring that pages are full enough but not too full, whilst also avoid blank page sheets every other page. It REALLY helps if you’re a pianist when doing this for a PV score, since I know what sort of gap I’d be happy with to turn, and also what sort of piano textures are most suitable for a difficult turn, if no easy turns are available.

Since there’s nothing but a piano in rehearsals, it tends to play ALL THE TIME, which often means no or very few bars rest or even beats rest to turn in. When this is the case, there are some cheats we can use: We only need one hand to turn, so if one hand gets a short break, maybe we can turn there? There were cases in Piaf where I actively rearranged a 2-note per hand 4-part voicing all into 1 hand in order to allow for a discreet page turn, which otherwise would’ve ended up in an awkward pause/fudged chord. If both hands are meant to be busy, sometimes we can cover a left hand repeated octave with the pedal while the right hand continues and the left hand turns. But this only works when there’s no chord change in either hand, otherwise it gets messy!

Only 2 bars on the page
Only 2 bars on the page (with indent so they're not too spaced out) - allows for a page turn on the pause (arrow for clarity that nothing is missing). There are no nice page turns after this, so the remainder of the piece takes up a 2-page spread.

Another nice touch is to avoid page turns on emotional, quiet pauses. There’s nothing worse than hitting a lovely moment with an actor/singer that gets ruined by the hurried loud scratch of turn paper on an inevitably awkward old keyboard music stand in a reverberant scouts hall (aka the rehearsal room of UK musical theatre). Sometimes this is the only gap to turn and it’s unavoidable, and rehearsal pianists/MDs are well versed at silent page turns, but sometimes we make mistakes, and sometimes we like to enjoy the tranquil moments with the actors.


Part 2 coming soon, chatting all things Orchestration, Accordion and the Band.



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