On Keyboards in Orchestras

I had the very great pleasure of playing the keyboard in a Turandot production this August. There's no keyboard in a Puccini orchestra, you might think, but that's where you're wrong. An arrangement for 15 players by Enrico Minaglia (Ricordi) includes indeed a keyboard, from which emerge the alluring sounds of harp, celesta, chinese gongs, xylophone, glockenspiel, marimba, and pipe organ.

They asked if I could do it, and I said of course I can. I had no idea what I said yes to. So in case you're in my shoes sometime, here's what happened.

Preparing the keyboard

Something you need to know about keyboard parts with multiple instruments: All the sounds have to be first downloaded to the instrument, and then you have to adjust their volume in relation to other sounds, their decay, release, and whatnot. (My strategy here was to have a person in my life who knows how to do all these things, and then just make them do it. They told me to write that Nord keyboards have their own "sound bank" online that's super easy to use. You'll have to take their word for it.) Also, you should have a keyboard. I currently live with a Nord Stage 2 and the person who owns it. And if you're not using your own keyboard, google is your best friend.

In Turandot I needed to combine sounds as well - there's plenty of places where harp and celesta play at the same time, for example. Setting these up, you have to go through the score and see what combinations are most useful, where you have to compromise, and from which note you're going to split the keyboard in two. In Nord Stage 2 you can have five different sounds on one tab. Switching between different tabs quickly enough takes practice, so I limited myself to two tabs and ten sounds in total.

These were on the first tab:

  1. Harp (just play it as it is)
  2. Celesta (when playing, transpose an octave up)
  3. Harp and celesta, divided at E1/F1 (transpose the celesta!)
  4. Gong and xylophone, divided at B/C1 (play the gong in octaves for bigger sound, transpose the xylophone an octave up)
  5. Gong and glockenspiel+marimba, divided at B/C1 (The glockenspiel-marimba -combination was the best option I had to get a brighter, fuller clinking sound in a relatively easy way. If you want to know why, you'll have to ask the person who told me so. I used this sound in many places where the sound needed to really, well, sound.)

And on the second tab:

  1. Xylophone and glockenspiel, divided at B2/C3 (transpose the xylophone an octave higher when possible, and glockenspiel always two)
  2. Gong and marimba, divided at B/C1 (play the gong in octaves, and transpose marimba two octaves up)
  3. Harp and gong, divided at B/C1 (play the harp as is, transpose the gong three octaves up and then play it in octaves - also remember that the gong is on the RIGHT HAND in this sound, unlike everywhere else)
  4. Harp and glockenspiel+marimba, divided at E1/C1 (harp as is, glockenspiel+marimba transposed an octave or two up, depending on the situation. Sometimes in octaves for bigger sound.)
  5. Pipe organ (as is)

Sometimes you need to change from one sound to the next pretty quickly, and sometimes the harp alone goes on for ages. When switching between the tabs it's important to remember not to accidentally switch to the third - there the keyboard owner's own sounds kick in, starting from "Let's dance".

What really threw me was the need to remember a lot of things at the same time. What button to press, how to transpose, was the gong now in right or left hand... And very often the music didn't really allow for me to sit and think about the right button. I rehearsed the movements: right hand on the button, then left is playing, now prepare the switch, press, play with both hands, now left hand on button, then transpose, then press, oh where was I, where's the conductor, what what what?!

Now that the sounds were clear for the piece, the actual orchestral rehearsals could start.

Playing in an orchestra

Pianists don't get to play in orchestras that often, so when we do, there's issues. One of the hardest things for us is to know when to play, exactly. The piano and the keyboard produce a sound that is immediately there, but winds and strings come alive with a bit of delay. So when you think the conductor shows the beat, well, that isn't really when the beat is supposed to sound. Very often a pianist will play a bit too early. Trying to find the time it takes for the sound to happen for everyone else, and then trying to time your own very precise sound starting point to that, and to the waiving, is insanely insane. It feels like you're in a secret society meeting where everyone else knows the magic code and you just so don't.

Another quite important thing in orchestras is the conductor, aka the person you're supposed to follow. I've worked with conductors before, but not while playing a complex keyboard part. The beginning was hopeless - sometimes I couldn't even find the first beat, let alone gain some other important information from the damn stick that was waving to god knows where in what seemed to be completely random movements. The conductor whisking their stick around, me pressing different buttons, finding the right tab, and counting bars - it was a bloody mess. No way it could ever work.

And it did work in the end. I learned to press buttons - I learned to see the first beats, and some others - I learned to count bars while I'm pressing buttons - and I learned to be more or less in time with the other players, at least occasionally. I messed up something in every run-through, like the time when in the end of the second act I'm supposed to keep the organ chord sounding by keeping my foot on the pedal, and at the same time hit the gong (an actual gong) with a mallet and then damp the gong immediately after because it's the end of the act. I did all of that. What I didn't do was lift my foot off the pedal, so when everything ended with a loud bang, there was a nice B flat major chord ringing with organ sound through the otherwise deadly quiet theater.

But even though something always went a little bit shit, there was also a lot of stuff that went great, too. So in case you were wondering: Yes, you can.


PS. The show returns in January for three more performances. Check out the OperaBox -website for details!