Surprises That Shouldn’t Be Surprising // by Deborah Abramson

Music Director Deborah Abramson wrestles with expectations, disappointments, and lessons while on pause.

My bread-and-butter job over the years has been Audition Pianist.  Here’s a moment I’ve witnessed many times:

BROADWAY VETERAN finishes singing song for audition.  Now it’s time to read a scene.  BROADWAY VETERAN fetches a stack of pages — unfolds the pages and quickly flashes them at the creative team, revealing the assigned scene re-typed in a giant font size.  BROADWAY VETERAN fumbles a pair of reading glasses onto the face, shakes head, shrugs shoulders, and says ruefully but charmingly: “I do this now.”

I spent last November playing and conducting the ravishing music of Ted Shen for Transport Group’s production of Broadbend, Arkansas.

Blessed as I have been, this wasn’t my first time having a book specifically printed for me to play in public.  But it was my first time working with the music copyist (Emily Grishman, beloved) before printing began to ensure that the notes would be large enough for me to read.

Fifty years ago, I was born with perfect pitch and enough natural ability to allow me all of the cockiness that I could muster throughout my life as a music student.  I always knew in advance what my fingers were going to do.  I received just enough praise for my gifts, that I decided to contribute zero efforts.  I was perfectly poised to plateau.

Nobody tells you that perfect pitch can shift as you grow older.  That fact resides in a box labeled “Surprises, Mid-Forties”.

In the middle of one performance of Broadbend, Arkansas, I placed my hands on the piano and I pressed down on the correct keys to begin a song.  Oh NO.  Not quite what my ears had been expecting.  I’m not used to being surprised by the sound coming out of my piano.  Why doesn’t that sound like a D chord?  And why does it not sound like any other chord either?  Oh no.  World ending.

And then I remembered.  I had known for years, in theory, that my perfect pitch had been getting wrinkly.  But knowing it is different from experiencing it in the heat of the moment in front of an audience.

So, now I get it.  My brain has to accept and adapt.  Fine.  My brain does that now.

I played for some auditions in March 2020.  Greetings were strange.  Quizzical air-hugs, air-fist-bumps, hand-waves while recoiling.  “Um…do we do that now?  What do we do?”  An uneasy, stilted time.  Rituals of friendliness that we used to know like the backs of our filthy hands—however meaningless they may have often been—were no longer safe.  But we had no replacement.  A void.  A nameless chord.  Upsetting.

We are not exactly what we had thought we were.

We thought we already knew about our own frailty.  Didn’t we.  We thought we already knew how dangerous we could be to each other.  Didn’t we?  Not quite like this, we didn’t.  Even while loving you, I could hurt you.  I could speak words of love to you, and, with that literal same breath, infect you.  So gravely.  And never know it.

And, by the way, while I’m still shaken from that realization, it also turns out that I could care for you very much but simultaneously wound you permanently because of my naive thoughts about your race, your gender, your age, your differences from me, your right to occupy one little patch of earth.

These realizations.  These destructive redemptive realizations have brought us to our questionably-constructed knees.  Here we are.  Shipwrecked.  Humbled before nature.  Every day is a longer list of “I do this now.”  A bottomless box, labeled “Surprises, 2020”.

Hey.  Funny story:

In the world of Music Directors, one big rung on the career ladder (from back when you thought it was a ladder instead of a roller coaster with no seatbelts or masks) is the first time you do a show in New York City as the Music Director, instead of Associate or Assistant. 

I grabbed that rung back in 2006.  I was Music Director of a wonderful piece, and I had a wonderful time, and then my brain said, “On the other hand, allow me to introduce you to Stage Fright.  You might like joining the ranks of people who cannot overcome Stage Fright.  Interesting alternative career path for you!”

I fell for it.  I became a stage-fright person.  Exciting opportunities came along, and I had to say no.  “I don’t perform live anymore.”  “I don’t do that now.”

The road from there to Broadbend, Arkansas is its own separate novel, but only two parts of it matter here.

The first part that matters is that I believed it.  “Now” meant “from now on, forever”.  Doesn’t it always?  Isn’t that what we suspect these days?  On our worst days?

And the other part that matters is that I was wrong.

Broadbend, Arkansas was my first time as Music Director of a full-length musical production since 2006.  In the midst of all the “I do this now” from my aging body during that production, I was there because of one beautiful “I’m back to doing this again,” and it was a private perfect victory.

That was the purely happy part.  Oddly, the sweetness of that victory seems safely quarantined from the befores and the afters.  There’s a fairytale version where this does become a ladder and I keep on climbing, and we never have to stop, and we never have to open this year’s box, and we just keep doing what we always did.

And what if we had?

November 2019 feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?  When I watch the streamed performance of Broadbend, Arkansas, I have to laugh at myself, because of one final thing.  On top of everything else, that cocky pianist’s natural ability lasted just barely long enough to play that production.  Shortly afterwards, reality caught up with my tendons, and for the first time in my life I had enough humility to completely overhaul my playing technique.

I no longer play the way I played in November.  I have been humbled before nature.  I got away with scrappy technique my whole life, coddled by the illusion of invincibility, until one day my hands raised their hands and mentioned that my ways were not sustainable.  I had to change.  I had to catch up with the reality that had finally caught up with me.  With difficult, careful, painful, responsible work.

So, I do that now.

Surprises That Shouldn’t Be Surprising, 2020.  The box is open.

I was always unhealthy with my hands at the piano.

And we never understood how to speak to each other about race.

We’ll do this now.

About the author:


Deborah Abramson has served as Music Director or Associate Music Director for several Broadway and off-Broadway premiere productions, including Broadbend, Arkansas (Transport Group), Bernarda Alba, Dessa Rose, The Glorious Ones (Lincoln Center Theater),  My Life With Albertine (Playwrights Horizons), and Spring Awakening and James Joyce’s The Dead (Broadway). She also was the first Children’s Music Director on Broadway, for Matilda the Musical.  Most recently, she served as Music Director for Maybe Happy Ending at the Alliance Theatre.  As composer, she has written Old Older Oldest (with William Finn), Young Marco Polo (with Peter Mills), The History of War (with Amanda Yesnowitz and Chip Zien), and While I Wait (with Amanda Yesnowitz).  You can find Deborah’s music here.