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Hamilton's Secret Weapon

Ana Flavia Zuim, director of vocal performance at NYU Steinhardt, is also a rehearsal pianist for the Broadway megahit.
photo: Ana Flavia Zuim playing a grand piano

There are, no doubt, many devoted fans who’ve hummed along with Hamilton enough to boast that they know every line in every song. But chances are that they’ll never have to prove it.

Steinhardt assistant professor Ana Flavia Zuim, however, has found herself in the unusual position of having to do that and more—not in some stage fright– inducing nightmare, but for her actual job as one of the show’s rehearsal pianists. “I remember when they called and said, ‘Can you also learn how to sing the entire book?’ ” she recalls. “I said ‘Sure, no problem!’ But in my mind I was thinking, ‘How am I going to learn how to rap and sing and play the piano all together?’”

For the uninitiated: A rehearsal pianist is what it sounds like—the person who provides on-demand musical accompaniment while casts practice choreography and learn their parts. But Hamilton is unusual in requiring the pianist to multitask, in part to help dancers learn intricate steps that are timed to individual words rather than steady beats. The actors on stage have their own challenges depending on which parts they’re playing, Zuim says, but for her personally, “The Lafayette rap in ‘Guns and Ships’ is brutal.” (The fastest verse clocks in at a breathtaking 6.3 words per second.)

Zuim, who previously worked on touring shows such as Billy Elliot, first heard about Hamilton back in 2015 when she was teaching at the University of Miami but nursing a dream of someday working in New York.

Orchestrator Alex Lacamoire, whom she’d met when he traveled to Miami for Viva Broadway, mentioned that he was working on a musical opening on Broadway in August with an eye toward the Tony Awards the following June. Without even a guarantee that Hamilton would still be running by then, Zuim signed on for what was originally supposed to be just a four-month gig.  

photo: Ana Zuim at the piano

More than a year later, she’s still at work on what is now an unprecedented megahit, helping understudies and swings as they cycle through different roles and new cast members as they go through “boot camp” to learn the difficult score. When somebody is learning a particular vocal line—whether a lead track or one from the ensemble—Zuim becomes a human karaoke machine, singing or rapping the parts of all the characters except the one the cast member is learning.

Meanwhile, she’s bringing that unique experience to her new role as director of vocal performance at Steinhardt, a position she pursued back when she found out she’d be moving to New York for Hamilton. Zuim’s ambitious plans for the program—which include adding courses in a range of contemporary vocal techniques—reflect her own circuitous career journey. “I always tell my students there’s no one set path to get anywhere,” she says. 

Growing up in Brazil, Zuim studied classical piano but also sang and played jazz at church, all while learning electric bass and even touring with country music bands. The master’s and PhD programs that she completed in the United States honed her classical skills but didn’t offer much in the way of the other musical styles she loved.

She fell into musical theater work almost by accident, accompanying shows for the first time when she was around the age of 24. And when Hamilton came calling, there was, needless to say, no one to teach her hip-hop. 

photo: Ana Zuim playing the bass

“Going into academia, it felt like there wasn’t a program made for me,” she says, so her aim is to create what she never had and what is still very rare—a collegiate vocal performance program that embraces pop and other nontraditional styles. Zuim’s own academic research demonstrates the need for such programs: In a survey of working singers, she found that few—mainly only those performing with the Metropolitan Opera or in certain Broadway shows—reported that they had received academic training for the type of singing that ended up becoming their livelihood. That’s because hardly any vocal performance programs currently offer a contemporary track.

“In the past, classical singing was thought of as the only appropriate style to receive training in,” Zuim explains, with purists deriding contemporary techniques, such as belting, as inherently unhealthy for the voice. But that’s finally beginning to change, with research in the relatively new field of vocology offering new insight into the physical production of different vocal sounds. “In all styles, the way the instrument functions is fairly similar in terms of breath management and alignment, while the embouchure—how you shape your mouth and tongue to put a filter on the sound—makes the difference,” Zuim says.

photo: models of the face and the vocal tract on a shelf

Another of Zuim’s studies found that, contrary to popular belief, opera singers and contemporary singers actually suffer from vocal pathologies at about the same rate. One of her goals in reimagining vocal pedagogy is to erase some of the stigma around these injuries—which she says might be reframed as a potential risk for anyone performing at a high level with a demanding schedule, much like knee injuries in an elite soccer player—so that singers aren’t ashamed to seek help when they do have problems. Especially when they’re doing eight shows a week, “singers are vocal athletes who need flexibility and stamina for different styles,” Zuim says—and this is where the importance of specialized training comes in.

Expanding the program’s approach to reflect today’s professional realities is a mission that has the full support of Steinhardt’s broader Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions. “Contemporary and popular music have already become threaded through many programs in our department, and Ana possesses the talent and vision to evolve the vocal performance program to the next level,” says chair Ronald Sadoff.

When asked if she could imagine Hamilton-style rap instruction appearing on a Steinhardt syllabus anytime soon, Zuim is unequivocal. “Yes!” she says. “How about next semester?”