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And speaking of pit orchestras:

July 30, 2010

Here are some words of wisdom from another pit director in the trenches, Chris Horn.  (One of the most capable, best prepared, most competent, and all-around nicest pit directors I know):

Pit Director Tutorial:

1. Set the orchestra call time for 45 minutes before the curtain, but donʼt be afraid to adjust it towards closing night.

2. Give kids the experience of playing in the pit; I pursued music because my band director let me read the 3rd trumpet book of West Side Story as a sophomore.

3. Donʼt overestimate your drummers. Make sure they can play mallets, toys, and read pitches if called upon. You want a solid beat for rock shows to help the actors/actresses, so hire someone if your students are average players.

4. Donʼt be afraid to cut parts. Play a few things well, rather than many things mediocre. Your pianist will fill in the gaps.

5. Hire a pianist that has played the book before, especially if you havenʼt conducted the book. Check the local houses of worship for a good musician.

6. Keep extra light bulbs, screwdrivers, wrenches, post-its, clothespins, and pencils in the pit at all times.

7. Insist that the director gives their notes to the actors from the stage, so that you and your orchestra can leave. Pit notes should be given first.

8. Donʼt let non-music trained directors give notes to the pit without the notes going through you. For example, a director shouldn’t tell students to play softer. They don’t understand that there are tone quality issues with playing very soft, and given student nerves, when that part comes up it won’t speak. You might have better suggestions anyway!

9. Leave your classically trained 4-pattern at home. Your job is to know the score, properly cue everyone, and negotiate the wacky transitions. You canʼt do that and conduct 4/4 the whole time.

10. Have a plan for the curtain call music. Most directors wait until the dress rehearsals to finally practice their cast curtain calls. By then, it will be too difficult to learn new pit music. I usually plan for 2 minutes longer than whatʼs written by adding D.S.ʼs and repeats. Try to keep these repeats on one page to avoid crazy page-turns.

11. Have carpets laid down to ease the sound of brass mute drops.

12. Do not take fewer string players if you are worried about the pitʼs volume. String players sound too thin with too few players, and errors are more exposed.

13. Do not compromise good tone quality to get under mic levels. While the point of the show is to hear the actors, teaching the students to play with bad T.Q. defeats the purpose of playing an instrument. Most of the time, younger actors are not taking an appropriate breath and singing with open throats.

14. Face guitar amps toward side walls or towards the stage if you the actors arenʼt using monitors. This will control their volume and cut back on direct sound.

15. Listen to the pit from the different areas of the audience (and also the sound booth). The sound guy might have the worst seat in the house.

16. Practice the overture and entrʼacte last. They will be review after you have covered the rest of the book.

17. Steal student singers during while not being worked with to practicing singing with your live pit during rehearsals. Itʼs a thrill for your students, and gives the actors a different environment. You will be able to tell if they have their parts nailed.

18. Hire your school districtsʼ music teachers when possible. Sometimes the district will foot the bill and it wonʼt come from your budget. Students get a thrill from seeing their teachers play in a professional setting. Three Blind Mice doesnʼt cut it.

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