Archive for October, 2010


Conducting the Pit With a Baton/Your Hands

October 29, 2010

I conduct with my hands, for a few reasons:

1) When I conduct with a baton, I am forever throwing it at people accidentally. I can’t handle the stress.

2) I use my hands to make big cutoffs everyone can see. A baton would hinder that.

I know that there’s a baton technique that would allow me to hold on to the baton, (I just fail at it) and that cutoffs are equally effective with the baton. (I’m just not very good at them) For me, though, I find my hands are the best indicators.

Don’t raise your arms until you’re about ready to start. It’s like the boy who cried wolf; if you raise your arms and people have to wait for the downbeat for a minute, they won’t be so ready the next time. When you do raise your arms, look around and make eye contact with everyone individually. Then give a clear upbeat on the cue line.

Keep one eye on the vocal score (or the full score, if you have that luxury) and cue the passagework as it comes. A little breath before the entrance will really help groups of winds or brass or strings come in together. Remember all those cueing lessons from your conducting class? Well brush them up, because you need them. Don’t just beat time mindlessly; beat it with the character of the piece, try to get the entrances clean and the group cutoffs exact. See how much you can make happen just by being clear in your pattern, without any verbal instruction. You’ll be amazed.

If people aren’t following, do the following exercise:

Run a piece with an extremely erratic tempo. Slow down and speed up at random. Do it a couple of times until they follow, then do it again normally. Also, if you’re cueing singers on the stage, you should be big, so they can see you without looking directly at you. But if you’re only cueing your players, a very small, clean beat will usually make people look more closely than your biggest, swoopingest, most indistinct beat. (which is what we all instinctually do when nobody’s following)

The hand sign for repeat that section is an index finger up with your left, like you’re motioning ONE, as your right hand keeps beating. If you have more than one repeat, (a specific number), add another finger for each time through: (ONE… two.. three… four… five… six… seven… eight… TWO… two… three… etc.) The sign for go on is the left fist up somewhere during the repeated section and a strong upbeat out of the repeat.

And this is important: If you don’t give people anything, they will stop watching you. If you never mouth the words, never give any entrances or cutoffs, never look at the actors or your players, and are buried in the score, people will not look at you, because there’s nothing to look at. Give people something back for looking in your direction.


Scene Change Music

October 22, 2010

Music Theatre History Note: Way back in the old days, before everything was dragged onto the stage mechanically with winches and computers, even Broadway shows would have stage hands move giant set pieces during scene changes. And they, too, had trouble keeping that from getting boring for the audience. So they would often write into the shows something called an In-One. An In-One is a scene that’s played in front of the main curtain, often with a song, while the huge set is being changed behind the curtain. When the In-One is over, presto! The curtain opens and the huge set is already ready! (Musical Theatre super-geek note: The In-One is named after the In-One-Act curtain, now referred to as the Olio Curtain, which is a colored draw curtain or painted drop a couple of feet upstage of the front curtain)

Let me give you a well known example:

In The Music Man, (which, like it or not is pretty perfectly constructed) both The Sadder But Wiser Girl AND the Pick-A-Little, Talk-A-Little/Goodnight Ladies in the first act are clearly supposed to be in front of the curtain.  Like this:

Or like This:

When that curtain comes up after this scene, you have the library scene already in place, and the show moves along without a hitch:

BUT if you played the Pick-A-Little/Good Night Ladies scene in the school gym set, you didn’t set up the library until the end of the number, and the audience has to hear that dum da dadada dum da dadada vamp about 30 times while kids in black tights drag out a bunch of benches before the lights come up and anyone says anything. Marian The Librarian is an awesome number, but if that’s how it begins people will want it to be over before anyone has even started singing.

You too can take advantage of the In-One, if you look carefully at the script and plan accordingly. Unfortunately, many amateur productions choreograph the In-One on the regular set. Then the pit is forced to saw away for 5 minutes on the last 16 bars of the song from the In-One, while the stage crew moves the set that should have been moved during the last song. This is an example of using the second principle to your advantage: normally shows are constructed so that hard scene changes have scene change music to match. The author intended that you use that scene change music to those ends.

If you should need more scene change music than you have, you can usually choose 8-16 bars of the end of the previous number, build in a repeat and go. There’s no point in going back 3 pages if you’re just going to flip forward again 15 seconds later. So if the scene change is short, make the repeated section short. On the other hand, hearing a short 4 bars over and over again in the dark while people stumble over a big set piece is excruciating. If the scene change is long, make the repeated section long. If the scene change is quite long, let your better players improvise over the changes. I have actually had scene changes pull applause after a great solo.

The decision to honor the Author’s intent with the in-ones can only be made at the beginning of the staging of these numbers, but the rest of the scene change music decisions are made very late in the process, sometimes even on the fly in the pit during the show itself. Put yourself in the audiences shoes and make the scene changes as painless and entertaining as possible.


The Initial Cut List

October 15, 2010

Right before my first rehearsal with the orchestra, I sit down with my vocal score and write all the cuts down that we had accumulated in the rehearsal period in order. These include:

1) Whether repeats are to be taken or not. Please write: “Play twice” not “Repeat twice.” (what does that mean? 2 or 3 times?) Also, where appropriate, write the line people are waiting to hear before they move out of a vamp.

2) When bars have been cut. Write it this way, to avoid all confusion:

PLAY to measure 65. CUT 66-89. PLAY 90-end. When you write it ‘Cut from 66-89’, I don’t know whether you mean to play 66, and then go to 89, or to Cut Out 66-99. The first way eliminates all confusion

3) Note repeats and any tempo changes.

4) Make a special note of any troublesome spots you expect people to pay particular attention at.

5) When you refer to pieces, refer to them by number (1a, 3b, etc.) AND by title (It’s A Beautiful Day Reprise, etc…) This will really help people find you. Individual pit books are often inconsistently labeled and marked.

Make as many copies as you need for your pit and hand them out at the first pit rehearsal. If needed, make more during the run. If you do, make sure you date the revisions, so people don’t waste time writing in cuts that they have already noted.


Dealing With Sound Guys

October 8, 2010



I was Music Directing from an electric keyboard in a huge former vaudeville hall in North Jersey, and didn’t know very much about monitoring. It was a keyboard-heavy show, and I had a really hard time hearing myself play. After the first act, I looked down and noticed that I was playing so hard that my pinky fingernail had pulled away from the finger of my left hand, and that I was bleeding all over the keyboard. I showed the sound guy the disgusting scene in the pit and he agreed to give me a monitor. Now I would have asked for it to begin with.


I had been music directing for about 10 years, I had maybe 35 shows under my belt and a master’s degree in theatre, and the new sound guy came down to the pit to explain to me what a stop-and-start rehearsal was. I’m proud to say that I said, “Thanks, that’s helpful.” In my head I had some other words.


I was playing second keyboard in a small house with a very problematic acoustic. I stepped out to use the restroom during a dress rehearsal, and when I came back, I sat in the audience for a moment and listened. I really couldn’t hear the first keyboard. I mean, I could make out that he was playing, but I couldn’t pick out the specific notes. So when the sound guy came down during a break, the MD (not me) began discussing the sound, and the sound guy said the keys were too loud. I spoke up and said that I disagreed. He said that he can barely make out the singers. I said that I sat in the audience and had the exact opposite experience. At that point the sound guy became so angry with me that I was actually a little worried about what he might do.

In reality, we were probably both right. He was sitting in the booth, where the acoustic is very different from the house seating. I was hearing a single number with a quiet piano part, he was thinking of balance across the whole act. He might also have been thinking of MY piano as being too loud, and I couldn’t hear my piano, because I obviously wasn’t playing when I was sitting out in the house. But my cavalier response to his concern made anything else I had to say worthless in his mind, and put us on opposite sides. And besides, I wasn’t even the MD, so it wasn’t any of my business.


Sound guys are the toughest people to deal with as a music director, especially in amateur theatre. They’re almost never paid, which means they’re doing it completely on a volunteer basis; it takes a lot of time and expertise to do it well, and they’re on the hook when anything goes wrong. They take a lot of unfair abuse from the actors, the directors, the musicians, and the audience, and they are frequently ill-equipped to handle difficult audio situations, because they often don’t have enough training to solve some of the problems they face.

The first thing you must do when approaching a sound person is to treat them with respect. If the sound people do not feel that you respect them, they will not be very interested in hearing what you have to say. From the sound person’s perspective, all you care about in the pit is making a lot of racket they have to deal with. When you come up and act like they don’t know what they’re doing, you’re asking for trouble. My father used to say, “Never argue with a man who buys his ink by the barrel” It’s an old political saying meaning ‘don’t argue with the press’. The press can always out-print you. Well, you might say, “Never argue with a man who controls your monitor levels.” They can make your life miserable. They can make you bleed!

There are a few problems you can solve yourself, without involving the sound guy. For example, if you’re using an electric keyboard, point the speaker at the stage, and put the player between the speaker and the stage. Put any amps as close to the player as possible. Do not point your brass instruments at the stage, or at the audience. Angle them to one side or the other. Tell your drummer to use hot rods (those bundles of sticks that make the set quieter) Work hard to keep your group quiet during the underscoring, and get your singers chins up so they can get out a good sound. I read somewhere that George Abbot, a legendary producer who lived to be 107 used to stand in the back of the theatre with a sign that said, “Loud is Good” If your singers project with good support, things get better; the sound guy has something to pick up. But you can’t crank something that’s not there.

If the singers can’t hear the pit, that is not an excuse to tell your players to crank it up. After you hear that comment, go to your sound guy and ask him whether he could hear you well enough. My guess is he’ll say you’re too loud. How do you solve this common problem? The singers need to hear the pianist. Make sure the pianist’s monitor is pointing at the stage. If it is, turn it up. If it’s already too loud for the pit, but the singers still can’t hear it, put the amp on a crate or a chair so it’s closer to the level of the stage. If that doesn’t work, turn down the low EQ on the piano amp or turn up the high EQ. (for the same effect if your electric piano has a dark-bright slider, move it to the bright end, or choose Rock Piano rather than classical piano). Bright sounds can be heard better than dark ones. If that doesn’t work, run a second line off the pianist’s amp to another speaker sitting on the stage or offstage left and/or right, pointed at the singers but not at the microphones.

And as much as you may not want to hear the answer, keep asking the sound guy how you’re doing, and do your best to make him happy.


Tales From the Pit: Interview with a Broadway pit pianist

October 2, 2010

Another great interview with a pit musician, this time it’s Ben Cohn, 1st keyboard and Assistant Conductor for Wicked on Broadway. Pass it along to your young pit musicians; it’s inspiring.


Tales From The Pit: Cool interview with a West End pit musician

October 2, 2010

What a fun site! (aimed at young cellists) This interview with Christopher Fish, a cellist in the West End, goes into a lot of fun detail about playing in a pro pit. Worth a read for you and for your young pit musicians. Print it out and hand it out at your next rehearsal!


The Stickler/The Heckler

October 1, 2010

In most groups, you’ll find at least one of each of these people, although they exist more in adult groups than in groups of kids. Depending on your style of leadership, you may just want to shut these types down so as not to deal with the time wasting element. But in my adult groups I find these two types can actually be extremely helpful.


The stickler is your best friend, if your ego can handle it. The stickler knows just a little more than you about what’s going on, and can hear mistakes before you do. The stickler says, “Um, excuse me, but the second sopranos are not singing the right note.” Or “did you want us to cut off at the same time? Because we’re not.” The Stickler can be hard to deal with if you’re one of those types who needs to appear right all the time. You have a thousand things on your mind. You can’t hear all the little things that go wrong. But the Stickler already knows his part, and can concentrate on hearing everybody else’s tiny mistakes and the things you’ve missed. I always thank the Stickler for her input. When the Stickler is right, you correct the mistake. When the Stickler is wrong, you gently explain why you’re doing it your way. I like to say, “I see what you mean. I think of it this way:…”  When you don’t have time to address your Stickler’s concern, you say: “We need to move on, but can you remind me of that the next time we run this piece? Do not get in a battle of wills with the Stickler. Don’t shut down the comments from your group; you want them to feel they can tell you when something is being missed. Your ability to take a good criticism shows that you have nothing to hide or fear and that your highest concern is that the show be good, not that you appear right. There is one guy in a company I work with who is almost always right. He could easily do my job. When he and I disagree I make a friendly bet with him in front of everyone. And when we get to tech week and his hunch about a cutoff has been proven right yet again, I tell the chorus, “Folks, you have to sing it correctly; Paul just can’t be right about this one.” It’s a friendly, low pressure way to make the chorus think about what they’re doing. And I love having Paul in my chorus.


The heckler is the one who is just having fun at your expense. It isn’t adding anything musically to the proceedings, just poking fun at what you’re doing. Maybe the person has noticed a verbal tic of yours, and points it out over and over again. You have to figure out whether there’s a real beef with the person. If there is, and the intention seems mean spirited, you need to have a talk with that person and try to clear up whatever’s behind it. If it’s entirely good natured, as these things often are, embrace it. Usually when someone makes a joke at my expense, I try to make the same joke about myself several times in the rehearsal. When you can laugh at yourself, things go better.