Live Musicians/Prerecorded Accompaniment

November 12, 2010

I realize I’m going against the tide of the future, but I am against pre-recorded and synthesized music, and in favor of live musicians. The only excuse I can think of for not using live musicians is if your budget does not allow you to even do the show otherwise, or if you live in such a remote area that even a competent pianist is simply unavailable. (and in truth, I think both of these are cop-outs)

The arguments for using pre-recorded or synthesized musicians usually run along these lines:

1) Nobody can tell the difference between the sampled sounds or the pre-recorded versions and the real thing. Why spend such an inordinate amount of money to hire people who don’t sound as good when you can spend less for something that sounds far more like professional musicians?

2) The musicians in this area are not good enough to play this music, so we need to get something that will make the show sound good.

My answers to those concerns are that the issue is really a matter of principle, not expedience. When you put on a musical, you are jumping into the stream of theatre itself and the live performance experience. That stream consists of infinite and subtle connections between live human beings. The reason you go to the theatre is to see a live person; and in an age of pre-recorded, edited, broadcasted, homogenized perfection, live theatre of any sort is a terrifying and thrilling high-wire act. As you introduce young people to that stream of live performance, you are teaching them the whole ethos of the experience, including the give-and-take from performer to performer, live person to live person. The nuances of an actor singing with a musician even in substandard conditions are infinitely more alive and vital than a live actor singing with the simulacrum of a frozen, pre-packaged accompaniment. Removing that vitality, that communication, reduces one of the most crucial elements of Musical Theatre, the score, to the role of a painted flat, an inanimate object. There may come a time when we can convert Christopher Plummer’s performance in the film of The Sound of Music to a holographic projection, and he could appear in your junior high school production in all his glory, projected on the stage next to your other 12 year old cast members. What a treat it would be for them to act with Christopher Plummer! Of course the idea is ludicrous, for the very same reason a pre-recorded pit is ludicrous. You’re not really onstage with Christopher Plummer, because he can’t react to the other actors. It’s not real theatre.

Imagine for a moment, (and we all have had this experience) a karaoke machine cranking up a string arrangement for the beginning of a pop song, or perhaps a musician singing to a taped accompaniment at a church function. The strings build to a held, high chord, and the bouncing ball announces to the singer that the time has come for her to begin. After carefully counting the invisible 1, 2, 3, of the dotted half rest, the singer comes in, and the piece continues. Now compare that to the same singer standing in front of even 4 or 5 musicians, playing an arrangement of the same song, less flashy and grand, less reverbed, less ‘perfect’, and that same singer reaches the chord before she begins singing, and she takes a breath. And then the music begins when they all choose it to begin. Now I know there are people who can’t hear the difference, who don’t know that one of these things is true and real, and one of them is a substitute, a fake, a party game, a stop-gap measure when nothing else is available. But such people simply haven’t heard enough real live music to know the difference. Exposure to your production with live musicians will be a step in their education.

Furthermore, you as an arts professional also have a responsibility to the future of your art form both to employ working musicians where they are needed and to further the experience and education of the musicians of the future. A world where the only gigging musicians work in a recording studio in Los Angeles or Nashville is not a world with a healthy artistic life, plain and simple. And if you live out in the sticks somewhere, then it’s even more your responsibility to find the guy who plays bass or the girl who plays piano in your community and throw them a few bucks to accompany your production. If you don’t believe that amateur and semi-professional musicians are important, then music education is the wrong field for you. And if you should find yourself in an area where your musicians are not quite good enough, you have just discovered an opportunity to create a space for young people to learn to do it.



  1. Wow Peter, I think that’s the most impassioned blog to-date. Powerful stuff! These days with the junior musicals, you get the accompaniment CD’s and that often becomes what people use. I think it’s great to look at a show as an opportunity to learn. If you’re not going to learn at school or in a local production, then where are you going to learn?

    Oh and kudos for simulacrum.

  2. Hiring musicians also gives me the opportunities to collaborate with and meet musicians in my area. From that, I’ve made friendships, gotten advice, found resources for my students, learned new things and hopefully become a better musician and person…..
    Great post!

  3. This is not JUST for school musicals! Too many community theaters are cutting costs and skipping the live music. Ridiculous!

  4. That’s my son. Peter that was a great piece of writing not just stylistically but the content was excellent and worthy of thought and reflection. Hopefully this will get to those who make those decisions and go with ‘live’. Excellent article. I’m proud of you


  5. As usual, where art is concerned, there are no rules.

    Your points are well taken, and I am by no means apologizing for watered-down karaoke ‘art’, but the rule itself is not sacred. What is sacred is the expectation for a transcendent experience, not the technical means to achieve it. Nor, should any musician feel an obligation to hire other musicians.

    Let’s face it, technology is changing. The means are moving. Keep your eye on the end product. Most of B’way is trivial anyway. I can’t think of anything worthwhile since the original West Side Story.

  6. My issue with live musicians has always been the cost…In a community theatre show, most if not all the actors are volunteer…they often rehearse for 60 plus hours before the show goes up, and another 18-36 hours of show time…all for free. I’ve always found it off-putting that musicians feel that they have a right to expect payment for their talent when other equally talented people are working for free…It’s a fairness issue…Of course, live music is preferable…the nuance of the sound, the ability to follow the singer’s pace, etc.etc. are all good arguments for live music…But unless musicians make the choice to play for free, just like the actors in a community theatre do, they will be continually replaced by canned music…And with the advent of computer generated orchestration, the live musician has some very real competition…The Christopher Plummer example is stupid…People come to the theatre to see a show…If a hologram is used in some future show, it will either be a real hoot, or a dismal failure, but not solely because it’s pre-recorded…So, in a nutshell, if the public wants live music at a community theatre performance, musicians reallu want to perform in such a show, then said musicians will have to show the dedication and sacrifice that is shown by the actors in the show…And let’s not forget that the public is coming to see the ACTORS, not the MUSICIANS…

    • You make some good points there, Jeff. Thanks for commenting.

      • Jeff-

        I have been thinking about your reply, and I thought I’d respond to some of the things you mentioned. I’m hoping this page starts other people discussing this issue, not just me, so if anybody is reading this, please post your positive or negative reactions too, so that we can have a plurality of ideas on the topic.

        My Christopher Plummer analogy was aimed at dispelling the idea that because the pre-recorded accompaniment is recorded by top-notch studio musicians it is qualitatively better than local musicians playing more modestly. For me, a canned recording that has no give-and-take between the actors and the musicians always sounds amateurish and fake to me, just as it would if one of the actors in the play were pre-recorded. I don’t want my theatre being exactly the same each night, and in order for it to be flexible and organic, I want the tempos and nuances not to be predetermined by a music track. But I also know that 90% of the world is not going to hear that difference, and I can’t convince them otherwise in a few sentences on a blog. So if that part of my argument doesn’t hold water for you, I can certainly appreciate that, and we’ll have to agree to disagree. (or perhaps my analogy was just lame, which I am also happy to concede)

        Your point about cost is more to the point, and one I’m thinking quite a bit about. I think perhaps I can put it in perspective with the other costs involved in putting together a show. Most community theatre companies don’t pay their actors, but they do pay many other people. In the company I work with, the director, the choreographer, and the music director are paid, and they are paid for their particular expertise, which is well worth the money. Pit musicians also have a particular expertise, an expertise I think is worth paying for, and for the same reasons. And even if you don’t pay the artistic staff, you are paying for the rights to produce the show, you are often renting lights and sound equipment, paying for costumes, sets and drops, and renting the space. All those things are accounted for in the budget, and those people aren’t expected to give their services and goods to the production for free just because the actors are working without pay. So the idea of paying for a production element isn’t immoral simply because the actors are not being paid. It’s more of a question of whether you think the expense of paying musicians makes sense given the other expenses you’re paying for.

        To give you a small example from my own experience, a community theatre I have worked with has a budget of $1500 for their pit players. This amount is less than they pay me alone as their music director, and generally less than the rights to the show, or the use of the space. In practice this means each player of mine gets around $200 for 4 rehearsals and 6 performances. Each of these players would normally be paid at least $500 for that amount of work, but they enjoy playing, and I run a fun pit, so they’re willing to work for the reduced rate. Some of them do, in fact, work for free, donating their services to the production. These are highly qualified players, to whom I pay far more in other circumstances when I have a higher budget. I always apologize for not being able to pay them more, and I tell them that if they are being offered a higher-paying job not to feel bad to take it. In the modest budget of this company’s show, this is not an extravagant expense, but it does show the musicians that their expertise is valued, and that we realize they could be getting work elsewhere.

        So I guess what I’m trying to say is that the qualitative difference with live musicians is arguably very strong and important to the theatrical experience. (although I understand that many will not agree, I am advocating it because I feel strongly about it) If you’ll go that far with me, the next point I’m trying to make is that it is possible to get real musicians and build a community of pit musicians using funds that are not out of proportion with the rest of your production budget.

        To the other commenter who said there ‘are no rules in art’, I think we perhaps have different ideas about how art works. If there aren’t any rules, there certainly are principles, which are ignored at one’s peril. To me theatre is partly about listening and reacting with honesty, and being present in the moment. One of my points about live musicians is that the music should be a part of that listen-react environment. To me this is a principle, if not a rule.

        Please disagree liberally with me in further comments.

  7. I’m both a professional actor (actor’s equity association) and a professional musician. I have worked in community theater and professional theater. First – I just wanted to point out that when one sings with “canned” music – not only is there no room to actually make many artistic decisions (you may not stop here to ponder – you may not slow down here even though you think it makes sense – “there is no time to act” – and, sadly, that last sentence was actually articulated in a production I was in years ago with pre-recorded music) there is also a bigger problem for the amateur and that is what happens if the performer gets off? What if they suddenly jump to the 2nd verse and accidentally put a cut in the piece? Things like this, unfortunately do happen and all the more so with those that are doing school/community theater productions. The people on stage are human. And how sad for that young performer who has been put in this situation! A pianist/conductor would easily have been able to jump to where they accidentally ended up – but instead they are forced to stand up there like a deer in the headlights until they hear something that sounds familiar or until they hear someone shouting lyrics from the wings. This is not the best learning environment for the student – or for the amateur! As far as the pay thing – I think that one needs to keep in mind that really you can get anyone who enjoys acting/singing to get up on a stage and be in a show. Adults and children alike. You may not get a nuanced, thought-provoking performance – but a performance nonetheless. When theater groups start – it is often by a group of people who love singing and acting – who get together and say, “Let’s put on a show!” It’s not really a matter of who is “working” harder. The actors in community theater shows are up there because they love it. It’s fun. If it weren’t – they wouldn’t be doing it. With musicians something entirely different is going on. You really can’t just bring someone in off the street to sit in your pit and play. There is a certain amount of training that must take place before you can play the score for anything. That training takes years and years and while musicians do, of course, enjoy their work – for most of them it is just that – work. You don’t see pit musicians rallying together saying, “let’s put on a show!” Oh – and as far as the comment that 90% of the people can’t tell the difference between canned and live music? I think you’d be surprised at how many people do notice. And even if they don’t, this is a wonderful opportunity to help them become more cultured! 🙂

  8. May I suggest signing the petition on http://savelivemusiconbroadway.com/sign-the-petition? I bet Broadway is going to the same pickle as the school theaters in terms of live music. @SaveLiveMusic

  9. i have always been against canned music but lately with the live music scene on LI drying up 4-5 pcs bands are a thing of the past. Not playing an instrument and only being a front-man/singer has left me clamoring for work. Using canned music is turning out to be the only way to get steady work at a reasonable price the small club scene is paying the same $300-$00 if you have 2 people or 8 (not that any of them have the room for 8…i am seriously thinking about going that route and securing weekly gigs for myself. While still pushing for the larger gigs to play with my 5pc band

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: