Archive for January, 2011



January 28, 2011

In professional theatre, it’s the actor’s job to warm themselves up. If it’s kids, university theatre or even community theatre, a group warmup is probably a good idea. Besides the obvious vocal benefits, a warmup can provide focus and clarity for a scattered group. Some directors I work with have specific focus warm-ups that are wonderful! The following is a diction warmup from my dear friend and colleague Matt Decker: (the initial line for each consonant is just rhythmic speaking of the consonant in a neutral voice)





Tip it upright

Tom took a bite

It takes time to untangle twenty two tutus


Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh. Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh. Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-daah-daah.
Indeed I did.

Do do do what you’ve done done done before David

Ed, anybody dead in the den?


Luh-luh-luh-luh-luh-luh.  Luh-luh-luh-luh-luh-luh. Luh-luh-luh-luh-luh-luh-laa-laa

Philological ability

Eleven benevolent elephants

Evelyn’s eleven benevolent elephants




Will and Grace

He thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts


The kittens left their mittens in Sweden, not Manhattan

Lady Teazle teases and tantalizes Sir Peter by saying, “Put it on the cutting table, Peter”.

Matt Decker usually follows that with a focus game or two involving the cast in a circle with call and responses. There are many more tongue twister exercises, of course, for the enterprising director.

Vocally, I generally warm my group up to at least a major second above the highest note the sopranos need to sing, with the instruction that the basses and altos can drop out when they get too high. If the show is really belty I do some bright warm-ups, if it’s more legit (legit in this case means that it requires a vocal technique closer to classical), I’ll do a warmup with some darker choral tone in it.

My warm-ups generally include some of the following, culled from a bunch of different sources:

1) Long, open, tall Ah vowel double whole notes.

2) Zoo Zee exercise. This one has been going around for a long time; I got it from Edward Sayegh, a wonderful teacher now based in Los Angeles with many famous students in both the classical and Broadway realms. I start this lower; around A flat, then move up by half steps through D Major or so.

3) This is also from my years with Eddie. It’s a hard G, not a soft one, which keeps the back of the tongue from stiffening up and loosens up the inside of the mouth. It also gives the voice flexibility. Start down here and move up by half steps.

4) A final one from Eddie, I believe this is his originally. There is a head motion I won’t give you, you’ll have to get it from me and/or Eddie himself. (can’t give away everything!) The Goh vowel is very tall, (the ah is like in father) the Ay vowel is also tall, the jaw stays open, doesn’t flap around, the hard G again keeps the tongue from getting hard as a rock back there, and the flexibility needed to do the three turns at the top keeps you from shouting the high notes.

5) This one is a Seth Riggs/Roger Love warmup. The vowel changes to nay, the consonant also changes. The idea is not to yell the top note, to maintain a mix or middle voice thoughout. Don’t go too high with this, it misses the point. If you want to look into this stuff, both Riggs and Roger Love have books out explaining their rationale. (kinda)

6) From the other end of the spectrum, here’s a warm-up from James Jordan’s fantastic book Evoking Choral Sound. The book has these fantastic accompaniments to the warmups that are out of this world.

7) Here’s a fun one. I made up the accompaniment for Lori Maratek’s Jr. High Chorus class.

8 ) This exercise is usually the last one I do. Everyone uses this, and to the so-so pianist, it’s really daunting, but if you set your hands to cover 2 octaves, a hand on each chord, a tiny shift in hand position places the dominant chord right under your fingers and it’s not that hard. I usually start on the low G, then move up until my top note is a high c for the sopranos and tenors. I like it because it’s far too fast to shout the high notes.

Later in the process, I always end the warmup with a brief 32 bars or so from a big choral number, usually the one in which a persistent problem has presented itself. I’ll remind everyone of the spot one last time, and we sing it to close our warm-up time. If you pick the right number, it can get everyone excited and ready to go.

A good warmup is one where the group is paying attention to what they’re doing and what it feels and sounds like. And the director should also be listening to the group, not just going through the motions. It doesn’t have to be long, it does have to focus and build good habits for the subsequent rehearsal or performance.


Tech Week If You’re The Music Director But Not The Pit Director

January 21, 2011

I hate to say it, but if you’re not the pit director, you need to be a go-fer of sorts during tech week. Make yourself useful, stay out of the director’s way, and offer help wherever you can. Ask the pit director, “Is there anything I can help with?” Tactfully offer suggestions about balance after you’ve sat in various places in the theater. Take notes on a legal pad for use at the end of the rehearsal. Sit next to the director and listen carefully. Quietly save everyone time by giving notes to people when they’re not on stage. Go back and shut kids up who are talking in the wings. Give that old “If you can see the audience, the audience can see you!” speech. Tell that kid who’s having a conversation to go learn those lines he keeps forgetting. Work on the details everyone else is too busy to take care of.


Pit Lights

January 14, 2011


I was music directing Little Shop of Horrors from the piano. Small pit: Drums, Bass, Guitar, Me, and a reed. For some reason, we didn’t have enough conventional pit lights, so I was using a battery powered clip-on reading light. Midway through the first act, my batteries started to go, and by the end of the act, my light was out completely. The bass player and guitar player kept offering to switch lights, but I knew the show pretty well, and the ambient light from the stage gave me a little help here and there. I could fill in the gaps from memory; these guys had only played the tech week. It was a frightening memory test.


I buy a pit light every time I do a show. They’re between $20 and $40. By now I have a whole pit full myself, with my name on every one. When I do a show and there isn’t a box of lights sitting there, I go out to my trunk and bring in a bunch. It keeps me from having to bother the lighting crew, who are usually totally overwhelmed anyway. Run the lights off a central location with those cheap coffee maker extension cords. Keep a stash of bulbs with you at all times for when the lights blow. For some reason, stand lights never really clip onto a piano or keyboard stand correctly. Get a thin plywood sheet cut to just the right size and painted black to sit on the music rack that the lights can clip onto. I carry one with me for just that purpose.

Ask somebody in the audience about the lights as soon as they start running the show with the house lights off. A lot of times the lights are accidentally positioned in such a way that they blind somebody in the front row. Tilting them up or down can help that. Sometimes all the lights need to be gelled (covered with colored plastic film to avoid glare). This is not your job, the lighting people usually do this. If the lighting people say they want to put your lights on a dimmer, that’s fine. But make sure you clearly mark the power strip that’s on the dimmer. If your other electrical equipment is plugged into the dimmer, you can do some serious and expensive damage. Mark it with red tape or something to make sure you don’t make a big mistake. Sometimes, the lighting guys want to replace your bulbs with some very low-wattage ones. I prefer gelling a regular light; I can’t read the score in the dark with a 15 watt bulb.

Tell all your pit members to shut their lights off at the end of the first act. It’s a nice effect, to have a real blackout. Everybody has to do it, though, or the person who doesn’t looks like a doofus.


Tales From The Pit: John Miller on Getting into NY Pit Playing

January 12, 2011

When I run across pages with interviews about being a pit musician, I try and pass them along. This page is terrific and sobering if you’re trying to get into the Pit business at the top level. Long, but great.  (warning: there’s a little language here and there)

Thanks to Sax On The Web for pointing it out.



Knowing and Remembering Cues

January 7, 2011

There will probably be cues in your score. Sometimes you see a line with the word WARN next to it. This is the line you’re listening for to get ready. Then you see CUE: or Q: followed by the line you start the music on. Occasionally you see the word MUSIC or the word GO at the moment during the line or action where the music enters. Sometimes you get nothing at all, in which case you consult the script and write in the cues.

I usually wind up playing a little game with myself during tech. “She starts her song downstage left and delivers it to Jorge, who is upstage center, standing on his head”, I’ll tell myself. Jorge isn’t onstage yet, so I’m good. Then I’m waiting for the girl to come downstage left, cough 3 times and for Jorge to show up, and I’m ready to go. Telling myself the sequence of events keeps me engaged in what’s going. It’s when I’m on autopilot that things go wrong.

Chances are you’ll be changing some of the cues. Dialogue gets cut and you have to start earlier. Or actors speak too slowly and you have to start later. Don’t be afraid to change the cue line to suit the situation, but in the interest of principle no. 2, make sure you try it the original way first, before you start messing with it.

Another thing to know about underscored dialogue: When the music doesn’t cover all the dialogue, it’s probably not because people are speaking their lines too slowly. It’s probably the dead air between the lines that’s killing the pacing. Practice beginning each lines right after the previous one has ended with your actors. There are theatre games that help with this, and your director might know them.