The Merry Pit Ho

And hello again.

I’d like to wax prosaic on another aspect of my life as a musician: that of being employed in the orchestra pits of theatrical extravaganzas.

Believe me when I say that being a pit musician was not high on my list of goals when I set out to be an Artiste.  Being a dyed-in-the-wool Jazz Snob, I amassed a list of all the Groovy Cats in Chicago that I would call when I decided to move there from NYC in 1993. Waaaaay down towards the bottom was a Contractor named Anita Smith. I had grudgingly put her on my list at the insistence of a drummer that I did a gig with in the waning days of my Big Apple period. I got got a call from said drummer a few weeks after having moved to Chicago. “Hey man, have you called Anita yet? I told her about you and she wants you to call her”. It seemed that none of the usual suspects were available to sub on the Key 3 book for “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” (starring Donny Osmond) and they were desperately seeking a warm keyboard body for a particular date. I came, I saw and I didn’t totally screw it up, thereby earning me a place on the Sacred List of Acceptable Subs. And there I’ve remained; making my mark on shows like The Lion King, Wicked, Spamalot, Les Miz, The King and I, Hot Mikado, Elton John’s Aida, and many others with a lot of the same notes.

It eventually occurred to me that theater musicians are asked to do something that other musicians are not: play the same music the exact same way, usually eight times a week for an extended period of time, sometimes lasting for years. So, considering my jazz background (where I play notes of my own choosing, and, if I happen to revisit a tune that I had recently played, I try to make the new version different in some way than the previous versions), I’m often asked questions when I’m in the run of a show like “How can you stand it?” “Aren’t you bored out of your skull?” “I bet you can’t wait until the run is over, huh?” My answers might surprise you. But first, let me back up a little.

One early vision of my career had me touring with either Miles Davis or Joe Henderson. That never panned out, and since they have both demised, I hope that it’s a very long time before I connect up with either of them. The realization sunk in that not every gig would provide me with the forum to make Jazz History. Two choices became apparent: Play in a wider range of settings and support myself solely as a musician, or find another means of support to enable me to only play gigs of my choosing. I chose the former.

As I found myself playing in different musical situations, I began to assess the various factors that justified my having accepted any given engagement. I call one method “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”:

1. Is the music enjoyable/stimulating/challenging/well-executed?

2. Am I being financially compensated to my satisfaction?

3. Am I in the company of people whom I enjoy/respect?

If the answer to all three is “Yes”, then we have a Lottery-Winning situation here. Two “Yes” answers ain’t bad. One “Yes” is better than a sharp stick in the eye, so the one affirmative needs to be pretty much be off the charts to prevent sadness. Zero “Yes” answers: Kill Me; Kill Me Now.

The overall issue in any musical situation should be this: Is this gig giving me the chance to become a better musician? Expand my repertoire? Pose technical challenges? Allow me to collaborate with musicians who will make me surprise myself? But I digress, as I warned you.

My answer to the question of “Don’t you dislike playing a show where you have to do the exact same thing over and over?” is “No, I don’t dislike it.” And here’s why: I always strive to play my part perfectly, and, if I set the bar high enough, I know that I’ll only be able to get close to perfection on rare occasions and will never actually achieve it. This mindset is diametrically opposed to my usual philosophy of “Low expectations yield low disappointment”, but it’s the healthiest way for me to approach things, once I’ve made peace with the fact that this is an exercise in craftsmanship and not creativity.

There are literally thousands of notes to be played during the course of a typical evening in the orchestra pit. Let’s envision a performance where I’ve pushed down and released all of the right notes and none of the wrong ones. Well, Mazel Freaking Tov to me: Perfect Show, right? Oh, so wrong. There are a lot of other requirements to be made of Synthesizer Man:

PEDAL TO THE METAL-One way to control the volume is with a volume pedal. My most recent show used a pedal that was linked up to a meter that ranged from zero (softest) to 127 (loudest).  My book will likely contain hundreds of different volume pedal markings, many of which will have to be accessed in a fraction of a second. It’s a tall order to achieve perfection here from start to finish.

KISS OR SMACK?-Another way to vary the volume is the velocity with which my fingers strike the keys. I need to be sensitive to the subtle differences that separate each step between pianissimo and fortissimo.

BATONICAL GUARDIANS-The conductor is responsible for keeping all musical things as cohesive as possible. Have I kept an eye on the podium as much as possible, and have I been able to accurately interpret the intentions of the conductor, even if he/she/other appears to be stirring a giant cauldron of chowder or dealing with a shirt that has suddenly caught on fire?

SAFE IN SOUND-A synth player has to be prepared to play a wide variety of sounds (“patches”, as we call them in the biz), and very few of them are likely to sound like a piano. They can sound like another instrument (violin, trumpet, harp) or they can sound like some mysterious noise that is not found in Nature. Depending on the patch (and who programmed it), it might take a fraction of a second longer to actually produce a sound as compared to the instant response of a piano. Each patch has its own quirks that need to be dealt with in order to make them have the desired effect. But I’m getting ahead of myself, yet again:

PATCHWORK MANAGEMENT-My book might require me to change patches several HUNDRED times during the course of a performance. These have been thoughtfully programmed into the keyboard in proper order by some geek whom I’ve likely never met. When I’m done with one patch, I advance to the next one by clicking a foot pedal. Every so often I find myself on the wrong patch. This would be due to one of the following reasons:

1. I forgot to click the pedal.

2. The pedal didn’t advance when I clicked it.

3. The pedal double-clicked and skipped the desired patch.

There is always some kind of visual readout that will tell me which patch I’m on. It’s a really good idea to always double-check on this, rather than relying on the assumption that everything went according to plan. I learned this lesson the hard way one night when I subbed on “Joseph”:

It was time for Donnie Osmond’s big song. He was standing in jail (hands on bars), wearing only a loincloth and a very serious expression. The song started with just me, hitting two notes on a patch called “Mellow Strings” (or something like that). I had discovered that, in order to get the right sound, I needed to smack the notes with a lot of oomph; really put my back into it.  Well, on this particular night a gremlin got into the patch-change pedal and skipped ahead to the next patch. As luck would have it, this subsequent patch was called “Fanfare”: markedly different from Mellow Strings, no? I brought my hand onto the keyboard in the appropriate fortissimo fashion, only to be greeted by the sound of a jillion fake brass players on steroids. I immediately started gushing flop sweat, and I was later told that Donnie started laughing, somewhat at odds with the intended mood. It was not my finest moment. I was later talked off the ledge by Bob Sutter, who told me how entertaining this was to the rest of the band (as are most accidental deviations), and John Kornegay consoled me with the following words (which I use on other people every chance I get): “Everyone said that they hardly noticed”.

PLAYS WELL WITH OTHERS-Perhaps the most challenging and most important skill for the Synth Stylist is the ability to blend in with the other instruments that the synth is attempting to imitate. As I mentioned earlier, it can be tricky to get certain patches to “speak” precisely how you’d like them to, and to seamlessly phrase with other instruments is always the goal. There’s a lot of subtext at work here: A brass, string or wind player is always going to prefer playing in a section with others of their breed. First, it’s easier for instruments to sync up when they’re all producing sound in a similar way. Second, it’s very likely that the presence of a synthesizer means that economics have prevented the hiring of additional brass, string or wind players, and that can be a touchy subject. I once tried to joke to a violinist that the presence of a large string section on a particular show had taken work away from a lot of synthesizer players. She wasn’t amused.

So, there you have it: Far more insight into the mind of a Broadway keyboard player than you’ll ever need. I guess my point is that there is much more to a successful performance than the accurate execution of the notes. And the pursuit of excellence within these various parameters is what helps me avoid the potential tedium of having to reproduce the exact same performance numerous times on end.

So You’re Auditioning For a Musical

A significant portion of my storied career has been devoted to the service of providing piano accompaniment to singers who are auditioning for a part in a musical production. Repeated exposure to these situations has led me to mentally index a series of “Dos” and “Don’ts”. The following is my helpful attempt to articulate these observations for the world to see, and will take the viewpoint of me speaking directly to the implied singer. Recognize and enjoy.

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So you’re auditioning for a musical? The producers have spared no expense in enlisting my services to assist you in this regard, so it looks like you and I will be making beautiful music together. The smoother things go for me, the better you’re going to sound. Trust me, we’re going to get through this thing together–yes, we are–if you’re willing to help me help you.

So what are you going to sing? First, I don’t recommend that you sing a capella. I shouldn’t be saying this, because for every song that I don’t play my per-song rate increases. That notwithstanding, the Creative Team wants to hear you sing with accompaniment because their show will probably have some kind of accompaniment (i.e. a band). This is not “American Idol”. If you choose to sing alone–even with an accompanist present–the Creatives will subconsciously put you in the category of “Does Not Play Well With Others”, and that, my friend, goes on your permanent record.

So now you need to start thumbing the sheet music for the 750 songs that you know. What? You only know 675 songs? Well, then I have one word of advice: learn more songs.  In what style is the score of the show for which you hope to land that big part? Hint: if the show is Carousel, don’t sing a song by Radiohead. If the show is Rent, don’t sing a song from Naughty Marietta. Oh, you’d be surprised. Or not. Your song doesn’t have to be from the show, or even by the same composer; just in a similar style. That way, the Creatives can more easily decide whether you’re a good fit for the style of show that they’ll be doing.

Ok, you’ve got it down to two songs that you think are perfect, and you’re only supposed to sing one. Let me help you decide: Look at the music for each song. Which one has more ink on it? Choose the other one. More ink=more notes. More notes means more chances for me to mess up. Play the odds. Also, chances are that the notier piece of music is also trickier for you to sing. The Creatives aren’t looking to hear how tricky a song you can navigate; they want to hear you sing in an uncluttered setting. Another factor: look in the upper left corner of the music. See those things that look lower-case b’s or tic-tac-toe signs? Those are flats and sharps, and they indicate the key signature, or what key your song is in. Any more than four or five of these automatically puts it into the category of “Pain in the Toochus.” One exception with this “More ink vs. less ink” approach: a lead sheet will certainly have less ink than another piece of music. But don’t bring in a lead sheet. A lead sheet just has the melody and chord symbols written out. If your pianist has a jazz, pop or rock background, you’ll probably be ok. But if the pianist comes from a classical or theater background, he/she will have a hard time interpreting a lead sheet and will quietly seethe resentful-flavored vibes.  Make sure that the accompaniment is written out, preferably with the lyrics written in. If you’re still in doubt, find a pianist some time before your audition to see which one will be easier to navigate. You shouldn’t have to pay money to get this information; any pianist should be glad to offer this very small favor.

All-righty: You’ve picked the perfect song. Let’s talk about what these pieces of paper should look like: road map feng shui. The easiest thing for me to read is something that starts at the beginning and keeps going straight to the end. Logical, right? Much easier on the eyes (and brain) than “Start here, go to there, then go back to here, then jump two pages and play to here, then go back to here and take the coda.” Seriously? Do me a favor: copy, cut and paste your song so that it just reads straight down. That’ll make me happy. I ask so little. If you can’t avoid all of this jumping around (which you can, but never mind), then marking the various landmarks in color or with stickies will help things substantially. Also, highlighting landmarks like tempo changes and key changes is very helpful. A confession: I know ahead of time that I’ll likely not absorb every single marking on your music, so I decide (on the fly) the ones on which to concentrate or ignore. My eye will naturally be drawn in by the allure of another color. I’m easily amused.

Can you feel the excitement building? We’re almost at the part where you actually get to audition. Just a few little tidbits: The best way to present your music is in a binder. Loose sheets of paper tend to collapse and fall off the piano at the worst moments. And take a look at this paper. Did your copy cut off the notes at the bottom of the page (thanks, Shawn Stengel)? You may not like the ones that I guess. Is it a fifth-generation copy so that the ink is all washed out and barely legible? If so, is that good or bad: what do you think? Has it been all wadded up? Are there huge scratched-out sections? Are there several different sets of indications based on whether it’s a 32-bar cut or an extended version? If you hand me music that looks like a dog’s breakfast, you are opening yourself up for a world of pain.

The moment of truth has arrived and you’ve walked into the scary room, trying to establish a memorable, positive first impression. Here is my only piece of non-musical advice: Don’t be a Hand Shaker. It adds unnecessary time to the process, and the Creatives have a lot of people to see and hear. Do you see that big bottle of Purell on the table? That will be used after the Hand Shaker has left the room.

So now it’s time for our little meeting. You’ll have a few seconds to pass along any verbal info that you deem important. Obviously, it helps me to know about any dramatic tempo changes or strange cuts. But it can also be helpful for you to be able to succinctly describe the overall feel of the song. It doesn’t even have to be in musical terms: aggressive, bouncy, introspective, somber, etc. Adjectives are your friend, particularly in a song that might lend itself to a variety of treatments.

I’ll likely ask you for your tempo if you don’t give it to me. This is sometimes trickier than it seems. What I don’t want is to hear the first melodic phrase compressed to quadruple-speed. Think of the wordiest phrase in your song, and then sing it to me (softly) as though you were performing it. This is very helpful to me, and I think that it helps you in putting away any jitters and concentrating on the task at hand.

Ok….it’s Magic Time! Hopefully, you have heeded my advice and taken steps to maximize our musical rapport. I will try like hell to follow you all over the page and make you sound like a million bucks.  Much as I’d like to, though, I cannot promise perfection. Mistakes, by one or both of us, may happen. It would be great, if you hear something that you weren’t expecting, if you could be a trouper and keep moving forward. As a matter of fact, the Creatives will be impressed that you were able to handle a curveball and keep your poise. If they even notice, that is. It’s a sure bet that they will notice if you get all vibey by shooting a dirty look at me or stomp your foot in your desired tempo.

There: we did it! You did it! Now you’re done, and will soon come back to the piano to collect your music. And, when you do, make your grandmother proud: a simple “thank you” to the piano player is appreciated more than you know.

I’ll see you next time.

O Jaki

My piano teacher in college was Jaki Byard, and he was a huge influence on me. I’ve covered this subject in detail on my website (http://www.kahnman.com/byard.php). When he was shot to death by a knucklehead who had come his door (yet another story) in 1999, I had only been in touch with him once in the previous 19 years. Yet, even with such limited contact, he was never far from my thoughts. I therefore felt a strong pull to attend his memorial service at St. Peter’s in Manhattan, and made the journey from Chicago in order to be there.

Despite the deep sadness of the occasion, I was immediately glad that I had decided to go. I saw a lot folks for the first time in ages, and there were a lot of moving tributes, both musical and verbal.  When it came time for the Apollo Stompers (Jaki’s big band) to play, the original plan had been to leave the piano chair vacant. Logical enough. But, at the last minute, my old pal (and sax/flute maven) Jed Levy asked if I would sit in with them. Extremely surprised and extremely touched, I of course agreed.

The Stomper’s first tune was Jaki’s arrangement of “I May Be Wrong (But I Think You’re Wonderful)”, or, as Groucho Marx called it, “I May Be Wonderful But I Think You’re Wrong.”  Since some band members were taking a while to locate their parts, I was instructed to take a chorus by myself as an intro. As I happily plowed my way through the tune and approached the last few bars, it became evident that there were some players who still hadn’t located the music. Someone on the bandstand yelled, “Take another chorus!”.  I obliged.

It struck me that this was a deliciously Jaki-like moment: Absurdly spontaneous, loose and anarchic, yet doing the music no disservice whatsoever. I pictured Jaki, chuckling in his high-pitched and staccato style, and instructing me in his Worcester accent, “Take anuthah one.” I think that I played with the band for the rest of their little set; I don’t remember.

Is there a moral to this tale? I don’t know. Maybe this: Never pass up a chance to go to a funeral. You just never know what might go down.

Happiness is/was

My son surprised me recently when he casually mentioned that he listened to Vince Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” almost every day. I never really thought of it as a “desert island” recording, but, if you think about, that record, in its own sneaky way, introduced a lot of people to the sound of a jazz piano trio. And, while I usually only listen to it during the Holiday Season, I never tire of hearing it again for the umpteenth time.

I actually met Vince Guaraldi. After graduating from high school, my buddy Jon Krupp and I embarked on an epic cross-country road trip. In San Francisco, we boarded with an old friend of my dad’s who was a friend of Vince’s. He took us to hear him play at a club in Palo Alto. He and his trio sounded great, and the several gin-and-tonics that I slurped down only enhanced the listening experience. I was introduced to the Maestro, and he was told that I was a neophyte stylist in the realm of Jazz Piano. Upon learning this, he insisted that I play a tune with his band. Surprised, drunk and scared shitless, I got up and played Summertime. It couldn’t have been too bad, because he asked me to play another tune (I don’t recall the selection; maybe Jon does). He then said some generically encouraging things to me, along the lines of “Yeah, man” and “Keep at it”. It was a huge thrill.

In my jaded hindsight, it’s possible that my sitting in provided Vince with the chance to have a taste, and that my second tune allowed him to savor that welcome respite. But I prefer to think that he was open to providing an opportunity for a young guy just starting (I mean REALLY just starting) on his musical journey.

The moral of the story should be obvious, yet often seems to elude us grizzled veterans: Give a kid a chance when you’re in the position to do so, even if you’re pretty sure that the kid is likely to be green and a bit rough around the edges. Everybody has to start somewhere.

Brush with greatness

How many times can you have the chance to play with one of the all-time greats? For me, not that many.

But, in 1984, I had the privilege of playing in Singapore with Pepper Adams, arguably the greatest bari sax player in jazz history, or (inarguably) certainly one of the top three, along with Harry Carney and Gerry Mulligan.

This comes to mind because of the recent release of two CDs under my leadership that feature Pepper’s compositions. They’re under the auspices of an all-Pepper website: www.pepperadams.com. It’s the masterwork of Gary Carner, who has spent 25 years compiling and annotating all things Pepper. A towering achievement.

I recall that I had mixed feelings about traveling to Singapore to play with Pepper. Not that I wasn’t thrilled to do the gig. Don’t laugh: the gig conflicted with the World Series, and it looked like my beloved Cubs would be participating. But Rick Sutcliffe, Leon Durham, Lee Smite and Steve Garvey kindly ensured that there would be no such conflict, so I was able to give my full attention to hanging on for dear life as I played with this jazz icon.

I encourage you to check out the website and explore the overlooked legacy of Pepper.