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.

12 thoughts on “The Merry Pit Ho”

  1. Hi Jeremy:

    I might just print your comments off and give them to all of my students…….a lot of wisdom delivered with a lot of humor, and many things there for aspiring musicians to consider.

    Hope you’re well and digging out from the great blizzard of 2011.


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  3. stirring a giant cauldron of chowder?! i’m going to try this one on the band this week…

    enjoyed your writing, as always…

  4. JK~
    This blog was really thoughtful– and very entertaining (two things 9 out of 10 blogs out there dismally fail at). It’s refreshing to read about someone as accomplished as you are in the Jazz Realm (should that be capitalized?) reminding all of the players out there that if Plan “A” doesn’t pan out Plan “B” can take you places even more adventurous and exciting (though, gigging w/Miles would’ve, no doubt, been trippy, huh?!). “Plays Well With Others” is savvy advice ALL musicians (including myself) need to commit to memory. Perhaps you’ve found yet another talent: first a blog, then a book….
    “…the sound of a jillion fake brass players on steroids!”- KILLER!!!

    • Thanks for the positive feedback.

      I Googled you: are you a DC-based pianist? I’m coming to play at Centerstage in Baltimore with a singer at the end of March. We’ve hired Ephraim Woolfolk and Cedric Smith on bass and drums. Do you know these guys?

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