10 Tips for Musical Theatre Success for The Pit Musician
There are many aspects to consider when it comes to being a successful musician in the musical theatre pit. Whether you’re new to this world, or even if you’re a seasoned veteran, the following tips can help you play a better show, have a more rewarding experience and be a better pit musician. Some of these may seem obvious, but I bet you’d be surprised at how often I see some of these simple tips being disregarded or ignored!
1) Show up early
You don’t want to be rushing around at the last minute, struggling to get yourself and your instruments in position. Having some time to catch your breath and relax after arriving and before the downbeat will do wonders for your performance. Many MDs and theaters will have stated policies in place concerning when you are expected to be in the building, and when you’re expected to be in the pit. For example, you might be required to be in the building at half-hour, and then be in position to play by the five-minute call. Again, be professional and follow the policy, whatever it might be.
2) Be mindful of those around you
You’re not the only person who matters. The orchestra pit is a close, confined space, so it’s important to show respect for your colleague’s space. If you find you’d like to have just a little more room to your left in order to perform properly, don’t just muscle your neighbor out of the way and occupy the space, diplomatically ask your neighbor if they can accommodate your request. And, if for some reason they can’t, don’t make a scene, just look for a different solution. Think in the long term – situations diplomatically resolved now will often pay dividends later.
3) Abide by the dress code
Most shows will ask you to dress in what is called “pit blacks”. This usually means a black collared button down shirt, black slacks, socks and shoes. Not dark blue or brown, or black with just a little bit of white trim – it means BLACK. If the dress code does allow more latitude, naturally go with the flow and be comfortable, but always strive to look professional. Men, if the dress code calls for a tuxedo, absolutely get yourself a tuxedo. While a black sports coat and mismatched trousers might get you by, (after all, it’s dark, who’s really going to notice, right?) it’s details like this that separate the professionals from the wanna-bees. Have pride and demonstrate your professionalism by investing in the nicest-looking tuxedo you can afford. Believe me, people will notice. Whatever you’re asked to wear, your pit clothes should always be neat and freshly laundered. Avoid using strong perfumes and cologne, as your pit-mates may be sensitive to them. The very scent that you adore may make your colleagues nauseous within the close confines of the pit.
4) Keep your workspace clean
No one wants to work next to a slob. Pick up after yourself and tidy your area at the end of the performance. Don’t leave water bottles, cups, or anything else lying about. Observe the wilderness hiker’s creed; if you pack it in, pack it back out. And whatever you do, don’t bring any smelly food into the pit. Odors can linger and make for a very unpleasant environment. Most theaters have strict “no food in the pit” policies – if that’s the case where you work, respect the rules.
5) Keep the noise to a minimum
Avoid practicing or warming up when other people are in the pit, or when the house is open. If it takes 20 minutes of long tones to get your lip together, that’s fine, but take care of it outside of the pit. Neither your colleagues nor the audience needs to be subjected to that. Instead, get yourself a practice mute and find yourself a quiet spot somewhere backstage or even outside the building to take care of business. Drummers, use a practice pad or a practice kit set up backstage if space allows. Only you know exactly what kind of warm-up you need – take care of it before you hit the pit.
6) Show your commitment
If you’re subbing, make sure you are in place early enough to get comfortable with the usual player’s setup. It’s always a good idea to speak with the MD in advance to ask any questions and touch base on any trouble spots. Not only will this make you more comfortable, it will demonstrate to the MD that you’re conscientious and you’re giving the job your total effort. Just be respectful of the MD’s time, they have plenty on their minds, too. Don’t wait until the last minute to ask your questions.
7) Know the technology
If there’s a personal monitor system in place, such as the Aviom system, make sure you know how to use it. The operation manual is available online – it would be a great idea to download it and store a copy on your phone for quick access – just in case you need it. The manual for the A360 is HERE, and the manual for the older A-16II is HERE. You’re welcome!
8) Have it together
Have your book prepared, and know your part cold. Any changes to the part should be marked neatly and accurately in your book. By this time you should have practiced your part so often you can perform it in your sleep. You should have any required gear close at hand – mutes, reeds, rosin, specialty mallets, whatever. The time to discover that you left your Harmon mute in the car is before the show, not 16 bars before your big solo. Check and double check that you have everything you will need to play the show. Make yourself a checklist if it will help. There is simply no such thing as being over-prepared.
9) Never criticize your fellow pit musicians
It’s the MD’s job (and his/hers alone) to be critical of anyone’s performance. Your opinion of someone else’s playing simply isn’t relevant. If you think you have a legitimate concern with what someone else is doing, take that concern to the MD only, and be discreet about it. The MD may or may not agree with you. Again, it’s only the MD’s opinion that matters, and it’s up to him or her to address the issue as s/he chooses. It’s best for you to stay out of it entirely. Remember, negative energy can spread through an ensemble like wildfire – don’t help fan the flames by being openly critical of other orchestra members.
10) Just Be Nice
Most of all, just be nice and treat others as you’d like to be treated. You’re working with a group of highly-focused, accomplished musicians who have worked very hard to develop the skills required of a pit musician. Respect that and be grateful for the musical opportunities you’ve been given. Strive to exude a positive attitude and pleasant personality. To the best of your ability, leave your personal problems outside of the pit. Make the effort to develop your diplomacy skills in order to help avoid awkward or even hostile situations. Hopefully, you’ll have the opportunity to be working with these people for weeks, months, or even years at a time. Your willingness to cultivate a friendly, professional working environment will serve you well, and create a more pleasant experience for everyone.
Most of these tips should be common sense and they all reflect just two main ideals – be proactive by always thinking ahead, and have a courteous, professional attitude. By doing that, you’re putting yourself in the best possible position for success as a musical theatre pit musician.
Do you have any tips you’d like to share, or do you think there’s anything I’ve overlooked? I’d love to hear your ideas – just leave a comment, and we’ll talk about it!