Tips and tricks for playing in a pit orchestra

As I wrap up playing in Madison High School’s production of “Bye Bye Birdie,” I’m reminded that even though I’m one of the hired pros for the show, for many of this kids in the pit, this is their first or second time playing in a musical.

I started playing in musicals when I was 16, and in the many years since then, I’ve picked up a couple of tricks that serve me well each time I got into the pit.  I’m sure I’ll miss several, but these are the ones that came to mind first (and they’re in no particular order).  I hope you’ll find these of use, and be sure to share your own tips and tricks in the comments below!

Gear to hold your gear

For brass and woodwind players, having something to hold all your stuff is such a huge help!

For example, brass and woodwind players should have an instrument stand, especially if you’re playing more than one instrument.  Don’t skimp on the quality, or you’ll regret it!  Hercules makes some great instrument stands, as does On-Stage.

Also look for accessory stands and holders.  Mute holders are a lifesaver, especially in pits where floor space is limited.  Reed players should find holders for their little cups of water that their reeds are soaking in.  Speaking of gear….

Be ready to provide everything

You never know what playing situation you’re going to be in.  Sometimes, you get a really nice comfy chair, a good music stand, and a stand light.  Other times, you’re on your own.  In my car, I carry a folding chair that I can tolerate sitting in for a couple of hours, a good folding music stand, and a stand light.  If I don’t like the equipment that the employer is providing, I use my own.

Pencils out at all times

Certainly, you should have a pencil during rehearsals, and the same is for performances.  Sometimes when you’re in the thick of things, you miss something you’ve never missed before:  an accidental, key change, a music cut, etc.  Having a pencil on your stand lets you mark it after the song so that you won’t forget it the next time.  Speaking of pencils….

Mark everything (well, sorta)

You should never rely on your memory if you’re playing in a pit orchestra.  If there is a change that the conductor has made (say, a fermata, an accel./rit., etc.) then you need to write it down.  Full stop.  In a pit orchestra, there are so many things going on that you may simply forget about something.  Don’t ever rely on your memory!

Sometimes, even though it’s written in the music, you may skip over it.  This can happen for a variety of reasons.  Two solutions that I use are to circle the direction that I missed (a mute change, for example).  The other solution is to use small, rectangular Post-it notes to help visually draw my attention to what I’ve missed.  Those always live in my mute bag (which I take to every gig), and they’re always within arm’s reach.

Keep track of your staves

staff dividers

Note the switch from two staves to one staff back to two staves. Those parallel slanted lines really help draw the eye.

If you’re playing off a book that has two parts in it, often times they will cut out a part for a system or two.  It can be very visually challenging, so I use system divider markings to help my eyes follow what’s going on.

Lyric cues

In rehearsals, take the time to write the last few spoken words before the next song, especially if there’s a long break in between numbers.  As you get to know the musical, these become less and less important, but when you’re first starting out, these are incredibly useful to have written in!  I also write in a word or two to help me track if we are in the middle of an active section of key changes, meter changes, and tempo changes.

repeats

Put wings on those repeats!  They’re impossible to miss if you do.

Repeats

If you miss a repeat or have to add one that’s not in the music, make sure to “give your repeat signs wings,” as an old music professor of mine once said.  There’s no way to miss where the repeats are if you vertically extend them.

Beat pattern

I have yet to play a musical where the conductor uses the beat pattern that the time signature shows on every single piece.  Sometimes, pieces in 4/4 are conducted in 2/2 and vice versa.  If what the conductor is doing is different that what your music says, then make sure and write in a note.  I use “in 2” and “in 4” a bunch.

That’s about all I can think of right now.  Now it’s your turn!  What tips and tricks do you have for playing in a pit orchestra?

 

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