Les Misérables pit percussion setup (Schools Edition)

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Les Misérables (Schools Edition) is a slightly shortened version of Les Mis made for the slightly shortened attention span of the intended audience, high school students and their families. It was a fun show for me to play for a number of different reasons, the skill and camaraderie of this particular group of musicians being chief among them. The percussion book also has unique instrumentation and some challenging passages in it, making it a more than worthwhile gig to take on.
The biggest difference between the Schools Edition (SE) show and the full show in the percussion book is the fact that it’s condensed into one part. Because it’s one part built from two, there are many moments where you’re called to play more than one instrument or switch quickly between two, making the arrangement of instruments very important. I don’t know why this was done, but my guess is that the editor knew that MD’s for these school gigs were only going to hire one percussionist anyway, so might as well make it easier on them.
There were some esoteric instruments to scrounge up, and some that required research. This show calls for a “Gavroche drum”, which is certainly not in the Steve Weiss catalog. A little investigation unearthed a comment by Ian Cape, who currently sits in the percussion rig in London’s West End:
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So if I had a popcorn snare, I’d have finally had a use for it! Another thing people were using was a children’s toy drum. Either way, a popcorn or toy snare drum plus a field snare, concert snare, and piccolo snare would take up more space than I wanted to indulge on snares, so I ended up using just two: a larger concert snare and a 13″ piccolo.
The next challenge was the trine. If you don’t know, a trine is a newer instrument, functioning much like a bell tree but with a somewhat sinister sound. The only shows that I know of that use it is Les Mis and Wicked. They are a little expensive, $200 last I checked, and kind of hard to store, so I decided to make one. People had done it before, and so armed with a few YouTube videos of what they should look like and sound like, an 8 foot strip of aluminum ($16 at Home Depot), and a little elbow grease, I ended up with this:

The trine ends up as a cue for Valjean’s time as a forced laborer, and is only played with a downward scrape (bell tree-style), so to my ears, this instrument did everything a store-bought trine would do.

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As for the assorted small metal implements called for, I ended up putting them on a brake drum, a Steve Weiss Anvil, a cowbell, and a pair of Tingsha.

As for the drums, it was important to have a station with timpani, toms, and crash cymbals close by for a few different numbers in the first act. In my original setup (shown above) I had four roto-toms set up off to the side as well. In the end, my MD and I both disliked the sound and I ended up putting all the toms & roto-toms parts together on the concert toms. This had the added benefit of getting my trine closer to the low tom, very helpful in the opening tune.

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Shoreline Musical Theater 2018-2019

Looking for musical theater right here in Shoreline? Look no further, here is a combined schedule from several Shoreline venues. This list includes community theater, high school drama departments, and more.

November 30-December 9, Shoreline Community CollegePeter and starcatcher tile

March 2019:
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Curtains

Spring 2019: Shorewood High School Spring Musical (unannounced)
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Spring 2019: Shorecrest High School Spring Musical (unnannounced)
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May 10-May 19, Shoreline Community Collegedrowsy

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See me with Mr. & Mrs. Muffins tonight

Poster-Launch-Seattle

 

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Buying a recorder

If you’re thinking about buying your own recorder, here’s some recommendations.

Your first recorder: Yamaha 302 Soprano Recorder (click link for Amazon)

If you’re starting out, this is your best bet. At under $20, it is affordable for nearly everyone and still is a high quality instrument. Use this to learn your fingerings, learn to control your air, and the fundamentals of articulation.

More options:

Yamaha YRA-302B Alto Recorder

Yamaha YRT-304B Tenor Recorder

Yamaha YRB-302B Bass Recorder

Alto, tenor, and bass recorders each come with their own challenges. Alto has different fingerings than the soprano, but has a much more pleasing sound. Tenors have the same fingerings as sopranos, but the cost more and take some finesse with your air to get a nice sound. Bass recorders have the challenges of altos and tenors combined, with the extra stumbling block that they are seriously expensive. Committed, advanced users only!

I like the Yamaha 300 line because they have a nice quality level throughout the family of instruments, but they aren’t so expensive as other intermediate instruments. They all use the standard ‘baroque’ fingering, have adjustable tuning joints, and are built to last.

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Next to Normal pit percussion setup

Next to Normal pit percussion setup

Here’s my setup for the drum book for Next to Normal, a musical I’ve been working on with Twelfth Night Productions down in West Seattle. It’s pretty much built around a five piece drum set, since the rhythm section is very prominent in this show. There’s also a lot of rhythmically challenging mallet parts, so I have the bells and “vibraphone” keyboard nestled as close to my music and line-of-sight with the MD as possible. Everything else, i.e. tambourine, shaker, bongos, triangle, wood block, finger cymbals, and djembe, are just wedged in wherever i could fit them.

I tried to get away with as few pairs of sticks & mallets as possible here, so the whole show is played with just the basics: some jazz drum sticks, brushes, and blasticks, rubber Bob Becker 30’s and aluminum bell mallets, and some cord mallets for cymbal rolls. I got a lot of mileage out of my Mike Balter 9AR aluminum bell mallets, on the glock of course but also as a triangle beater. I was surprised how easy it is to get a consistent, controlled sound out of an Alan Abel triangle with one of these.

This is the first show I’ve used a MIDI keyboard to play a percussion part, in this case vibraphone. I feel a little like I’ve joined the dark side but it’s surprisingly handy and better than just putting all of the vibes parts on bells or cymbals. My only complaint is that there is no monitor near me, so I can’t really hear myself play. Overall it has been a positive foray into electronics.

Everyone I know seems to have a personal connection to mental illness and trauma, and this musical deals with those themes in a way that’s a little harrowing at times. The thing that I notice, however, is how insightful the author, Brian Yorkey, seems to be when it comes to the inner workings of families faced mental illness and trauma. As I got to know the show and the characters better, I started finding insight into my own life in a way that doesn’t always happen with musical theater, and for that the painful themes are worth the emotional cost.

Next to Normal has become one of my favorite drum books to play. There’s a lot of up-tempo rock and punk rock, interesting mallet parts, and most importantly a fantastic story with depth and heart.

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Mary Poppins pit percussion setup


The interesting thing about the percussion books for MTI’s Mary Poppins production is that book 1 is almost exclusively pitched percussion. Most of the auxiliary percussion is in book 2 with the drum set. So, while there are fewer instruments in this setup, it’s still about the same size since all the large instruments are here. The part even calls for marimba, although there isn’t one in my setup.
80% of the time I’m playing xylophone, bells, or vibes so I crammed those three as close together as possible to maximize line-of-sight with the bars, the music, and the director. I bought two new pieces of equipment for this rig, the washboard and the bass drum piatti mount. The mount came in handy since there are a few combined BD/cymbal moments for Mr. Banks.

Here’s me playing some of my favorite moments from the show:

Here’s my equipment list:
Xylophone
Bells
Vibraphone
Chimes
Crotales
2 timpani (26″ & 29″)
Bass drum/piatti
Gong
15″ & 18″ suspended cymbals
Wind chimes
Tambourine (unmounted)
Cabasa
Bird whistle
We only had one bell tree, so Henry got it in the P2 setup.
Mallets:
Pro-mark Haas timpani mallets (general)
Mike Balter blue vibe mallets x3, brass bell mallets, aluminum bell mallets
Malletech BB34, OR42
Brushes

I love the OR42r’s; they are so versatile. There are many quick switches between xylophone, bells, and crotales, and the old 42s sound great on all 3. I also recommend the aluminum Balters for a nice and light metallic sound on bells, crotales, or even the wind chimes.

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Wizard of Oz, July/August 2016

2016 Wizard of Oz Studio East 22016 Oz Pit

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Recommended sticks & mallets for a beginning percussionist

Whether you’re just starting out in the percussion section or have been ‘back there’ for a few years, you might not have all the sticks & mallets you need to be ready for whatever music your director might throw at you. In first year band you probably will only need the sticks and mallets that came with your practice kit, but soon that won’t be enough. I recommend having a stick bag with a pair each of sticks or mallets for snare drum, xylophone, bells, timpani, suspended cymbal, & triangle.

There are many different makes and models of mallets for each of these instruments, each with a different kind of sound, a different level of quality, and a different price tag. If you’re ready to spend about $200 on getting the right tools of the trade (not bad compared to some other instruments) that will last though middle school, and probably meet most of your needs in high school too, here is your shopping list:

Stick Bag: Innovative Percussion MB1 ($37*)
Snare Drum: Vic Firth SD1 ($7.50)
Xylophone: Malletech BB34 ($32)
Bells: Mike Balter 9r ($25)
Timpani: Vic Firth T1 ($25)
Suspended Cymbal: Mike Balter 23R ($33)
Drum Set: Vic Firth 5A ($7.50)
Triangle: Steve Weiss Basic Set of 4 ($10)

Add in a sharpened pencil, and you’ll have a set of quality mallets without buying anything you don’t need, and without spending too much on top-of-the-line equipment meant for college and professional players. The stick bag is large enough to fit your book and sheet music inside, so everything will travel together nicely and you will no longer get in trouble for forgetting your music! The Balter 23Rs also make a great vibraphone or even marimba mallet, which will be useful later on in their percussion career.

If you still want to get your stick bag filled out, but want to do it on a budget, Steve Weiss has options for that too. Everything (practically) on my list above has a low-cost version made my Liberty I, AKA Steve Weiss, for sale on their web page. They are not quite as nice as what is listed above, and you will probably want or need to replace it after a few years, but all of the options below will still work nicely for elementary or middle school, and for about half the price.

Stick Bag: Liberty I 01S ($17)
Xylophone: Liberty I LXM ($11)
Bells: Liberty I LBB ($11)
Timpani: Liberty I LT2 ($20)
Suspended Cymbals: Liberty I LMM ($15)
Triangle: Weiss Loop End Beater ($1)

You can buy everything on the ‘thrifty’ list for $75 plus shipping, or mix and match to suit your individual needs. I didn’t list an alternative snare drum or drum set stick; the Vic Firth SD1 and 5A drum sticks are the industry standard for general use concert snare drum and drum set, respectively, and their price just can’t be beat by anybody. However, if you’re looking to cut costs you could get away with skipping the 5A; the SD1s can work on drum set too, although they will get worn out quickly by the cymbals.

You could buy the xylophone, timpani, snare drum, and drum set sticks off the top list and the stick bag, bells, suspended cymbal, and triangle gear from the bottom for $115, and I think you’d get the best balance of quality versus price.

*Prices are from July 2016

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Cabaret setup, July 2016

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First-time pit advice

Here’s selections from a thread I found on reddit that has a lot of great advice for playing in your first musical theater pit orchestra. Many of the people giving advice are professional musicians. I hope this is helpful!

[–]ChocolateDoorknob I’ve never played in a pit orchestra before and I’ve only ever been to one musical. I’ve played in classical orchestras for years and I’m hoping to do Grade 8 in November.

Does anyone have any tips for me?

 [–]cellogenius 7 points 7 months ago

As someone spending the entire summer playing in the pit orchestra for a musical and operetta company, I can offer some advice.

1) Mark your part very clearly. Don’t assume that you’ll remember a fermata, ritard, or a cut. You don’t want to be that person that plays in a rest.

2) Focus and listen. Don’t just assume that it will be the same as it was last night. Strange things will happen. Be prepared for them.

3) Make sure you’re comfortable in the pit. It will likely be cramped, but you don’t want to injure yourself by sitting in a weird position. You’ll be there for a long time, and tendinitis is bad.

[–]DairyQueenIsLife 5 points 7 months ago

Listen to what is going on around you. Watch the conductor at all times. Expect the unexpected. Play out when it’s just the orchestra playing, quiet down when it’s not.

[–]nycellist 4 points 7 months ago

As you are new at this, leave it to others to wear inappropriate clothing and other such things. You want people to know that you take your responsibilities seriously; that is how you get a good reputation. Leave it to others to goof around, do not participate. Musical theater is not like standard orchestral playing, there are things going on on stage that can alter how the music flows, so you must be alert to tempo changes and dynamics that you did not rehearse. Pay attention. Never play loud enough that you cannot hear your principal (also true in a regular orchestra). Watch the conductor, but play with the principal at all times. You will get more work from other cellists, so you want to be well-liked and professional. A good reputation will take you further than funny shoes or chess games. I have played on Broadway for almost 40 years, so I’ve seen it all.

[–]IndigoLaserJoyful Music Creations 2 points 7 months ago

Watch for the conductor’s cues. He/she is responding to the actors on stage, so the timing could be different than what you rehearsed. This should be a lot of fun!!!!!

I used to know a couple of guys who played in the Philadelphia Opera pit orchestra. It was the same opera over and over again. Often a long time would pass without any duties. They kept a miniature chess board and would play some chess (double bass and English horn or percussion, I forget their exact instruments) when they had nothing musical to do. However if you try something goofy like this, you have to be really, REALLY careful to be aware of what is going on in the musical and be ready for your cues.

[–]ChocolateDoorknob[S] 2 points 7 months ago

Considering that it’s my first time, I don’t know the musical very well and the fact that I’m 17 playing with adults, I might stick to being sensible this time…

 [–]nextyoyoma 2 points 7 months ago

There are a couple of solos in the book that are a bit tricky. Mostly it’s a pretty easy book though. Develop consistent practices for marking cuts/repeats/vamps/fermatas, but mark lightly! There may be changes made as late as right before the performance. Also, be prepared for ANYTHING. Sometimes actors will accidentally skip over part of a scene, or will be late with an entrance, requiring the conductor to make a quick change like putting in a vamp or repeat where none is marked, or stopping the song early. Playing for any kind of dramatic production requires extra attention to the conductor.

Don’t be afraid to bring out your part when it’s important. Since you are the only cellist, this is especially important. Obviously don’t overdo it, but if there are winds and brass, sometimes you have to adjust your dynamics to match theirs.

 [–]nycellist 3 points 7 months ago

This brings up some issues of nomenclature and conduct. A vamp is when you repeat a passage (usually short) over and over until the actor can finish some stage business and sing. There are three ways to end a vamp, the voice comes in the last time, the voice comes in at the beginning of the measure after the vamp, or the voice comes in in the middle of the vamp and you jump to the next section. Normally, the conductor will hold up their left index finger during a vamp and drop it at the end to signal this, but some can’t manage such things well, so be alert. It helps to make a note in each vamp where the voice comes in, or to write a dialogue cue into the part. When you are asked to tacet (not play some music), mark it in parenthesis or circle it, because it can change back, or the next production will not choose to tacet it. This is also what we do in recordings for songs, TV and film music. When marking cuts, do not scratch out (in pencil or otherwise) the music that is not played, for the same reason. If the show is “frozen” (the “artistic staff decide there will be no further changes), you can cut out blank paper to cover the cut music. Remember, you are not the last person who will use this part, so you must make any changes easy to remove.

[–]nextyoyoma 2 points 7 months ago

There is a big cello bassoon duet in one of transition pieces. Awkward page turn too. That’s another thing, plan your page turns. If you have to, make copies and tape them to the page so you can turn when it’s more convenient (be sure to use something easy to remove from the score, like washi tape).

[–]fajita43 3 points 7 months ago

When you are in an orchestra pit, no one (in the audience) can see your feet, so wear goofy bedroom slippers! we would have tux’s and then crazy shoes. I do recommend you check with others first… although you don’t have to!!! =)

Also, I don’t know about Oliver, but especially during rehearsals, when the talking bits get long, I put a magazine on my stand and read. Remember that the audience usually can still see your head, so you prolly don’t want to drop your head and check twitter on your phone, but your music stand has a light so reading is perfect!!! haha!

ahhhh the good ol’ days.

 [–]ChocolateDoorknob[S] 1 point 7 months ago

Thanks for the help! Band call is tomorrow night so I’m excited to try playing with real people rather than YouTube recordings.

 [–]nycellist 2 points 7 months ago

have fun!

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