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!


About Chris Stroh

Seattle percussionist and music teacher. OAKE Executive Board member.
This entry was posted in Musical Theater Percussion and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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