A Pit Orchestra Primer

February 9, 2017

Are you interested in breaking into Broadway work as a keyboardist? Are you wondering what the gig entails and what skills need to be mastered? Well, there’s no shortcut for experience and cutting your teeth doing smaller Off-Broadway shows and cabaret gigs, but there are a few things you can work on to be ready for when opportunity knocks. Here’s a basic primer of some techniques that should be learned before making your Broadway debut.

1. On-the-Spot Arranging

Though the music you play in a Broadway show is almost always fully notated, being able to spontaneously create an arrangement is a necessary skill. Sometimes when you are in the early stages of a musical (such as participating in a workshop of it), there aren’t arrangements yet and you could be called to come up with an intro to a song, a basic accompaniment, or some underscoring for a scene. Having this ability will go a long way to ensure that you are kept as part of the show moving forward. Ex. 1a is an example of a basic melody and chord progression that you might see on a lead sheet. Ex. 1b is a way that I might flesh-out this idea so that it makes musical sense to what may be happening in a show, especially if the piano part is meant to be very exposed. Notice the use of the rolling eighth-note arpeggios to give a sense of movement along with the added ninths and fourths to the chordal harmony to create lushness.

2. Finger Stamina

Because Broadway music is meant to move a story along and to help the actors portray the scene they are in, sometimes you may be expected to play long sections of repeated notes to capture a particular feeling the composer and director are trying to convey. Because of this, there can be stretches of music that command quite a bit of finger stamina to get through. Having the chops to not fatigue in these moments is the key to a bright future in this line of work. Ex. 2 is a reflection of a passage one might be expected to play, with a relentless stream of 16th-notes that needs to be articulated strongly throughout.

3. Classic Styles

While more and more musicals today rely on contemporary styles of music such as rock, funk and hip-hop, there are still many Broadway shows that have a more traditional score and lean heavily on older styles like swing, twobeat and waltz. Having a grasp of these styles is imperative to doing well in the business. Even shows that have a modern flavor tend to have sections that dip into the styles of the past. Ex. 3 is one such style you may be called upon to play. It’s a stride pattern and the more convincingly and authentic you can play parts like this, the more convincing it is for the listener who is watching what’s happening on stage.

4. Sight-Reading

Sight reading is a necessary skill if you want to break into the Broadway world. Scores change throughout the process of putting a musical together, and there will be no time to wait while you figure out the notes on the page. You need to make musical sense of things right away, even if it means that you don’t grab every note on the first time through. You’ll never have to sight-read in a performance situation, but when you are in the early stages, you have to be able to move quickly on the music as it is presented to you.

So what can be done to ensure that you have the necessary reading skills to make it on Broadway? Practice! There’s no other way. Start by reading simple music for a little bit of time every day, and gradually select harder and harder pieces until you’re reading on a very strong level. Maybe start out with some easy Bach Prelude and Fugues. Start slow; very slow if you have to. Start one hand at a time if need be. Whatever it takes to get you started sight-reading on a regular basis will do wonders for your music reading, overall, when it comes time to do it for real.

It can also be a fun process because, as your sight reading improves, you’ll be making music spontaneously, and it’s fun to hear what comes out when you don’t know exactly how a piece sounds ahead of time.

Ex. 4 is something I wrote specifically for you to jump into and start sight reading. Using a metronome is very helpful in this situation, as it will keep you honest with your time.

Practice Tip

“When practicing sight-reading, grab whatever notes you can and if you miss any, keep going! Don’t lose your place or break time to grab a note you didn’t get. Keep moving forward. That’s probably the best advice I can give,” says multi-instrumentalist Matt Beck, who plays guitar and keyboards with artists like Rob Thomas and Matchbox Twenty. Beck recently joined the pit orchestra of the new Broadway musical Amelie. Find out more at mattbeckmusic.com.

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