One of the first things I did when I moved to New York City in the late 1990s was to look for ways to stay gainfully employed. I soon realized that many, if not most, professional musicians I knew were playing or “subbing” in the pit orchestras of Broadway shows at least some of the time. And for good reason: Broadway pit work is one of the few potentially long-lasting sources of steady income for musicians. Broadway shows typically have an eight-show workweek with a single day off (usually a Monday or Wednesday). A typical work day, once a show is up and running, is around three hours, and you receive basically full–time pay as well as health and dental insurance, and pension contributions. And from a musical standpoint, it’s rare that musicians get to perform with an orchestra. There are also more rock and pop shows in production these days that require musicians to play in many contemporary styles like funk, soul, hip-hop, and jazz. So what does it take to be a Broadway keyboardist? Here are five things to know so you’ll be prepared for this exciting world of work.
1. Be Versatile One of the first Broadway shows I started playing in was Rent. I knew a little bit about it: that it was hugely popular and that it was basically a rock show. I thought to myself, “How hard could this be? I grew-up playing rock ’n’ roll!” So I went to check it out and I was astounded at all the different genres of music in it. I was hearing punk, tango, pop, soul, house, rock, folk, and more. It was quite an eye opener, and I went home with a new outlook on Broadway music. The lesson is, be ready to play as many different musical styles as you can think of, as authentically as possible. The more styles you are fluent in, the more work you can do in the theater.
2. Be a Better Reader When I was playing in the pit of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, I remember receiving a phone call from someone who wanted to come and “sub” for me. He was really into U2 and knew that Bono and The Edge had written the music for the show. After I told him about the score and what it entailed, he said that he was going to be memorizing the music. I knew right away that this wasn’t going to be the right work for him. There are typically more than 20 pieces of music that make-up a Broadway score, and almost all of them are overwhelmingly “through-composed,” as they are meant to accompany what is happening onstage. You must be a good music reader if you are going to do Broadway work. Especially during the rehearsal period, scores change daily as edits and changes are being made to the choreography and story line. The good news is, there’s no special talent needed for reading; it’s a skill and if you work a little bit on it daily, you will see huge improvements.
3. Have Good Time Having an almost intuitive sense of time is of the utmost importance on Broadway. It means listening so deeply to everything that’s happening around you that you can be aware if things start to shift. Few sounds are worse than a musician who is not playing together with his or her section. Work on your time by practicing with a metronome, recording yourself, and listening back to critique your feel. It’s also important to remember to relax. Nerves can always be a hindrance, but being able to breathe through any tensions and settle in is very important.
4. Follow the Conductor In general, it’s important to keep your eyes glued to the conductor. You never know when things might change, when something might happen onstage that’s different from what the conductor was expecting. It gives the conductor confidence in you to know that you are giving your undivided attention (in case he or she needs to give you a note on dynamics or tempo at the spur of the moment). This means that the keyboard player needs to be able to play without looking at the hands, in order to maintain good eye contact with the conductor.
5. Have Discipline Every aspect of a Broadway show is painstakingly honed for years until it is “frozen,” meaning there won’t be any major changes happening for a very long time. Once a show is frozen, it’s the musician’s duty to honor what is written and play it true-to-form every time. Now, sometimes in shows, the music is structured so that the player can insert things like solos, vamps, and comping. In that case, it’s acceptable to change things as the music warrants it. More times than not, though, the music is written so that it can be played the same way every time, because that’s what works with what’s happening onstage. Discipline means playing things the same way time and time again. The musicians who do this the best are the ones who are always asked back, and asked to do other gigs within the Broadway realm.
Matt Beck is a multi-instrumentalist who plays keyboards and guitar with artists such as Matchbox Twenty, Rob Thomas, and Rod Stewart. He also recently landed a spot in the pit orchestra of the new Broadway musical version of Amelie. Beck’s most recent solo outing is Anything Which Gives You Pleasure. Find out more at mattbeckmusic.com.