Playing in a Pit Orchestra: Anecdotes and Advice from a Percussionist

by Ryan Blauvelt

Places. Lights up. Downbeat. It’s the order of things for playing in a pit orchestra for musical theater productions.  The culmination of many hours of rehearsals, score study, listening sessions, and custom edits in order to bring together cast, crew, and of course musicians for a couple weeks of “showtime!”

It’s spring and that means musical theatre productions.  Playing musicals is something I’m pretty good at, especially when it comes to last minute notice.  I’ve been hooked on playing musicals ever since getting picked to play drum set in my high school’s first musical production, “Guys and Dolls”. It was a lot of pressure being in the driver’s seat for a music ensemble. Also, being depended on by actors and actresses for steady tempos, sharp hits, and joke reinforcement adds another layer of complexity.  But I loved the thrill of learning so much music very quickly and making quick changes to fine-tune my contribution to a well-performed show.

There’s some great words associated with musicals, my favorite being the word “attacca”, which means to play without any break between sections.   I just played a show that calls for 4 songs to be played attacca throughout, turning pages very quickly, most of the time with one hand while the other keeps playing.

For musicians who love to play and who are good at reading notation, musicals can be a great source of steady playing as a run of shows can sometimes go for weeks and months.  This also makes these gigs very difficult to land, as there is a lot of competition as well as lots of schedule flexibility needed to secure so many rehearsal and performance dates.

4 tips for getting more musical theater gigs:

1. Search the internet for local community theaters and junior college theaters and go see a show there.

  • After the show, introduce yourself to the music director as a solid musician to hire.
  • Have some business cards handy to give to the director and to some of the musicians.

2. Update your website with what past productions you have played.

  • Give focus on your versatility and reliability as these are traits that music directors look for.

3. Search the internet and social media (especially LinkedIn) for local community music directors and network with them.

  • It’s not about who you know, it’s about who knows you.
  • Make sure that music directors know you to be the dependable talented musician that you know you are.

4. Network with other pit orchestra musicians.

  • Every musician will need a sub to come in from time to time.  Make sure they know you to be a quality sub and can handle the part.

Now that you’ve got your pit orchestra gig: don’t be late, don’t play too loud, and make sure the director and conductor like you enough to help your chances of getting hired back next year.  And don’t forget to say “break a leg”!

Ryan Blauvelt is the Digital Print Publishing Manager at Sheet Music Plus and a professional percussionist in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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