Playing to live vs. living to play

By Ande Jacobson

In December 2012, I wrote an article about the role of the pit musician in musical theatre. That article was written from a musician’s point of view and focused on the physical environment; equipment; training; mindset of performers who worked in the shadows; versatility that was required of pit musicians; and only mentioned compensation as a cursory aside. This article takes a closer look at the differences between pit musicians who live to play as opposed to those who play to live and discusses the challenges community theaters face with respect to pit musicians.

The SF Bay Area, and in particular, the Peninsula and South Bay regions, are rather unique given the wealth of theater available. For an eager pit musician, there are opportunities ranging from limited school productions, to full-scale community theater productions, to high-end professional productions along with everything in between. The monetary compensation for these various opportunities ranges from nothing at all to rates well above scale.

In the not-too-distant past, there were numerous community theater groups in the area that were entirely volunteer-based. They weren’t exactly the Mickey Rooney “let’s put on a show in the neighbor’s barn” model, but some weren’t too many steps removed from those quaint beginnings. There were heavy expenses associated with mounting a full-scale production, even if none of the staff or performers (including musicians) were paid. Licensing fees for musical theater productions were non-trivial as were facility and insurance fees for both performance and rehearsal spaces. Add material costs for costumes, sets, lighting and sound equipment, and a fairly substantial budget was needed to mount a production of any quality. For several decades, many community groups thrived on the good will of their locality, and people donated their talents to bring productions to life. Tickets were sold, but they were priced very reasonably (or were even free in many cases) so that the wider community could see these productions. Donations were gratefully accepted, but not required. Non-participants could also volunteer to work in the box office, usher, or staff the concessions booth to see productions for free in appreciation for helping out.

For many of these community theater groups, the musicians in their pit orchestras came from all segments of the local community (and many still do). Some were students who were looking for opportunities to gain experience playing in different environments. Some worked in music-related fields as teachers or performers. Some worked in various other professions such as medicine, law, engineering, finance, or education outside of music. Some worked in retail or other service fields. Still others were retirees who maintained their musical skills at a high level and wanted to give back to their communities. No matter their backgrounds or professions, these players shared two important things. First, they all had a love of musical theater. Second, they were skilled musicians who were up to the challenge of playing show music with little ensemble rehearsal. For these musicians their participation was a labor of love. They weren’t looking for financial compensation. Instead, they were looking for an outlet to make music and support their community.

Over the course of the last two or three decades, several of these community groups instituted stipends for their artistic staff, designers, and musicians. Some even gave their actors and stage crews a small stipend for their efforts. Although the level of the stipends has increased over time, they are still not intended to be wages per se. They are honorariums in appreciation for the creative efforts given to these community productions.

As the stipends have become more prevalent, some musicians in the community have become far more mercenary in their participation. Instead of playing for the love of their art, they are weighing opportunities solely on the basis of how much money they can make for their efforts. This is where a split between those who live to play and those who play to live exists.

This isn’t meant to take away from the skills needed for professional productions. It is understandable that professional performers who rely on gig income for their living would prioritize their participation toward better paying gigs. Professional productions, particularly in union houses, have to meet union standards for compensation along with various other conditions. Ticket prices are significant for these productions, and it’s only fair that musicians are paid well for the hard work and high skill level needed. Unfortunately when some members of the pit community demand that professional compensation levels trickle down to the community level, they have a negative effect on the spirit of volunteerism.

Some of the musicians in the pit community see the existence of volunteer pits as a threat to their livelihoods, but there is an important distinction. Community theater is not in competition with professional theater. Professional theater is a business intended to make a profit while offering a very high level of entertainment to its patrons. Community theater also intends to offer a high level of entertainment, but it is by the community for the community without the profit motive.

These community groups are generally non-profits chartered to serve their communities, and forcing their ticket prices to rival those of professional productions means that many in the community would no longer be able to afford them. The net effects would be a fall-off of support and a failure to follow a primary focus of their charters possibly causing them to lose their non-profit status in some cases. Worst case, it would force many of the community groups out of existence. Additionally, this demand would, and in recent times has in some cases, forced some groups to either greatly limit, or to remove live music altogether. It is one thing to reduce the size of a pit orchestra due to space considerations. It is quite another to do so strictly to pay musicians for services that were intended to be essentially a volunteer effort.

Reducing the orchestrations does a disservice to the actors, audiences, musicians, and to the composers and orchestrators. Sure, a lot can be done on a keyboard, but much of the richness of the score is lost by removing the color of the individual instruments. There is a fair amount of work required to reduce an orchestration gracefully, but doing so reduces the opportunities for musicians to play these shows. Also, depending on the licensing agreement, the group could be in breach of contract if they re-orchestrate the show.

Eliminating live music altogether does an even greater disservice as it removes an exciting and emotional element of the production. Granted, there are options like OrchExtra, Sinfonia, InstrumentalEase, or Notion where real samples on a computer replace musicians, saving space and overall costs in response to musician demands for higher pay, but they force the presentation to become more mechanical, removing some of the intangibles associated with live performance.

There are numerous pit musicians who have a foot in each world, both living to play and playing to live, and can view this schism from both sides. They have the requisite skills to compete with the best of the professionals, but they also have such a love of music that they choose to play in many community productions as well. Sure, everyone enjoys being compensated for their efforts, but many musicians also see the good that comes from their community-oriented efforts, and for those gigs, the pay isn’t their focus. They view the opportunity to play a new show as a benefit. They view the opportunity to hone their skills and in many cases to help others do so as well very gratifying. They have a passion for supporting the actors on stage and their community in helping bring this art form to life.

In the end, making this an either/or proposition hurts everyone. Perhaps the gig economy has pushed society toward thinking that financial compensation should be the only motivation for doing anything, but sometimes it’s important for musicians to look past that and consider what brought them to music in the first place. What are the intangibles that music provides? It would be a sad day for musicians if, because of the focus on pay, the pit opportunities disappeared for all but the highest level professional groups, and even there, only a very select few could participate. The SF Peninsula and South Bay areas are culturally rich, and the fact that musicians from all walks of life can live to play together in the pit if they so desire is something worth keeping.

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