At the end of Part 4 of my journey, I was regularly playing in three community symphonic bands, a couple of small ensembles, and playing in the pit for musical theater any chance I got. I was playing between five and eleven musical runs a year in between everything else while also continuing my software/systems engineering career. Outside of work, my routine amounted to a cycle of practice, performance, and repeat. This included a minimum of three rehearsals per week and a maximum of either a performance or rehearsal every night along with an added rehearsal or performance during the day on the weekends. On those rare occasions when I didn’t have an organized rehearsal or performance in the evening, I would practice on my own for an hour or two when I got home from work, and even longer on the weekends. For the first three years after getting back into organized music, I was also taking flute lessons one evening a week and getting in a bit of flute practice every day or evening at some point. I suppose in some respects, I was making up for all that lost time during my 17 year hiatus from organized music.
With few exceptions, I relished the time I spent playing. It was simultaneously relaxing and exhilarating. The biggest challenge was keeping up on so many different instruments. I was helped a bit by the fact that I played mostly clarinet in one of the community bands, sax in another, and flute in the third, so I was getting some practice on everything just by going to those rehearsals. For the most part, I didn’t need to spend that much outside practice time on my band music, but my show music was an entirely different beast. While the community bands tended to practice concert sets for several weeks, or in all but one case even months before a performance, shows ramped up much more quickly. Show music also tended to be more difficult, so it required a lot more focus.
After settling into my after-work music routine for a couple of years, I yearned to grow more as a musician and wanted to get into music direction on some level. My first opportunity arose during the course of one musical run. The music director was a friend of mine, and she encouraged me in this, letting me conduct a few times during our pre-show warmups once the show opened.
My next opportunity came about through one of the community bands. I had talked with the director about getting some exposure to the directing side of things, and he was all too happy to give me a piece to direct for our upcoming concert. He thought about the program and suggested that I study Light Cavalry Overture, by Franz Von Suppe. He gave me a copy of the score, and after I had a week or so to study it, he let me conduct every time we rehearsed the piece as we prepared our program for the concert. This piece wasn’t a huge challenge to direct as it only had a few minor tempo or meter changes, and the band could almost run itself on this one. Still, it was a good opportunity to put a few things into practice such as determining the proper tempo, becoming familiar with utilizing the score while directing, anticipating the cues to give to the various sections, and helping the musicians perform to the best of their ability on this piece. The most important thing that a director should do is to make things as easy for the players as possible by being very clear in giving directions and being consistent from rehearsal to performance. The performance went extremely well, and I was eager for more.
It wasn’t all that long before a key opportunity presented itself to finally get me firmly into music direction in the pit. I was scheduled to play yet another run of Seussical the Musical. Yes, that is a real show wrapping 15 Dr. Seuss stories into one coherent tale told mostly in song, and this was supposed to be my third run playing it. When the rights to a show first become available to the community at large, several theater groups in a relatively small area generally put in requests to perform that show. This can mean that there will be many productions of the show by different companies in the same area over the course of a season or two. With some of the more popular shows, there can be more than ten productions in short order. I had the good fortune to play the first run of Seussical in my local area when the rights first became available before everyone started requesting it, so I became very familiar with the show early on. Along the way, I was asked to step in and direct a run when the original director had gotten himself overbooked. Knowing that I was very familiar with the show, he gave me most of an orchestra that he’d already recruited, and my first duty was to replace myself on Reed 1. Normally a director is familiar with the score overall and has a good understanding of the parts, but they don’t always initially know every nuance of each of the parts, particularly for the things that aren’t written in the score. For most shows, the director reads from a condensed piano-conductor score which leaves out some of the details, particularly in the busier woodwind and string parts. While there are almost always additional embellishments to the parts that aren’t in the score, in this case, I knew the part I had played before extremely well, so I knew whenever my new Reed 1 player deviated from his part even if it wasn’t in the score.
Given this was my first time with the big stick (i.e., the conductor’s baton) rather than an array of instruments around me, I had a number of things to learn. I was fortunate that my symphony friend not only came to my rehearsals, he agreed to play a couple of performances during the run. After our first rehearsal, he told me that he was going to save me at least five years of study. Later that afternoon he called me, and we talked for a few hours as he gave me a complete critique of my direction. After that, I had a new mission. I needed to practice and incorporate the changes that he had suggested wherever possible. After the second rehearsal, he told me that he was impressed with how much I had improved after just one week. I also had two other music directors playing in that particular orchestra, so I was getting a good deal of feedback. As much as a director needs to take charge, they also have to listen to their orchestras, and if something isn’t working, they need to work together with the players to find a way fix whatever’s broken. It’s a team effort in the best sense of the term. The orchestra came together very quickly, and then it was time for the sitzprobe! The term “sitzprobe” stems from the German for a seated rehearsal, and it is generally the first meeting between the cast and the orchestra to start putting the instrumental music with the vocals. There is usually a level of excitement and anticipation at this rehearsal that outshines any other.
This production was slightly unusual even for the types of community productions in the area. Normally, a community group is either intended for adult actors or is a youth group. This particular community group was billed as intergenerational where kids and adults worked together on every production. Because there were far more kids than adults, some of the more experienced kids were cast in adult roles. They also double-cast most of their productions, and each cast had its own idiosyncrasies which made it a little more challenging for me as a first time music director. Knowing that particular show as well as I did was really what made it so successful, especially given some of the live-theater mishaps that occurred during the run. The proficiency of the actors ranged from very experienced performers to those who couldn’t identify a stage if it stepped on their foot when rehearsals started. Besides being intergenerational, the company cast all comers to make it fully inclusive. They did a good thing for the community in the spirit of true community theater. The exception was the orchestra which was left to the director to staff, and I used a combination of a few talented company regulars and many of the musicians I’d played with in previous runs who knew the show as well as I did.
After two-and-a-half months of rehearsal, we finally opened our two week run to very full, appreciative audiences. The few times where things went a little astray, I was able to think on my feet and keep the orchestra on top of the action, although in the moment things got a little scary at times. I’ll leave the specific mishaps to another installment in this series.
All in all, it was a great learning experience, and it prepared me for many future runs as time went on. Over the years, I bounced back and forth between playing in the pit for some shows while providing the orchestral direction for others. One of the parts of music direction that I continue to relish is mentoring promising young musicians through their first pit experience. Pit work is very different than playing in a large concert band or symphony orchestra. In some ways, it’s more like a chamber group as each part is often unique and stands out on its own. Because of the interplay between cast and orchestra, it has some significant differences. I discuss many of the unique aspects to pit work in my piece entitled: The role of the pit musician in musical theatre. Over time, I pulled back from regular participation in the community bands I had played in and focused almost all of my musical efforts on theatrical music. The exceptions included playing a few sporadic concert or church gigs, or substituting in the occasional jazz band when it fit my schedule.
The story doesn’t stop here. In the next installment, I’ll look at two outside influences that changed local music, particularly theatrical music in some fairly dramatic ways.
My magical musical journey: Part 4 – my return to organized music
My magical musical journey: Part 3 – the college years
My magical musical journey: Part 2 – high school acceleration
My magical musical journey: Part 1 – the beginning
Classical Music, Why Bother?: Hearing the World of Contemporary Culture Through a Composer’s Ears by Joshua Fineberg
The Great Courses: How Music and Mathematics Relate
How to Listen to and Understand Great Music by The Great Courses
Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks
Remembering Mom and Dad by Ande Jacobson
The Student Conductor by Robert Ford
This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin
What to Listen for in Music by Aaron Copland
What to Listen for in Mozart by Robert Harris
What to Listen for in Beethoven by Robert Harris
Who Needs Classical Music?: Cultural Choice and Musical Voice by Julian Johnson
The role of the pit musician in musical theatre