I’m in the throws of another 3 week run playing percussion for the 2nd National Tour of Wicked the musical. And, for those of you who have played this show before, you realize exactly what that involves. After all, it didn’t make an exhibit piece in the PAS “Rhythm Discovery Center” for no reason. Playing shows can be a lot of fun (and you’ll meet some great people.. some who seem to enjoy the occasional “photo bomb” (see above).
I don’t know about you, but many of the opportunities I’ve had over the years, like this one, I simply wasn’t prepared for. It turns out there is quite an art to show playing. They can’t teach you everything while your in school.. but you can always do more in preparing yourself for opportunities.
In an effort to share so others don’t have to learn the hard way here are a few things I’ve learned in the pit that make a huge difference in playing shows well.
Over Prepare I simply can’t stress this one enough. A few weeks in you’ll get the advance book. DON’T MARK THESE UP! You won’t play from these as you’ll need to return them on the first day of rehearsal (they’ll be forwarded to your colleague in the next city). They are simply for preparation purposes. During this time plan your set up and purchase any instruments you’ll need. The list for Wicked is extensive (almost 60 instruments)! Most important plan your set up to fit into the smallest area possible. There is never enough room in the pit and the closer you are to things the easier your life will be during the run. Place towels on xylophone notes you don’t play and place mallets there (lower register). Use small instruments if possible. Use minimal amounts of mallets and keep them in the same place always! Yes, I leave the vibe mallets on the vibe and the xylo mallets on the xylo. When possible I try to only use one set of each for all situations unless the part is very exposed and you have the time and space to use just the right mallet. Consider hanging tam tams and even a medium bass drum from the ceiling in the pit (in one case I had to do this to make things fit). Use timpani with gauges that work consistently! Show music is constantly modulating. Use only minimal music stands and don’t open music more than two sheets unless you have to. It takes too much space and time to open/close. Most of your work happens in this stage. Do EVERYTHING you can think of to be ready for Tuesday.
Know the Ropes and the Schedule Typically, you’ll have two rehearsals on Tuesday, in some room somewhere (more on this later), with a move-in later that evening. This is a REALLY long day. Be ready to be super tired afterwords. Don’t expect any of the traveling musicians to be in a cheery mood on this day. They have played the show hundreds of times by now and the last thing they want to do is rehearse it with you, who may have never played it before. But, they have to be there to fill out the band. They don’t hate you, they just may not be happy to be there.. yet. You’ll only have the opportunity to play each number once during these two long rehearsals. Have your advance book with you to return to the librarian who will ask for it sometime on Tuesday. After the rehearsal, house stage hands will schlep your stuff into the pit. There waiting will be more crew and sound guys who will be anxious to set mics after you set up. This is a critical step. Get your set up right so you won’t have to move anything major going forward. Wednesday there will be a 3 hour sound check in the afternoon. The first two hours are for the band and house sound with the 3rd hour with the cast. Expect to jump around numbers like crazy and be flexible. Wednesday is opening night! Huzzah..! After the first week expect shows on the normal Broadway schedule, Monday dark, shows Tue-Fri night, four shows over the weekend.
Expect no one to understand what your up against. Depending on the location of your hall the rehearsal location may be in a strange location requiring you to schlep up elevators and who knows where else. Don’t expect anyone making this decision to take this into consideration. Similarly, don’t expect there will be enough room in the pit for you and all your stuff. On rehearsal day (always Tuesday) I always on a break run to check out how things are looking in the pit as they set up the kit house and the rest of the band. Expect the unexpected and be flexible. Your very likely to run into a situation that some would completely freak out about. Stay cool, and find a solution that works. During the show don’t expect a lot of help from the conductor. Some are really great, throwing you cues to be helpful, some.. not so helpful.
They can’t teach you everything while your in school.. but you can always do more in preparing yourself for opportunities.
Get your Skills On Of course you need to be a good reader. Yes, you need to be a great timpanist, keyboard player (2 and 4 mallets), and know how to make good sounds on bass drum and tam tam. But, be ready for everything and anything outside the standard percussion instruments. Learn how to play shaker! This sounds strange but it takes some practice. In Wicked there is a lot of shaker playing, and most of the time you are also (while shaking) rolling cymbals, playing glock, vibes, and various other sundries. Learn how to really play congas! There are two really great conga passages in Wicked and both were cut by the current conductor because they weren’t being played well. Luckily, I pressed the issue and asked him politely if I could play those passages anyway. Practice making good sounds on frame drum, and an African talking drum. Anything is fair game.
Be Familiar with the Tech In most shows you’ll have instruments completely surrounding you not allowing you to easily see the conductor. They will supply you with up to three video monitors showing the conductor. Resist the initial urge to not use these. Understand the system for getting out of vamps. The conductor will usually indicate in one way or another the last time through a vamp, then you go on. Find a friend with an Aviom monitoring system and become familiar with how they work. Creating the right mix for you is very important. See below a pic of the Wicked percussion aviom module. Be sure to have enough drums in your mix. I also like having a good amount of bass and guitar. Be sure to be able to hear the brass and winds as well. Watch your vocal mix carefully as you’ll begin to rely on verbal and singing cues for important sounds at important times.
Playing shows is a TON of work. It can be super high pressure but at the same time a lot of fun. And, it can be the most lucrative free-lance work you can get, if you can get it. I hope you found a few of these tips helpful. And, I know there are a lot of you out there who have done this a lot more than I. Please leave us your “tricks” below and lets get a discussion going.