Friday, April 20, 2018

View from the pit: Self-care

One of my former students became a civil engineer. She told me there was one rule of engineering: the bridge may not fail. As musicians, we have a similar rule: the performance may not fail. We do whatever we can to make sure the performance is a success, and sometimes we lose ourselves in the process.

A few reminders about self-care:
  • Create a performance set-up that is as healthy as possible. Do what you can in regard to seating, lights, space for movement, comfortable clothing, whatever you can control that will help you to be more at ease.
  • Stay hydrated. Playing for several hours requires significant muscular action, and your body will need water. 
  • Practice with awareness. Notice when a lack of trust causes muscle tension.
  • Practice to problem-solve. If you are playing on short notice, don't waste time on the easy parts. Score study and mental practice can also be helpful.
  • Communicate with other pit members and the conductor. When in doubt, ask!
  • Take advantage of breaks. It may be better to walk around and shake out your arms and legs than to spend the whole break practicing that hard spot. Break time is also an opportunity to get some protein in your system.
  • Get adequate sleep. Seriously.
  • Put mistakes in perspective. Accept that they will happen because you are not a machine.
  • Last, but not least, breathe.

In retrospect, this last minute call turned out to be an opportunity to re-evaluate the elements of pit-playing. And I did have some fun! If you have a student performing in a pit for the first time, you may find it helpful to share my ideas. If you are an experienced pit player who would like to add more helpful hints or share some amusing anecdotes, please do so.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

View from the pit: The Inner Game of Pit Playing

In place and ready to rehearse. Most of the physical aspects of the preparation are also in place. From here on in, the challenge is going to be focus.

As a piano teacher, I often play simple duets from method books with my students. The first time through can be rough because they have no idea what my part will sound like. I encourage them to keep counting and stick with their part while acknowledging that they have no idea what I will be playing. Multiply this by the number of players in the pit, and that is what the first rehearsal sounds like. And each rehearsal can sound very different as players figure out what to play and when.

If there is a recording available, that can help. However, the conformation of the pit may be very different from a full Broadway orchestra. Most schools and community theatre companies scale back the orchestration to the most important instruments. The piano book may have abbreviated indications of what instruments are playing in certain sections. I needed to remind myself of the meanings for cl, va, vc, and bass cl, then realize that we had no va or vc in the pit. It is common for the keyboard player to pick up missing parts.

Barry Green and W. Timothy Gallwey created an equilateral triangle in "The Inner Game of Music," and I reference this often in teaching. It is called the will-awareness-trust triangle, which I sometimes shorten to WAT. Let's take the will side for granted in this case, just because I'm actually at the keyboard in the pit, and I certainly don't want to mess up. Awareness becomes really wide for me in a pit situation. I need to know where I am in the score, what key I'm playing in (keys often change a lot in musical scores), what cuts have been made, what repeats have been added, what may change in the moment depending on staging, and whether or not I have a brief solo, all of this for starters. And what is happening in the rest of the rhythm section and the pit as well as watching the conductor with a combination of peripheral vision and very fast glances. Concentration is not really the same as inclusive awareness as most folks concentrate by blocking information. In the pit, I need to prioritize lots of information.

And then there is trust. I recently read that the problem with remembering humiliating experiences is that the memory feels like reliving the moment. This may or may not be true for other kinds of memories, but regardless, remembering mistakes is far from helpful in performance. The actual experience of embarrassment may be years in the past or from last night's rehearsal or the last 8 bars, but the moment of recall feels present. If the music is under-rehearsed, it is darn hard to trust what will happen in performance. If the trust issues come from negative self-talk or reliving old failures, the third side of the triangle may collapse.

One night I headed out the door by saying to my husband, "Well, I wonder what I'll mess up tonight?"  On my ride to rehearsal, I mentally slapped myself upside the head for doing something I advise against - predicting a poor outcome. After that, I changed my mantra to a message of focus and rolling with the changes. So. Much. Better.

But, as the drummer warned, don't get overconfident. Anything can happen in the pit from night to night. Stay focused and ready to adjust. As one of my experienced pit-playing friends says, "It's always an adventure."

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

View from the pit: Places, everyone!

Kleenex, water, piano glasses, sharpened pencils with erasers, and the musical score. All of these go to rehearsals with me, and I always arrive early. I often toss my portable adjustable bench in the car just in case there is no reasonable seating available. Most pits include a digital keyboard that may or may not have a bench with the set up. Depending on the keyboard, there may be different sounds available to cover for instruments like harp, celeste, harpsichord or other instruments that are not covered by live players. According to a more experienced pit pianist, new scores involve hooking into computer patches for a variety of sounds.

Next step: scope out the set-up. The word "pit" is used both to mean the whole collective of players as well as the location where they play. Sometimes it is a specially designed area, what you see in opera and Broadway theaters. It may be as simple as the floor space in front of the stage, which may be ample or crowded. When it is crowded, the line of sight to the conductor may not always be ideal, so learn to count and to listen. Some shows actually have the pit on stage or behind scenery, with the help of video and audio monitors. Some players would rather not be able to see the stage, mainly because it is easy to get distracted that way. If the pit is covered, there is no way to see the stage. Keeping track of the action is the responsibility of the conductor.

The pianist in a pit orchestra is a member of the rhythm section, typically piano, bass and drums. In some groups, like the jazz band I joined in college, there is also a rhythm guitar player who plays chords and takes solos. Yet another reason to learn to count! Being in the rhythm section offers an opportunity for a level of collaboration that is very different from playing in a classical ensemble. The rhythm section holds the pit together, and we also tend to hold each other together. Even though I haven't had a lot of opportunities to be in rhythm sections, they were always sources of positive energy working toward a common goal. May yours be the same.

The next adjustment is to the keyboard itself. If you own one that you bring to gigs, you already have the elements of touch figured out. What surprised me in shifting to the pit keyboard, which was a  good quality Korg, was that some of my accuracy was impacted by the change in response of the action. I would have expected it to be easier to be accurate on a keyboard that had a lighter action, but that wasn't always the case. Another example of how movement becomes habituated on a very sensitive level. However, I'll take keyboard glissandos over piano glissandos any day!

Another pit skill is minimizing the use of the damper pedal. Admit it, we pianists love our damper pedal, even when we don't need it, and I am no different. Check out the nature of the score. If the part is very rhythmic, the traditional "boom-chick" kind of part, you don't want that to be muddied by damper pedal. Remember, you are part of the rhythm section. I enjoyed the lovely ballads in this show when I was required to use the pedal, and I also used it for special effects. Otherwise it was a pretty dry approach.

Except for how hot it was in pit. Another reason for packing Kleenex, to pat my hands dry. And another reason to thank a rhythm section colleague who brought a silent electric fan.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

View from the pit: Even the changes change

I expected to be the weak link in the chain. I was a last minute substitute for the keyboard player in the high school musical pit, so naturally I assumed that I would be buoyed along by the rest of the gang. Not just assumed, more liked hoped and prayed.

The last time I had played in a pit orchestra was decades ago. It's the one kind of ensemble playing that I often avoid. Let's face it, most pianists aren't trained for this kind of playing. We learn to collaborate with duet partners and soloists and the occasional small ensemble. We play for choral ensembles and congregational singing. Unless we have experience playing in a band or orchestra, we have little experience playing a part with multiple measures rest and only one measure of cue notes to follow. We like to know what is going on in the other parts at all times. We are greedy for notation.

The first rule of being a collaborative pianist is that the pianist is always wrong, even when the pianist is right. We like to see all the parts because we know that it will be up to the pianist to correct for errors in other parts. That means watching, listening and being ready at any moment to jump forward or backward in the music. When beats get dropped or added, or tempos make drastic, unplanned shifts, the pianist has to be prepared to make the best adjustment possible at the moment. If we can't see the other parts, this job of correction is much more difficult.

Knowing all that, I walked into the first rehearsal with a backlog of memories, not all positive, from previous shows. My brain took me as far back as creating a two-piano pit with my high school choral teacher. And here's what I remember: the one time she asked me to transpose a song down a step, and I worked and worked on it. By rehearsal I could only get through the first verse, so I waved to her to come to her piano and finish it. But, alas! She went back to the original key! I can still feel the blush coming into my face, feeling so wrong after working to be so right. First major lesson: get all the changes straight, because even the changes may change.

And when rehearsal time is limited, remembering the changes is even more critical. Working from a rental score means being careful not to damage the pages with ink or pencil that can't be erased. One of my strategies was to use translucent page flags to mark critical repeats, meter changes, and vamps. An excerpt illustrates this post. I also played from the piano book but referenced the full piano reduction for vocal cues and instrumental lines. Since I was playing from a keyboard, I was able to set up two music stands to accommodate both scores side by side, and I used matching colored page flags in both scores at critical junctures. All this done, I was ready. Or was I?