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.

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