One of the highlights of the past school year was our production of Guys and Dolls. It is the second time we have staged a musical with a pit (first was Cinderella two years ago), and I learned a good deal from it. In this post, I'll describe how we put the show together (focusing on the pit) and then give a few of my takeaways.
Playing the book for a musical is not an easy task, and therefore many high schools do not make use of students in the pit. At a small high school (around 350 students) and with small music ensembles (band and orchestra in the high school had around 80 students combined last year), we couldn't field a full pit. The scoring called for:
- six strings (four violins, cello, and bass)
- five reeds (playing 2-4 instruments apiece)
- five brass (three trumpets, horn, and trombone)
- one percussion (with octopus arms)
We wound up with:
- four strings (two violins, cello, and bass)
- two reeds
- five brass
- one percussion
- one piano
We ended up having all students in the pit except for me on a trumpet part.
Substitutions and and Subtractions
The biggest hole in our pit was in the reed section. We had a flautist and a saxophonist who covered a book and a half between them, but that left three whole books out. The saxophone player did some clarinet parts on soprano and the flautist read some violin parts to keep occupied. The majority of the missing lines were covered by our fabulous piano player. This meant that the overall sound of the pit wasn't as full and lush, but we had the important bits covered. Our "trombone" player was actually more comfortable on euphonium, so he played most of the show on that. I played mostly Trumpet 1 but had the student on Trumpet 2 cover some parts to give me a break or let me conduct and cue without being distracted by playing.
We were preparing for two weekends of shows (the last week of February and first week of March), so we started rehearsing the first week back from winter break in January. We met once a week for 75 minutes or so and took a week off for a band concert the same night (and a week without me leading rehearsing when my wife went into early labor! but that's another story...). We had our first rehearsal with some singers about 3 weeks before the first show, and the week of the show we did run-throughs with the cast on Monday–Thursday and a brush-up on the Wednesday of the second week.
drums/piano/bass are the key
I don't think we could have put the show together without a rock-solid rhythm section. Even if everything else seemed to be wrong, they were tight and focused.
get with the singers early
Even with a great rhythm section, I was doubtful through most of the rehearsals of being able to put on a quality show. The rehearsal that changed my mind was when some of the cast came in to sing a couple numbers with us. The immediate lift in energy from the vocalists and pit together are what took us from meandering through the music to playing well and having a good time. If I were doing another show, I would want to get this feeling a little earlier in the process.
conducting while playing is hard!
Conducting while playing is not something I recommend, but I have some advice if you have to do it for a show.
- Use both the score and your part book in rehearsal, but try to memorize enough of the score and write cues in your part book that you don't have to keep looking back and forth.
- Don't worry about conducting most of the time; if you have a good rhythm section, let them control the time.
- Be willing to not play when you absolutely have to give cues. It is better to do one thing well than fail at doing both.
- More than usual, the singers need to be confident and lead the ensemble (and you and the ensemble need to have good monitors to hear what the singers are doing).
it is worth it to use students
There are so many benefits to using students in the pit!
- Playing in a pit builds listening skills like few other high school ensembles.
- Key signatures will never be a problem for those students again (but wow, it's painful when they play their first show).
- Everyone learns the value of the pencil.
- There is a huge sense of accomplishment in getting through so much music. For most students, it will be the longest they ever play in one stretch.
- Musicals bind students together, getting more than just one ensemble to work together and feel like a team.
- And many more...
Doing a musical every other year is a pretty good plan for our school. It's tiring, and I don't think I could handle it every year. Part of me does look forward to the next one, though, and to taking the few underclassmen who played Guys and Dolls for another fun ride on Broadway.