Playing in a Pit Band

This month’s blog post is about my recent experience playing in a pit band.

The gig, lasting a month, consisted of twenty-one rehearsal and eighteen performances over the course of two musicals: Alice In Wonderland and All Shook Up.

For the first musical, Alice In Wonderland, I worked right from the piano-conductor score by making a harmonic reduction.  In laymen’s terms, a harmonic reduction means to figure out the chords. I solidified my work by writing the chords below each measure.  My book looked like this:

Alice In Wonderland Book copy

Notice the taped-on tabs, for speedy song access, and the chords penciled in below the staves.

The principle skill set being exploited here is chord spelling. I produced a chord reduction by going measure-by-measure through the accompaniment to discover the harmony. (C E G spells a C-chord; D F# A spells a D-chord, etc.)   This was quite laborious and time consuming but four-and-half hour rehearsals are perfect for this kind of hunkering down. By the second or third rehearsal I had a complete chord chart for the entire musical.

Here’s a video of me playing the overture that I shot from my music stand:

For the next musical, All Shook Up, there were two main differences.  First off, I had an actual guitar part–a 100 page book featuring detailed instructions on how to play every inch of the guitar music.  The other difference was that we (the pit band) were on stage as part of the show.

Given that rehearsals began on Monday, the first show was on Wednesday, and the previous three weeks had been relentless Alice In Wonderland performances, the guitar book for All Shook Up was quite intimidating.  I had to woodshed like crazy to make Wednesday happen.

Here is a screenshot of one of the pages:

photo 1 (3)

Okay, multiply that by 100 and you have some idea of the workload.

However, a lot of guitar music (this piece included) is just a chord chart punctuated by sporadic licks, phrases, and motifs.  For example, One Night With You has a repeating motif common to 1950’s-era ballads.  This is the kind of song most players figure out by ear.

The problem, of course, is memorization—All Shook Up had nearly forty songs.  Reading is a necessity when you have two days to perform this many tunes.

Playing on stage, during a musical is basically a primer on mitigating distraction. Just look at the environmental chaos I endured.

I managed to block it all out by focusing on playing well.

All in all, the experience was a good one, albeit an exhausting one. The rigors of pit band work remind me of my general thesis regarding professional musicianship: making money with music is a blue collar affair.


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