Practicing on the Gig

In the late 1970s the great saxophonist and woodwind artist, Ray Beckenstein, took me into the pit of the hit Broadway musical, Sugar Babies. There I encountered another great woodwind artist, Dave Tofani, and I proceeded to ask both of them how they could continue to play the same music every night without going crazy. (I had not done a Broadway show at that point.) One of Dave’s responses proved extremely helpful throughout my years of playing in the musical theater. He told me that in order not to get bored, he would try to mentally transcribe what the other musicians were playing and thereby re-imagine the orchestration. That little bit of advice led me to think about and uncover other ways to improve one’s musicianship when doing a steady Broadway musical.

In today’s music industry, a Broadway musical is one of the few gigs that offers woodwind doublers a livable wage along with benefits such as pension, health care and sick days. In addition, after the first several months of a show, one can take off up to 50% of the time to do other work and still maintain the gig. These are the positive aspects of that type of work. The negatives are clear—playing the same music every night without deviation and in the same physical surroundings. The amount of creativity that one can bring to such a job is mitigated by the fact that the actors, singers and dancers on stage expect and need consistency from the performers accompanying them. This environment can lead to a situation where the steady players don’t practice their instruments as consistently as they might if they didn’t have the job; refrain from more creative musical endeavors because of the show schedule; perform with diminished musical concentration during the show; and are too accepting of mediocre levels of performance. I admit to have fallen victim to all of the above at one time or another. However, I have been able to pull myself out of these “states” by employing a variety of methods. Listed below are some that have helped me at various junctures.

  1. As a result of the repetitive nature that the theater provides, the woodwind doubler has a great opportunity to experiment using various kinds of equipment among the various flutes, clarinets, saxophones, oboes and bassoons. Often, I have found that equipment decisions I have made at home do not pan out on the job in the way I had imagined. Therefore, the show can serve as the ultimate litmus test. In making these equipment choices, I have found that it can be very helpful and instructive to focus on one piece of equipment on one instrument for several shows. Trying different horns, mouthpieces, ligatures, clarinet barrels, reed strengths, tip shapes, flute headjoints, etc., will afford the doubler the opportunity to determine those which yield the best response with the appropriate tone color. One can also determine how these equipment alterations affect the ability to blend with other instruments and the pitch tendencies of one’s instrument. A woodwind doubler needs to be aware of all these possibilities given the multitude of musical styles that we encounter.
  2. I’ve been able to use musical theater gigs to also experiment with and learn more about the varying embouchures we need to employ. This type of job provides the best environment to anticipate instrument changes such as switching from a high note soprano saxophone passage to a low register flute solo. (Hint: learn to put the flute under the bottom lip without rolling the headjoint towards your lips in order to feel the blowhole with the lips.) Or switching from a clarinet after playing a “legit” passage centered around the throat tones to a sub-tone solo on the lowest notes of the tenor saxophone. (Hint: learn to play with varying amounts of lip over your bottom teeth while maintaining contact with the reed for every reed instrument.) These demands of the woodwind doubler are typical and require a thorough understanding of the use of the lips and tongue positions, the pressures exerted by the teeth, and the shape and feeling within the inner mouth cavity required to produce the desired sound. Knowing the music well enough after playing a show 100 times or more allows the doubler to refine the embouchure adjustments needed to make all of the instrument switches successfully.
  3. Employing a wide range of articulations and knowing where to position the tongue for any of our instruments is a basic requirement for all professional wind players. The musical theater gig allows us to explore different tongue positions for helping us start notes and articulate passages at different volumes of sound and notes of varying degrees of length and intensity. Here are some situations that I have encountered and that require thought:
    1. Where must the front of your tongue be when starting a legato solo on a piccolo high “D” at a pianissimo level in order to ensure 100% success?
    2. Where must the tongue be positioned in the mouth cavity when slurring from a 4th space “E” to the “E” an octave above on a Bb clarinet?
    3. Where should the tongue be positioned on the reed in order to articulate short staccato low ”B’s” on the alto saxophone that are in unison with strings? (These notes should not be played with a slap tongue or lap tongue.)
  4. The ability to be flexible with regard to pitch and blending is severely tested during the run of a show. When a musician is in a steady group for many years that performs on a daily basis (i.e. a symphony orchestra or a chamber ensemble), he/she can get accustomed to the pitch/volumes/tonal tendencies of one’s colleagues and make the necessary adjustments. However, Broadway show work allows for frequent subbing on a daily basis and therefore any theater musician must be alert to the changes that revolving personnel throughout the ensemble bring. This situation can enhance one’s sensitivity and musicality. The ability to subtly move pitch up or down on the fly or change the focus on a note to accommodate better uniformity in a chord may not be noticed by many, but it’s the appropriate path to take. Taking whatever steps are necessary to elevate a musical performance is what defines a professional musician.
  5. Another fundamental of performance that can be considered concerns the breathing apparatus. When there is a several minute gap between charts, a good way to spend that time would be to re-imagine the inhalation/exhalation process and practice it before playing the next musical selection. I have found that if I choose one chart/show on which to focus my attention on breathing, I can usually correct lazy tendencies-not raising the ribs, stopping to breathe but not actually inhaling, not beginning the exhalation from the lower abdominal muscles, etc.
  6. An excellent way to improve one’s tone AND to keep alert is to always “sing” in one’s mind what one is about to play. Practicing this technique will carry forward to playing in other environments.
  7. Finally, the Dave Tofani approach is always available and useful. Listening to other players and attempting to mentally transcribe their lines, figure out the harmonic underpinning of a passage, or identify all the notes in a chord voicing is a great way to stay musically engaged and improve one’s ear training.

There never seems to be enough time in a day to practice all of the necessary fundamentals on each of our instruments. However, rather than spend the down time in the pit on a cell phone, writing letters, or reading books, I have learned to make use of the tools listed above to continue practicing—at work.

One thought on “Practicing on the Gig

  1. Pingback: Favorite blog posts, January 2019 | Bret Pimentel, woodwinds

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