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Teaching instrumental students to play musical theater.

Today's instrumental teacher knows most young musicians need experience playing a variety of musical styles--both as soloists and ensemble players--to ensure a livable wage in today's marketplace. One of the quickest avenues to developing solid timing, great listening, improvisation, sight-reading and flexibility under pressure is being a "pit" musician for musical theater productions. Nearly every high school drama department and small town community theater stages musicals, so opportunities for student performers are plentiful. Additionally, most directors are grateful to have trained musicians willing to work longs hours for little pay. But while the work can be easy to get, it can be daunting to instrumentalists of all ages who have little or no experience playing musicals.

A musical theater ensemble usually resembles a small band, but its purpose and operation differs greatly from concert groups. In short, theater ensembles exist to do one job: support the actors. The musicians are to be heard and not seen. Great swaths of music will be cut, other bits added in, requests for transposition may be made and any instrumental riff that upstages the actors will be muted or removed. Musicians trained in the world of adherence to the score and solo artistry may find this a difficult adjustment.

Thankfully, preparing students for the brave new world of musical theater is not an impossible task. With practice, training and time, most early-advanced performers can play a musical theater score. Beyond musicality and technical proficiency, here are some skills most musical theater musicians need to possess to be successful.

Learning The Score

One of the best ways for instructors to help students learn show music is to ask for a copy of the rehearsal schedule. Young musicians will want to start learning the show from the overture and then move through the score, but most rehearsals are not linear. If the rehearsal schedule is not available (or doesn't list musical numbers), here is a good order in which to learn the music:

1. Company and dance numbers. These are usually the most difficult pieces and due to the number of people involved, require the most rehearsal time

2. Solos and duets

3. Instrumental numbers (overture, entr'acte, curtain calls, exit music)

Help the student identify the structure and note all key changes. If working with a pianist, identify the chord patterns. This is extremely helpful information when having to improvise or make changes to the score. When the student has the part learned, sing the vocal lines and conduct them playing it so they get comfortable following someone else's direction.


Musical theater lives and breathes on rhythm. Any student wishing to be in the pit should be able to count long period of rests, keep steady time and be comfortable with syncopation and swing. The rhythm section (piano, bass, drums) have particularly difficult jobs as they play nearly every measure and provide the harmonic core (piano) and the pulse to the show. They must keep the rhythm going no matter what else is happening around or to them. They cannot panic and stop playing. If they must choose between playing the right note at the wrong time or the wrong note at the right time, they must choose the wrong note. Actors can recover from a sour note; dropped beats? Not so easy.

Sight-reading And Improvisation

In many productions, the music director teaches the actors the songs until a few weeks before the show opens, and the pit orchestra is brought into rehearsals. Even if tempi and cuts have been communicated to the musicians before their first rehearsals, there will be additional changes that must be absorbed instantly and accurately.

Pianists face the difficult task of playing from an orchestral reduction and many times, the pianist will not know which lines will be covered by other musicians and which ones will have to be played on the piano.

If there are weak members in the ensemble, the pianist may need to jump in to play the notes other instrumentalists miss.

Improvisation is part of every show. If an actor has difficulty with his part, the musicians may need to arrange the accompaniment in such as way that his vocal line is doubled. Choreographers will tell the musicians they want "22 bars" of music in a dance number, even if the score is written in 8-bar phrases. In more extreme circumstances, musicians will be asked to transpose songs if they are in the wrong key for the actors. The more comfortable a student is with improvisation, the easier she will find musical theater to be.

Most musical theater scores include "vamps"--measures that are repeated until cued to continue to the next part. Even when musicians are following a conductor, they should be listening for these cues so they are not caught unprepared when the music moves on.


Musical theater musicians need both musical and personal flexibility. No two shows are alike and musicians must always be ready for actors to miss cues, drop lines, jump ahead in songs or do any number of unexpected things. The actor is the leader and no matter where she goes, the band must follow. Musicians should plan to know the entire script, and all the songs, as well as the actors because musicians have to synchronize with actors no matter where they go or what musical carnage they create.

Personal flexibility is as important as musical. In theater hierarchy, the show director is the boss and the musical director, the actors and the musicians all report to her. The musical director is the musician's direct supervisor and is responsible for making sure the actors and musicians know the music, perform it well and stay in sync with each other. Musicians must respect the chain of command and run all suggestions, questions and concerns past the music director.

Repetition is an unavoidable part of being a pit musician. Players must be willing to work long hours and keep playing the same number over and over again, if necessary, as the actors drill music or choreography.

Musical Theater World

To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, actors are different from you and me. Most are gregarious, funny, creative and flamboyant. On or off stage, they perform for each other. And while theater rivalries can run deep, even in high school productions, most is forgiven if the actor does a good job and is professional with his fellow actors. The job of acting (not to mention crowded dressing rooms) leaves most actors with few inhibitions. They work long hours in pursuit of creating a good show, and they expect everyone else, including musicians, to do the same.

Most classically trained musicians are not flamboyant, nor do they try to entertain everyone else in the room. Hours of solo practicing have shaped most of us into introspective thinkers with plenty of inhibitions. Sometimes actors accuse us of being "lazy" because we are not accustomed to working the long hours, for little or no pay, that actors accrue when rehearsing a show.

When preparing a student to work in musical theater, instructors should have a frank discussion with the student on the realities of theater life: long hours, backstage drama, costume changes involving various degrees of nudity and "salty" humor.

If the musician is under age 18, the instructor must take the time to study the show being considered before risking that the precious progeny of the most straight-laced studio family isn't playing "Tits and Ass" (A Chorus Line') or "My Unfortunate Erection" (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2)) every night for two months. Most high school productions will be rated "PG," but it is still a good plan to check each show.

Time Management And Commitment

There is a saying in the theater that if you are on time, you are already late. Tardiness is simply not tolerated in the theater. Reliability is just as important: any musician considering musical theater must show up when he agreed to do so and follow through on all commitments. Prima donnas are not welcome. A musician wishing for a long and happy career in theater will arrive where he is to be at least five minutes early and will have learned his part and be prepared to play. There are two acceptable excuses for absences in theater: death and hospitalization. Actors show up even if they've just been dumped, or they are ill. I once played the second act of a show so physically distressed I had to go to the nearest emergency room right after final curtain. "The show must go on" is not a punch line; it is a way of life.

"Tech" Meek, Opening flight And Beyond

The final week of rehearsals before a show opens is called "tech" (or "Hell") week. Everyone must be there, every night, and rehearsals will go as late as they need to make the production as solid as possible before opening night. Musical theater musicians should plan to clear their calendars of anything but school (or work) and rehearsals. Student musicians may need to be reminded to get their homework assignments in advance so they do not fall behind in their classes. Instructors might also give common sense advice about getting enough sleep and eating well.

Opening night of any production is a celebration of all the hard work everyone has put in to create the show. It is also nerve wracking; "opening-night jitters" are real. Nerves can contribute to flubbed lyrics, dropped or jumped lines and missed cues. Musicians must be so comfortable with the score that they can make quick adjustments to whatever happens on stage. Musicians who plan for the unexpected are much better at following the actors wherever they go in (or sometimes out of!) the score.

All performing musicians are accustomed to working toward a performance goal, but most of these performances are one-time events. Theater productions can run for weeks or months (or, if in a hit Broadway show, for years). After opening night, the hardest part of being a theater musician is maintaining focus when the notes and the lines are so well learned. This is where musicians can take a cue from actors: actors will shape their performance a little bit differently each night as they respond to fellow actors and to the audience. Musicians can do the same thing: we can work to match tone with the singer or emulate the emotion of the words in the notes we play. Not only does this help the musician maintain focus, it creates an even more musical experience for the audience.


The experience of playing for a musical helps instrumentalists build strong skills in sight-reading, counting and improvisation. It teaches flexibility and careful listening. Best of all, these important musical skills are learned in an environment built on collaboration, creativity and camaraderie. In the famous words of Irving Berlin, there really is "no business like show business" (3) for helping to create solid, well-trained instrumentalists.


(1.) Hamlisch, Marvin. "Dance 10, Looks 3 (Tits and Ass)." A Chorus Line. 1973.

(2.) Finn, William. "My Unfortunate Erection." The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. 2005.

(3.) Berlin, Irving. "There's No Business Like Show Business." Annie Get Your Gun. 1946.

By Rhonda Ringering, NCTM

Rhonda Ringering, NCTM, is a professional pianist, recording artist, independent music teacher and writer whose articles have appeared in American Music Teacher, Piano & Keyboard and Clavier, and the is currently editor of The Oregon Musician. Her blog can be found at
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Title Annotation:THE PIT
Author:Ringering, Rhonda
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2014
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