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You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown ...

Discussion in 'Pit Orchestra Stories' started by pete, Nov 7, 2010.

  1. pete

    pete Brassica Oleracea Staff Member Administrator

    ... but not in this particular instance.

    I'm unwinding before bedtime, thus I have a chance to essay this, on behalf of my wife who recently played in a production of YAGMCB.

    First, this was a .... semi-pro production and admission was charged ($10 per person). The actors were all from a local performing arts school. I'd say that the oldest was about 15 and the leads were much younger. They did better than your average school group and some did an extremely good job, particularly the "Lucy" character.

    Now, the orchestration for the play can be done very minimally, but it's supposed to have a plethora of instruments and musicians, if you want "full-on Broadway". My wife, an alto sax player, was hired to do the reed book.

    * Before the first rehearsal, my wife realized two things: her alto needs repair and she doesn't play clarinet as well as she used to and/or the clarinets she has need repair. Fine. We rented her a soprano sax, instead, and she attempted some of the flute part. (That was soon discarded as she didn't feel comfortable enough to do the flute part.)

    * There was a bass, keyboard and drum set. OK, so we're going with minimal instrumentation. As I said, you can do this for this play. Hey, it's a small auditorium.

    Unfortunately, the producer thought it sounded "too thin" and decided to have both live musicians and the full instrumental track playing.

    Well, the first problem with that is the interesting echo effect from having the track coming from the front speakers and the live group playing in the back of the auditorium. Two things were also painfully obvious: the track wasn't exactly timed right, thus there was some instrumental and/or singing confusion and the singers and/or group had some a lot of intonation issues. The other thing, in my wife's case, is that she was using a "substitute" instrument, the soprano sax, for the reed parts and the track was playing the full orchestration. That made the blend a bit badly off. The track also wasn't the best, as it substituted synthesized instruments on many occasions. Hey, I like electronic instruments, but a synth sax patch doesn't sound like a sax.

    My opinion, regarding "pit" orchestras, is that you really shouldn't notice them coming in or going out: they're there to complement what's going on on stage. They're "support" 90% of the time. In this case, there were some really glaring entrances and exits. I'm just really, really glad that the live band did stop when the tracks did.

    Seriously, and my wife agrees, it would have sounded an awful lot better and would have been a lot easier for the kids on-stage if they had used either JUST the track or JUST the pit band.

    Interestingly, even though there were some "train wreck" moments with the band vs. the track, the kids did remarkably well: a couple intonation problems, as mentioned, and that's it. Not bad.

  2. Jim


    First of all, having a backing track playing for a live musical is always a bad idea. You've got a live foreground trying to vie with a static background. What if the singers/actors throw in a rubato?

    And then to try to put the two together--a live band with a recorded band? You're asking for trouble.

    The first musical my high school ever did was YAGMCB, when we only had 9th and 10th graders. It was a smash. The pit consisted of piano, flute, bass, and drums, and it sounded fine. In fact, it sounded so good that I can't imagine it with any other instruments. To me, this "thin" instrumentation was perfect for the simple Schulz humor of the show.
  3. Groovekiller

    Groovekiller Distinguished Member Distinguished Member

    Cruise ships use this setup a lot (horns + track). I've recorded several sound tracks for shows on ships.

    The production values need to be top notch, and there are lots of studios that can deliver the goods, but it tends to be even more expensive than hiring a few pros to beef up the pit band.

    I'd go with band only, no track, with a few ringers.

    SOTSDO Old King Log Staff Member CE/Moderator

    You could always go the rock show route, and have the track provide all of the audible sound, with the "musicians" just going through the trowser-stuffing motions...

    I have always had a secret desire to sabotage a rock group by sneaking into the sound setup and stealing the audio recording that they feed through the sound system. What a wonderful train wreck that would be.

    We were one of two bands on a dual bill a few years back, and the other group (a Latin based group out of New York. We thought that they sounded spectacular, until my lead alto player returned from a behind the scenes look at their setup; he saw the CD being dropped into the player with the very clear inscription "First Set" on same.
  5. Gandalfe

    Gandalfe Admin and all around good guy. Staff Member Administrator

    Sad. Live music is where it's at. But a lot of the audience doesn't even think about the music when watching a play. "During that kissing scene, what did you think of that throaty sax solo? What solo?"
  6. I 2nd the ... that happens on cruise ships all the time.

    That being said, you NEED to have in-ear click so that you can match the track.

    Both production shows on my ship and often some of the guest entertainers use in-ear click with track (usually filling out percussion, horns, strings, backing vocals etc. etc. etc.). The track is usually in the back fills and the house, and RARELY ever in your earphones.

    If click isn't possible then no backing track should be used.
  7. Jim


    I just finished doing a show in which the small pit band was in the wings stage right, completely hidden from the audience.

    I heard after one of the shows that an audience member was surprised to hear that she had been listening to a live pit. She thought we were a tape.

    I guess it's not surprising, since we were never seen or acknowledged during the show (during the bows the cast simply gestured to the wings and the conductor was too lame to come out to receive the applause), although we were listed in the program. I guess only true pit band geeks would have been able to have identified us as live. And in a way, to be thought of as a tape is a backhanded compliment.

    Still, it's a sad statement on the state of live music--that people expect to hear a tape.
  8. Groovekiller

    Groovekiller Distinguished Member Distinguished Member

    I once played a show in which a violin player stumbled upon walking into the pit, and crushed the belly of her instrument. It was a Stainer - a real one.

    She received a very high price for restoring the instrument from a highly reputable violin repairman.

    Later, I asked her what had happened after the accident. She told me about the high estimate, and I told her that she should go ahead with the repair despite the cost. There are very few of these violins in existence, and the cost was well worth it.

    She told me that I was the only one who had voiced this opinion, and she had indeed done exactly as I had suggested. She couldn't believe that the opinion came from a woodwind player.

    SOTSDO Old King Log Staff Member CE/Moderator

    That's what the house has insurance for. A friend of mine had his Mark VI tenor destroyed (not just badly damaged - so crushed by the fall that the insurance company "totaled" it - he bought it back for the sentimental value and hung it on the wall) by a famous television star as she walked past the stage left orchestra pit. The theater settled up right quick, including paying for a rental horn for him to finish the show.

    (The night of the tragedy, all of the tenor solos were covered (poorly) by the second book player, who booted them all over the place. What was supposed to sound throaty and soulful came across as rather whiney and forced.)
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