Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Tales from the Orchestra Pit: Guys and Dolls Part 2

Today’s rehearsal – the first one for us orchestra members – was due to start at nine o’clock in the morning, so like a good musician I turned up fifteen minutes early as requested in order to set up. I always end up doing this – for some reason I have punctuality imprinted in my DNA somewhere, but over the years I have learnt that it is a rare trait among musicians. So as I expected, the rest of the orchestra turned up gradually over the next half hour whilst the rehearsal room was being prepared and the percussion moved into place, and it wasn’t until twenty past nine that we actually started playing.
I suppose now would be a good time to describe the instrumentation we will be working with. The full orchestration for the show is as follows:

·         Reed 1 (Alto saxophone, clarinet, flute (opt.), piccolo (opt.))
·         Reed 2 (Alto saxophone, clarinet, flute (opt.))
·         Reed 3 (Clarinet, cor anglais (opt.), oboe (opt.), tenor saxophone)
·         Reed 4 (Clarinet, tenor saxophone)
·         Reed 5 (Baritone saxophone, bass clarinet)
·         French horn
·         Trumpet x3
·         Trombone
·         Violin x4
·         Cello
·         Double bass
·         Percussion

Our version will stick very close to this line-up. We have all the brass, strings (doubled) and percussion (in fact we have three percussionists – one on drum kit and two on orchestral percussion). Strangely, our string section will also include violas, which is an interesting move seeing as there technically isn’t a part for them! Reed 5 will be played exclusively on baritone saxophone, with all the bass clarinet parts being transposed. Reed 4 will be played as written, as will Reed 3 except for the oboe and cor anglais sections which will be played on clarinet. Reeds 1 and 2 will be split between three players: I will play the clarinet and saxophone sections of Reed 1, someone else will play the clarinet sections of Reed 2 and a third person will play the saxophone sections of Reed 2 and the flute and piccolo sections of both Reed 1 and Reed 2.
I must confess this seems a slightly odd way to do it. It necessitates the flutist/saxophonist sitting between the other two players and swapping between Reed 1 and Reed 2, which I imagine is a bit of a pain. Plus, the system fails completely if there are sections where Reed 1 is meant to be played on flute and Reed 2 on saxophone. Fortunately, based on today’s run-through, such incidences are rare. But nevertheless it seems a lot of trouble to go to, especially considering that all of the flute parts are optional anyway and could be played on clarinet instead.
Apart from that one little gripe, though, the ensemble did come together very well and was soon sounding nicely balanced, with a rich full sound. There were a couple of players missing today as well, so it should sound even better when they are included.
However, the rehearsal was not without its problems. The main one of these was centred around the musical director himself, who was leading the rehearsal. The thing is, I am pretty certain based on what I saw today that he has not really done much conducting before, if any. This was not a major issue in the parts where there is a drum beat for us to follow, or even when the tempo is reasonably constant. On those occasions we were able to just play through it and he could wave his arms in a vague manner from time to time. But there are many many parts in this musical where there is no clear beat and the tempo moves around all over the place, as a result of the music having to fit with the on-stage dialogue. In these cases his lack of clear direction made it very hard for us to keep track of where we were in the music, resulting in what can only be described as a rather scrappy performance.
To a certain extent I can’t blame him for all of this. There are usually moments in musicals where it’s difficult to follow the written music because it is so closely linked to the irregular timing of the actors’ speech. Such problems tend to sort themselves out as the orchestra becomes familiar with the dialogue they are having to play against, so once we all get used to the actors’ lines we should be able to follow it a lot better. But it would help if we were given a clearer beat to follow. I mean, the musical director clearly knows this music inside-out, but that is no reason for him to expect that everyone else in the room does.
On a different note, I found it reassuring today to discover that I am not the only person who truly hates the song ‘Follow the Fold’. This is a mind-numbingly bland march that is meant to be played by the on-stage ‘Mission Band’, and as such recurs throughout the show. It really is one of the dullest pieces of music I have heard or played. I know it’s meant to be plain, as a pastiche of some of the more pedestrian hymn tunes out there, but really Mister Frank Loesser, I think you’ve gone too far. Seriously, I detest it with a passion. And it seems my fellow musicians share my views.
I also think it’s interesting to note that us orchestra players don’t really have to liaise at all with the other areas of the production. Our job is simply to do what the musical director tells us, and play our part to the best of our ability. We don’t have to concern ourselves with the choreographers or the singers, nor with the lighting technicians or the producer, nor even with the stage managers or the director. And on the basis of what I’ve heard today, I’m rather glad of that fact…
You see, apparently the choreographers and the musical director have not quite communicated as well as they could regarding the ‘Opening Street Scene’. It presumably wasn’t until the entire thing had been choreographed that the musical director discovered that the choreographers had been referring to a recording of a different version of the piece, that doesn’t match with the one we were to be playing. As a result, our poor musical director has had to rewrite that entire cue so that it fits with what the choreographers have prepared. I can’t say I envy him for that.
It also looks like we’ll have to cut some of the big dance number ‘Havana’, as when we ran through it today it was a whole two minutes longer than the version the dancers have been rehearsing with. I must say how glad I am that it’s not my responsibility to deal with these things!
That’s just about all I wanted to say about today. To finish, I have a few notes about the Reed 1 part, for anyone who finds themselves tackling it in future. Here they are:
  •  In cue 7B, ‘Home Sweet Home’, bar 11 should be a C not a D.
  • Cue 12, ‘Change of Scene – Scene 6 to 7’ is meant to be played on alto saxophone (this is written at the top of the page, but isn’t very obvious – it sounded really strange when I tried to play it on clarinet!)
  • In cue 24A, ‘Crapshooters’ Ballet’, bars 178 and 182 should have G naturals instead of the G sharps that are implied by the key signature.
  • In cue 26, ‘Luck Be a Lady Tonight (Utility)’, bars 2 and 6 should have B flats instead of B naturals.
  • In cue 28, ‘Sit Down’, I would advise that you don’t change to alto saxophone at bar 77 – there’s no time. Instead stay on clarinet, playing a 4th line D in bars 79 to 82, then change to alto in the following bars rest.
  • In cue 30, ‘Marry the Man’, probably the best way to negotiate the fast instrument changes is to hang the saxophone round your neck at the start and keep it there throughout, rather than using an instrument stand.

That’s all for today. Tomorrow’s rehearsal will be relatively short (only three and a half hours) and we’ll be throwing the singers into the mix! In the meantime I need to get a couple more saxophone reeds into playing condition, because I certainly won’t be able to last until the final performance with the two manky ones I’m using at the moment.


  1. I love your pit banter! As a long time musical director for both HS and community theater shows, whose husband is the pit orchestra conductor, your insight brought me much joy. :) We'll be doing Guys and Dolls next spring, and I'm wondering where the (optional) notes came from. On the MTI website, those parts are not marked as optional. Is it marked as such in the score, or on the parts? Thanks again for sharing your experience! I plan to show this blog to my students!

  2. Thanks very much for your kind comments - it's always good to get feedback, especially when it's so positive! I too was surprised to find that all of those parts were optional seeing as it didn't seem to say so anywhere online. But in the Reed 1 part, for example, all of the flute and piccolo sections are also written out for clarinet, on a separate stave. The same is true of the other parts marked 'optional'. It's a shame they don't do that with more musicals - I imagine it would make it a lot easier to find players for amateur productions!

  3. Would you be willing to share your transposed Reed book 5 parts? I have a bari. sax. player who cannot play bass clarinet. I'd be willing to compensate you for this:)

    1. Unfortunately I don't have any of the baritone/bass clarinet parts, as our Reed 5 player took care of the transposition themselves.