If you’re a young musician wanting to break into the world of the West End theatre orchestras, where do you start?
It is impossible to walk into a West End pit job (or “hold a chair”) with no previous experience. Therefore, your first task is to deputise for the existing players in a show.
It may come as a surprise that players who hold a chair would need a deputy. You might expect a chair holder to play at all performances, but there is an unwritten rule that says that players can take some shows off. It might be because they have other commitments, taken on before being offered the show. I first depped in the West End because the keyboard player in the show Me and My Girl was also the assistant musical director, and needed to conduct at least one show a week.
If you want to deputise as a musical theatre pit musician, put yourself in the mindset of the orchestral player you want to work for. If a musical theater orchestral player needs a dep (and they do, quite frequently), there are at least seven things they look for in a musician.
1. Can you do the job? The West End is the highest arena for orchestral pit playing in musical theatre. The players are, without exception, extremely good at what they do. Are you up to the standard of everyone else? When you hit the West End, everyone expects you to be able to play the notes in time, in tune and in style – that’s a given. You need to demonstrate that you can play the instruments, play the music and fit in with the existing ensemble with the minimum of fuss.
2. Will you get on with the other players? Bear in mind that the musician you’re depping for will not be there when you work in the pit. If in your first performance as a dep, you annoy the people around you, you won’t be asked again. Getting on with your colleagues is as vital as getting on with your sponsoring musician. Will you fit into the social structure? The job is as important in the off-duty moments as the playing moments. If you can show that to the musician you’re depping for, you’re half way there.
3. Can you sightread superbly? You’ll probably be sightreading or reading music at very short notice – make sure you can do this (and count the bars rest of course). Most budding deputies in the West End begin by sitting next to the sponsoring musician in the pit once or twice. They then dep the following day, or later that week, or occasionally a month later. When you’re sitting in the pit next to your sponsoring musician, notice the difficult or exposed entries or the solos. Your playing will be judged on those later!
4. Does the fixer know you? West End theatre musicians are ALWAYS employed by an MU-approved orchestral fixer. It isn’t possible to work as a musician in a West End show otherwise (in fact, it’s illegal). Therefore you have to be known not only to the player but to the fixer as well. Check out the list of fixers (the Musicians’ Union can give you a list), and contact them too. If the fixer hears about you from different sources (personal approach or recommendation by another player), you’re more likely to get a foot onto the dep ladder. In my own case as a pianist, things were slightly different in that I got my name around without a fixer as a solo and rehearsal pianist – but once I got onto two fixers’ books, I was in work for six years without playing for anyone else.
5. Do you know the show, the style, the feel of the music? It’s not only competitive, the jobs are RARE! Do anything you can to know more than the other potential deputies. Take every opportunity can to see the shows you are interested in (and those you’re not), get to know the music, the style, the players. When I first worked on Les Miserables, I was asked back because I’d spent time learning the show before I arrived on the first day, and I knew it better than any other dep they’d had before.
6. What is your playing like? The sponsoring musician needs to know your playing. You’re up against other potential deps who have probably been taught by the chair holders themselves. The chair holder already has knowledge of their playing ability and their personality. Rather than taking your instrument in to a show and asking someone to hear you, booking a lesson from the resident player might be a good move. A coaching session or two on pieces, techniques and (maybe) pit-playing advice would give the player a chance to hear and work with you (and be paid for it).
7. It’s essential that you play a range of instruments. Almost all woodwind pit parts are for doubling and trebling, and if you can do flute, picc, sax AND clarinet, you’ve got a headstart. Even with the traditional musicals like Oklahoma, the wind parts are for treblers (usually clarinet/sax/flute, but occasionally for clarinet/bassoon or even flute/oboe).
And finally, expect to do some touring before working on a West End show. It’s a fairly tricky career to break into. I had been touring the UK and Europe for some time gaining experience as a pit performer before I received regular invitations to play in a West End show.
If you are determined, dedication and focus can help you get where you want to be.