Downtime etiquette for theatre musicians, or, Should smartphones and tablets have a “pit” mode?

There is an apparent difference of opinion among theatre musicians, music directors, and other theatrical personnel over the propriety of using electronic devices during performances of shows.  Not surprising; the presence of these devices as staples of our lives has created controversy and ruffled feathers in all walks of life.

It’s a complex question, but let’s try to boil it down.  What is the standard of professional conduct during a performance for music director/conductors and pit musicians with regard to matters unrelated to the job at hand?  Should they be allowed to do anything but perform the music, and in particular, use their smartphones, tablets, and laptops in the pit or otherwise on the job?

The issue, in short, is this: No part of an audience’s experience of a theatrical performance, no matter how tiny, on stage or off, should interfere with their suspension of disbelief.  As a rule, that means that an audience should be aware solely of what the director wants them to be aware of.  If an orchestra is not part of the visual presentation of a production, the orchestra should be unnoticed.  If there is an open orchestra pit, musicians who are visible should never be seen doing anything but playing the music of the show.  This applies even more stringently to a visible conductor, whose profile is likely higher.

Historically, anecdotes abound of pit musicians finding inventive means of entertaining themselves during downtime–scenes, long rests, tacets, and breaks.  As much as these (sometimes antic) activities can help to relieve tedium and offset any deterioration in performance that a repetitive performance schedule might contribute to, there must be a balance between concentration and distraction.  In most situations, it is up to the music director to set any policies on pit conduct.  Although he or she may not be able to officially enforce them, one would hope that the performing ensemble take them seriously.  A music director’s regulations are rarely without purpose.

(Oh, for the days–the 2000s–when this problem was simpler, when the sound department would blame that annoying digital interference buzzing through the system on anyone connected to a cellular network and near a monitor, in particular pit musicians–until pit musicians got wise and realized that it was just as likely an audience member causing the problem…and used their phones anyway.)

Here’s my personal history on the topic. One of my first Broadway subbing experiences was at Starlight Express, a show whose orchestra (and 4 pit vocalists) was sequestered to a carpeted upstairs space, their accompaniment piped into the house remotely.  (I believe this was one of the first examples of this approach to live theatre.)  Musicians freely wandered about the room between numbers, went out to the stairwell for smokes and other unmentionables, the singers played cards and knitted, but whenever a cue was near, this superbly talented outfit were back in their chairs and played the hell out of the (rather pedestrian) score.  Though taken aback, I thought, ok, there’s no damage to the music, so what the heck.  I was too scared to wander from the safety of my keyboards. My perhaps falsely applied formality was shaken, but the level of expertise in that pit was undeniable. As a twenty-something sub, I accepted it as part of my learning experience. When I eventually did conduct my first shows on Broadway, their music was non-stop, so there was no opportunity to do anything but the music.  (Similarly, as a long-time keyboard sub at the original Les Mis, I memorized my book, but never did anything but the music occupy my music stand or hands, as the music was continuous.)

Around that same time, there was also a traditional pit with an elaborate pulley-and-tube system for note-passing (modeled after those cool hydraulic thingies they used to have at the electronics stores), several with ongoing chess, gin rummy, and poker games, and another where the musicians were notorious for leaving the pit and scrambling back into place just in time to play (not always successfully).  Over time, I got caught up in the flow.  When later I conducted a very long-running show on Broadway for a very long time, I began to leave a magazine on my music stand to leaf through during the scenes (no cellphone, though).  Within a few days stage management had reprimanded me based on complaints from the actors that I was reading instead of conducting.  I had violated the rules by interfering with the performance for the actors, and thereby, for the audience. Some years later, based on and biased by my rebuke (which I took seriously), I was very put off the first time I saw a conductor use a cellphone on the podium–ostensibly to take notes on the performance, but I felt reasonably certain he was shoring up his post-show plans.  Attracted by the light of the screen, an audience member in the front row looked away from the stage and into the pit.  I was subbing the show on keyboards for the first time and the sound man had cautioned me to leave my phone in airplane mode to avoid interference.  So did the conductor’s phone have a magical anti-interference device built in? Or was a little noise in the system an acceptable tradeoff for an improvement the next night?

Since then I have pondered this (minor) moral dilemma. Why at this highest level of the art form was the behavior of the musicians, myself included, at its most unruly? The answers?  Well, ideally: 1) Broadway musicians are indeed at the top of the musical heap, and can be relied upon to play their best at all times, regardless of what else they’re doing down there, and 2) Broadway musicians get bored.  They play the same damn show over and over and over. But…

The basic union pay scale for an instrumentalist in a Broadway pit is about $100/hr for a three–hour service. For a conductor, it’s nearly double that, and other premiums increase both the sideman and conductor scales considerably. That’s not a bad paycheck for a musician, and what’s more, it’s reasonably steady. In other words, a plum gig. Is it really too much to ask of someone making such a solid salary to simply do their job, and nothing else, for that three-hour period? In addition, Broadway subbing rules are extremely (perhaps excessively) generous. If a musician doesn’t feel like playing a certain performance, he or she can easily hire a substitute. There are also leaves of absence easily available to ease the burden of the daily grind and allow musicians to work elsewhere. Under these circumstances, why shouldn’t a musician be required to pay attention throughout the performance, even when he or she is not actually playing? And even when the pay is not in such rarefied territory, do we not still have a job to do? Do other professionals allow themselves such interruptions in their workflow?

The reality is this: most musicians who play any piece of music enough times will get tired of it. Their pit job, however, may be their primary source of income, and in that event, there is no way they will give it up, regardless of its relentless repetition. So they devise anti-boredom strategies, and because of them, they actually play the music better. (A good indication that a musician might want to change jobs would be their inability to maintain their quality standard even with the diversions in place.) As long as their practices in no way diminish the quality of the work, music directors should probably let them be. With limitations, of course: undesirable glare or noise from a phone or tablet; lack of attention to a conductor’s in-show note or announcement; dropping items on the floor when trying to swap a Kindle for a clarinet, and so on.

As for the music director, well, let me opine by example. More recently I conducted a Broadway show with long scenes between the songs. I mean, very… long… scenes. The pit was wide open, and I and my podium were in full view of the audience. And it was baseball season., with my team in a pennant race. For me, a recipe for trouble. After some feeble attempts to view the MLB.com feed on my phone long enough to check a score, or watch a few pitches, I remembered my reaction to the conductor who caught the audience member’s eye, and a few weeks later, I resigned from my job. Though perhaps an overcautious response, I figured that if I didn’t have the wherewithal to get through those two and a half hours fully committed to the piece of theatre whose music I was responsible for, I shouldn’t be there at all.

Naturally, this will not be everyone’s course of action, but conductors, please: put down your cellphones unless you are totally invisible to the audience and cast, which, with cameras now focused on almost every conductor, is a rarity. You can take notes on paper, and do your email at intermission or in your office. Don’t open your actions to the interpretation of others as non-involvement. Or better yet, stay involved. If you can’t stay involved, get a sub. There are lots of folks who would gladly step up to the podium and leave their phones in the locker. Your position of responsibility comes with actual responsibility, and your behavior sets the tone for others’. As I say in my book, Music Direction for the Stage: A View from the Podium, you are the only member of the creative team who actually attends each show, and in your case performs it. As their representative, it is incumbent on you to to carry the creative torch, and keep it aflame.