Improvisation and drumming in pit orchestras

Recently a student of mine from overseas sent me an email soliciting my advice. She had just visited the US to get a taste of musical theater here, and took several lessons from me during her stay. She had a job as music director of a production of Avenue Q in a nearby foreign country, and wrote to ask me about improvising on or taking liberties with the written parts of the orchestrations for this and other shows. In particular, she noted, the drummer for her production did not read music well, and was playing his part differently each time through.

For the most part, music directors should only permit improvising if the score or orchestration expressly calls for it. Stage orchestrations are written specifically to suit characterization, dramaturgy, stage action, movement, and so on. Therefore consistently executing an orchestration as written is a music director’s–and the musicians’–responsibility as accompanists to a production. Of course, if a score or orchestration includes chord symbols or other musical shorthands, improvisation is intrinsic to the work, but must still operate within the limits that the music director proscribes. Obviously certain styles take better to improvisation than others, but even those that would seem to, such as rock or jazz, may still have restrictions when accompanying something on stage, primarily musical theater or pop music performance.

Yet it is entirely understandable for musicians who play a piece of music repeatedly, as in a Broadway show or on a concert tour, to get bored, and it is also understandable that they would want to improvise or “improve” on the written (or otherwise predetermined) part.  A modicum of improvisation can improve morale, demonstrate respect for the musicians’ natural creativity, and enliven performances, provided it serves one of those two purposes (to improve on the written part or to alleviate boredom), and as long as it does not in any way significantly affect the goings-on onstage.  In fact, music directors and musicians customarily make changes to accompanimental parts so that they better support the staging for a particular production (such as adding a dance accent or slowing/speeding a tempo).  Indeed each new production to some extent involves, or should involve, customizing its orchestration.

For a music director, it can be difficult finding a balance between telling your musicians what to play and allowing them to play.  I find it best, whenever possible, to connect musicians with the stage content–tell them explicitly what is going on stage and exactly what they are accompanying, in action, meaning, and emotion. With your conducting in rehearsal and performance, demonstrate this connection gesturally and in your involvement with the music, the stage, and the interaction of the two. This approach will encourage in each instrumentalist consistency and responsibility to the production overall. The accompanying musicians, you among them, will temper any “enhancements” with the knowledge of their consequences to the whole. Whenever extemporaneous enhancement exceeds the agreed-upon limits, it is the music director’s job to keep it in check. All of this can also apply to singers and singing on stage.

Of course, the simplest solution to my student’s drummer problem would have been in the contracting of the drummer.  Readers might refer to my anecdote in Music Direction For The Stage: A View From The Podium of the drummer who nearly brought down a Broadway performance by preparing only by listening to the original source material. Music directors must, when able, thoroughly investigate any instrumentalists (including substitutes) for their specific abilities or inabilities, and make hiring decisions that best serve the production. A brilliant drummer may not be a brilliant pit drummer, or the right drummer for a certain show. There are not many drummers who read well, follow a conductor well (with great sensitivity, one would hope, at least under a sensitive and articulate conductor), and who have good time and can groove in diverse musical styles. This combination of talents is why so few professional drummers do the lion’s share of the work, and why I, like many of my colleagues, am very cautious in my hiring choices. (If over the years I have developed a professional reputation of being hard on drummers, I hope this article will help to explain it!)

Keeping good time is obviously a drummer’s primary asset, but there is far more to good drumming than a solid beat. Groove and feel define tempo, which must not just be metronomically correct but musically appropriate (and possibly authentic).

There are countless interpretations of this most common of drum patterns:

 drum excerpt

They depend on style, notational style, feel, taste, dynamic, dramatic purpose, and many other variables. A show drummer must have the insight to make informed decisions about how to play this and other simple patterns, when and what to add to it, what specific instruments to play it on, with what sticks, and so on. Music directors, too, should be aware of their choices and be able to confirm or adjust them as needed. It seems logical that highly trained, often “classical” drummers would be good pit players, and often they are, but their talent or training may have given them great musical and technical skill but perhaps shortchanged their mastery of feel and groove. Drummers who are less classically trained may be more attuned to keeping great time with great feel and groove, but may lack the technical and musical facility that some show drum parts call for (elaborate percussion doubles or stylistic extensions, for instance).

All this having been said, my student was left little choice in her current situation (assuming that replacing the drummer was impossible) but to train the drummer, bar by bar, beat by beat, one number at a time, until the desired performance is ingrained, and then to insist that that performance be reproduced with each playing. She might devise a rudimentary notation system, a chart, perhaps, or even a list of significant events, that can act as a reminder for the player, something to put on his music stand during the show to ensure that he is playing the right thing at the right time, and which is on paper for everyone to see and share.

Joseph Church, July 14, 2014