Tag Archives: Orchestras

pit orchestra

Why We Should Advocate for Larger Pit Orchestras

by Anthony D’Amico, President Theatre Musicians Association (TMA) and members of Locals 9-535 (Boston, MA) and 198-457 (Providence, RI)

pit orchestraI received many insightful comments from musicians across our Federation after my November 2017 column addressing the downsizing of touring musical orchestras. Most of the comments suggested ways to educate the public about this issue in order to have them demand larger orchestras to enhance their theatre experience. However, one colleague in Boston asked me to expand on why a larger orchestra would provide the public with a more satisfying night in the theatre. What is it about a fully staffed pit of highly skilled musicians that gives theatergoers the unquantifiable thrill that only live music can offer?

Real Instruments Just Sound Better 

There is no doubt that synthesizer technology has improved exponentially over the last 20 years or so. Keyboard samplers continue to get better, guitarists are using Fractal multi-effects processors more frequently, and percussionists often use CAT technology to broaden their sound palette. However, I am convinced real instruments always sound better. A sampler cannot reproduce the turn of phrase of a master oboist, the excitement generated by a lead trumpeter, or the warmth of a full string section. Perhaps these things are unquantifiable, but audiences notice. In my experience, the average patron might not be able to explain why they prefer the sound of real instruments, but they know they do.

Music Sounds Better When Musicians Play Off Each Other

We musicians have all (I hope) experienced the unique thrill of interacting musically with our colleagues. Again, it’s a sensation that is difficult to express in words. It is an important element that transforms mere sound into art. In musical theatre, I would argue that, when a larger number of musicians play off each other in a pit, the musical back and forth raises the quality of the show. There is no doubt audiences do notice.

More Is More

As mentioned in my previous article, shows originally orchestrated with larger forces often tour with a reduced complement of players. Also, when shows are revived, it is common for the scores to be reorchestrated for smaller forces. A show that once boasted a full string section, hits the road configured for few or even no players. Three trumpet books are condensed into one, and so on. Obviously this produces a thinner sounding orchestra. But, we also need to be aware of the wear and tear these reduced orchestrations exert on the players performing them. Where once a three-trumpet section shared the burden, on tour one player is handling all the trumpet duties. I’ve often heard brass and woodwind players complain that their instruments don’t leave their faces for the duration of the show, resulting in fatigue or even injury.

While the obvious reason producers reduce orchestration is financial, I would argue this practice could very well hurt their bottom line. If the audience hears a show with the large orchestra the composer intended, what will these patrons think when they attend a future production with a small ensemble? Will they notice and next time think twice before spending their hard-earned money on the ever-increasing cost of a ticket?

In a recent phone call with TMA Vice President Heather Boehm, she mentioned to me that the Lyric Opera of Chicago produces one musical theatre production per season using their full opera orchestra. A show presented with these kinds of forces in the pit produces an authentic, remarkable experience. What will patrons in attendance think the next time they see a show with an orchestra of seven musicians? I guarantee they will notice. Recently, Jesus Christ Superstar was presented live on NBC utilizing a 32-piece orchestra. Playbill, in listing the seven best things about this broadcast, ranked the use of a large live orchestra as number one.

At recent Theatre Musicians Association (TMA) conferences, we have often discussed this issue. These meetings have produced useful ideas to raise audience awareness of pit size and quality using a few simple actions. For example, if a show in your local theatre uses a large orchestra, take a few minutes to express your approval on social media or in the comment section of online reviews. Conversely, negative comments can be added to shows using small ensembles. Increasing the pit musicians’ visibility is important, and can be achieved by having musicians hand out leaflets in front of the theatre before a show, giving short bios of the talented musicians they are about to hear, and inviting patrons to come to the pit before the performance or during intermission to say hello.

Another idea is to include a clause in local theatre contracts that requires the names of the musicians be listed in the program, and even allow for short musician bios to appear alongside those of the cast. As always, I welcome your ideas. I can be reached at president.tma@afm-tma.org.

Diversity and Inclusion in Our Orchestras

by Meredith Snow, ICSOM Chair and Member of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA)

A flourishing cultural life, to which people of every race, ethnicity, gender, and class are invited and can see themselves reflected, is essential to our democracy. The creative expression of our differing stories enables us to better understand our commonality. If our orchestras are to remain relevant in a changing society, we must begin to reflect that diversity both on stage and behind the scenes.

While the gender gap has closed significantly since the 1990s, with women holding 46% to 49% of orchestra positions, the proportion of African Americans (1.8%) and Hispanic/Latinos (2.5%), has remained extremely low and largely unchanged since 1978, according to data collected by the League of American Orchestras. In contrast, there has been a large proportional increase in Asian/Pacific Islander musicians from 5.3% in 2002 to 9.1% in 2014.

It is worth noting that ethnic diversity in smaller budget orchestras is nearly twice that of the larger orchestras ($2.1 million and up). Conversely, large budget orchestras are twice as likely to hire African American or Hispanic/Latino conductors than small budget orchestras. Despite a few recent high profile appointments of women conductors, the gender ratio has remained unchanged since 2006 (10 men to one woman). Additionally, women are twice as likely to be found in conducting positions of lesser status and salary than the higher visibility position of music director.

Backstage, diversity on orchestra boards has remained virtually unchanged from 2010 to 2014, with nonwhite members at just under 8%. In contrast, a national survey by BoardSource found that nonwhite members of nonprofit boards across the US had increased from 16% in 2010 to 20% in 2014. On a positive note, orchestra boards are moving toward gender parity. Currently, around 58% of orchestra board members are male and 42% are female.

We can and must do better at diversifying our orchestras on stage, in the boardroom, and within staff, management, donors, and audience. I recently attended the League of American Orchestras (LAO) conference in Detroit with ICSOM council Kevin Case of Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL), Secretary Laura Ross of Local 257 (Nashville, TN), Members-at-Large Paul Austin of Local 56 (Grand Rapids, MI) and Dan Sweeley of Local 92 (Buffalo, NY), and AFM SSD Director
Rochelle Skolnick.

Since 2011, LAO has begun to reprioritize diversity and inclusion, beginning with a self-assessment of how our industry has fared since the first fellowship programs in the early 1970s. While some 40% of fellows have won positions in other orchestras through the audition process, the programs themselves have had a difficult history within our orchestras. Additionally, the fellowship programs’ focus on access and opportunity for just a few individuals does not change the systemic problems of racial discrimination within our organizations. For an in-depth look at the history of orchestra fellowships read the LAO publication Forty Years of Fellowships: A Study of Orchestras Efforts to Include African American and Latino Musicians, by Nick Rabkin and Monica Hairston O’Connell.

In conjunction with numerous arts organizations, including Sphinx, Gateways Music Festival, New World Symphony, and Detroit Symphony Orchestra, LAO has identified a number of additional strategies to promote racial equity: board and staff diversity, community and family resources that provide support for young musicians, the music education “pipeline” from childhood education through college and graduate studies, developing a national network of mentors, and financial support for minority musicians on the audition circuit. There are a number of programs already up and running in our ICSOM orchestras, from El Sistema style education programs to in-house fellowships.

The final hurdle to orchestral citizenship is still the audition process. Since the early 1990s we have used screened auditions to prevent bias from influencing the outcome—musical excellence is the single and only criteria. But have we then, through this narrow process, also hired the very best advocates and artist citizens for our industry? Do our orchestral musicians also need to be effective communicators who can engage with our communities both on and off stage? How might we expand our thinking about the audition process to reflect these qualities and the changing demographics of our society?

Transformation does not come easily to bureaucracies. The same structures that protect against risk, constrain change. While musical excellence will always be the definitive standard of our audition process, is that enough for this 21st century paradigm? There are no easy answers but we need to begin addressing the questions. The discussion starts with us.