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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Hello. I have this question about pit orchestra positions: suppose I'd like to play saxophone for a local show. What qualifications, as a saxophone player, should I have? I assume sight-reading is a given; is there anything else? If so, what?

Also, how does one get such a position? Local ad listings (i.e., the newspaper, Craigslist)?

It's something I've always wanted to do on the side, as I enjoy theater and music as the perfect complements to my math/science job.

Thank you in advance!
 

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Pit playing is very challenging — and seriously fun. Do you double on clarinet, flute, or oboe? Do you have saxes in different voices?
 

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In my experience:

1. You have to know your stuff. Everyone makes mistakes sight-reading, but making a mistake two or three times is no good. Play in tune, have great tone, balance well, and follow extremely well.
2. It's about who you know as much as what you know. Make connections with other players and conductors. Getting involved with local community bands/orchestras is a great way to do this if you don't have connections. High schools and local community theater don't advertise for pit musicians around here (northern NJ) all that much. The conductors / contractors bring people they know can play.
3. There are many great doublers who play flute, clarinet, and sax. Make yourself stand out by becoming a solid double reed player -- either oboe or bassoon, not both. I've been told to stick with either high winds or low winds. If you say you do everything, people may assume you probably aren't that good at them, whether or not that's correct. I get more pit gigs on oboe and English horn, even though I have two degrees in saxophone and have only played double reeds for 6 years or so, simply because people just don't know that many double reed doublers.

Good luck! I hope this is some good food for thought.
 

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
Do you double on clarinet, flute, or oboe? Do you have saxes in different voices?
Currently, I don't really double on anything, no. I do have both tenor and alto saxophones.

1. You have to know your stuff. Everyone makes mistakes sight-reading, but making a mistake two or three times is no good. Play in tune, have great tone, balance well, and follow extremely well.
This is good advice in general; I'm pretty good about keeping in tune, and I will work more diligently to ensure I make as little mistakes as possible when sight reading. Do you ever get the score beforehand, or do you just show up?

2. It's about who you know as much as what you know. Make connections with other players and conductors. Getting involved with local community bands/orchestras is a great way to do this if you don't have connections. High schools and local community theater don't advertise for pit musicians around here (northern NJ) all that much. The conductors / contractors bring people they know can play.
Gotcha. I'll definitely have to get into that as soon as I feel ready.

3. There are many great doublers who play flute, clarinet, and sax. Make yourself stand out by becoming a solid double reed player -- either oboe or bassoon, not both. I've been told to stick with either high winds or low winds. If you say you do everything, people may assume you probably aren't that good at them, whether or not that's correct. I get more pit gigs on oboe and English horn, even though I have two degrees in saxophone and have only played double reeds for 6 years or so, simply because people just don't know that many double reed doublers.
You know, I've always liked how the oboe sounded; I think it was the solo in Dvorak's "New World Symphony" that did it for me (second movement, I think?). I wouldn't mind learning to double on oboe, it's a beautiful sounding instrument, and would certainly open doors in playing with orchestras. And I totally understand the concerns about being a "jack of all trades." I've encountered the same phenomenon in computer programming; put that you know too many languages on your resume, and people look down upon it... anyway, if I did decide to ultimately double up, I suspect I'd only have time for one other instrument, and I'd rather devote my time to getting better at sax and (potentially) oboe.

Good luck! I hope this is some good food for thought.
Thanks to both you and Isle of Jazz for the advice!
 

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Not only am I a woodwind doubler, but I am also a pit orchestra contractor. Here is the advice I can give to you......

#1 - You HAVE to play your doubles as well as your main instrument, if not better. Flute and Clarinet is a MUST - and you shouldnt sound like a sax player who knows all the fingerings on flute and clarinet. You have to worry about your SOUND and much as your technique. How long did it take you to be a good saxophonist? When it comes to your doubles, you cant expect to be awesome in a few months.

#2 - Connections. This is a dicy subject. You want to get your self out there doing any community band work you can (even if you join on your "double" instruments). IF you sound good, people will find you. Do not make a pain out of yourself toward people you know can hire you. Do not step on a seasoned pro to get a gig. Carry business cards, but dont force them upon somebody who didnt ask, too often thats how they end up in the trash.

#3 - Do not undercut the competition. I have seen more guys get "black listed" by saying that they will work for less money. They dont realize that they are destroying the market for musicians by giving the theater the excuse - why should we pay a decent wage when there are guys who will work for next to nothing.

#4 - Once you commit to a gig - do not dump it for a better paying gig if it comes available. You will never get hired again by that place, and word spreds.

#5 - Know your strengths and weaknesses. Dont accept a gig that is beyond your capabilities. This means don't take a book that requires you to play all the oboe and you feel that you can do it on soprano sax, ESP if there is another capable doubler that can do it thr right way.

#6 - NEVER complain about the guy who hired you. You never know who's listening, and word can get back.

#7 - every musician has an "up side" and a "down side" and as long as the "up side" out weighs the "down side" you are a valuable musician. You dont know how many times I've seen a jerk who is an AWESOME musician get passed over for a functional musician who can get the job done.

Hope this helps.
 

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The famous New World solo is english horn - in between oboe and bassoon.

Find our who is getting all the pit gigs and try to take lessons with them. If you are good enough, you might get asked to sub.
 

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Hello. I have this question about pit orchestra positions: suppose I'd like to play saxophone for a local show. What qualifications, as a saxophone player, should I have? I assume sight-reading is a given; is there anything else? If so, what?
You need to be fluent on flute and clarinet at the bare minimum. Fluent means you need to be able to do a classical clarinet sound as well as a jazzy/dixieland type sound depending on the music being played. For flute, you need to be able to upper register stuff without issue. I'd say at least up to Bb, but probably all the way up to C....though I can't remember a show where I had to go that high.

You should also be able to double on Piccolo and Bass Clarinet. A lot of reed 3 or reed 4 books are Tenor Sax/Flute/Clarinet/Bass Clarinet. Piccolo is usually found in Reed 1 or Reed 3 (sometimes Reed 2) but could appear in any book.

Double reeds are almost always Alto sax, Oboe, English horn....sometimes with Clarinet.

Also, how does one get such a position? Local ad listings (i.e., the newspaper, Craigslist)?
You could do that, I'd also send in a resume and/or email to local companies in your area. Also going to a show and maybe talking to the conductor is a good idea as well.

It's something I've always wanted to do on the side, as I enjoy theater and music as the perfect complements to my math/science job.
It's not a very well paying job unless you do a show in a big City. In my area, the current rate for a show is anywhere from $30 to $100. And that requires you usually to be there at 7 and the shows aren't done until 10 or later. Plus, you are playing the SAME MUSIC for 20+ shows (or however long the run is). That could lead to some serious boredom and/or brain damage depending on the show (never do the show "110 Degrees in the Shade" terrible terrible show).

PLUS, it's a commitment. Most all conductors want you to be there for all the shows....and if you are not, you are responsible to find a sub. And finding a sub can sometimes cost more than you are making for the show.

So......yeah. Good luck.
 

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Here is how I started out and eventually became an in-demand pit orchestra player:

I played alto sax in high school and took lessons with a professional sax player. I added clarinet and flute in college and afterwards added tenor to my repertoire. Check.

After I graduated, I took lessons with a professional flute player so I could sound like a real flute player. Check.

I joined a local community band, playing alto sax. One day, a flute player in the band said she was looking for an alto sax doubler to play in the pit for a local production and would I be interested? I said yes. Turns out it was the lead alto book of West Side Story. Check.

I did well on the gig and the conductor took my number. He ended up calling me for many more gigs. Check.

I bought a piccolo so I would be more marketable as a real doubler. I then practiced it solely as my main horn for about six months. Check.

I met many other musicians at these gigs, and they also took my number which resulted in more gigs. And other music directors would call the guy I played with for WSS and ask him for good woodwind doublers, and he would give them my name, which resulted in more gigs. Check.

I took lessons with a professional clarinet player so I could sound like a real clarinet player. Check.

I bought an oboe and bassoon and took lessons with professional players, and told all my music director friends I now can play these horns, which resulted in gigs on those horns. I also got an English horn, which resulted in even more gigs. It's rare to find anybody with their own EH, much less someone who doubles on it. Check and end of story.

Moral: I've been playing in pits for 40 years, and I've never played a pit show where it was only saxophone. To play in a pit, a sax player also needs to know clarinet and flute to even be considered, because any sax book is going to automatically include those other two horns. It's just the way musicals are orchestrated. (And you should know that not all shows have sax parts. In that case, your doubles are even more critical. Almost every show I've ever played does have flute or clarinet.)

Not only do you need to know how to play these horns, you also need to own these horns, or at least have access to them. Music directors want someone who can come in right away and play without any headaches or excuses.

So, as many people have already pointed out, it's all about having the horns, being able to play them convincingly (not as a doubler but as someone who really knows that instrument), being dependable, and having connections. If you don't have connections, then you need to make them. I've sometimes scoured the arts section of my local paper and looked for announcements for auditions for the next musical, and then called the contact person to see if they need musicians. Yes, good sight-reading skills are needed--for example, the last show I did the orchestra had two rehearsals with the cast and boom--it was opening night (we did get our books three weeks ahead of time, though). And you need to be comfortable playing in all keys including seven sharps and seven flats (which is not uncommon in show music) on all your doubles.

Having the horns is a must, especially the less-common ones. For example, just by dint of the fact that I own an English horn, word has gotten around town and I've gotten several EH gigs, simply because I own it and know how to play it. Show-wise, I'm a shoe-in for Fiddler on the Roof, as the EH solo in "Sabbath Prayer" is one of the most famous EH solos in any musical.

Good luck--it takes a lot of work, but the fun and satisfaction of playing shows is well worth it!
 

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... anyway, if I did decide to ultimately double up, I suspect I'd only have time for one other instrument, and I'd rather devote my time to getting better at sax and (potentially) oboe.
Gotta be careful about falling in love with oboe. If you really want to play it well, it's a whole different universe than saxophone. Fingerings are similar but that's where the familiarity ends. You'll need to dedicate lots and lots of time and energy to it, more so (in my opinion) than the other doubles. The oboe book in musicals is generally just oboe or oboe/English horn. In shows with sax parts, the oboe generally doubles on one of the tenor sax books.
 

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Discussion Starter · #10 ·
Thank you everyone for taking the time to respond to my question.

I always recognized that being a pit orchestra member is really hard work, as you have to master both the ability to read and play music, AND master all the pertinent techniques of playing your instrument. However, I didn't realize you had to do the latter for so many different horns!

Who knows what my future will bring me, I guess, but I just don't presently see myself having the time to pick up 5-6 instruments and master them to the same degree seasoned professionals have already done. It just doesn't sound feasible, unfortunately. I suppose, with this information, I will be doing a lot more "appreciating" when I head to the local theater rather than trying to get a gig and have it ultimately go nowhere.

Who knows, I still might decide to double up on oboe or English horn (sorry for the "New World Symphony" error I made earlier). They're both very pretty sounding horns, and if their fingerings are similar to the saxophone, at least I can start a little past square 1 in mastering them, and devote more time to getting proper tone, as jaysne pointed out.
 

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With desire and effort amazing (and even good enough) things are possible.
 

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Here's a way that could work for you. Get an intermediate clarinet and an intermediate flute. Find out which of the local reed players that are doing shows with the small local theatres also teach lessons on sax/flute/clarinet. Take regular lessons on clarinet/flute with one of them for a year or so. At some point you can say your goal is to sub for the regular players on these shows. This teacher will help get you there and when you're ready they may even use you as a sub.
 

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daOnlyBG, I don't think we meant to make it sound like you need to be a master on 5-6 instruments. You don't. If you can attain a basic comfortable level on sax, flute, and clarinet, that's all you'll need to do to get your foot in the door. The other horns can come as you become more experienced.

We're talking community theatre here, and while the level of playing is generally excellent, the people who do it for the most part are not full-time musicians. I've played plenty with teachers, engineers, full-time moms and dads, biochemists, and mathematicians.

If you can take private lessons for 1-2 years on flute and clarinet, and are already good on sax, then I think you'll be set.

(BTW, another way to get a gig is to find out the names of the local theatre companies, and then check their websites for announcements/auditions of upcoming shows and then contact them to find out the name of the music director. As I said before, I did this in the past using the newspaper, but that was in the pre-Internet Dark Ages.)
 

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Discussion Starter · #14 ·
daOnlyBG, I don't think we meant to make it sound like you need to be a master on 5-6 instruments. You don't. If you can attain a basic comfortable level on sax, flute, and clarinet, that's all you'll need to do to get your foot in the door. The other horns can come as you become more experienced.

We're talking community theatre here, and while the level of playing is generally excellent, the people who do it for the most part are not full-time musicians. I've played plenty with teachers, engineers, full-time moms and dads, biochemists, and mathematicians.
Well, that's comforting! My younger sister still has her clarinet from her high school days, and my girlfriend still has her flute. I'm sure I can pester the two to lending me their instruments for a bit 8)

Again, thanks everyone for the advice, especially on getting in the door. I like the idea of taking lessons with the orchestra pit players, and hoping to get asked to sub in.
 

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daOnlyBG, I don't think we meant to make it sound like you need to be a master on 5-6 instruments. You don't. If you can attain a basic comfortable level on sax, flute, and clarinet, that's all you'll need to do to get your foot in the door. The other horns can come as you become more experienced.

We're talking community theatre here, and while the level of playing is generally excellent, the people who do it for the most part are not full-time musicians. I've played plenty with teachers, engineers, full-time moms and dads, biochemists, and mathematicians.

If you can take private lessons for 1-2 years on flute and clarinet, and are already good on sax, then I think you'll be set.

(BTW, another way to get a gig is to find out the names of the local theatre companies, and then check their websites for announcements/auditions of upcoming shows and then contact them to find out the name of the music director. As I said before, I did this in the past using the newspaper, but that was in the pre-Internet Dark Ages.)
Totally agree here. Adding another double only enhances your marketability, but it's not a necessity. Well said, Jaysne!
 

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I think being a fluent doubler is required for pit work...most books nowadays can call for upwards of 4 instruments. I would agree with the aforementioned comment about becoming fluent on a double reed (which I have yet to do, haha!). I've played my share of shows and agree with many of the comments left by Erik713. Once you do get in with a pit orchestra, make sure you're "not that guy" who asks overly critical questions of your pit director or other musicians until of course you are comfortable enough to do so. Use common sense in these dealings and you should be fine. Good luck!

PS - I think Merlin would be a great resource for this thread.
 

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Graysax; that was an excellent, insightful response. I'm not even interested in a pit gig and I learned a lot from it.
 

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That tells me a lot about you, like you get into the show and into the music, so when it ends you have to bring yourself back into the world. That's pretty cool. Every time I see a show, I pay more attention to what's going on in the pit than anything else. I've done it a few times but not on the professional level. I have the utmost respect for those good enough to do it. You not only have to be technically good, often you need to play expressively, so a lot of talent is also needed.
 
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