Monday, July 2, 2012

Playing in the Pits

Today, I received the score for "Joesph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat" to be performed with Gladstone Theater in the Park.  This is Gladstone's 25 year doing free musicals and my eighth one playing guitar (did two others on trombone).  Hopefully, it will be another good year.

When I first started doing this a few years ago ("Crazy for You"), I didn't know what I was getting into.  Musicals are a different type of performing and will challenge even the most seasoned guitarist.  Unfortunately, there was no how to guide for getting me ready, so I went it seemingly alone.  But, as I went through my routine for preparing for rehearsals, I realized I should really share for those attempting to get into this realm of guitar.

Before I get into the routine, I feel I should preface a little more.  It takes a lot of skill to play musicals.  I don't, however, want this to discourage you from attempting one should you get the opportunity.  You should just know that you are getting into some heavy stuff.  You'll need a couple of skills to really be successful at musicals.  I didn't have all of these when I started, but I've developed them over time:
  • Ability to read notes.  Even if you can't sight read.  You should at least be able to read them off the page and transcribe them to tab so you can play them.
  • A healthy collection of chords.  CAGED system is a basic must; make sure you can move them up and down the neck.  Also, it would be good to have some Freddy Green style chords (like drop 2 and drop 3 chords).
  • Performance level instrument and amp.  This should be a no brainer, but it's worth pointing out.  You don't need to spend thousands to get this, but you do want something above an entry level setup.
  • Ability to play well with others and follow direction.  If you are a metal rocker, you may not work out here...  The director sets the tempo and you are in an ensemble. You have to know your place and be able to blend well.  This is something that everyone struggles with even after years of playing.
That being said, here is what I do when I prepare for musicals.

First: Listen and Watch

If you happen to be playing a popular musical, odds are there is a video and a soundtrack out there.  Go find it and make sure you pay attention.  Remember that musicals use the music to tell the story so you want to understand what the song is about and what is going on.  It might even be worth it to take a few notes.

Second: The Music on the Page

When you get your music, make sure it is in a format where you can make notes on it as you go.  This may mean that you have to bend the copyright rules a little and copy the music if it is in a book.  It's actually okay to do this as long as you are only using it for the show that has already been properly consented by the musical's creators/management.  One you have this, put it in a binder that is easy to keep together, keep a pencil with you (mechanical is best; no sharpener needed), and keep copious notes on the pages as you go!

Third: Equipment

Go through you music and figure out everything equipment wise that you need.  What pedals (chorus, reverb, tremelo, wa-wa, etc) does it call for?  What instruments (electric guitar, acoustic guitar, ukulele, etc) does it call for?  Write all this down and see if you need to pick up some more gear.  If money is tight (and it always is), make a judgment call on what is necessary and what you can do without.

Often, I come to the first rehearsal with one guitar and an amp.  I add a few things as I go to round out the sound and flavor.  One show I ended up with four pedals, two amps, electric and acoustic guitars, a banjo, and a tenor ukulele.  It took me an hour just to set up!!!

Fourth: Finding the Hard Parts

One of the first things I do after I've gotten the music situated is finding what I need to work on.  This can be done without even having the guitar in your hand.  In fact, it should be.  Get a piece of paper and go line by line through the entire book.  Look for melody parts or hard rhythms that you will need to practice.  Right down the song, page number, and measure(s) of the part you found.  Now, when you practice (and practice you must!) use this as your outline.  Master every one of those parts as licks and you will eventually be able to play them easily when it comes in rehearsal.

Fifth: Practice

Seriously, practice.  Don't wait for rehearsal.  Practice on your own in a quite place where you aren't too distracted and go over the hard parts from above over and over and over and over.  Keep up at it.

Sixth: Rehearsal

Pay attention to the director!!! The director is your boss. What they say about tempo and style goes.  If they don't like what you are doing, then change it how they see fit.  I know it isn't very creative, but it's the way it is.

As you rehearse, keep notes on what you are having trouble on and make sure to practice when you are back home.  Pay close attention to how you sound in relation to everyone else.  Some of your parts may overlap others some may be solo.  Make sure you can hold your own where it's needed and blend!!!

Seven:  Keep it Fun

This is one of those sacrosanct  rules of guitar.  If it isn't fun, it isn't playing guitar.  There can be a lot of stress, but in the long run it will be worth it.

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