Extra, extra – but why?

How many times have you been to a school concert, probably as a parent rather than in a professional capacity, and seen groups packed with ‘extras’, players/ singers brought in from outside to boost numbers? Except sometimes it is not just to boost numbers is it? They are actually there to make the performance viable – what is that about? I have no problem with the occasional extra being parachuted in to help a group – a  horn player perhaps, or a bass guitar for a jazz group, maybe a tuba player to add depth – but surely they should be in the minority? I have attended concerts where a group was made up of at least a third outsiders… What message does this send to the children in the school itself? Simple: we can’t do it without help, we are not musically self-sufficient, or (in extreme cases) we are not good enough to do this ourselves. That is dreadful, and could be so easily prevented by CHOOSING THE RIGHT MUSIC. Not just how many are needed, but which instruments are featured: don’t do ‘The Grand March from Aida’ if you don’t have any trumpets for example. There is a serious point here, and it is linked to gender stereotyping: there is still a national ‘problem’ with girls playing brass and rhythm instruments, in comparison with boys, so they need their confidence boosted. Bringing in a set of brass playing boys is not the answer and might indeed undermine them all together. Everyone in the audience will draw their own conclusion, subliminally or otherwise – the girls aren’t good enough – whereas the correct response should be ‘why hasn’t the teacher chosen music that ‘our’ brass players can play? And if the school doesn’t have any brass players, bringing boys in will solve nothing. Does the same apply to adults playing in the band or orchestra? I think that depends on what they are doing: sitting at the back of the second violins supporting a nervy player is fine, leading the ‘school’ orchestra is not. It all comes down to the adults’ roles: are they there to teach/ advise/ nurture, or just to play? (I think this is especially relevant in a show band, where the pressure of a lead role in a tough, exposed part might be too much for a youngster, but they are quite capable of delivering the 2nd or 3rd part whilst learning their ‘trade’. The difference here is that the music is not optional, as it will have been chosen with the actor/ singers in mind, not the band, so different rules apply) I know some will say ‘it is a great experience for our children to play in a symphony, concerto etc, and for that to happen we need better players to enhance the experience and allow them to play this music’. It is an argument, but not one I am prepared to buy, certainly not in a school concert anyway. They deserve music they can play themselves. So next time you are sitting in the audience in a drafty hall at 7.30pm, count the extras i.e. anyone who is not actually a child in the school, and decide whether or not this is actually a school concert or not? You may be surprised.


What is happening to our pit players?

I recently went to see a touring production of a show featuring actor/ musicians – the current trend. It was dazzling throughout, with many of the actors playing several different instruments during the course of the 2 hours, as well as singing and dancing of course. A quick glance at the CVs in the programme revealed careers starting in the drama schools and then moving on to music colleges: at least some of these ‘actors’ were working MDs themselves.

Don’t get me wrong – good on them. It’s not their problem they are so multi-talented. Nor is it the fault of the originators of this actor/ musician trend, the Watermill Theatre at Newbury, an innovative theatre company who wanted to put on musicals while faced with a tiny stage, and came up with an imaginative solution. Director John Doyle and his brilliant orchestrators should be congratulated.

But it seems to me there is a problem here, an issue that Doyle and his team presumably never foresaw, a classic ‘unintended consequence’. The audience is getting live music in the theatre, but there is no live orchestra present, either in the pit or behind the scenes. No ‘working’ orchestral musician is being paid to work on that night, or any other night of the extensive tour: there is no job for them. If they are lucky they might be called for a cast recording, but nothing else. In other words, this is actually a very cheap way of touring a show, cutting out the ‘pit band middle man’ altogether. Many shows these days are performed to tracks, but at least the musicians are needed to record those tracks in the studio: now they are in danger of not being needed at all…

Does this matter? Not to the producers no, and probably not to the audience either – although it can be distracting when an actor stops speaking and produces a trumpet – but to those young musicians coming out of the music colleges and looking for work? I’d say it does matter, a lot. Of course there is still work for classic pit musicians in the West End and at places like the Chichester Festival Theatre, but for how much longer?

Perhaps it is time the MU looked into this – or am I missing something? I do hope so, or I will soon be missing a band altogether…is that what we want?