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  • Writer's pictureJoe LaRocca

The Lehman Trilogy: taking it to the stage

There's a gentle simplicity to playing in the pit. Doing a run of 50 plus shows (and in the case of Jesus Christ Superstar: 477) makes life really easy in several ways. You get a steady paycheck, you're working in relative obscurity down in the pit, and you only have to be proficient at this one piece of music.

The downside it can become so incredibly BORING. At the end of the day, variety is the spice of life, and I am firmly in this camp. Admittedly, when I finished touring with JCS, I was scared out of my mind. I had no idea how I was about to make a living. Luckily I was able to nail down some union gigs, a shit ton of little gigs at schools and community theaters, and had unemployment pay to fill in the gaps. Then came a job ad that would change everything at just the right time (when the unemployment ran dry):

A colleague from my post grad program sent along an ad that called for an onstage woodwind player who plays clarinet (mostly), bass clarinet, all the saxophones, flute (maybe), harmonica (maybe), ocarina (maybe), etc, and has the ability to memorize music, dialogue cues, blocking, and improvise in various styles. Anyone who knows me would know that this is the job for me. So I jumped at it, not knowing how absolutely insane it was going to be.

I initially heard from the line producer who seemed to be relieved to hear from me, little did I know that he had been in touch with 200+ people trying to find the right person. It's unfortunate that most musical training can be so limiting. Most often (with some exceptions) the majority of woodwind players fit into 2 camps; jazz players and classical players.

Jazz players are obviously great improvisers and can be quite solid on their primary instrument, but often fall short on the doubles (namely flutes and clarinets) especially when it comes to playing in a full and resonant tone and in tune. Classical players in the other hand train almost entirely to do the latter but quite often can't improvise or play in a jazz or jazz adjacent style on the saxes. This is also just talking of folks who double, and for some reason it's kind of an unspoken thing in conservatories that doublers aren't taken as seriously, so many folks don't work hard on their doubles while in school. Not to mention woodwind players who have no doubles outside of their instrument family, which works for some folks career wise but with the high level of competition these days, even rock solid players have to hustle hard to get any work.

So that leaves me, the guy who was always distracted in school, going down rabbit holes that my teachers often saw as a waste of time. When going off about Arabic maqams and Indian ragas and Chinese Dizi music to my flute teacher, she had responded "you know you're here to play classical music right?" I was always led to believe that my intellectual curiosity about music in all its forms wouldn't serve me well in the professional music world. But... that makes sense, the people teaching applied instrument in conservatories should absolutely believe that focusing on one instrument and in one style is the best way to go. Many of them came up in a time where if you had an MM and could somewhat competently play your instrument, you were almost assured an adjunct position in a college or conservatory with plenty of playing opportunities, where as now the competition level is exponentially higher. They have been in an intellectual and artistic echo chamber for decades, where playing the same old rep for fellow academics and students feeds you and your family. So naturally the idea of branching out beyond the canon and the status quo is just a bad idea. If you're going for a classical career, doing anything but shedding excerpts and solo rep is just a waste of time. The thing is, these folks have very little idea of what the performing world outside of the bubble of academia is like, especially the way it is now.

To be a successful performer in this day and age, it's not enough to be the perfect classical or jazz player. You have to be like water as Bruce Lee once said.

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.”

So... in an extremely roundabout and rambling way, this is my way of saying that my ADD way of learning how to be a good music boy helped me get this gig, and helped me to be a full time performer.

When I applied for the gig, I had multiple meetings with the composer, and then with the director. They scrutinized like crazy, and it makes sense because they needed to make sure I'd be able to handle what was to come. They wanted to make sure that not only would I be able to handle it on a musical level, but that I'd be willing to handle changes as they come. It seems simple on paper, but some people (especially musicians) can get really fussy if they took the time to memorize something a particular way and then suddenly have to change it. But, that's the nature of theater, things have to be tried and re tried in time and on stage in order to really get a sense of those ideas work or not.

There is a famous quote by Alvin Toffler that really applies to this that goes: '“The illiterate of the future are not those who can't read or write but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

So I spent a month with them sending music samples, recording new samples, and interviewing with multiple people before I finally got the job.

When rehearsals started it was really like being thrown into the water to learn to swim. I brought practically all of my instruments, and they decided to use every single one. Flute, alto flute, Bb clarinet, bass clarinet, alto sax, tenor sax, bari sax, and electronic wind instrument. I was involved in the staging process from the very beginning, with two stands in front of me, one with some of the music on paper, and the other with the script, moving diligently (and often times tediously) through each scene, constantly working and reworking the music itself, where it comes in and out, and where I am on stage while playing it. Luckily for me, my training served me well, particually the ability to time out musical phrases over dialogue without having the music sound weird or overly robotic. Constantly adjusting in real time to the actors pacing. That's not something you can teach.

We spent a month and a half staging this 3 act, 3 hour and 45 minute play, and it has been the most enriching artistic experience of my life. To have my ideas in the compositional and staging process not only be accepted but wanted was such a welcome change of pace. Often I'm called right before the dress to have a rehearsal, sitz, and then right into shows. Sit down, play the music, collect the money, and go home. There were certainly times where I pined for that simplicity, particularly near the end of tech week doing my 6th 8 of 10 in a row, but overall the experience was exactly what I needed.

Now that I'm doing a second run of this show after restaging it for a thrust theater for the last two weeks, needless to say I'm looking forward to going back into the pit for a while. Maybe a symphony....(cue clever allusion to my next blog topic)

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