In a typical orchestra pit of a West End or professional touring show now, it’s usual to have three, sometimes four, keyboards, however it is rarely the case that pianos are used. My role as a keyboardist/pianist in musical theatre is often misunderstood as there is a heavy load of technology used, which makes it a job only for a multitasker.

It is now very unusual for a real acoustic piano to be used in a pro musical theatre show, although there have been some recent examples of this. The Cameron Mackintosh West End production of Avenue Q used an upright piano, and the original Stratford production of Matilda by the RSC used a real grand piano, switching to a keyboard when it transferred to the West End.

The set up for a professional musical theatre keyboard can be a technical hell, as there is so much going on around the keyboard! The keyboards themselves are usually what is referred to as a ‘controller keyboard’, meaning that sounds that are not contained in the keyboard themselves can be played from an external sound module, usually a little black box wired up to the keyboard.  Sometimes the sounds are contained on a computer in a programme such as Main Stage,an Apple programme enabling you to have a lot of different instrument sounds easily accessible in an order that is useful to the individual player.

There are usually three different pedals the keyboard player has to operate:

  • The Sustain Pedal: Like on any regular piano.
  • The Volume Pedal: To suit each orchestration – as different instruments are played on the keyboards, they may need to be played at different volumes and levels, and this is controlled by a foot controller, with a small monitor telling the player what level they are currently at.
  • The Patch Change Pedal: In modern musical theatre orchestrations, keyboards are used for many different instruments and wacky sounds, so the patch (sound) must be changed very quickly. This is usually done by the flick of a pedal, but sometimes it can be done by the player pressing a button with their hand, which can be tricky when playing! On the picture of a musical theatre keyboard (above) you can also see a monitor, which shows which patch is currently being played.

Each player, not just keyboard players, has an ‘aviom’, or personal mixer (this is the blue box on the very right of the picture). This is linked to the player’s personal headphones, and they can control the volume of each individual instrument and the vocals so they can hear what they want to make the show as easy and fun for them to play as possible.

The individual keyboards have to be programmed, and on most productions there is an assigned keyboard programmer, whose job it is to find the correct sounds to suit the orchestration, or use those already provided for them, order them to fit the score, and make them playable on the keyboard.

On small-scale shows, and shows with low budgets, the more technical side of keyboards is often bypassed. When I was Musical Director of Scousers on the Rampage, I used a keyboard in which I had to type numbers into the keyboard to change, and had only one pedal – the sustain.  This doesn’t always affect the quality of the orchestration, as the player works even harder to ensure all of the sounds are available, sometimes by pressing various buttons (as I did) or having multiple keyboards, although there are major advantages to being able to access all the technology.

I hope this has given you an insight into the pit, as always. Have a look at the picture of the keyboard and see if you can spot what I’ve mentioned.

Image credit: Kevin Caparotta for the National Tour of Shrek the Musical.