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NYU launches Broadway Orchestra training program

New York University has launched a Broadway Orchestra initiative aimed at training the next generation of pit musicians.

The orchestra of 'Bright Star' at The Cort Theatre on March 24, 2016. (Photo by Walter McBride/WireImage)

New York University has launched a Broadway Orchestra initiative aimed at training the next generation of pit musicians.

The initiative, which will launch with the school’s fall semester, will be led by Ted Sperling, a longtime Broadway music director, and John Miller, who has been the music coordinator on more than 130 Broadway shows and will serve as the program’s artistic advisor. The program is meant to teach the technical aspects of the job, as well as the realities of how to break into the industry.

Being in the pit of a Broadway show requires several specific skills sets, including being able to play a wide variety of styles of music, excellent sight reading skills and the ability to implement changes on the fly.

“There’s also the challenges of doing the same show night after night and keeping it fresh,” Sperling said.

In the past, aspiring pit musicians could pick up those skills playing in big bands and nightclubs, but those opportunities have faded away. Instead, Sperling said professional musicians have been learning while on the job.

At NYU, the creation of the program evolved out of a Broadway percussion seminar the school has been hosting for the past 12 years. That summer seminar, in which students study five Broadway shows with pit musicians, attracted students from around the world, and proved that there was great interest in the field, said Jonathan Haas, director of the percussion studies program at NYU and a co-director of the Broadway Orchestra.

“We’re becoming a magnet for the students who really have an interest in playing Broadway shows,” Haas said.

The orchestra will be made up of students within the NYU Steinhardt’s Music and Performing Arts Professions department.

This fall, orchestra members will learn the books to “Hairspray,” “Ragtime” and “City of Angels,” recording skills, theater history and theater technology, such as how to play along to click tracks — a customized metronome used when certain parts of the score need to be exactly timed with other elements of the show.

Playing on Broadway is a coveted position among musicians, given the prestige and the steady paycheck, and, one that is hard to come by. The only pathway to a job is to network with other musicians, while honing the neccessary skills.

“You have to be out there, playing all the time and have other musicians playing with you in every conceivable musical environment,” Miller said.

Being a substitute pit musician is one way to break into the field, and a viable career option itself, as regular Broadway pit musicians are required to be present for at least 50% of the shows, but can find a substitute for the rest.

But still, getting that opportunity comes from knowing the right people.

“Musicians are the ones who spread the word about other musicians,” Miller said. “Unlike actors we do not have agents, we have each other.”