I played keys when I first started working in pits, and I was always expected to do my own programming for them. Music directors would give me feedback on my patches like they gave string players on their bowings: they didn’t plan them in advance, and they gave notes when they wanted an adjustment made.

I never thought twice about it until I heard of music directors programming all of a show’s key books by themselves. Thanks to the social groups (Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter), we can now all see if our experience reflects the majority’s experience. This is why I believe it has been so helpful that in the past few years, we’ve all joined forces into such a great community, rather than stay isolated.

I believe that programming all key books is a topic that we need to discuss as a group, because once most of us do one thing, it becomes the expectation for everyone, with little room for individual preferences. Of course, this issue mainly relates to community and regional theatre, since at the Broadway level, the task is given to synth programmers.

Understanding how hard it is for theatres to keep their doors open, we try to accept any amount they’re able to pay us, even when it means putting our best interest aside. To count the hours we put in doesn’t seem ethically right. But because we often get paid a stipend, that amount of hours is what determines how much we actually get paid. The more we add onto our load, the less we make. There’s always more we can do, so where to draw the line? By programming keys, are we forging the path to doing even more, like creating guitar sounds? After all, a guitarist’s choices of tones and settings are as important as are the ones for keyboardists.

At the same time, it can be worth it to program all key books. By doing everything ourselves, we have more control over the final result. Patches can be picked with the right attack for each section, the best lead chosen, and the right organ tone set. When sound effects come from the keys, no one better than the music director knows which patch perfectly matches the action on stage. We can make sure that when certain samples are indicated to be in more than one keyboard, they all sound exactly the same. Who knows if all key players are able to split a keyboard, put a harp arpeggio in a one single key, or assign a foot pedal for patch switches?

I think that as a community, we need to look at the pros and cons of this, and understand that what we decide to do on the job right now will influence the next generations of music directors.

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10 Responses to Is it the music director’s job to program all keyboards?

  1. Barry Wallace says:

    If I use 2nd keys in a show (i.e. something that’s not a straight piano sound) I’m usually the one playing them, so it’s hard to offer any practical experience.  But I think it is definitely the responsibility of the MD to ensure every sound coming from every instrument is what it’s supposed to be, whether it’s wind, string, drum or electronic.

    I use a Casio WK3700 as my show workhorse, and have been pleased overall with most of the pre-programmed tones it provides, especially organ, strings and woodwinds.  Brass a little less so, but it’s more difficult (IMO) to recreate the timbre and resonance of a brass instrument.

    I use it primarily to compensate for instruments I lack in my show band (due to lack of space or money), or to recreate instruments and SFX not normally available or feasible to have (bagpipes, wood flute, etc).

    Maybe it’s the culture of the area I’m in, but I’ve never actually used the term “key book” before.  But then, I’d never actually heard the term “sitzprobe” until last year, although I’d actually been doing it for years with my casts and bands. :)  Just terminology, really….

  2. I like you started my life in musical theatre music departments as a Keyboard Programmer/Player which I feel makes me more opinionated about keyboard programming when I’m a music director. I always do it myself because I want to be in control of the patches and their sound. That being said, I think it’s a separate job and if I didn’t think it was cost prohibitive for many of the theatres I work at, I would probably request a separate keyboard programming fee.

  3. Kevin Caparotta says:

    As it turns out, I am typically the person with the most experience in keyboard programming–regardless of whether I am the MD or simply a keyboard player in the orchestra. Therefore, the task generally falls to me. As a keyboard player, particularly if I am programming multiple books, I have requested additional compensation for the time and effort.

  4. Alex Tirrell says:

    I tend to do my own programming for multiple reasons.

    For one, there aren’t too many people in this area that own the proper keyboards for musical theatre shows. The theatres I’ve worked with generally do not provide suitable keyboards either or expect me to supply my own if I am playing.  I own two Kurzweil keyboards, so I use them on shows, and usually can borrow a third if necessary.

    So furthermore, since the players I use lack the proper equipment, they also don’t know how to program them. Luckily I do, and it’s something that while it can get tedious, I do get a bit of enjoyment out of doing.

    And, since I’m a control freak, I can choose the sounds I want and make sure everything is done properly and to my standards.

    As a result, for the last several shows I’ve done with multiple keyboards, I’ve done all the programming myself. While I wish I was able to be compensated more for the time spent doing this, it’s frankly unrealistic with the companies I’m working for. 

  5. Brian Li says:

    A lot of productions I’ve done don’t have the budget for a dedicated keyboard programmer. I’ve always done my programming just because I happen to know how to do it, and it’s nice doing everything yourself because you understand how the patches work.

  6. Nathan Perry says:

    A couple of different issues are at play here. From a delegation standpoint, it is the MD’s job to program keyboards in the same sense that it’s the scenic designer’s job to paint scenery: often, this gets delegated to the paint crew at the theatre or an outside scene shop, but just as there isn’t always the personnel or budget for painters in smaller theatres, there likewise isn’t often a keyboard programmer on staff in the music department. Still, I think it’s important that producers realize that this work does take extra time and should require commensurate compensation, whether the work is done by the MD or another person.

    Let’s also remember that synth programming falls about equally into the realm of sound design as it does in music direction. The sound designer and MD should collaborate on what sounds are needed and how to mix them into the overall design, and most theatres I’ve worked at have their own keyboard equipment that is under the audio department’s jurisdiction. But again, not all theatres have much of an audio department to begin with, and the sound designer position is omitted with alarming frequency.

    The question, then, is usually this: since the budget and/or equipment often don’t exist for synth programming, does the MD absorb that cost on himself by doing the work or providing the equipment without compensation? Or, does the production just have to go without what they can’t afford? It’s a tricky question because the commodity is a skill, not a product. If you’re doing a tour and you can’t pay for truck fuel, then you simply don’t get truck fuel.  Likewise, if you’re producing a summer stock musical and you can’t pay for synth programming, do you simply not get synth programming? As we’ve seen, you often end up getting it anyway. Ultimately, the MD must decide whether to provide this skill himself or not, based on the compensation offered. My conclusion, then, is that it’s not the MD’s job to actually do the programming, but it is his job to delegate how it gets done, or doesn’t get done.

    One more point, as to MDs doing the programming because they get personal enjoyment from it, or because their artistic standards won’t allow anyone else to do it: I think those considerations are perfectly valid, but I also believe it’s still important to make the decision from a purely business standpoint, in conversation with the producer, detailing what needs to be done, what equipment, personnel and money are available, and what the MD can contribute personally given those specific economics. This is vital to keeping the position of MD a professional one, not merely a hobby, and after all, doing work that we enjoy while also getting paid for it is the whole reason we’re in this business, isn’t it?

  7. Jim Harp says:

    Nathan raises an important point that theater synth programming is at times focused on Sound Design/Sound Department issues.   As a programmer I often find myself spending a great deal of time on triggered sound effects.   I can’t imagine having to endlessly tweak the levels and routing of the Gunshots/Whips/Churchbells etc while also music directing a show.    Beyond that it really depends on the show and the preferences of the MD.   If you’ve just got a few string, harp and celeste cues to deal with and good tools are available why not do it yourself?   On the other hand if you’re dealing with something like “Legally Blonde” with its hundreds of esoteric patches there’s something to be said for delegating, either to someone else in the music or sound department or a dedicated programmer.   Even if you can get all that work done the sheer amount of time will have to come either out of your other duties or your sleep.    

  8. Matt Stern says:

    Totally agree with Nathan that this is a business question.  While I find the process of synth programming exciting and interesting, it’s also extremely time consuming, especially for someone like me who hasn’t had a ton of experience but can get by.  

    As music directors, we train for years learning vocal technique, piano technique, and conducting technique, not to mention all of the skills that we learn by doing (budgeting rehearsal time, casting effectively, etc.).  After we’ve gained competence in all of these skills, we become marketable, and we get paid to do a job that we’re equipped to perform.  Instrumentalists have a similar process of training, networking, and building rep that allows them to be regularly hired by performance organizations.  It’s no different with a synth player.  As a music director, when I go to hire my pit, if I need complicated synth programming done, I hire someone to do it in the way that they’ve trained themselves to do, and I expect it to be done.  If I require things to be tweaked (much in the vein of Geraldine’s bowing analogy), I ask.  If I’m doing the programming myself, I’ll allocate budget for myself.  Additionally, if I were playing synth on a show and someone handed me a programmed synth that they created themselves or had created for the show by someone else (see the exception in the following paragraph), I wouldn’t feel totally comfortable playing the part.  Doing the programming allows the player to get used to the book and what they’re going to need to accomplish, and also allows the player to problem solve in the way that works for them.  One person may have a different plan for splitting a keyboard or grouping voices in the same performance than another player would, and I wouldn’t want to infringe on the player’s preparation.  However, that player needs to be compensated.

    Furthermore, I make a big stink with shows like Legally Blonde that the production budget try to make some room to order the RMS software from MTI or the equivalent.  In the case of Legally Blonde, paying for individuals to program three huge keyboard parts that are pretty crucial to the show is going to cost way more than the $350-400 that MTI charges to download the patches.  But once again, this comes out of the show’s budget the same way it would if I were hiring someone to do the programming.

    A question that all of this raises for me…  What is everyone’s policy on how they pay someone to actually program a book versus what they pay someone to provide programming that they have already done for a book and are re-using?  On the one hand, from a business standpoint, you’re getting the same product either way and should be paying the same either way.  On the other hand, the player is doing less for you than they would be if they hadn’t already created the part from scratch.  Does it make sense for a synth player to make $300-500 or whatever they would charge to program a show over and over again every time they reuse the programming?  Unclear…

    Interesting topic – thanks for bringing it to the table, Geraldine!

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