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.