Michael Keller has been contracting for about 11 years. He was the contractor for the 60-piece orchestra of Barbra Streisand in her 1994 and 2001 tours. He’s contracted for “Bombay Dreams,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Wicked,” “The Boy From Oz,” “Avenue Q,” “Mamma Mia!”, “Aida,” “The Lion King,” “La Cage aux Folles,” “The Goodbye Girl” and the upcoming “All Shook Up” and “Spamalot.” Keller is also the conductor and drummer for composer Marvin Hamlisch. He has been a member of Local 802 since 1966.
Allegro editor Mikael Elsila: What do you think the role of a contractor is?
Michael Keller: What I’m looking to do is put together the best possible orchestra from a playing perspective – as well as from a community perspective. What I’ve learned over the years is that great players don’t necessarily translate into great colleagues.
ME: Can you say more about that?
MK: What I mean is that it’s very important in a Broadway pit to put together an orchestra that has a sense of community and a sense of working together. Generally, pits are relatively small places and people are put together for eight shows a week. And I always go into every project believing that the show has a legitimate shot to be a success and will be around for a while. This means that these people have to live and work together over the course of time. And so it’s very important to me to not only blend the playing ability with the – for lack of a better word – “get-a-long-ability.” Some of my early efforts didn’t necessarily work out great in that area. I’ve learned over the years that the putting together of personalities is an important part of what I do.
ME: How do you assess someone’s “get-a-long ability”?
MK: I started out as a sideman, as a player. I spent a lot of time on Broadway, and I know a lot of people who know a lot of the players, and I’ve seen how people interact with each other. I’ve seen how personalities mesh, and it’s become an important part of my decision-making process. I’m not necessarily looking to put the absolute best player in a pit. Obviously, I want players who are great and play well, but other aspects of what they do enter into my decision.
ME: So how could someone be a great player and still blow it? How do you think should players act, or not act, in a pit? What should musicians do or not do?
MK: There’s so much that goes into it. Basically, the philosophy that I subscribe to is: show up, play to the best of your ability, get along with your orchestra mates, and go home. It’s not really very difficult. A lot of times people’s personalities or egos get in the way. And it’s not about ego. Broadway is about community. A Broadway orchestra is asked to do a very odd thing, which is to be in a defined space for eight shows a week – and those shows can be as much as three hours long – and make music, and get along with everybody. That doesn’t mean everybody has to be constantly running out to have dinner together or they have to be best friends. It just means that everyone is entitled to their space and their opinions, and it’s not about individuals; it’s about the orchestra.
ME: Could you give me an example of a remark that a musician might make, or an action that a musician might take, that would be a warning flag for you?
MK: I’ve had situations on shows of mine where I’ve had to participate in disciplinary actions, sometimes involving the grievance procedure, sometimes not. When it comes to issues like volume or interpretation, it’s not really the place of individuals in the orchestra to try to dictate what those are going to be in the context of the show. The conductor or the music director sets the interpretation and it’s the job of the musicians in the orchestra to play the show to the best of their abilities, according to the interpretation of the music director. And there have been times when players have not followed the conductor because they felt they knew better and were going to play a different way. So there are those types of issues. Also, within the orchestra someone may not agree with how someone else is interpreting a part, and it’s not up to the individual to dictate how something is going to be interpreted. If the conductor is O.K. with the interpretation, then that’s the end of the story. I’ve had problems with people within sections, or I’ve had to deal with issues with people within sections arguing with other people either within their own section, or another section. Just like no show is perfect in its composition, no orchestra is going to be perfect in the sense that not everybody is going to have the exact same interpretation of the music. But that’s not the job of the individual in the orchestra. The job of the individual in the orchestra is to perform to the best of their ability, according to the interpretation of the music director.
ME: Let me switch gears and ask you how a new musician in town is supposed to get noticed by you without bugging you. We get new members calling 802 all the time, wondering how to get work. And some of them cold-call contractors and some contractors don’t mind. What advice would you give to the new member who wants that Broadway gig?
ML: I’m going to say to you pretty much the same thing that all three contractors stated in last month’s issue of Allegro. I’m of the same opinion. I don’t mind taking calls from musicians, if I’m available and I have the time I’ll talk to people. I like to know about new people because in the last few years I’ve had to send out tours. So I like to know about new people because a lot of times musicians who are looking to break into the Broadway scene sometimes can get an opportunity to do that by being willing to accept road work – it’s a testing ground, more or less. But you’re not going to send someone out totally cold on a tour.
As far as getting Broadway work, I will say the same thing that was said last month, which is the real way that anyone gets a Broadway show of their own is to establish themselves as a desirable sub, and the way you go about that is to contact the people who play your instrument, and try to – whatever way possible – get an opportunity to sub on those chairs. Some guys are brilliant. I have a young man now who’s playing drums on an upcoming show who at one time was subbing on 11 or 12 different shows! And in most of those cases, he was the number-one call. He’s incredibly good, and it was just a matter of time before he was going to get his own opportunity to have a show.
So that’s the advice I always give everybody. I always ask people when they talk to me to send resumes, because I keep a file. But no one is going to call me who I don’t know and get work. I think most of the contractors made that clear last month. No one who is an unknown quantity is going to call a contractor and wind up getting a job. However, I have found over the years that you can sort of get a feel for what someone is about in a conversation, and there might be something said in that conversation, or there might be some aspect of their background that kind of sticks in the back of your head, and somewhere down the road you say, “Hey, there was that guy…”
You know, recently I had to hire eight musicians to flesh out a nine-piece orchestra for a Disney tour, which just went out a couple of months ago. And that was a challenging process for me because I knew I needed high-caliber musicians because the people involved on the creative side were really terrific people, and I knew that it was going to be a demanding situation in terms of playing ability. So it was tough for me because the people that I know I can call in New York City and offer them a job here are not going to really be willing to go out and do a road tour, especially when they’re looking for a six-month or 12-month commitment. At the same time, you do need to have a high level of ability. So I wound up hiring eight players, seven of whom I didn’t have first-hand knowledge of. But in using a process of cross-referencing and getting two or three opinions of the same people, I was able to put together an orchestra that was quite extraordinary.
Jon Taylor has been contracting in New York since 1984. He contracts for the Brooklyn Philharmonic, American Composers Orchestra, Long Island Philharmonic and Westchester Philharmonic. He has been a member of Local 802 since 1973.
Allegro editor Mikael Elsila: Why would an employer use a contractor instead of holding auditions?
Jon Taylor: In some cases, we’re not allowed to hold auditions. It’s a lot of work to hold an audition and it’s not really that necessary. There are cases where an employer will want to have an audition, particularly for a principal chair. But in many cases, employers are very happy with the substitutes that have been coming in. We would only hold auditions for a permanent position. In many cases, these orchestras may add up to make a living, but each individual orchestra is not offering that much work, particularly now. To ask someone to play an audition in that situation is really not fair. It’s not a big enough return. It’s one thing to audition for a 50-week season; it’s another to audition for a three-week season. Employers don’t always see auditions as worth the trouble. And often people come in and play auditions and it’s not really a reflection of their ability to play or perform on the job, which is a separate ability.
ME: What would you recommend to musicians who want to get hired, and how is a musician supposed to get noticed by you without bugging you?
JT: You’re going to get your start primarily through people who play your instrument. They’re going to call you for subs; they’re going to recommend you to employers. When I hire people – especially substitutes – it’s largely going to be on recommendations. Any contractor who pretends that he can tell you how the thousands of musicians in New York can play is probably lying – particularly about section string players. I don’t have a clue about how these people play other than what the other string players are telling me. It’s easier to hear what’s going on with wind and brass players. I’m not a string player – I would prefer to rely on the judgment of people who have actually sat with these musicians and heard them play. Sending me a resume is useful but I almost never hire someone exclusively on the basis of a resume. On your resume be honest, and keep it short – one or two pages. If you are young, I don’t expect a lengthy resume. Only list things of high quality, and things of relevance. Who you studied with is important; your SAT scores and hobbies are not. I once had a cellist who listed everything he ever played, including Rudimentary Thumb Techniques. I also prefer that you not include a picture, because it is asking me to hire you for non-musical reasons. A resume with references from people I work with is the best thing. That will lead me to call these references and ask “How about this person – is he or she worth hiring?” So the best way to get noticed is to have a colleague recommend you. And sometimes the process of sending a resume will lead to that recommendation but it’s very rare that I would hire someone solely based on a resume and certainly never just a phone call.
ME: Are cold calls acceptable to you?
JT: Cold calls are acceptable, but multiple phone calls don’t help. Really, the phone call is largely unnecessary. Sometimes talking to someone on the phone does give you a sense of what the person is like and if you would want to hire that person. But the resume and the references are really the most important part.
ME: What do you think of the strategy of taking lessons with contractors or other musicians in order to network?
JT: For the most part, I don’t think it adds a lot. Most musicians can play, but the issue is how you play when you’re on the job, and the best way to know that is from people who have actually worked with them. If you’re looking to take lessons, that only works for me if the musician is a trombonist since that’s my instrument – a violinist calling me for lessons is absurd. Truthfully, no one has done this with me. In most cases I prefer to rely on references.
ME: When musicians do get hired by you, how would you suggest they act or behave on the stand?
JT: You should be prepared and on time. Come in and do your job: that’s the most important thing. Don’t come on too strong. A lot of this is really common sense and common courtesy – it’s no different from life. Calling contractors is the same thing. Returning a contractor’s phone call is important – but that’s common sense: when friends call you, then obviously you return their phone calls too! On the other hand, you don’t want to bug people with phone calls either. Musicians should think about the number of calls a contractor gets. Years ago I sometimes made as many as 1,000 calls a month, which also meant I might have received 1,000 calls a month. Much of that has been replaced by e-mail, but the principle is somewhat the same. I don’t have the time or energy to take or respond to repeated, unnecessary calls, and don’t make me call you repeatedly to get an answer about a job.
I think that patience is something that musicians have to learn. They’re very eager, understandably – work is tight, they want to work. And sometimes they may see someone they think is as not a good a player as they are getting work or sitting ahead of them on a job. And it bothers them. But that’s part of breaking in; you’re going to see that happen. Don’t complain about it: there is a pecking order and you’re the new kid on the block; don’t take this personally. It amazes me when substitutes on a job complain about where they’re sitting or they denigrate their colleagues who may actually be contracted members of a group. What they’re saying may or may not even be true, but that’s not the issue – it’s not something you do.
Doing a good job means listening and fitting in musically. After you’ve been around for years, if you screw up sometimes, people understand that you’re allowed a mistake here or there. When it’s your first time, that’s your audition. It’s important to come in and do well. You can talk to people; you don’t have to keep your mouth shut, but you just don’t want to make too many waves.