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Navigating the Pit: A Practical Guide for Musicians Who Want to Get into Theatre

This practical guide aims to simplify the musical theatre world and provide insights into networking and essential tips for navigating the pit.

Last updated: 12 March 2024

How things are organised in theatre

  • Producer – responsible for overseeing the financial and managerial aspects of the production, securing investment, hiring the creative team, and playing a role in casting and design decisions.
  • Musical Supervisor – oversees the entire music department and will likely attend rehearsals and the initial performances. 
  • Musical Director (MD) - leads the cast and band. They negotiate their own contracts, but these can sometimes refer to the players’ terms and conditions. Find out more about the work of Musican Directors.
  • Assistant Musical Director (AMD) – assists the MD in delivering their creative objectives. They can also be an instrumental player in the band and be engaged under the players’ contract. They are generally contracted to conduct at least one show a week (cover conducting) and are paid an additional negotiated uplift. The MU has recommended minimum rates of pay for conductors on West End shows when working as cover for the contracted MD from December 2022.
  • Fixer –an individual or company that engages and manages musicians on a day-to-day basis. Generally, this person is an independent fixer whose only job is to manage the band, but they could be an employee of the production company or the MD. In the event of a disciplinary, this should be led by the Producer rather than the Fixer.  They may also communicate with the MU about variations to a collective bargaining agreement (if applicable) and recording requests.
  • Band Stewards - Stewards are elected by their bandmates to represent their collective interests and serve for the duration of the production or until they leave the band or step down from their role as Steward.
  • Band – individuals are referred to as chairholders or chair players.
  • Deps - Deps cover for the chairholder when they book time off. They are generally engaged and managed by the chairholder. Our theatre agreements refer to the use of deps through a ‘code of conduct’. Read more about Depping in theatre.
  • Associate Dep - some shows implement an Associate Dep rule so that more chair players can take time off simultaneously. The way this works is a player nominates one dep as an Associate (essentially a preferred dep) who would need to be approved by the MD or whomever they deem appropriate. When the Associate is present, it shouldn’t count towards the number of ‘offs” in that section. i.e., if your associate is in, another player can put a regular dep in.

Types of theatre

Touring theatre

Touring theatres involve productions that travel from one location to another, often performing in various cities or regions.

Regional theatre

Regional theatre refers to static productions where the theatres often produce their own shows and may receive public funding.

West End theatre

West End is associated with London's main commercial and entertainment district. Read our advice about working in the West End and our agreement with West End theatres.


Fringe are typically the shows that operate on the periphery of mainstream theatre.

NODA (Amateur theatre)

Shows produced by the National Operatic and Dramatic Association (NODA) are produced and performed by individuals who are not professional actors or part of a commercial production. We have rates agreed with NODA. Playing in these types of shows can offer valuable experience for individuals interested in playing in a professional pit.

Key steps for musicians wanting to get into theatre

Network with Musical Directors, Chair players, Fixers and regular Deps

Researching who the chair players and Musical Directors (MDs) are on shows and connecting with players who regularly fill in as deps is a good start. You might enquire with the chair player or the MD about possibly organising a sit-in. Still, the chair players' dep list may be full, and they may be unable to accommodate this for various reasons.

While it's commonly understood that sending unsolicited CVs/demos to fixers might not yield significant results, there's the occasional instance where the right talent or content lands on their desk at the perfect time. A more effective approach may be to seek an introduction to a fixer through a player who is known to the fixer.

Approach your outreach with consideration and respect, understanding that a lack of response could be due to a full dep list, a busy schedule, or other unforeseen circumstances. It's also important to note that sending multiple messages or generic emails might not be the most effective approach and could contribute to a lack of response.

Sitting in

Sitting in is a vital step in gaining a better understanding of how a pit works.  A sit-in is where the dep sits next to (ideally where space permits) the chairholder during a performance with a copy of the pad, makes notes, and asks questions when appropriate. If you do get the opportunity to sit in, they might be looking for a dep or just being generous — they will let you know. Observing from a player's perspective can provide valuable insights into the unique challenges and nuances of pit playing.

Develop versatility in your playing

Musical theatre pits demand versatility. Familiarise yourself with different styles of music and practice adapting your playing to fit the requirements of a diverse range of productions. A successful theatre musician will be able to sight read to a very high standard, play competently in various styles, follow an MD and, at the same time, keep an ear out for what is going on onstage. Being mindful of the changes that can happen on stage and adapting to those changes is a key skill. There is little scope for personal interpretation or improvisation. Finally, be prepared to play the same notes in the same way eight times a week.

The art of doubling

In theatre, musicians are often called upon to play multiple instruments, a practice known as doubling, tripling, quadrupling or even quintupling (although quintupling requires permission from the MU if the production is covered by one of our theatre agreements). For instance, a woodwind chair in a production may require a player to play the Bb clarinet, tenor sax, and flute. Similarly, a trombone chair might demand proficiency in playing tenor and bass.

It's better to focus on fewer instruments than attempting to dabble in multiple. If you play just one instrument, that's fine. There's no need to feel compelled to learn more. Acquiring instruments can be costly, and it doesn't necessarily dictate your chances of securing theatre work.

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The importance of being heard

In the world of theatre, being heard is paramount to securing opportunities. The truth is, most individuals won't book musicians unless they've had the chance to listen to them play firsthand or received a trustworthy recommendation from someone in their network. This creates a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario – it's challenging to get noticed without opportunities, and those opportunities often hinge on being heard.

Look for mutual friends who might be able to make introductions or vouch for your skills and dedication. If you're not actively gigging with theatre musicians outside of pit performances, a practical approach is to try to connect with chair players and discuss the potential for collaborative sessions. This could include arranging a lesson, organising a jam session/playthroughs, or exploring similar possibilities.

It's important to note that these opportunities may involve associated fees, but open communication will allow you to clarify this in advance. These sessions not only provide a chance for you to showcase your skills but also enable the chair player to assess your capabilities. Additionally, establishing a professional connection increases the likelihood of being recommended when opportunities arise.

Know your rights

The MU negotiates and establishes minimum terms and conditions, including rates of pay, for both employed and self-employed theatre musicians with all major UK theatres. Ensuring you are under the correct agreement is paramount, and it is crucial to carefully review your contract before signing. If you're unclear about your contract details, don't hesitate to contact us for clarification before signing.

Theatre work is a particular discipline that may not be suitable for all musicians. However, it also provides security of engagement and a regular income, which can last for years if a show is very successful. Such reliable income streams are not common for musicians in the music business.

Making your way into the musical theatre pit scene involves a mix of skill, networking, and persistence. Sitting in on shows and connecting with experienced players can boost your chances. It's not just about musical talent; building networks and demonstrating adaptability matter, too.

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