Playing wind controller in a pit orchestra – revisited

Last year I wrote about playing wind controller in a pit orchestra (part 1, part 2). I’ve just finished playing in a production of Children of Eden.

This was the 15th production of the musical group, and this year we had an extra-large, 21-piece orchestra: 1st violin, 2nd violin, 1st cello, 2nd cello, double bass, clarinet, bass clarinet, 1st flute, 2nd flute/soprano sax/alto sax, 3rd flute/alto sax/tenor sax/soprano recorder/alto recorder, 1st trumpet/flugelhorn, 2nd trumpet/flugelhorn, trombone, French horn, piano/keyboard, keyboard, electric guitar/acoustic guitar, bass guitar, drums, percussion, and myself on wind controller (Yamaha WX5) and tenor sax.

Like Seussical, Children of Eden is quite a lot of music, 43 songs in all, of which we played 42; number 30, “The Return of the Animals” (orchestra only), was cut from our production. Number 26, “Generations” (the first song of the second act) was great fun as it had most of the orchestra playing some percussion instrument or other (I played shaker).

Before the first rehearsal, our musical director told me that he had re-read the abovementioned blog posts before starting on the arrangements, so he could write most effectively for me. That was quite a nice surprise! It turned out that he wasn’t holding back, and I’ve got the statistics to prove it:

Graph (created with graphviz) of all my instrument changes in Children of Eden

  • Throughout the show, I had to change instruments/sounds 168 times!
  • I played 51 different instruments (49 on wind controller, plus tenor sax and shaker; for ease of switching, some of the wind controller sounds were copied to several patches, which is why you see more than 51 nodes in the graph above).
  • On average I had to change instruments 4½ (four-and-a-half) times per song.
  • The highest number of instrument changes in a single song was 15.
  • The highest number of different instruments in a single song was 9.

I won’t list them all, but some of 49 instruments I played on wind controller were:

  • blown bottle
  • bright bell sound with soft pad sustain
  • deep foreboding bell + dark strings 15vb
  • deep underwater explosion
  • JC Strat
  • layered vibraphone/harp/soft strings 8va in 45:35:20 ratio (that’s literally what it said in my sheet music 🙂 )
  • multiple octave strings + brass
  • music box
  • orchestra hit (exactly two notes: the last note of the first act and the last note of the second act)
  • rattlesnake
  • reverse thunder-clap
  • shakuhachi
  • shimmering bells
  • “sound of doubt”
  • sparkling strings with sweep filter + 8va
  • steel drums
  • thunder-clap with after-rumbles
  • very soft spacious strings + 8va
  • warm vocal ah

And I shouldn’t forget to mention the “in your face bass” that I played alongside the bass guitar in “A Piece of Eight”; the musical director wanted to get a really fat bass sound. Programming all the different patches for these sounds taught me more about my synth module (Yamaha MU100R with PLG-VL and PLG-AN plugins) than I ever imagined possible.

Since I had to play so many different sounds, scrolling through them by only using the +1/-1 keys of the WX5 was not sufficient; sometimes the patches were just too far apart for that. I had to resort to using the direct selection method, something which I dreaded. Direct selection works like this: the B key is 1, Bb petit key is 2, A key is 3, etc., all the way down to: F key is 9 and E key is 0; so e.g. pressing F then Bb would select patch 92. Initially I feared that it would be too difficult to get right, but I quickly got to know the numbers for each key. Still, selecting a patch with the direct selection method is more error prone then moving up or down one patch at a time; it’s easy to accidentally hit a wrong key in the heat of the moment. I only used the direct selection method when there were at least several bars of rest between two different sounds. When there was little time to switch (sometimes half a bar or even less), I tried to put the required sounds in consecutive patches so I only had to switch up or down at most a few times.

But at one point I had virtually no time to switch, from a whole-tone scale harp arpeggio [aside: “harp arpeggio” feels a bit tautological to me, but hey, that’s what it was] stretching over two octaves, to a strings glissando. It seemed impossible to me, and I’d even told the musical director that, when I suddenly realised that the notes I played on strings in that song were E4 or above, and the harp’s highest note was Eb4. This meant I could make a keyboard split between Eb4 and E4, and not have to switch sounds at all. That even gave me time to take a quick breath between the harp and the strings. 😎

Another part of my wind controller skills that I enhanced in the course of this production was the use of alternate fingerings. In addition to the standard fingerings, the WX5 offers many alternatives to facilitate fast passages (or reduce the possibility of glitches; see part 2 of my previous posts on this subject), or just make life easier in general. I’d already mastered quite a few of these alternate fingerings, but found that there are many more that come in quite handy at times. The downside is that for some notes or passages I now have so many alternate options that it could leave me undecided which one to employ for just a fraction too long, to the point of almost missing my entry… 😕

All in all it was challenging but tremendous fun!

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2 Responses to Playing wind controller in a pit orchestra – revisited

  1. artw says:

    Wow, I’m blown away by the complexity of the task, the programming that must have been required, and by the rapid learning of the alternate fingerings, direct patch selection, and other tasks that your music director requested. Certainly more chops than I have. And that’s before considering the musicality of your work on top of the technical virtuosity. I’m impressed. Bravo.

    When do you want to program my synths?

    Again, my congratulations on what seems like a nearly impossible mountain to climb.

  2. Gertjan says:

    Hi Art, thanks for the very kind words!
    I estimate that for this show, I probably spent more time programming and tweaking sounds than actually studying the music (not counting the orchestra rehearsals). Although to be fair, at least for me, programming a sound is for a large part determined by the actual notes in my sheet music. To make something sound most effective depends a lot on what I have to play. E.g. fast runs or long lines, staccato or legato phrasing, crescendi/diminuendi, high notes or low notes: all these influence the parameter tweaks on the final sound. Also what goes on in the rest of the orchestra is an important factor to consider.
    So yes, quite a daunting task at times, but a most satisfying one when it all comes together.