Techniques Thoughts

The secret to a smooth performance

It may be just my own approach (although I am somewhat experienced in these matters) but for me there is only one technique in making any performance smooth and polished.

I’m not talking about the musicians: there are countless people extolling the value of practise, talent, luck, alcohol etc. I’m talking about the performance as a whole. We’ve all got stories of concerts which were bad, not due to a deficit in performance skill, but in execution of a successful event. Mine involves Notre Dame cathedral, 2 degree temperatures, no toilets, and a concert starting 45 minutes late. The music was amazing, the concert was not.

I’m also talking about classical music. In theatre and musicals they keep on trying until they get the performance they want (try seeing a first preview and then a press night and prepare for some surprises) showing that the smooth performance is a product of elimination and trial and error.

In classical music (concerts, recitals, opera, anything) you only really get one shot at success, and so getting it right (or not) becomes a matter of prediction and experience.

For me, the ‘trick’ is to imagine your performance going perfectly: what does that look like, how does it run. Then, you do two things – take it apart (what did it need, what was used, what did it feel like in the room) and work out how to get those things into that room at exactly that time. Then it’s just working backwards from there to get it done.

Easy, right? But just thinking about the end product gives you the steps you need to achieve it. We work in a standardised industry, meaning we can visualise the final concert without too much effort. This can apply to performers too: work out what the performance needs to be, plan on how to get there, hope you have the skills to do so (we have the luxury of outsourcing and freelancers).

Of course this ‘simple trick’ (I’m moving into clickbait) assumes no spanners are thrown in the works: no-one changes repertoire, no-one gets sick, the soloists visa comes through, the venue doesn’t flood and the piano doesn’t disintegrate. Of course, those of us with the special training know how to handle these, but I swore an oath not to tell you. But I definitely know. Yes.



What is diegesis?

Diegesis is a term used in film music to discribe the way in which the elements of film relate to the narrative the film is telling. In film music, it is  simple way of describing the function of music: if it occurs within the world of the characters (i.e. someone could hear it) it is diegetic, if it occurs in the world of the audience (but the characters cannot hear/see it) it is non-diegetic.

How can you use it?

It’s not a technique as such, rather a lens though which you can look at your music. Although the script will usually give hints as to the most obvious diegetic cues, you can shift this factor to make your work more interesting: rather than a standard piece of underscore, you could make it play from a gramophone or radio during the scene; or you could use on-stage musician (such as a string quartet in a restaurant) to accompany and set the tone of a scene.

Blurring the line

Of course, the most exciting use of this technique involves the blurring of the line between the diegetic and the non-diegetic. This is particularly easy to accomplish in films (such as Philip Glass playing the background of the Truman Show, or the entrace of the brass band in My Fair Lady) but it can also take place in the theatre. West Side Story has a famous scene in which a jukebox is turned on and plays a recording of the music to an earlier scene, this then segues into “live” underscoring played by the pit orchestra. However, we still believe that the music is ‘coming’ from  the jukebox (a consequence of Schitzophonia) albiet with a richer and more visceral style. This effect, the transition from one frame of reference to another, enhances the performance and gives the scene much more impact. Ironically, blurring or transitioning across the real/non-real line can make the performance seem more real by assisting or refreshing the willing suspension of disbelief.


Although not a technique as such, diegesis is an important factor in the construction of theatrical artifice. It can be used to change the perspective on a scene and to freshen an otherwise stale or unorginal cue, or to draw attention to or distract from a musical or theatrical element. Next time you are struggling with a music cue, think about whether you can change its position in the narrative frame to make it more interesting. At the very least this will give you some creative inspiration, at most an entire new way of presenting your score and sounds.



Feature Pieces

Feature pieces are pieces which stand apart from the fabric of the performance in some way, often contributing traditional musical structures and thematic writing to provide some variation to the musical score. When suites or albums are made of theatrical scores (Peer Gynt, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) they are usually drawn from the feature pieces, as they are the cues that translate best into concert form.

Works outside the Narrative

These are pieces which the characters cannot hear. They are used to introduce or contextualse scenes for the audience, and to fill up time between scenes or acts. Aside from the most common types, Overtures and Intermezzos, these feature pieces can include Entr’actes, Curtain Call music, Exit music, interval music, preshow playlist and many other genres.


A substantial (although often brief) standalone musical work played before the narrative starts. It usually introduces the musical and aesthetic themes of the proceeding drama.


An intermezzo is an piece of music played between scenes or acts. Designed for a practical purpose—to cover a gap while the stage is dark and the set and costumes are changed—it usually also evokes the following scene, or provides a musical reflection on the scene before it.

Works within the narrative

These include songs, fanfares, dances, montages (although these are closer to underscore), ballets, background radio, jukebox, characters that perform, and other musical works that the characters can engage or interact with. Shakespeare makes great use of these and they provide many great moments in theatrical performances.

There are no great tricks to the composition of feature pieces for the theatre. Each composition is naturally governed by the requiremnts of the script and of the performance venue, but in general they allow composers to flex their creative muscles and present music that is distinctive or memorable, and emerge from the supporting foundation to which it is normally accustomed.



Underscoring (the process of accompanying speech or action with sound or music) as a science as much as it is an art. It requires a careful understanding of the action onstage and a sensitive tailoring of the music to interweave exactly with the narrative of word and action. Nowadays we are far more familiar with this technique as a filmic convention, but underscoring theatrical scenes involves a set of skills not needed for the predetermined world of the edited film.

Although you never see underscore, it is a talent worth having. Photo by rosengrant (flickr)

Perhaps we should start with a short definition:


Underscoring refers to music which plays underneath dialogue and action, without ‘locking in’ with it or standing on its own. Generally quiet and unobtrusive, it supports the onstage action emotionally and atmospherically. It is not usually heard by the characters onstage.

It is similar to the technique of Melodrama, a form of writing that interlocks musical ideas with complex dialogue or action, but can be seen as a smaller component of melodrama: underscoring does not usually peek it’s head above the ramparts of the dialogue, instead providing a firm emotional foundation.


Perhaps the most important factor for the creation of underscoring is volume. Unlike in film music, where you absolute control of volume in recording, live music can easily overwhelm speech if badly written.

Perhaps the best thing to bear in mind is to keep the music as distraction-free as possible. This means not writing jaunty and catchy tunes or distinctively rhythmical accompaniment patterns.

The other area of techniques, aside from compositional, lies in the orchestration. If the spoken word is un-amplified you have to be careful not to overwhelm it with brass or percussion instruments. Some instruments (strings are traditional) are able to play at very quiet dynamics without strongly accented articulation, and so are able to maintain a low sound level over long periods of time. Other instruments such as flutes and some tuned percussion can also sustain quiet passages, but many other reed and brass instruments are difficult or tiring to maintain a consistent quiet pitch. Experimentation and intuition are the key.

Audio technology is often used in a theatrical context because it presents complete control and reliability. A case in point is volume control: unlike acoustic instruments, it is possible to reduce the volume of any recorded sound without significantly altering the timbre. In practical terms this provides composers with increased musical resources for underscoring, as any instruments which would previously dominate a spoken voice (such as a brass fanfare beneath a stirring speech) can be reduced in volume without losing the emotive qualities of the music.

However, using technological shortcuts can often result in a lessening of the impact that well-written underscoring can have. The embodied presence of live musicians interacting and locking in with the emotional arc of the narrative can create a more powerful performance than a accompanying recording. If done well this can be an enormously powerful technique for many different styles of theatre, but is perhaps more difficult in a live and acoustic setting. The challenges are worth it though!


Vamp, Safety, & Repeat

For a theatrical musician this technique (or bundle of techniques) is the bread and butter of live theatre. These are the buffers that bridge the gap between the prewritten and preplanned score and technology and the unpredictable excitement of the performers and the audience. There are two types of buffer, the Vamp and the Safety Bar/Passage, and while they often look like repeats they are actually very different beasts.

Perhaps we should start with some definitions:


A vamp is a section of music that is repeated several times while dialogue or onstage action occurs. It is usually directed by the conductor’s cue, and as such can cope with the unpredictability of long stretches of dialogue or indeterminable theatrical machinations.


Similar to a vamp, a safety is usually a shorter optional passage designed to accommodate for unplanned hiccups in the performance. Usually added in the score as optional repeats, safeties can occasionally be improvised. As Mark Lubbock recounted in  1957 “the wise conductor arranges a safeguard in the form of a repeat near the end of the number, which can be made if necessary. Then there is the question of music to bring characters on to the stage and actors who miss their entrances and do not appear till the music is nearly finished. One conductor’s solution to this problem was to lean over to his cellos with the instruction, ‘Tremble, boys, ad lib.’, and the gap was filled.”


This is the notation that appears in scores across the spectrum of classical and popular music, and means that the performers play the bracketed section an additional time. It appears mostly as a shorthand used to indicate musical form (multiple verses, repeated exposition in sonata form, etc.) without burdening the performer with unnecessary page turns.


While repeats are found in theatrical music, the most useful tools for a theatrical toolbox are the vamp and the safety.

Vamps can be as short as one beat or as long as a full phrase, but in essence they are a section of music that is looped by the performers while they wait for a cue. This cue can be a line of dialogue, an action, a piece of stagecraft (like a set or prop being flown into place) or the end of an audience reaction. This means that someone (usually a conducter or band leader) is watching and listening to the world around them to decide on the cue for the group, particularly for cues that are a bit nebulous, like the end of audience applause or a scene change. Once the cue has been given the music continues seamlessly into the next section. This is often found in musical theatre as an introduction, with the cue marked as voice last time. This means that the musicians play the music until they hear the vocalist enter, at which point they will continue accompanying the melody.

A safety bar is very similar to a vamp, but is usually only one or two bars long (not a complete phrase) and is hopefully optional. It can be found at the end of a section and exists to cope with emergencies that can arise. For example if a actor needs to enter and sing, or a screen visualisation to get going, a safety can be written in the score. Hopefully the actor will get there on time, and the screen will start on cue, but if they don’t the overall sound will not be compromised. These are slightly tricky to play, as they need good reactions, but they are very useful for safety purposes.


These effects are notated with normal repeat marks at either end of the section to be repeated. This is fine, as long as it is clear how exactly the section should be played. Too often, however, a section of a score will be bracketed with repeat marks, with no indication as to whether the section should be repeated once, vamped until some unknown cue, or simply a section to be repeated only in emergencies. I’ve been guilty of this myself, and it becomes the hardest part of the work to rehearse with the musicians.