Auxiliary skills for musicians: stage management

At some point in your music career, you will probably (hopefully?) put on a performance. Whether it is your senior recital or an improv ensemble in a DIY art gallery, there are some basic things to think about regarding “stage management.”

(You should know also that “stage management” in theatre is very different and in many ways, more complex. Here I’m talking primarily about classical performance.)

Your crew

Sometimes you do it all yourself, sometimes you can recruit a few friends, and sometimes you’ll have professional staff. But someone is making sure all the parts of a performance run smoothly.

Stage hands

These are the folks who place chairs and stands, move pianos, etc.

Audio engineer

Audio engineers record concerts, run your live microphones, and often both at once. Sometimes they also run the lights, depending on how complicated those are! You’ll run into a range of experience depending on whether you are in a college or professional venue. But please, assume they know more than you…

Lighting operator

This role can vary widely, from an extra person to hit one of 3 buttons on the wall, to a professional who will run preset cues or create looks on-the-fly. See what’s possible, keep it simple, and trust.


Stage plots

Stage plots are diagrams you create to help your crew know what goes where, and when. You can draw these by hand, or download this handy Powerpoint template.

Keep in mind the theater/hall geography, such as the dimensions of the stage, the walls, doors, stairs, etc. You can often ask for diagrams from the venue.

Then you need to plot out the elements on stage – chairs, music stands, pianos, etc. You’ll work with the conductor or ensemble director on this. 

If you have a performance with different set-ups, really think through how you can make these “moves.” Sometimes you have all of intermission, but sometimes a few changes need to happen between pieces. Think smooth, quick, minimal.

A few example compromises you might consider:

  • The second piece is a piano concerto. Can the piano be on the side of the stage during the first piece? This will save some time opening the stage doors and pushing the piano through.
  • Two horn players leave after the first piece. Can you strike their chairs at intermission?
  • There is a massive percussion switcheroo between these two pieces, but these other two pieces have a similar setup. Can you re-order the concert order?

Cue sheet

A cue sheet is a list of directions for the stage crew. In professional venues, the stage manager will be on a headset and call these out. In college settings, you may not always need one, but they wouldn’t hurt.

Every move that needs to happen goes on the cue sheet. Not only set changes, but when a stage door needs to open (and who does it), when the audience lights dim, etc. etc. If you have it all on the sheet, there shouldn’t be any surprises.

A little trivia I’ve learned: Theater techs wait for the word “Go.” I’ve been involved with some community productions with volunteer stage managers saying “lights….lights please….can we get some lights?” This was confusing to the techs because they are waiting for the exact moment to start. Saying “lights…” in a questioning tone sounds like “lights: stand by.” It’s easy to say “lights, cue 40, go.” Like I said, no surprises.


Lighting basics

So let’s talk about lights–or at least their operation. We’ll need to save info on lighting units and color gels and gobos for another time.

Lighting varies wildly from venue to venue. You may just have on or off, controlled by a little wall panel like this:

basic lighting panel

Or you may have a complex digital board like this:

Here are a few basic terms to know, so you can talk to your lighting designer/operator.

Stage wash

A “wash” means even lighting across the stage. “Full” means as bright as it can go. Lighting folks I’ve talked to often think in percentages (as these can be set on digital boards). Just know that “10% brighter” will vary depending on distance, type of lighting unit, if there is color, etc.

Spot light

Usually this means a bright circle of light which can be moved around by a dedicated operator.

Special

You might ask for a fixed “spot light” and this is what the lighting person will put in place. For example, an extra light or two directed toward the concerto soloist, which is only turned on during that piece. Specials can be a little more subtle than true spot lights. The main thing is that specials won’t follow someone around.

Look

A “look” is a combination of settings for a part of the performance. A “pre-show look” might have the stage wash at 25%, the audience (“house”) at full. Then the “show look” might have the stage at full and the house at 0% (“out”).


Audio basics

As with lighting, there is so much more I could go into regarding audio. For classical musicians, some very basic things to know:

Microphones

You’ll encounter two types – wired and wireless (I’m not getting into condensers vs. dynamics here). Wireless mics, obviously, are designed to be moved around, often by speakers and singers. They run on batteries and send radio signals to the sound board. 

Wired mics will be used for most other instruments. If you have to set these up, keep things neat and use some gaffer’s (“gaff”) tape for safety. More recommendations on mics in a future post. Usually there will be a wall panel on the side of the stage where you will plug the mics in. Then there are cables going under the floor to the sound board.

Sound boards

These look intimidating, but a venue likely has many things pre-plugged and labeled for you. You might have “wireless mic 1-4” and just need to turn them up. Or, you might have channels 1-8 running from the wall panel. 

If your board has faders, like this one shown, you’ll control the individual instrument volume on the left. There will be a separate section with “master” or “main” where you can control the overall volume.

Speakers and amps

Loudspeakers need amplifiers to increase the sound level coming from the board. Sometimes they are part of the speaker itself, and sometimes there is a whole rack of amplifiers that you’ll need to turn on.

Always turn the amplifiers on last, and turn them off first.

Plug in all mics and cables before you even think about turning on the speakers!. And when you do turn on the speakers, make sure that the “Main” faders are all the way down. You don’t want loud pops or booms or feedback, do ya?

Feedback

What is feedback anyway? You’ve heard it. It’s a tone that starts getting louder until you hear a SHRIEK! What’s happening is that sound going through the microphone comes out of the speaker…then goes into the microphone and out of the speaker. Over and over until it resonates the room and/or system at a certain frequency. 

How to avoid: first, never have microphones in front of speakers. This means, not at the front of the stage, not in front of any reference monitors. Second, check your levels. Usually feedback is caused by a combination of the mic being too close to the speaker, or cranked too loud. 

A final note about audio

Not all venues are alike. If you’re performing at a college, the room may not even have a sound system! I’ve made this joke before, but sometimes asking for “just one little mic” actually means some poor guy (usually me) needs to set up all this:

It’s usually not a big deal as long as you ask up front. See what the venue has available well in advance. 

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Welcome and thanks for checking out my work! -adam

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