One of the awesome things that has happened since I started my list of reed books in musicals is that great people from all over the world have contacted me to contribute to the list. These contacts are always a pleasure for me personally, and they serve to make the list more accurate, complete, and useful for others.
I have a number of regular contributors who contact me periodically with updates, and until recently the record was nearly twenty individual contributions from one much-appreciated person.
That record was shattered when, a few months ago, I started getting emails from Gene Scholtens. The first email was a small correction for one show, but then the floodgates opened. Gene revealed that he has been playing woodwinds in Broadway orchestras for over thirty years, and has been keeping his own very comprehensive log of who plays which doubles on which shows. Gene’s contributions to my list at the time of this writing number a staggering 72.
As it turns out, Gene is not only a talented musician and a prolific record keeper, but also a very nice, humble, and generous guy, and graciously agreed to talk to me on the phone about his career. Here’s what he had to say. [Note: edited for length.]
BP: How many shows have you played?
GS: I’ve been playing on Broadway since roughly 1980. The last count was somewhere in the neighborhood of 90-95 shows.
Most of my career, quote-unquote, has been as a sub. I’ve had what they call “my own” show, but most of the time I’ve been subbing. That’s partly because I always had a full-time job at Baruch College. I was in administration in the technical part of the admissions department. I left that two, almost three years ago now. Decided enough is enough. I’m semi-retired, but still playing.
What shows are you playing now?
On average, how many shows do you play in a week?
If you counted the whole year, three a week. This week I’m doing eight, last week I did two. Sometimes it’s a whole week of Sister Act, like this week. Sometimes it’s four different shows in a week. It’s always different.
How did you get started on woodwind doubling?
It goes way, way back to when I was a kid. I started on clarinet when I was in fourth grade or something. A year and a half or two years later the school bought a new bassoon. It was a newer, shinier instrument—that was what I wanted to play. They offered it to somebody else, but I talked him into turning it down so they would give it to me.
I’m a bassoonist, mostly. That’s the one I studied in college. Everything else I did study a little bit, but bassoon was a major and everything else was definitely secondary. But I’m pretty good on all or most of them. I don’t like to hear myself play flute much, but they still pay me for it. I call myself a reed five player, because I’m always playing bassoon, baritone sax, and bass clarinet, and rarely have to play any exposed clarinet or flute.
How did you end up where you are today?
Well, I went to college, and graduated with a masters in bassoon in 1972 from the Univeristy of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. And when I graduated I didn’t have any place to go or anything to do. But then I got a call from a friend with a lead on the college job. Basically I got hired over the phone to do the job, and so I moved to New York, the place I wanted to be anyway as a musician. I had a chance to come to New York with a job, and I had the job for thirty, almost forty years. And I started playing in New York. Originally I was mostly a bassoon player, playing in orchestras and chamber groups. Whatever paid at the time. And I always had liked playing shows.
I also liked doubling. I always said the reason I’m a doubler is because I have a very short attention span. I don’t like to play any instrument too long. Plus, it seemed to me there was more work for me as a doubler than as a straight bassoon player.
I was in New York for maybe seven years before I really got going on Broadway. Mostly just I don’t promote myself. I guess I didn’t know how to go about it, so I just kind of sat around. My first big break was on the original production of A Chorus Line. A friend of mine knew the assistant conductor there, and we both went down and sat in the pit for the fun of it, and watched a real Broadway orchestra play. I was introduced to Marvin Roth, the bassoonist. And maybe six months later I got a call from him, and he said, “Gene, I need you on Chorus Line. My sub died.” And I said, “Great!” I played the show for two weeks and decided I liked it, and liked all the guys, and they liked me. And I did a good job, I guess. And all of a sudden people started calling me. And I’ve been doing that for over thirty years.
What’s the worst part of playing on Broadway?
The worst part playing reed 5 is carrying the instruments. Showing up with a baritone saxophone, a bass clarinet, and a bassoon. And flute and piccolo and a clarinet or whatever the show takes. And the stands, too. You play one show or two shows, and you get on the subway with all those horns. It’s not much fun. I tell people I play the show for free—they pay me to carry all this stuff.
You probably get paid cartage, though, right?
No, no cartage for a sub. If you’re a regular, they will pay you cartage for a baritone saxophone for the rehearsal period. That’s it. And also if you’re playing two saxophones on a show, sometimes you play baritone and tenor, for instance, you only get paid for one saxophone. The other one is a freebie. It’s a strange thing in the union rules.
What’s the best part of playing on Broadway?
The best part is, at least for a sub, is playing different shows, and having lots of different people to be around. If you have your own show, probably the worst part of the show is boredom—playing the same show over and over and over. Never getting a chance to play anything else. Being around the same people. Everyone knows horror stories about sitting in the middle of two people who hate each other. And the longer the show runs, the more chance there’s going to be some bad blood. In fact, it’s almost like a given, the shows with the great people and the great attitudes and the great music are always the shows that close. The ones that are torture are the ones that last forever. Its not true, but sometimes it seems that way.
How is being a Broadway musician now different from when you started?
The people are much younger now. When I first started it seemed like everybody was older than me, in their fifties or sixties. Now I’m definitely one of the older people.
When I first started it was tough for musicians to take time off. The union has made many, many advances in that. In the contract you’re entitled to take off 50% of the shows if you want to, and send in a sub.
The money is a lot better than it was. The shows are a lot harder in general—there’s a lot more music. It used to be there was a song, then a book scene, then a song, then a book scene. Now a lot of shows have music for 90% of the show, so there’s a lot less downtime than there used to be.
There’s a lot more pressure. When I first started subbing, you would go in and watch a show, sit next to the guy you were subbing for and watch the conductor, and then play that night. You did as well as you could and everyone knew it wouldn’t be perfect. Now they give you a copy of the book to take home and practice for a month. Sometimes, they even give you DVDs of the conductor you can play along with. It makes it a lot easier to play a good show the first time, but the expectations of perfection are much higher.
Are there any characteristics, abilities, or habits that you should cultivate if you want to play on Broadway?
Well, I think the most important thing, and the thing I’m the least good at, is networking. A lot of it is a social thing. You have to be able to make people laugh, tell stories, get along, be a fun guy to go out with. Or girl—It’s not only men.
You have to be disciplined. You’ve got to go in and play eight shows a week, or at least most of them. And you’ve got to play the same thing over and over, the same way every time. You can’t ad lib. You can’t experiment.
You’ve got to know how to follow the conductor. Musicians come from all different directions. Some of us are classically trained, some are not. Some come from jazz or rock. For some of those guys, learning to really follow the conductor well is difficult.
Knowing what you do now, is there anything you would go back and do differently if you could?
I guess I would try to be more self-promoting. Almost every time I’ve said, let me call this guy and say “Hi, are you looking for anybody?” it has paid off. Know the contractor, call him every once in a while, and schmooze.
If I were new in town, I would call the people who are doing the shows, and say, “Can I take a couple lessons from you? I’m new in town, and I’d like to learn about the business. I’d like to hang out and talk to you, and see what suggestions you can make.”
Do you have any favorite woodwind-playing tips?
I’ve started using Legere reeds. Have you seen those?
In the last couple of months I’ve started to use them a lot. Makes things a little easier if you’ve got five or six horns to worry about. And within the last couple of years I finally decided it’s smarter to buy bassoon reeds and not to make them. I made my own reeds all these years, and struggled through it. Wasted all that time and money. I finally found a guy that makes reeds that I can live with, and I’m much happier.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.
Nice talking with you.