Thursday, February 16th, 2017 was a special day. I was both excited and nervous as I stepped into SIR Studios in Manhattan to start the first orchestra rehearsal for Miss Saigon on Broadway. I had been practicing my part for about 3 weeks, experimenting with setups, mallet choices, and creating percussion choreography to accomplish the fast, challenging instrument changes of Claude-Michel Schönberg’s lush operatic score.
A handful of my friends were in the studio, but there were many faces that were new to me. Suppressing the urge to go warm-up and practice my part, I went around the room to introduce myself and say hello. I had confidence the rehearsal would go well because I practiced a lot. I knew the music very well and if I made any mistakes, it would be something I could fix.
The music director, James Moore, got up on the podium. The creative team from London, including the composer himself, sat at the long table with stacks of scores, notebooks, and computers to check every detail. The very first downbeat of Miss Saigon started with my gamelan passage on a MalletKat. I beamed with pride and joy. The thought hit me, “I had made it to my first Broadway show as a regular!”
How did I get there exactly? Looking back, I can break it down to three breakthrough moments.
Act 1: Winning the Radio City Christmas Spectacular Audition
After I earned my Master’s degree from Juilliard, I was living the life of a typical hustling NYC professional musician freelancer. I was in a cab going to a gig, my arms full of equipment, thinking about how the cost of the cabs required to and from the gig would make the pay barely break even when I got the call from Radio City Christmas Spectacular staff offering me the position. She said “Congratulations! We would like to offer you a position to play this season. Could you confirm your availability?” I had almost forgotten about the audition I took the prior week since I didn’t expect that I would get the job.
The job was the reason I became a local 802 (musicians union in NYC) member and it was my first “real” continuous job that paid well. This work wasn’t easy. Everyone who was hired for the show worked very hard. Because they have 4 to 6 shows a day for 2 months straight, just showing up to the correct shows on time took a lot of effort! If you have been to Rockefeller Center around Holiday time, you know it can take 10 minutes to walk just 50 feet because the sidewalks were packed with people. During November and January, NYC can get hit by many snowstorms, but whatever happens, “The show must go on!”
Despite all these challenges, I was loving my life as a busy musician, hanging out with new friends, and being a part of something so popular! This is the time when I really started to dream about playing on Broadway.
Act 2: Getting the First Subbing Opportunity
When I asked veteran Broadway players for advice on how I could play on Broadway, they recommended that I reach out to other percussionists who had a position in a Broadway show orchestra. They gave me the contact info of their friends with permission to mention their names when I contacted them. I nervously listened to the ringing tones while reciting my prepared elevator pitch in my head, but I learned quickly that it often went to voicemail. I got pretty good at leaving a clear, concise message after a few awkward ones.
I felt so relieved when I started to hear back from these percussionists with an invitation to visit them at their shows. It was very exciting to wait for them at the backstage door, following the narrow maze through costumes, busy crews, dressing rooms with actors getting ready, and lockers with musicians’ names on them. When I finally reached where the percussionist played — sometimes it was in the pit with other musicians and sometimes it was in a totally different room — it was like I found a secret treasure cave! A carefully thought-out setup, including beautifully leveled rows of tom-toms, congas, neatly arranged trays of toys, sticks & mallets, and some personal decorations such as pictures and handwritten messages from opening night. Everything was within reach, often arranged in a big circle to fill the given room. There is something so satisfying to see all of those perfect setups, unique to each show and each player. The best part was that I learned a lot about how to play different styles of Broadway musicals by watching these percussionists play, all for free!
Billy Miller, who was the regular percussionist for The Addams Family, was one of the percussionists I met this way. One day, many weeks after I had met him, I got an email from him telling me his show was closing but asked if I wanted to learn it and offering me five shows to make my time worthwhile. I was so surprised and excited at the same time, I immediately jumped at the opportunity!
Billy showed me a perfect example of kindness, generosity, and professionalism that people value in any workplace, not just in music. I’m forever grateful that he gave me a chance. I got my first Broadway subbing opportunity, now I just had to prove myself! Subbing on the very first show was both terrifying and fun. I felt a great sense of accomplishment when I received compliments from other regulars after my first show.
Act 3: Work Hard, Sound Great, and Be Nice
It’s true when people say, “You gotta sound good all the time because you really don’t know who is listening!” I strongly believe that my success in getting a Broadway show came from being an active freelancer in NYC, known to other successful percussionists and musicians as someone who is reliable and easy to work with. While I continued subbing on Broadway shows, I never stopped taking other types of work, from playing in orchestras, learning chamber music, going on tour, to being an extra on TV (you may spot me on Mozart in the Jungle)!
One day I got a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize while I was on a train in Brooklyn headed home. I somehow had a hunch that I should take the call and jumped out of the train as it had just pulled into a station. Good thing I did — it was from John Miller, who is a major Broadway contractor. He told me that he has a show called Miss Saigon which has a lot of Asian percussion and thought I might be a good fit. I somehow stayed calm, while all I wanted to do was jump around in joy, and professionally responded to him saying “Yes, I’m interested, thank you very much for thinking of me!” I must have looked silly with a big smile on my face to other New Yorkers on the platform but I didn’t care. I wanted to tell all of them, “Hey, I just got offered my first Broadway show!!”, but I kept it to myself and did a happy dance in my mind.
Later, I found out from a few percussionist colleagues that John had called them to ask about me before he decided to offer me the show — now that’s a “real” reference check! That is when I was deeply reminded of how important it is to have a great network of people and a positive reputation as a player and person. It took me 13 years of living and working in NYC including my school days to build this kind of connection and trust!
As I write this article in April 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak has canceled all of my work up until the summer. This left me feeling empty, worried, and purposeless for days. One day, I had an epiphany that it is dangerous to be basing my self-worth as a musician on getting great work. We have to remember why we chose to be musicians in the first place. If my goal was to make a lot of money, I should have chosen a different career!
Instead of focusing on the negatives such as lack of work, I’m making a list of things I’m grateful for daily. I’m working on finding a connection to a deeper artistic drive as a composer and improviser. I’m learning how to shoot and edit videos. I started collaborating with colleagues and friends digitally to create new great work despite the barriers. At the same time, I give myself permission not to do any of this if I’m not feeling up to it. Mental health during such crises is as important as physical health.
I love my life as a busy freelancer on Broadway and beyond. I miss sharing music with my colleagues and audiences. I tell myself that this is not a complete “stop”, it’s just a “pause” and I very much look forward to the day New York City and everywhere in the world gets live music back.
photo: Yuki Kokubo
About the Writer
A native of Yokohama City, Japan, Chihiro Shibayama is a versatile New York City based freelance percussionist. She played percussion on a successful run of the Broadway musical Miss Saigon, and her Broadway debut was as one of the three on stage musicians for a new adaptation of The Cherry Orchard starring Diane Lane. She has also performed with the renowned Radio City Christmas Spectacular, ABC’s Good Morning America with John Legend and Common, The Metropolitan Opera, Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, the Kansas City Symphony, and The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. As a chamber musician, she regularly performs with American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), Alarm Will Sound, and A Far Cry.
Ms. Shibayama earned both Bachelor and Master of Music degrees from The Juilliard School after graduating from Interlochen Arts Academy with a performance award.
Her hobbies include rock climbing, cooking, and baking with a sourdough starter named Phoebe.
She is proud to be a Pearl/Adams Concert Artist.
For more information please visit: https://www.chihiroshibayama.com
Watch Chihiro play “The Morning of the Dragon” from the Broadway production of Miss Saigon.