Sep 12

Hello From the Pit Orchestra!


Hey there. Yes, you, up there on the stage. No, bit lower. Not the auditorium. Below the footlights. Ah yes. Hello. It’s the pit orchestra speaking.

I understand if we’ve never spoken before. Vaguely threatening entities who came in late to rehearsals, sitting in the corner to not talk to anyone who wasn’t also dressed in black (MD’s excepted, usually), pit band musicians are a strange bunch. Just like the actors who are carrying on above us, we tend to be a bit clique-y, loaded down with strange-shaped instrument cases and jokes about violas. (For those who don’t understand viola jokes: violas are an essential part of an orchestra, providing a depth of tone to the string section of which neither a violin nor a cello are capable. Some people find this amusing.) But cut us some slack, if you will. It’s a tough job playing down beneath your feet.

1. Time.

For start, we’re not always given half as much time to rehearse as the actors up above. I’ve been in shows where we were given the music the day of the performance. Sometimes the afternoon of the performance. Once or twice, during the interval of the performance. Whilst the musical director may have been an intricate part of the proceedings from day one, much of the orchestra will have been drafted in last-minute. This goes all the way through the hierarchy:  from school shows, where the school’s one bassoonist has decided they’d much rather be part of the chorus, all the way up to professional shows, where pit bands are often lacking in one crucial instrument (it’s always the harp), who has to be found on a moment’s notice. It’s not uncommon for the orchestra not to arrive before the sitzprobe, and if they’re professional gigging musicians, they won’t have had a month in advance to practise. Essentially, those who cannot sight-read need not apply.

2. Space.

Have you ever looked down into an orchestra pit? They’re not very nice things, to put it politely. Dark, cramped, and usually desperately short of headroom, an orchestra pit is not a place for expansive arm gestures. But who, I hear you ask, needs to make expansive arm gestures in an orchestra pit? Violinists, that’s who. And cellists. Being elbowed in the face is not uncommon amongst string players regardless, but in a little dark space full of squished musicians, it’s almost inevitable. Whilst lots can be done nowadays in terms of mic-ing up instruments, there’s nothing that can beat the sound of a full string section. One violin turned up very loud is never going to sound like twenty violins playing normally, which means, quelle suprise, that there are going to be as many violins as the budget can afford/pit can fit.

3. Cuts.

I’m not going to pin this one entirely on you, actors, because it’s the director’s fault as well, but have you ever thought about how much your production differs from the original written text? Yes, you may well be doing all the songs in all the right order, but there’s a reason everyone should always bring a pencil to rehearsal. Directors cut lines, actors decide to sing their song in a different key, and the dance break is fifteen seconds longer than the original track. This may be all well and good for you, but think about the poor orchestra. It’s tough enough if you’ve come in at the last minute, but to be told that the score in front of you is wrong in about thirty different places is exhausting. Last-minute scribblings in margins, badly-printed sheet music written in Sibelius half an hour before curtain-up, the occasional GO BACK TO BAR 47 written in as dark a pencil as the lending library will let you get away with, on top of the fact that you may not have seen this music more than 48 hours ago, is a difficult balancing act.

So be nice to the orchestra accompanying you. The sad truth, having been on both sides of the curtain, is that the only times the orchestra gets noticed is during the overture, during the entr’acte, and when the trombone player drops his mute onto the cymbal during Fantine’s death scene. If we’re lucky, we get a separate round of applause from the lighting desk. But maybe don’t feel too sorry for us. After all, in many amateur productions, we’re the only ones getting paid. And the fact that if an actor is particularly unpleasant, we can always play their solo a semitone up or two.

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