Life in the Pit (Part II)

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This is the second of three installments; click this link to read “Life in the Pit (Part I).”

outline-1424838We interrupt this story for ten lessons learned from my life in the pit of a musical orchestra:

  1. When you treat someone like a professional, they begin to act like a professional. I noticed this change in other student musicians in the pit. They were still their carefree selves during the day, but during practice and the performance, they treated their participation as a job, not a student activity.
  2. The pit can get away with hijinks that the actors couldn’t. That’s because there was a physical wall between us and the audience. The paid attendance could only see us, not hear us. The only people who could see us were the actors. So, every so often, we would do something to throw the actor off, (but only in the comedy scenes). This would tend to energize the actor and make the scene funnier than it was in rehearsal (or at a previous show). The audience would laugh. We would laugh, too, but for a different reason.
  3. People really can play difficult music. When I first was introduced to a musical score (Hello Dolly!) as a 14 year-old freshman, I seriously questioned the sanity of the person who wrote the music. I mean, really, 64th notes? Who ever plays 64th notes? And in a run extending three measures? You had to be out of your mind to expect someone to play that run. But I saw the adult musicians do it, and they did it with ease. It made me realize that there exists some universe out there where even I could play a three measure run of 64th
  4. The first note and the last note are the most important notes. You’ve heard of the expression “first impressions are lasting impressions.” It’s just as true in music as it is in real life. Behavioral scientists have identified an interesting corollary to this. They call it the “Recency Bias.” It means you’ll remember the last thing you see or hear more than all the others. Speaking of remembering, remember those three measures of 64th notes from my very first pit appearance. I couldn’t play them. My teacher, who was sharing the music stand with me in the pit instructed me to emphasize just the first and the last notes. The audience (with the encouragement of others in the orchestra) could fill in the rest.
  5. Never put your makeup on until after you’re in costume. This actually happened during a performance of Oklahoma! It’s one of the good things about being in the pit – you don’t have to worry about your “costume” (black is beautiful) and you don’t have to put on make-up. On the other hand, you get to tease the actors about everything – because the audience can’t see you.
  6. All actors represent comedy relief. Whether it’s putting on make-up before the costume or spreading their legs in Brigadoon (spoiler alert – the men wear kilts), there’s always a good chance even the most serious actors will land on the equivalent of the blooper reel. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, the best bloopers aren’t filmed. They become an inside joke that further bonds the cast and crew (and the pit, too, who will do its best to make sure no one forgets the blooper).
  7. The conductor sets the pace. You might think this is obvious. After all, it is the conductor’s job to insure the pit keeps the tempo of the music, which also keeps the pace of the musical (as well as providing helpful cues to the actors). But here I’m speaking of the overall feel of the performance. Our conductor was a jovial fellow who was as professional as they come. Plus, he was a merry prankster. He pushed the envelope right up to the edge. And he had our backs if the musical’s director questioned any of our antics. In essence, he told everybody – the pit, the cast, the crew, and the audience – that it was OK to have fun.
  8. The wrong conductor can ruin the pit experience. It only makes sense, then, that if the conductor sets the pace, the wrong conductor can mess things up. Sometimes only the pit (and maybe the cast and crew) sees this. When we did My Fair Lady (with now famous Renee Fleming as the lead, no less), the conductor was a bit too serious. Fortunately, this being one of our mercenary runs at a neighboring school, the adults who came with us were able to counter his demeanor. Still, the (necessarily behind-the-back) asides within the pit got even the local students to laugh. And, when he came out on the first night through the big doors under a double spotlight, the fact he looked like a little Napoleon (not on purpose) caused the violist to burst out laughing. But only the pit saw that. The audience couldn’t see us.
  9. A bad conductor can ruin the performance. It goes without saying a bad conductor can make things, well, awkward for the audience. The conductor is the only non-cast member seen by the audience. He (or in this case she) does not have a speaking part, so non-verbal clues are the rule. After coming off a very successful pit performance of Hello, Dolly! and topping it off the next year with another outstanding run in Oklahoma!, two other schools asked our strings to join their pits. I mentioned the first one above. The second school was also performing Oklahoma!. Only the student members of the string group went to this production. Perhaps it was the dour deportment of the My Fair Lady conductor that dissuaded the adults from making a second mercenary run. Perhaps they made the right decision. From the get-go, the conductor at the second Oklahoma! show thought we were there only to sabotage her production. Everything we did – from having fun the same way we did in our pit to missing notes in practice (the score for Oklahoma! was infinitely easier than Hello, Dolly, but it was still several levels above the typical student’s pay grade) – she interpreted in the worst light. It got to the point where the violist threatened to play the wrong notes during the actual performance. The tension remained throughout our time there. Even the actors felt it and told us it bothered them. We’ll never know how the audience felt. We high-tailed it out of there as soon as the final curtain closed.
  10. Changes can never erase memories. Like most people, I hate change (caveat: I like any change I can create). As with many school districts, the once hearty string program at Gates-Chili bit the dust oh so many budget battles ago. You might say “everything goes,” to paraphrase Anything Goes, the last musical for which I was fortunate to have a place in the pit and my all-time favorite show (Cole Porter’s music was great!). There’s something about strings that can only be experienced by playing. That I was a part of that experience before its ultimate end at Gates-Chili makes me both happy and sad. I’m happy because life in the pit allowed me to learn things that went well beyond the Suzuki Method that now infests our violin culture. It makes me sad because it’s increasingly difficult for slaves of Suzuki to unshackle themselves through experiencing life in the pit.

What strange occurrence led to my life in the pit? When (and why) does Suzuki enter this story? And how does it all circle back to a chance meeting in Honeoye Falls? Stay tuned for our third and final segment of “Life in the Pit (Part III)” to be published on April 21, 2016.

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