My first pit experience

By Ande Jacobson

Last fall, I had the privilege of both music directing an exciting community production of Urinetown, and mentoring a very promising young musician through his first pit experience. It’s one thing to watch a production unfold from the podium, keeping track of all the various things that a music director must, but it is quite another to watch the show develop through a young musician’s eyes, particularly one who is new to the pit perspective. This was an adult community theater production, and this young keyboard player was the only kid in the pit. Everyone else in our mighty little orchestra was an experienced adult player.

His fire, drive, and boundless enthusiasm for the music served to motivate the rest of the musicians in welcome ways, pushing everyone past their previous best. His musical prowess was evident from the first rehearsal (there were only two for the orchestra alone), and by the time we opened, his polished command of the music was far beyond impressive. Our production took place in a cozy, 198 seat, city-owned theater with an orchestra pit, and very little wing space. Once we got to tech and performance, each day the company entered the building through the shop backstage, the musicians generally heading directly down the hall and down the stairs to the pit. The cast’s mic table was downstairs in the anteroom to the pit, so cast and orchestra members often crossed paths there. Once the cast had their mics on though, the musicians were by themselves underground for the duration, unless they went upstairs to wander backstage or to go the lobby after warmups or during intermission. The comradery and friendships established were heartwarming. For our mentee, it was almost like he had five parents down there, all offering encouragement and advice, and all in awe of what this kid could do with a keyboard.

As I watched this recent production unfold, I was taken back to my own, very different first pit experience over 40 years ago. I had just turned 16, and I was part of a large student pit orchestra in a massive high school production of The Music Man. Unlike the Urinetown pit, the only non-student in the orchestra was our music director. This was a grand production in a large, 980 seat theater. The massive theater had a sizable orchestra pit adjacent to what felt like a city under the stage where all the dressing rooms, showers, paint room and the like were located. It was quite a maze to navigate, winding through the under stage hallways to get to the pit. Upstairs, there was a shop, loading dock, more than enough wing space, tech booth, and off far stage left, another theater – a quaint 200 seat venue with no main curtain for less complicated productions. The little theater became the green room instead of using the smaller one under the stage. This was a big production in a big space.

Unlike today’s community productions, this high school show had a much longer rehearsal period. The orchestra rehearsed in the orchestra/choir room multiple times a week over the course of at least two months before getting to together with the cast for the sitzprobe (the first meeting between cast and orchestra to sing through the show) and several runs-through for a few weeks before we got to tech week and opening.

There were lots of instrumental opportunities for everyone who wasn’t otherwise in the cast. The entire string section of the school’s orchestra was in the pit. In general, the woodwind and brass players from the school’s orchestra were also in the pit, at least enough to cover all of the parts. Beyond the orchestra, the show was staged in such a way as to use every available school band musician to march in as part of the real band at the end of the show. They marched out into the house filling every aisle while playing a rousing arrangement of 76 Trombones creating a spectacular finale. Because so many of the music and theater kids were in the cast or the pit, they needed a little extra support. One of the percussionists from the pit marched in with the band, and so did I, but not on one of my regular instruments.

For the show, I mostly played the Reed 2 book which was written for Bb clarinet, oboe, and English horn, though I didn’t play either oboe or English horn. I transposed those parts and played them on clarinet. This was the first time I had such a significant amount of transposition work to do for performance. I had previously done a fair amount of transposition through my piano lessons, but there it was strictly an exercise, not a performance requirement. I also played two songs from the Reed 3 book that called for soprano sax while the Reed 3 player played my book for those numbers. Several books were shared by more than one player to ensure all parts were covered, though ours was the only case where we traded separate books for specific numbers, reading off of each other’s stands in the process, again something we had not previously been called up to do in orchestra.

I normally played clarinet in band and orchestra and alto sax in jazz band. Even though I played clarinet and sax at the time, I had always also wanted to learn to play the trumpet, and given the oomph of the finale, the staff wanted more brass in the band. I learned enough trumpet to march in at the end of the show playing the third trumpet part. I also learned a very important lesson during that show. It was possible to go from woodwind to brass and everything worked. Going the other way was less than optimal, and after playing trumpet, it took at least 10 minutes before I could play my clarinet or sax reliably again. This meant I really couldn’t play the exit music, so I could take my time getting back to the pit after bows to clean and put away my instruments.

Overall, mine was a positive experience. Our music director had played on Broadway, and he used all of his experience in his teaching. He was the school’s orchestra and choir teacher, and he handled all music and vocal direction for the school’s biannual musical productions with style. He shared all sorts of musical insights along the way, such as pointing out to us how 76 Trombones and Goodnight My Someone were actually the same song, but in different time signatures. In addition to giving us a lot of adjunct musical theater history and insights, he got the absolute best out of all of the players and singers. The Music Man has some very challenging dance numbers that really zip along. We all worked very hard in rehearsal and spent many hours in the practice rooms learning our parts through those few months. Our director gave us encouragement. He gave us instruction on interpretation of the music. He started at rehearsal tempos and incrementally increased them until we reached our performance tempos. He also did something every good director does. He rehearsed us with an eye toward having us peak as we got to performance. It was a fascinating and grueling process because school was in session (except for our one week spring break in the middle of the rehearsal period), so we still had all of the rest of our schoolwork to manage.

There were some fun and games through the run, such as M&Ms making the rounds of the pit. I don’t recall where they started, or, ignoring urban legend, that the green M&Ms had special significance at that time, but they were plentiful, and they were treated as more than just little bits of chocolate. Being a reed player though, I didn’t partake during the show. Even back then, I always brushed my teeth before playing.

Beyond the M&Ms, there were various polls taken and games being quietly played during our down time as well. A bit of homework was also written. And given the cozy quarters, we all got to know one another pretty well at the time. I’m still in contact with several people from that production.

There was even some built-in music fun in the show. If you’ve seen the show, you may remember the times when the kids in the town “think” The Minuet in G. Toward the end of the show, once they have their instruments, they attempt to play it, very badly. The pit had fun with that particular chart because it was written with all those wrong notes, and we were instructed to play it as poorly as possible. We just weren’t supposed accidentally hit the “right” notes. We were supposed to squeak and screech and make awful sounds for a few seconds, and several players really got into that.

Before each performance after we finished our regular warmups, I normally warmed up on my trumpet, but then I’d set it aside with plenty of time for my mouth to recover and work properly to play the show. Seeing my setup, with clarinet and curved soprano sax (an instrument that looked rather like an alto sax that had been accidentally shrunk in the dryer), the trumpet looked very out of place. My setup was next to the lead clarinet player’s setup, and he had a regular Bb clarinet along with a little Eb clarinet. The Eb clarinet and the curved soprano sax together looked like toy instruments had invaded the pit. Add those to the piccolo another couple of stands down, and the takeover was complete. In our regular band and orchestra setup, we were used to a couple of flute players also doubling on piccolo, but the soprano sax and Eb clarinet weren’t normally used. In fact, this was the first instance where I had seen this kind of instrument doubling as a routine thing up close. While it wouldn’t always involve these specific instruments, I would much later become quite used to all kinds of doubling in the reed section of pit orchestras.

There was one mishap that wasn’t quite so much fun, at least for me. In fact, it was a bit traumatic. On the mishap night during our two week run, I had warmed up before the show as I normally did, and then left my trumpet on its stand until I needed it for the finale. At the appointed time, I grabbed my trumpet and left the pit to line up to march in as part of the band in the finale as I always did. I didn’t test my horn before I had to play since I had warmed up before the show. I just buzzed my lips while I was in the catacombs before getting to the backstage area to line up for my entrance. Then we marched out, and as I tried to play, no sound came out. In fact, no air came through the horn at all. It stopped. Something was wrong, but I had no idea what, so I just held my horn up and pretended to play through the finale knowing full well I was just standing in position, and the patrons near me could hear that I was faking it. I was mortified.

After bows, I was still panicked. I ran back down to the pit and told my fellow reed players what happened still quaking with terror. What was I going to do? We had a show the next day, and my horn didn’t work.

One of the trumpet players behind me was listening and asked me to bring it over, so I gave my trumpet to him and then went back to my stand to clean and start putting away my clarinet and soprano sax. When he gave me my trumpet back, it worked! At the time, I had no idea what he had done, but I was ecstatic. In fact, I knew so little about brass instruments at that moment, I didn’t realize that the valves were numbered. When I had taken it apart at home to snake it, I had always kept everything in order so that I could put it back together again. I later found out that during intermission that night, the trumpet players had switched two of my valves as a joke when I was away from the pit. I also found out that the valves were numbered, and when something like that happened, always check to make sure they were in the right slots. I never liked practical jokes, and to do something like that to somebody’s equipment, especially during a performance, is not very nice. I suppose they could have thought I would have figured it out, laughed it off, and fixed it before marching on, but instead they made a rather permanent negative impression. Fortunately, nothing like that happened the rest of the run, and overall it still turned out to be a very positive experience despite the one very bad choice on the part of a couple of mischievous upper classmen.

Every performance, it was exhilarating to play the show. The music got a little better every night as we all continued to perfect our mastery of our parts. And every night, save that one, the finale was the most exciting part because I was out in the audience, hearing the applause all around me. Even the night I couldn’t play, the audience roared with appreciation. I was just too preoccupied to fully appreciate it in the moment.

Between the demands of college and career, it was 27 years before I found myself in the pit again, but I am glad that I eventually found my way home having since played or music directed over 100 productions. Over the years, I have played The Music Man a few more times. Each time I play a run of that show or have the opportunity to be a part of a young musician’s first pit experience, I think back to my first time in the pit. That first experience is special, and it sets the tone for what can become a lifelong pursuit. Music and theater know no age boundary. These are places where people, young and old, can work together to create something beautiful.


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