The Secret Life of the Pit Musician
You’ve seen a few theatrical productions in your lifetime.
At best, maybe the costumes were alright and the actors were dispensable, but one group made the show so memorable that you’ve stayed up late many nights wondering, “What is it like to play in the pit orchestra?”
Honestly, maybe you’ve never noticed there’s live music at your shows. And maybe that’s the point.
We’re one of the most audible parts of a production and definitely the most hidden. Somewhere in history, some director looked at a motley crew of musicians taking up valuable stage space and decided it was best to tell them to wear all black and slide them into the shadows beneath the stage. It’s probably the first ugly joke that has transcended the test of time.
Even in this experimental world of contemporary theatre, musicians mostly continue to dwell underground, vaguely illuminated by flashlights attached to their music stands.
I get it. The general public hasn’t freaked over a classical musician being in the room since Liszt’s 1840 European tour.
If a production has a laughable budget, the orchestra is the first casualty. While we are largely responsible for propelling the story’s emotions (you can call this statement self-righteous if you agree to watch movies without music for the rest of your life), we are accompaniment.
Ironically, Phantom of the Opera was the most recent production I performed in. Any musician can fundamentally relate to this story about a social outcast with a horrible love life who lives underneath the stage.
For this production, the pit was uprooted and we played on stage. We had a chance to actually be seen.
After a formula that had endured for centuries, most of us met this kind of exposure with horror. Warming up before opening night was probably like watching a group of bears step into the first sunbeams of springtime when all they wanted was to turn back into their caves.
In the pit, you’re free to watch the show while you’re not playing, exercising your Resting Bitch Face without scrutiny.
Sometimes an orchestra isn’t even in the pit, but behind a curtain or offstage entirely. In this case, the audience won’t know that the direction of your bow doesn’t match anyone else’s or that a bassist is lip-syncing during his or her 126 measures of rest.
Onstage, visuals become just as important as the sound. Like when someone tells you to “act natural” and you suddenly forget what it means to be human. You must be conscious of everything you’re doing, or not doing. It’s a world of making page turns look riveting and maintaining a focused-yet-thoughtful facial expression for three hours.
Sonically, you’re equally as exposed. As one of seven violinists in the production, having a key signature with five flats and pitches high enough for a dog’s hearing range quickly turns into a minefield if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Not to shatter the illusion that concerts are the product of months of strenuous rehearsal, but in most professional orchestras, you only see the music a few days before the performance.
We had two rehearsals for Phantom and whether you knew the part or not, the show must go on. This time, in front of thousands of piercing eyes that can detect fear.
I keep mentioning being invisible like it’s unjust, but it’s actually the best-case scenario. If you’re being watched, then you’re either messing something up enough for someone to notice or your mom is in the audience.
I looked out into the full house sometime around the finale every night, and I never found one person looking at the orchestra. Although it’s kind of disturbing sitting center stage in front of 600 people without anyone acknowledging your existence, it’s also a compliment, back-handed as it is.
In a lot of ways, remaining unseen during the show is doing your job. Uniformity has been the orchestra’s image for time immemorial, causing us to blend with the story. So when the audience decides it doesn’t need to look at you, that is the ultimate sign of trust.
After the performances, crowds of people clung to the actors to congratulate them while the musicians from the same stage slipped through the crowd unnoticed. I’m pretty sure one woman thought I was a bathroom attendant when she saw me holding the door.
A well-placed compliment from an audience member is all a pit musician really needs. That and a snack table backstage. Next time you are at a show, take a moment to notice the nearest emergency exit and then the performers who are heard but seldom seen.