Life in the Pit
by Steven Cohen
Playing in the pit orchestra for a show is an amazing experience and a lot fun, but if you are playing one for the first time, you probably have some questions. Here are some basics and tips that will hopefully answer some of those questions.
- Pit Black! Unless you are wearing a costume, you are probably going to be wearing a tux or all black in the pit for your show. You want make sure that you pick clothes that make you look professional, but at the same time you want to wear ones that are both comfortable to wear and that you feel comfortable playing in. The average length of a show is between 2 and 2.5 hours.
- Emptying your Spit. Emptying your spit in the pit can be tricky for many reasons. First of all, pits come in all different shapes and sizes. You could end up in a small pit and be really close to the person next to you or in one that is large and have plenty of room. If a small pit, you need to be mindful of your surroundings and the people next to you, but the biggest issues with emptying your spit comes when dealing with a microphone.
- Dealing with a Microphone. For starters, do not be afraid of the microphone. It is your friend and is there to help everyone hear you. However, be wary of it. You do not want to hit it by accident and in the case that you have to talk, do not talk so loudly that it picks up your voice. Regarding spit and the microphone, you need to be very careful when blowing air though the instrument. Do your best to turn away from the microphone so that it doesn’t pick up the sounds of you emptying your spit, but do not be afraid to empty your horn.
- Being Prepared. As with any situation regarding work in music, it is very important to come prepared to your first rehearsal and everything that follows. I recommend that you get your music a few weeks before the first rehearsal, sit down with the music and a recording of the show. It is very important, I feel, to know what is happening when you are playing both in the orchestra and on stage. It makes for an even greater connection between the music and the action on stage. When going through the music, make sure that you pay attention to the different mutes that are called for. Mutes are very popular in shows and orchestrators like to use them a lot. Don’t be surprised if the trumpet player has anywhere between 2 and 6 mutes.
- Writing in the Music. It is very important that you make your part your own, just as you would in an orchestra or band setting. I cannot stress the importance of making marks in the music. When dealing with action on stage and singers, there are bound to be changes in tempos, cuts, added vamps and repeats, the occasional wrong note in the music, in addition to personal marking which you wish to add. If you are using a rental part, be very gentle when putting in markings, as you will have to erase the book before it can be returned to the publisher. Also, don’t get too crazy when crossing things out that are cut because it could be put back into the show just as quickly as it was taken out.
- Key Signatures. Composers of shows love to and are notorious for changing keys in a split second! It is very important to pay attention to them as with any piece of music and do not be afraid to circle them if you need a reminder. In addition, each publisher has their own style of how they want the music to look, so expect that with each show you play to see a different style of how the key signatures and music appear in the staff.
- Essentials of the Pit. When in the pit it is important to have a few essentials for both you and your instrument. For starters, make sure that you have pencils with good erasers. It is important to have water with you to both keep you hydrated, and for your chops. The temperature in the pit can vary throughout the show and you can get dried out very quickly. It you are temperature sensitive, do not be afraid to bring a sweater that you can get on and off easily and that you feel comfortable playing in if you get too cold. Valve oil and slide grease are two things that should always be kept nearby in addition to a small repair kit with valve string, a screwdriver, and scissors. We discussed mutes earlier, but make sure to bring them with you. Also, make sure that the cork on your mutes is in good shape, as you don’t want your mutes falling out. This list is just a few suggestions of things to have with you and that I keep nearby when I play a show.
- And last but not least…Have Fun!
Steven Cohen is first horn for the national touring company of The New 25th Anniversary Production of Les Misérables.