Greetings and welcome to a new Flute Friday.
I used to love opera season as an undergraduate student. This was always a wonderful opportunity to be part of something bigger than a typical orchestra concert without the pressures of performing on the stage. The pit is a very different place and perhaps somewhat intimidating for newcomers. Communication is of the utmost importance, not just between the musicians and the conductor, but between the conductor and the vocalists, and between the vocalists and the entire tech crew. In today’s blog, I will discuss some of my best tips for performing in the pit. Remember to remain flexible and do your best to enjoy the show.
TIPS FOR THE PIT
- Have all of your equipment with you in an easily accessible place. This includes instrument stands, pad blotting paper or cigarette paper (very important – I cannot tell you how many times I’ve used my music to wipe off condensation from my pads in a pit-related emergency), a set of tiny screwdrivers (you can pick these up from the dollar store), ear plugs, pencils, and small bottles of water. You likely will not have a lot of space to store these things so try to bring a small bag that can be draped over the back of your chair for essentials. I really like to use a simple drawstring backpack for this purpose.
- Be prepared for some less-than-ideal lighting. It is called “the pit” for a reason. The pit is literally a cave below the stage where the stage lights do not roam. Most music stands in the pit will be equipped with a standard metal stand light, but this does not guarantee proper lighting for all of your music, particularly if you are reading from an oversized score. I always try to pack my own portable, clip-on stand light for extra lighting that will not distract the other musicians around me. Purchase one ahead of time from Flute World or Amazon: (LEPOWER Music Stand Light/Book Reading Light/USB and Battery Operated/Clip on and Portable Lights for Piano, Travel, E-reader & Bed Headboard (Dual Arms)).
- Stick to your conductor like glue. The conductor has quite a difficult job in the pit because they must lead both the orchestra and the vocalists on stage, neither of whom can see one another. The conductor is the single point of communication for all tempos, cues, dynamics, and so much more. Keep your eyes glued on them. Remember that tempos established in rehearsal may or may not be the same at the performance (vocalist sometimes get nervous and rush). Be as flexible with tempo as you can and play whatever your conductor indicates.
- Count your measures of rest – even if you have a lot of them. I know it is much easier to doze off and wait for an important cue to wake you up from your mid-performance nap, but I very much advise against this. I experienced this once during my junior year when most of our orchestra missed the beginning of an important number because we naively placed our faith in a single trumpet cue that was missed at the performance, creating a snowball of other missed cues. We had nobody to blame but ourselves for not counting our measures.
- Always have a pencil on your stand – even at performances. Operas and musicals often run for multiple performances. Make sure you are ready to write down all of the weird things that happen during the first performance to prepare for the second. Record everything (cues, words, time signatures, key signatures, tempo changes, lighting changes, etc.).
- Write in lyric cues. If you play right after a recitative or if there are acting breaks between numbers, write in the last word or sentence spoke or sung before your entrance. Sometimes the conductor must react quickly to what is happening on stage and you will have a much easier time if you have multiple cues at your disposal.
- Know and anticipate the beat patterns the conductor will be using when the time signature changes. If a 6/8 will be conducted in 6 for the duration of an aria, make sure to indicate this in your music as a reminder. These indications are particularly important for numbers written in cut time and waltz tempi. It is difficult to remember all of the style changes that occur throughout an opera or a musical. A visual cue is very helpful for quick changes.
- Wear comfortable concert dress. Dress professionally (concert black, aka no tennis shoes), but avoid tight or voluminous clothing in the pit. You will be sitting for quite a while so it is important to be comfortable. There is also not a lot of extra space in the pit, so leave the ball gowns, top hats, and poofy skirts at home.
- Plan your page turns carefully. The show is not going to stop for you to turn a page. Make sure to map out any complicated page turns ahead of time. Copy your music as needed and tape page turns to one another to avoid any hiccups.
- Be prepared for anything. I was once asked to dress up and play the opening piccolo solo in Sour Angelica on stage in a kabuki mask (see picture below). On another occasion, I had a ringside seat when a broken plate prop was accidentally hurled at the conductor from the stage during a performance. Literally anything can happen. Be as flexible as possible and remember, in the immortal words of Freddie Mercury, that the show must go on.
Have you participated in a pit orchestra? What were some of your challenges? What techniques did you use to make your musical environment work best for you? What stories do you have from your time in the pit? Please comment below.