Meant to be heard, not seen: challenges of pit

Pit orchestra in a race against time to get The Hunchback of Notre Dame music ready

Sunday, 7:32 p.m.

“Hello Pit! I look forward to seeing/hearing everyone tomorrow morning. Please arrive at 7 and we will begin by 7:05. It’s time to dig in,” the Remind reads.
Since the third week of September, the 21 members of the pit orchestra have been coming to school at 7 a.m., giving up Lancer Blocks, and dedicating free evenings to practicing music for the upcoming musical. Unlike concert music, pit music is intended to be a backtrack to the stars of the show: the actors on stage. It’s live music where the mistakes aren’t forgiven.
For band director Mr. Gillette, pit orchestra is an annual adventure.

“Well, if you can picture being sent to purgatory, where the temperature is 190℉, and there’s no food or water, that’s basically what pit rehearsal is,” he joked. “No, I enjoy our pit rehearsals because we’re trying to accomplish the goal of emulating a professional orchestra. We don’t want to sound like a high school orchestra, and that’s no knock on what a great high school can sound like, but we want to sound like we’ve been hired to support the cast and crew on the stage.”

The task of sounding like a professional pit orchestra is no easy task. Gwen Rian (‘20), one of the two keyboardists, said that pit was proving to take up a lot of her time.

“I’ve been practicing during my SPO, after school, and really late at night to get the material ready,” she said. “Right now, I’m stressing a little bit about where we are, but I think we’ll really get it together.”

“I’ve been practicing almost every day with the music that he gave us and playing with the rehearsal tracks,” Aashay Mardikar (‘22) said. Pit orchestra hasn’t been too stressful for Mardikar, but he said he anticipated the pace to pick up a bit. “I think gelling with the cast will be the hardest thing,” he said.

The pit orchestra will begin rehearsing with the cast and crew starting the last week of October, right before term exams. Rehearsing with everyone comes with its own challenges, though.

While the pit orchestra practices its individual music in the band room, the full orchestra, cast, and crew rehearsals happen in the cafeteria. The pit orchestra is seated so that their backs are to the cast, according to Autumn Lee (‘22), a clarinet player who was part of pit orchestra last year. All the musicians are completely unaware of what’s happening and depend entirely on Mr. Gillette for cues on when to start playing.

“When we rehearse anywhere but the theater, there’s a disconnect between the spoken word because we’re not mice-d appropriately,” Mr. Gillette said. “We’re a lot further away from them, and so we have to react quickly on a word. If you can’t clearly hear that, it can be a little bit unnerving.”

Despite the upcoming challenges, Mr. Gillette and the pit members are optimistic about performing.

“My expectation is, and it always is, that the cream rises to the top,” said Mr. Gillette. We will surprise ourselves. We always do. It seems like the last minute is often the best minute for theater people and musicians since they work kinda well under that intensity. The microscope is on all of us, so we all want to do really well.”