Determination, strategy, and a variety of resources can help.
By: Andrew S. Berman
This article originally appeared in the April 2015 edition of Teaching Music Magazine
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Many graduates of high school music programs reflect fondly on their time spent in pit orchestras for their school musicals. Music teachers have the opportunity to create these valuable experiences for their students, but directing a pit orchestra can come with its challenges.
James Ross has been directing the pit orchestra for 15 years at East Kentwood High School in Kentwood, Michigan, where he is director of bands. He recalls playing in his high school pit, performing musical theater repertoire in Indiana University’s chamber orchestra, and directing his first pit at a summer stock company in Pennsylvania before doing so at East Kentwood. Paramount among all concerns, Ross feels, is making it fun for the students and establishing camaraderie among them. This is an extracurricular activity, so you must “balance the students’ need for quality and quantity of rehearsals with their own busy lives.”
Ross expanded the role of the music director for his school’s shows by getting involved in the process from the beginning. Input from the music teacher is needed early to ensure that the show selected suits the needs of the pit as well as the cast. Ross sits in on cast auditions to weigh in on a singer’s intonation and ability to adapt when the accompaniment moves from piano to orchestra. “There have been some tussles,” he says, but in the end, “we always have a solid cast to do justice to the musical demands of the show.”
When you’re the music director, you’re not the only cook in the kitchen, but Ross says that the collaborative process with the other directors and choreographer is similar to that between teacher and students in an orchestra or band.
“I look at my role as a servant, trying to make the production flow as smoothly as possible.” He also looks to the other teachers for feedback on the pit. “I don’t think there’s time for ego in that.” With time being precious, planning begins early. For the March production, Ross tries to get the pit books in December so students can practice over the holiday. The condition of the books can be questionable, with scores and parts often handwritten. The music is written for adult musicians, and Ross notes that it’s worth it to pay a rush fee to have the parts as early as possible to assess the difficulty of the music.
Moving from the shelter of a rehearsal room to an auditorium can present challenges, and that’s only one aspect of the complexity. Ross likens it to directing a marching band field show. “You’re dealing with so many variables.” But in the end, the payoff is grand. At least once per production, Ross says, an audience member will come down to the pit and say, “Wow, there are real people down here! I thought it was a recording.”
He considers this high praise, and passes that along to the students. In a show, the pit musicians share the applause with the cast and crew, and it’s this sense of accomplishment that the students take home with them. “I look at my role as a servant, trying to make the production flow as smoothly as possible.”
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