Playing in a pit orchestra for an opera or a musical theater production can be a fun and interesting challenge for flutists. Performing the score, collaborating with other musicians, and seeing a show come to life are among the many rewards from this kind of playing. It requires stamina and intense focus for lengthy periods of time, but it’s extremely rewarding to be a part of bringing a show to life.
While it is very useful to be a ‘doubler’ (a musician who plays multiple woodwind instruments), it is possible to participate in pit orchestra if you play only flute. Contact professional and community theaters in your area, as well as high schools. Often these groups will hire a pit orchestra to play their shows. In the case of high schools, you may be playing alongside students. This can be a terrific opportunity to mentor younger players and possibly develop some contacts for potential private students, if you teach. It’s important to know the area school music teachers and the orchestra contractors–these are the people who will be looking to fill spots in their pit orchestras. Checking a school website is a good way to find the names and email addresses of the music teachers. For professional theaters, you should contact the orchestra manager. In community theater, the music director can change for each show. Following these organizations on social media can help you learn some of the names of the music directors, as well as alert you about staging new productions. A general email to the theater can serve as an initial way to contact music directors and let them know of your abilities.
If you are called to play a show, consider carefully the amount of time required (including travel) versus the amount you will be paid. Will you need to cancel private lessons because of rehearsals and performances? If so, will the compensation for the show cover your lost lesson income, gas and other necessities? Once you commit to playing a show, you should be present for each rehearsal and performance unless you are able to make specific exceptions and arrangements with the orchestra manager.
Music can be distributed to the orchestra anywhere from 2 months to only a few weeks ahead of the performances. Since music is generally rented for a limited amount of time, you will likely have to budget your practice time carefully to fully learn a show. You should listen to a recording of the opera or musical if one is available to you. This will help you become familiar with how your part fits with the others and gives you an idea of how one section flows to the next. Reading a plot summary of the show will also help you understand the action.
Check your book carefully for the instruments you will be required to play: musicals may require piccolo or other specialized instruments including alto flute, soprano or alto recorder, pan pipes, ocarina, or other ethnic flutes. If you don’t own these instruments, you can find companies that rent them, or, if you’re lucky, you can borrow from friends and acquaintances. I’m fortunate to have a wonderful adult flute student who happens to also play recorder in early music groups as a hobby. She generously loaned me a lovely alto recorder to play for a show when I needed one. Since I hadn’t played a recorder since elementary school, I had to relearn fingerings and figure out which worked best and had the best intonation. It was a good challenge and I definitely have a whole new respect for recorder players.
To help me learn the music efficiently, I mark difficult passages in the book with colored removable sticky flags. The flags make it easy to see which sections I need to focus on, and once I become comfortable with those sections, I remove the flag. Use a pencil to lightly mark the music but be aware you will need to erase all markings before the music is returned. The theater can be charged a fee for music that is returned in poor condition, which may result in you not being asked to return.
Make every effort to know your part very well before the first rehearsal, because rehearsals will be limited in number and the focus will mostly be on putting the parts together to form a cohesive whole. Listen to recordings of the music so you understand your part; better still, watch a video of a performance so you can understand the plot line and the songs. Do you know not only how to play your part, but its function? Are you playing the melody, harmony, or an effect? Which tone color is being asked of your instrument in a particular moment? Sometimes the flute plays the ‘magical’ music, as in when a character transforms into something else (like in Beauty and the Beast) or a magic trick happens on stage (Mary Poppins). The piccolo color is often used very effectively in musicals; sometimes it is the sweet, plaintive tone color to add sentiment to a scene, and sometimes it is the high shriek that adds to the terror of a fight, intensifies suspense, or helps characterize a villain. Knowledge of how your music supports the character or scene will enhance your understanding of how to play it well.
Understand that there will likely be changes to what you hear due to differences in scene changes and staging issues. Learn the music as cleanly as you can before the first rehearsal. What you practice will be what comes out in the rehearsals and performances. Rehearsals will be used to develop the ensemble moments and to coordinate with the singers, so it’s vital that you know your part very well prior to this.
As always, the typical rehearsal etiquette applies: arrive early, get set up without disturbing others, tune your instruments, and introduce yourself to the other musicians sitting next to you. Come prepared with a pencil to mark changes–many shows will have cuts, added repeats, and other changes that will be necessary to remember. Pay attention to the conductor’s comments so that rehearsals can be efficient.
Most shows have a limited number of rehearsals for the orchestra due to cost concerns and time restraints. However, it’s important to be flexible with your time if possible. Sometimes a rehearsal or a performance will be added. It’s something to consider when you’re considering adding a commitment like this to your schedule.
It can be fun to watch the action happening on stage if it’s visible to you. Make sure, however, that you are not so distracted by the action that you forget to play your part. The singers are counting on you for their cue to sing! As you learn the ins and outs of the show, you’ll learn where you can watch things and where you must focus on your playing for the good of the performance.
Consider your equipment and set up needs before the performances begin. In a show that required a lot of very fast changes between flute and piccolo, I found it helpful to put my flute/piccolo stand on a small folding step stool. This put the instruments a little higher off the floor and saved my back from too much bending over, plus the instruments were easier to grab quickly and I could do the switches without having to lay things on my lap, where they might roll off. Some musicians bring their own chair cushion or stool to sit on so they can be comfortable and play their best. You will be sitting for several hours, so you’ll want to make sure that you have good posture and are comfortable. Keep in mind that space is rather limited in the pit and others will need room for their setups as well. Walk carefully in the space so you don’t disturb anyone’s instruments and equipment. There may be microphones for amplification–work with the sound people so that the mics can be effective but not be in your way physically when playing or changing instruments.
I put my flute stand on a small folding stool so I don’t have to reach down so far when switching quickly between flute and piccolo.
During intermissions or breaks between shows, you may have opportunities to chat with your fellow musicians or even members of the audience. Audience members often will come up to the pit to ask about the instruments or to compliment the players. It’s a great chance to educate the audience about instruments and enjoy their comments about the show. Practically all of my audience encounters have been very friendly and complimentary.
I enjoy showing younger audience members the instruments and answering their questions about them.
You may also have a chance to get to know members of the orchestra. Don’t be afraid to network with them–they may be the people who lead you to your next gig! In an area like mine, most musicians know each other, so developing positive relationships is a must if you want to continue to play there.
When the performances are finished, it’s nice to thank the conductor and the orchestra contractor with a personal thank you or an email. Again, maintaining positive relationships with fellow musicians will lead to your next gig. Finally, take a moment to enjoy the accomplishment of being a small part of the magic of the theater!
Michelle L. Barraclough is an adjunct professor at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, PA, where she teaches flute, directs the flute ensemble, and teaches courses on music appreciation, American musical culture, and flute literature and pedagogy. She freelances in her area on flute and piccolo as well as performing with her chamber trio, The Silverwood Trio.