Chronicles of the Pit

Chronicles of the Pit

“Last year, pit orchestra for Oliver was a great time for everyone involved!” is what you’d expect me to say. The raw truth of it is that pit orchestra can make you feel, like sophomore Magali Seymour has so eloquently phrased it, “like a rat.” The pit orchestra experience is long hours shoved in a small, dark basement, surrounded by Taco Johns Potato Oles and practically living off of their grease, never seeing the light of day — it gets to you.

I’ve decide to take on the laborious task of chronicling the adventures of our very own Saint John’s Prep Pit Orchestra in order to help you all better understand the hard work and treachery we go through every spring so that our musical can succeed. Because really, no matter how bad we might be at our first rehearsals—and trust me, we’re bad—it always turns out great.

An hour on Friday mornings and some couple-hour sessions after school peppered the few weeks before real rehearsal kicked in. And by real rehearsal, I mean four hours in the Weber Center instead of an early out.

I asked around for some general statements about pit orchestra, from veterans and newbies alike.

Seanan Lee, senior techie, looks confused. “Pit orchestra? They’re just the people down under.”

Gabe Curnutt, sophomore, says it’s “chaos for the first seven days, until the first show. Then it’s still chaos, never-ending, until the last show, when we finally figure out what we’re doing.”

Later I see him, trombone in hand, staring wide-eyed and vacantly at the ground, mumbling the words to one of the musical’s numbers, “Mysterious Lady,” in a terrifying monotone. It takes a minute for him to notice my laughing, but when he does, he looks up slowly, straight-faced, and says to me: “Regan, I’m already dead.”

I had to remind him we were only one real rehearsal in. He still had to last all the way through production week: 4 to 9 every day after school.

Another sophomore, bass player Andy Moen, says, “It’s like, ‘Crap, I messed up my paper airplane again, man… Wait, what song are we on?’ See, that’s the point. I never pay attention in pit.”

Dan Petters, senior, says hesitantly, “I’ve never done this before…”

Later, when Dan asks Mr. Engholm what measure we’re on, the conductor responds with a heated and truly terrifying, “Did I stutter?!”

Dan had no idea what he was signing up for, and in that moment, I felt a shred of guilt for convincing him to join…

A few songs later, Mr. Engholm laughs, apologizes, gives Dan a hug—“See? We’re all friends here!”—and it’s all good.

French horn player and sophomore, Magali Seymour, gives me the look of a soldier come back from the war when I ask her about her experience in pit. The haunted look in her eyes makes it obvious she was a part of the pit during Oliver last spring. She tells me, “After a week of going to bed in the early hours of morning, I was beginning to feel only part human. Part human, and part pit orchestra. Honestly, that is the honest truth. I’ll be sitting in class, staring blankly, as pit orchestra songs run slowly through my head on a loop.” She pauses for a moment, reminiscing. “Really though, pit’s awesome. Don’t make me sound like I hate it.”

I told my friend Sonja we had a four hour pit orchestra rehearsal after school. She told me, “I wish I could save you.”

At the beginning of rehearsal, I decide to read some of my quotes I’ve collected to junior Leykza Carreras. She looks horrified and intrigued at the tales of hardship she has yet to experience. “I mean, I want to experience it. Like, I don’t want to experience pain, but I guess I know where it’s coming from so I’m kind of excited.”

Four hours later, Leykza packs up her clarinet with slow, methodic movements. “Regan,” she says, “I feel brain-dead. I’ve never felt like this before.”

Anna Zheng, sophomore violinist, is the most enthusiastic Taco John’s consumer of us all. She says, “That’s like, the only good thing about pit… I get Taco John’s.” Continuing, she confesses, “Everyone forgets about us, in the pit. But it’s fun… I guess.”

Senior Gabe Johnson, star basketball player and trombonist, nods his head thoughtfully when I ask him about pit. “Lots of fun. And time consuming. Counting. You have to count a lot.”

Our nightmares are of reoccurring 64 measure rests in 5/8 time.

After a quick break, I’m eating crackers as Leykza and I are walking back to the Weber Center. She looks obviously uncomfortable, and I ask her why. “It’s just so weird you’re eating crackers. When you play in band, you’d never eat food. It’s gross when you have to blow through your instrument. Like, you don’t even eat twenty minutes before you play. This is so weird. String-players are so lucky…”

When we’re sitting down and getting ready to start right back up with our impossible key signatures and atmospheric high notes, Brother Paul—acclaimed theater director—announces, “Okay everyone! Let’s get going!”

Trumpet-playing freshman Lizzy Kolb whips her head around, eyes wide and desperate, mouth chock full of Girl Scout cookies and a box more in her hand. Muffled by shortbread and crumbs, she mutters, “I hate everything.” The rest of the ensemble dies laughing.

I laugh even harder when, five minutes later, she’s brushing her teeth a few chairs down as Mr. Engholm counts off, “One, two, three, and go.”

The actress playing Peter Pan, tenth grader Grace Knoblach, grins when I ask what she thinks about pit. “I love pit!” she says. “It’s so much fun to have live music. Singing with them is just the best thing ever.”

When he overhears us, Caleb Thompson, a sophomore playing the pirate Smee, tells me good-naturedly, “Talk about something more relevant. Like comics.”

If anything, I think that sums up pit orchestra pretty well. We may be underrated and looked-over, tucked away beneath the Paramount’s magnificent stage, but we work hard, and we have fun. I think I can speak for our whole ensemble when I say, for all the drama and ordeal we go through, at the end of the production it’s beyond satisfying to know we helped pull it off.

And I think that’s why we keep coming back. Pit orchestra may not ever be as relevant as comics, but we will always be “just the best thing ever.”

Update: I tell my brother Alton, a seventh grader, I’m writing an article about pit orchestra. “Whatever,” he replies. “They’re just those people down there playing music.”