One of my most memorable experiences in high school was my very first time playing in a pit orchestra. I remember it very clearly: the musical was called The Nifty Fifties, all the girls on stage wore poodle skirts, and there was a song called “The Blob” about the 1958 sci-fi horror film with choreography reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video. To top it off, I had a huge crush on one of the saxophone players who taught me how to solve the Rubix Cube between songs. What a riot.
In the following years I found myself in the pit again, playing in Fiddler on the Roof and 42nd Street. Little did I know, what I thought was a simple extracurricular activity was just a glimpse of future opportunities playing in pit orchestras as a freelancing musician.
The dark, crowded pit of musicians sitting elbow to elbow below the stage became even more familiar through college. Orchestra students were required to be a part of the annual opera productions, and I became acquainted with La Boheme, Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, and The Book of Gold. Then I was thrilled to land a gig playing of more than 60 performances of Forever Plaid and My Fair Lady with the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Not to mention Christmastime productions of The Nutcracker, a piece orchestral players become very familiar with over the years.
It had never occurred to me that there are musicians who can make a living solely as pit orchestra players, especially in major metropolitan areas like New York or London where musicals are constantly running. While it may seem archaic to have live orchestral accompaniment in modern theater, pit orchestras are definitely still alive and essential in musical productions.
Sure, performing in a pit orchestra may not seem very glamorous. After all, you play the same music night after night, which (I admit), can get a little dull after a while. That and no one even sees you! Maybe (just maybe) they’ll see the top of your head and the conductor’s baton occasionally poking up from the depths. But then, on the other hand, you can enjoy being a part of the long-standing tradition of live music in theater.
If you’re looking for gigs, there are actually many opportunities to be a part of pit orchestras—especially at Christmastime when those Nutcracker performances are in full swing in community theaters across the nation. Consider how many musicals and operas are performed every day of the year in New York City alone! There really is a steady demand for skilled musicians in the theater community.
So if you’re set on becoming a glamorous on-stage soloist or orchestral player with the stage lights warming your skin, consider the pit orchestra as a humble, but unique and rewarding opportunity to contribute to the arts community. Who knows—maybe you’ll even learn to solve the Rubix Cube while you’re at it. The possibilities are endless.