December 20, 2012

Views from the Pit

I love playing in pit orchestras. The combination of musicians, actors, tech folk and dancers working together creates something intense and larger than life. Even shows that we don't like as much as others have a pull to them. It’s fascinating how the mistakes we make (and we all make them) are usually absorbed and masked by the show as a whole. Ask the audience about a dropped note or skipped line and they usually are amazed to learn the mistake happened at all.

The View from the Pit

Focus and Relaxation
There is a delicate balance between staying focused and trusting yourself to know the show. My mantra when my attention wanders is “stay here.” But I am just as likely to mean “let the music roll along” as “focus on each note with the intensity of preparing for a private lesson.” All the dress rehearsals and repeated performances create little grooves in your brain after awhile. Right about the point when the orchestra starts reciting the actors’ lines to each other, there is a shift in how the group plays the music. It becomes like a lazy game of catch played with filmy scarves rather than a tense game of baseball with the strings and the winds competing with each other for the fewest mistakes.

Strength and Flexibility
This year, I hurt my hand about a week before one of the shows I was playing. The injury had the odd effect of turning my hand from a palm with 5 independent fingers that could create many, many combinations into a single lump that could barely function as a flat palm. The lack of independence and flexibility were harder to cope with than the loss of strength. And I realized the strength in my hand was directly connected to the flexibility in a way I hadn’t ever noticed before. Fortunately, one of the earliest positions that my hand could handle was the one I needed to hold the flute and what’s more, I didn’t have to support the weight of the flute with that hand in order to play. Each night, my hand was more flexible which made my hand stronger and playing got easier.

Familiarity and Trust
I had to miss a couple of early rehearsals, so I had to trust my knowledge of the show rather than practicing the tricky passages. Since I have played this show for several years, this was less stressful than it might have been but it was still a very different experience than I am used to. Trusting the rest of the group to catch me if my fingers slipped, trusting myself to remember what I had done previous years and sitting back and letting the music happen is not as easy as it sounds.
On the last day of the show, just as I was getting back to normal, the clarinet player got very ill and couldn’t play. The substitute turned out to be my band teacher from junior high school. We hadn’t ever played our instruments together much but we were familiar with each other’s nonverbal cues which turned out to be the best possible thing. We sailed through the music in fine shape, meshing the intense focus she was using on sight-reading during a performance and the relaxed trust I had in my familiarity with how our parts worked together.

Focus, relaxation, strength, flexibility and trust. Five independent actions that work together to create far more than they could separately.