Pit orchestra remains invisible, still crucial component to Mason musicals

Evan Ponstingle | Staff Writer

 The audience can hear them. The audience can sense them. They put the “music” in musical. And yet, they go unseen.

Pit orchestras are used for plays and musicals all over the world. Typically set in an orchestra pit below the stage so as to be invisible to the audience, a pit orchestra’s job is to provide the soundtrack to the show. Usually this means an orchestra will combine brass, woodwinds, strings, and percussion instruments. 

The Mason High School (MHS) Spring 2021 musical “Songs For a New World” is rehearsing throughout April for a May 8 video broadcast. For this musical, the pit orchestra will be in a different situation than usual: their audio will be recorded to be overlayed with the video of the actors and actresses. But, similar to the nature of the classic pit orchestra, they will still be invisible, yet still provide the soundtrack that makes all the difference.

Senior Mikey Sivertson plays bass in the pit orchestra. 2021 will be his second musical, although it would be his third if last year’s spring show had gone as planned. From his first rehearsal in 2019, he was hooked.

“I think the ability to play with that smaller group [than in class], it was a really unique experience that I’m very much glad I had,” Sivertson said. “The ability to play with musicians, play with the singers [on-stage] and the band, which is something we don’t get to do very often. The fine arts department, we don’t really cross over that much, so that was a great experience.”

In addition to COVID precautions for this season, the MHS pit orchestra has a new conductor. Director of Bands Ed Protzman will be taking over for longtime pit orchestra conductor Jason Sleppy.

“We’re taking a look at the whole [music] program and trying to divide some things up so different people aren’t overwhelmed at different times,” Protzman said. “And he offered the pit orchestra situation to me for this year and I really enjoy that so I said ‘yes.’”

The altered approach this season results in trying to find a new way to work around the obstacles, a challenge Protzman is looking forward to taking on.

“It’s an interesting year to take it over because it’s so different,” Protzman said. “But I’m really glad that, even in a COVID situation, we can make something happen for the students.”

The pit orchestra is an integral aspect of the musical, even with the new COVID format. While its members will still be invisible, musical director Allen Young still sees them as an important part of the show, and is working to include them in a setting as close to normal as possible.

“Because the musical is going to be recorded and streamed this year, we are going to record our cast and orchestra together over the course of a week in April,” Young said. “We wanted to preserve the feeling of a live performance, and this was the best way to do that. We will then film the cast performing the show in the black box theater to the sound track they’ve recorded together with the orchestra.”

Some members don’t ever want the invisible aspect to change.

“I think for one thing, whenever I make a mistake, the audience can’t see me and boo me like they can on the stage,” Sivertson said. “If you go to a classical music concert or a concert like AC/DC, the main goal there is to see them play live. But I think when you go to a musical, they’re not coming to see us play. You’re coming to see the actors sing and act. We compliment them.”

Because there is less pressure on this supporting cast, the pit orchestra forms a close bond throughout the weeks of rehearsal. It’s an experience that Siverston wouldn’t trade for anything, not even being up on the stage.

“[Being the center of attention] is really not me as a person,” Sivertson said. “One of the things I really like about the pit is it’s more laid back. It [the rehearsals] was [after] school, it was more informal, like the people there are more relaxed than they are in school.”

Hidden below the stage, the pit orchestra has become a tight-knit group with a unique dynamic.

“By the time the whole thing is done, there’s usually a pretty close bond because you’re working in a small group in a small setting, and it’s kind of a unique experience,” Protzman said. “That’s very different than band or orchestra class.”

Pit orchestra typically goes through several rehearsals by themselves before they go underground to join forces with the performers. Sivertson believes that perfecting the timing between the music of the pit and the music of the performers is one of the most challenging aspects. 

“We all [performers and musicians] have to watch Mr. Protzman, and we all have to react to him,” Sivertson said. “So that might cause us to get a little bit behind or a little bit ahead. While Mr. Protzman is the boss, we still have to listen to the actors up on stage because ultimately, they’re the ones who are controlling what’s going on. We have cues written on our music — certain lines tell us when we play.” 

During a typical MHS school day, students can take either Band (brass/woodwinds/percussion), Orchestra (strings), or Choir. Pit orchestra unlocks the unique opportunity to combine all three, although this year’s orchestra will only use percussion and strings. 

“It’s a neat sharing that develops, and I think a lot of the band and orchestra and choir kids don’t get to see that on a regular basis,” Protzman said. “So, for the pit orchestra, and then working with the show with the singers, it’s bringing all the elements together.”

Allen Young sees the pit orchestra as adding an extra dimension to the actors and actresses.

“Live music had been a part of theatrical performances since the time of classical Greek theater,” Young said. “Having live instrumentalists during a show allows the actors on stage to really engage in the music in an entirely different level than they would if they were using pre-recorded music. It also helps prepare or band and orchestra students for potential work in accompanying live performances in the future.”

Throughout this unique experience, the pit orchestra group members remain invisible, but satisfied.

“I think the way they normally do it [recognize them] is at the end of the show, they’ll acknowledge the musicians,” Protzman said. “I’m not one who feels like there should be more recognition. It really works well.”

Sivertson’s pit orchestra experience has opened up a whole new world for him. He might be invisible to the audience of the play, but he’s content with making a big sound — and a significant impact.

“I get to hear the violin, I hear a viola, l hear them playing almost every day [in class],” Sivertson said. “But when you hear instruments and you get to see people you haven’t seen in a long time or you don’t see a lot, I think that’s very impactful.”


Graphic by Riley Johansen