Audience members may be completely unaware of this, but there is a lot of wacky stuff going on in a pit that would probably never happen in an onstage performance. There’s just something about being located 6-10 feet below floor level that unleashes something in musicians. At least, it does in some of the gigs that I play!
Now, I am not a complete stick in the mud. I like the camaraderie of the orchestra, and I enjoy a little good-natured mischief just as much as anybody else. But I have a personal rule–if the audience notices, it’s gone too far. Just being in pit does not automatically make the orchestra invisible! If I can see them, they can see me, and if they can see me, they can probably see everything I’m doing down there.
I’ve played a lot of pit gigs in my life, and I’ve seen a lot of weird things on those gigs. These are a few of the ones that might make your mouth drop. These examples come from a wide array of groups with which I’ve worked plus anecdotal accounts from colleagues:
1. Watching TV…in the pit! – There is a musician who comes to many performances with a small portable television. He plugs it in, sets it on his stand, takes out some ear bud headphones, and inserts one of them in his ear. When it’s time to play, he takes the ear bud out and plays his part. When he’s resting, the ear bud goes right back into his ear. All he needs is a recliner and a snifter of brandy and he’ll be all set!
2. Showing up drunk…really drunk – One colleague I regularly play with has a pretty serious drinking problem. He usually shows up to morning kiddie shows reeking of booze, and he’s in similar shape for afternoon and evening performances. Though it certainly has a negative impact on his playing, he is a functioning alcoholic and manages to keep it together for performances. The problem comes when he picks up his instrument! He’s a brass player, and a fragrant boozy cloud emanates from his bell every time he plays, causing much gagging and wrinkling of noses within the orchestra.
3. Carrying on loud conversations during concerts – A friend of mine was telling me recently about a working-class man he knew who had always dreamed of attending a Metropolitan Opera concert. This man finally saved up enough money to buy tickets for himself and his wife. They got tickets right in front–extremely expensive, but if they were going to do it, they wanted to do it right. They got dressed up, went out for a nice dinner, and arrived with tickets in hand for the main event, La Boheme at the Met! The lights dimmed, the curtain went up, and the performance began. As the performance progressed, they heard voices coming from the pit. Strains of everyday conversation (“my daughter…” “we just bought a TiVo….” “it took forever on the train…..”) floated up from the pit, astonishing the couple and throwing them out of the mood of the performance.
4. Yelling during concerts – Whenever I invite friends to attend a certain ensemble’s concerts, I always get the same question: “Who’s that guy yelling in the pit?” One musician I know starts most performances by angrily mumbling about various ensemble members. This escalates as the show progresses, until he’s basically speaking in full voice, making remarks about the performance, seemingly unaware that everyone can hear him loud and clear. Audience members turn their head to stare, probably startled at this behavior. This happens regularly and has been going on for decades with this individual. This monologue is often full of profanity and comments about specific members of the ensemble, the conductor, the artistic director, any kids looking into the pit, or any other thing in his field of vision.
5. Arguing in the pit – One particular substitute musician just couldn’t seem to get his act together. One day he completely forgot to show up to a performance, the next day he showed up without a tie, and the day after that he showed up but played the wrong transposition for a passage, ruining the movement. Another musician behind him must have finally had enough, and he started whisper shouting at the space cadet substitute: “What’s wrong with you, you moron?” The substitute quickly became defensive and started arguing back with, escalating this conflict into a loud argument…in the middle of the performance!
I’ve actually seen this sort of thing happen several times. One time, a principal string player turned around mid-performance and began to admonish one of the section players for poor ensemble skills. This conflict escalated (as they so often do) to the point where the section string player was saying, “you ain’t the boss of me!” to the principal player, who shot back, “oh, yes I am!”
6. Obvious magazine reading or other non-musical activity – My dad once recounted attending a musical where he could clearly see one of the woodwind players put down her instrument and pick up a glossy magazine during the rests, putting it on her lap and thumbing through it until it was time to play again. As an audience member, my dad found this distracting. Though I play a lot of pit gigs and certainly understand musicians reading in the pit, maybe it would be better to be subtle with reading, coffee drinking, or other non-musical pit activity. This is a tough one, because 1000+ Les Miserables of Phantom of the Opera performances without reading material is likely to drive a performer insane, but if the musician can see the audience, then the audience can see them, and with tickets costing $30, $50, $100, or more per person, doesn’t the audience member deserve as streamlined a performance as possible?
7. Dancing in the pit – You may think I’m kidding, but I’ve actually seen several different musicians get up and dance around the pit during performances. C’mon–audiences simply have to be able to see that!
8. Angry gestures and hand waving – Some musicians I play with angrily wave their hands when they hear a tempo they don’t like, fake conducting from their side of the pit the speed they think it should go.
9. Improvising out of boredom – Though this sort of musical misbehavior can actually be great in the right context (the “nutty” Nutcracker that many ballet companies perform at the end of their run, for instance), some musicians simply start screwing around out of boredom, adding notes and flourishes to their parts, taking things up an octave, playing the parts of other instruments, of simply playing during rests or dance breaks. Though one would think that a conductor would crack down on this, I have found that conductors often either aren’t aware this is going on or choose to ignore it.
10. Musical Sabotage – This is the worst kind of behavior of all, but I have unfortunately witnessed this many times in different ensembles. The previous nine examples can be at least somewhat written off as musician eccentricity and unawareness of their surroundings, but there is really no excuse for musical sabotage. Some musicians, out of maliciousness or boredom, will intentionally rush, drag, play out of tune, play extremely loudly, or not play at all to prove a point. The point is usually that they know the way to should really go, and they’re going to teach the conductor, their section colleagues, the rest of the orchestra, and the entire audience a lesson–if they can’t play it the way they like it, they’ll wreck it so that no one else will like it either.
One may think that this kind of behavior would immediately be grounds for dismissal, but musicians are skilled in the art of subterfuge, and folks with evil plans like this know just exactly how much they can get away with before getting caught. One cellist I worked with figured out that he could fake out my stand partner by pretending to come in at the wrong time. My stand partner would always fall for it, playing a big honking wrong note in the rest and marring the performance. The cellist would then smile, waiting for another opportunity to do it again. He’d also intentionally play just slightly flat or sharp, waiting for the principal cellist to turn around, at which point he would immediately center the pitch.
Others I’ve worked with will play the tempo they think something should go, basically taking over the ensemble from the conductor in certain key sections. Strong conductors will nip this in the bud, but non confrontational or musically weak conductors will often get trampled over by these kinds of musicians. The conductor’s reasons for picking a particular tempo, whether to accommodate a singer, dancer, or the musical vision the conductor has for the piece don’t matter to these kinds of self-centered musical saboteurs. To tem, it’s not their tempo, so it’s wrong.
Though it may be just “another day at the office” to musicians, the performances we play are usually a really special event for audience members, and just because we aren’t front and center on stage for an operatic or ballet performance doesn’t mean that we aren’t an integral part of the performance. And lowering musicians a few feet below stage level doesn’t make us invisible!