The Pit

Ten feet underground isn't the first place you would look for the sound of a guitar and drums, or a flute and clarinet. In fact, you might not be used to hearing orchestral instruments used alongside the standard set-up for a rock band. But here at Theater in the Grove, this is the norm. A small room, barely large enough to comfortably fit twenty people, lay deep beneath the black wooden stage floor. Chairs line the black walls, which are covered in sound-proofing insolation and blankets, while the concrete floor is cluttered with cords and wires which keep things held together. These close quarters foster the special bond that is needed to help bring a musical production to life, however unseen it may be.

A steep, hand-built stairway leads you from the front of the stage, down into the pit, but getting through is no easy task. Bumping your head on the wire grid opening is almost a rite of passage, and if you don't nearly fall down the steps, you've done wrong. Add to this that you're carrying all of your musical equipment, perhaps a trombone or string bass, or multiple instruments if you're playing a Reed book, and you'll quickly discover that entrance to the pit is a workout.

Luckily, all I had to drag down was my flute. I squeezed around metal music stands, electric pianos, and the conductor sitting on the steps to find one of ten red chairs and begin putting together my arsenal of supplies. Above us, actors danced and stomped, shaking dust loose from the floor boards to float visibly beneath my stand light. It was nearly 6:30, the standard call time for TITG performances, so other musicians would soon begin pouring down.

At the podium, the conductor gazes over her score and practices simple patterns from this season's show, Jesus Christ Superstar. As I flipped through my music, I noticed an older man, tall and greying, take a seat in the stool beside me. A yellow guitar leaned against a stand, it's pearly white plate sparkling in the colored lights flashing from above the pit. His seasoned and callused hands reached down to a thick cable that was tabled down to the floor, leading underneath the wooden pallets that created the second layer of flooring. Noticing an unfamiliar face, he looked up.

“This is a very important cable,” he laughed. His cheeks were rosy, with a a face that resembled a younger, slightly less hairy Santa Claus, and instead of a bag of toys, this man carried a bag of music.

“Is it the most important cable?” I asked, curiously. He tilted his head to think before responding. “Nah, not this one.”

“Which one is the most important cable then?” I grinned.

His eyes squinted, meeting mine while pondering the question.

“Well, I guess there isn’t a more important cable, so that means this one is the most important!” He responded. “By the way, I’m David!”

"She's played here before - she's good!" A voice from further left chimed in. I looked up to see long, grey hair flowing out from underneath a black beret and a flannel shirt. Shannon, the regular bassist for the pit, had recently arrived and was getting ready to play. Having been gone for so long, I wasn't anticipating seeing many musicians I knew, nor expecting them to remember me, so this came as a pleasant surprise. He asked about my life, and how school was going, catching up just like old friends.

Although I had been to the TITG pit before, I'd never met David, or played with an electric guitar before. On his stand was a large iPad that lit up with a scanned copy of the music, which upon looking at, I noticed was mostly chord symbols: musical notation that was foreign to a wind player. He worked diligently to complete his set, while still trying to keep friendly conversation going as others soon entered the pit. Soon, music was surrounding me; the sound of a high trumpet mocked the sweet sound of a cello, while everything was drowned out by Dennis, "a drummer, not a percussionist."

Dave Massey sat on my right, an impressive clarinetist I had known since the first few weeks of my freshman year of college. Having been thrown into a situation that required me to learn clarinet in two weeks, Dave had helped and guided me along the way, encouraging even the most pathetic and squeaky notes.

Although any of the musicians down here could be considered professional level players, none of them actually are. Playing with Theater in the Grove, while intensive and time-consuming, is nothing more than a non-paid, community theater gig. Each player, while dedicated and talented to their craft, spends the majority of their life doing something entirely different. Many of these players are music educators in surrounding towns, working to better the music programs in schools in hopes that more students will continuing playing and singing for the love of it. Upon learning of Dave's career as a middle school band director, it made sense that he was prepared to help and encourage a beginning clarinetist. Kathy, another regular woodwind performer, usually held a position in the medical field in addition to being a talented oboist and working towards a music education degree. The pit's conductor, Michelle, and a regular trumpet player, Jeff, both also work as music directors in private schools.

At 7:30, it was time for the downbeat. Sight-reading the show next to seasoned players was intimidating to say the least, but their friendly demeanors and encouragement made for a pleasant experience. Throughout the evening, jokes were made, often jokes that only close friends could make; but playing three shows a weekend for weeks at a time was enough to build that kind of bond.

"Tomorrow night, Dennis is playing cello with drumsticks!" David snickered. The cellist, Cory held up his bow as an offering. Buh-dum tshh.

"It would sound the same if I played with a bow!" Dennis called out in a loud whisper.

It is easy to get caught up in the competitiveness of a career in music. Being here reminds you of the real reasons we play music: friendship, happiness, and love. The relationships created through music are unlike those made anywhere else, and the bond between members of a pit orchestra may be some of the most tight-knit possible.

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