The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School

The Black and White

The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School

The Black and White

The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School

The Black and White

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February 23, 2024

Under the stage: The secret life of Pit Orchestra

This year’s production will feature 51 members in Pit and various instrumental groups, including strings, woodwinds and the rhythm section.

A line of students, instruments in hand, file down a short, narrow staircase leading to a small room underneath the stage of Whitman’s auditorium. Just past the stairs, dim lights clipped onto the stands illuminate binders filled with lines of music belonging to Whitman’s Pit Orchestra, who perform live music throughout Whitman’s productions. 

This year, Whitman Drama will perform “Cabaret” from Feb. 8-10. All participants extensively prepare for the musical, including the Pit Orchestra. This year’s production will feature 51 members in Pit and various instrumental groups, including strings, woodwinds and the rhythm section. 

Pit Orchestra began their preparation for the musical in November with auditions. Interested students uploaded a short video playing an excerpt from one of “Cabaret’s” songs to Brendan Kelly, the Music Direction and Pit Orchestra Conductor. Since the pandemic, Pit Orchestra has been performing at an even higher level than ever and has become so popular that they are restricted by space, Kelly said.

“I’m constricted by how many people I can actually fit below the stage,” Kelly said. “These last few years, I’ve had more than 65 people audition. The most I can fit down there is 52.”

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Pit Orchestra also challenges the musicians, as the music is often the most difficult they will play all year, Kelly said. Junior Marlo Minshew, who is returning to play violin in Pit for the second year, believes that the group helped her grow as a musician.

“It’s a different type of music than I am used to and I enjoy playing with a lot of different instruments,” Minshew said. “I like being a part of the musical, but in the background. It’s a really fun environment.” 

After auditions, the Pit Orchestra holds meetings to learn and rehearse the songs. They begin by taking notes on tempos and cues from the show, listening to recordings to understand the music and playing together, Minshew said. Initially, rehearsals commence around three times a week, but as opening night approaches, the frequency increases. In early January, the cast and Pit started rehearsing together, junior Allison Khani, who is playing Lulu in the musical, said.

“Our first rehearsal with the Pit is called a Sitzprobe and we just sing all of the songs while they play. This is our first time playing with live music and not a track,” Khani said. “We rehearse in the music room a few times before our Wandelprobe, which is when we act out the show on the stage for the first time with the orchestra.”

One of Kelly’s most important roles as Pit Conductor is to ensure that the Pit and cast are coordinated throughout the show. To ensure proper timing, extensive practice and flexibility throughout the performance are required. The Pit has certain parts of their music, called Vamps, that the musicians repeat if something in the show slows down, Kelly said. 

“If something is going faster or slower, we have to use hand signals to make sure that everyone knows where we’re going next,” Kelly said. “We work a lot on different ways to know how to know where you are in the song if something were to happen.”

For Kelly, a unique part of Whitman’s Pit Orchestra is that the students play the same challenging music as Broadway musicians, he said. Kelly also noted that apart from a team of four adults who support and teach members of the production, it is entirely student-run, making it special for students to see all of their hard work in a successful performance, he said. 

For Khani, the Pit Orchestra is an aspect that makes the musical so exciting. She enjoys peeking under the stage to see all of her friends in the pit during rehearsals and uniting their talents to put on a successful show, she said. 

“As a member of Whitman Music and Whitman Drama, having the Pit there makes the musical super fun because a lot of the musicians are my best friends,” Khani said. “It’s so lovely to make art alongside them in our own ways.”

Minshew experiences a similar welcoming community between the cast and Pit. She finds the actual performance to be the best part of the show and enjoys that Pit can show the audience their hard work and put everything together with the cast for the production. For the final production, Kelly looks forward to connecting with the audience through art. 

“It’s a really cool thing to be able to do that with art,” Kelly said, “to be able to use a piece of existing theater, involve a bunch of high school students and create this show that can actually share a message.”

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About the Contributor
Celia Noya, Feature Writer
Grade 11 Why did you join The B&W? I started writing for my schools newspaper in Elementary School and instantly loved it. I joined the Black and White to continue writing, to connect with my community, and to listen to people's stories and experiences. What is your favorite song? How Far I'll Go from Moana  

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