Survey: The Pit Band

Mike Lawson • ChoralFeatures • January 7, 2011

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A school-wide theatrical production is unique in what it brings to students, an arts department, and the school itself. School plays and musicals have the capacity to unite disciplines and draw attention to many aspects of a performing arts department like few other initiatives.A school-wide theatrical production is unique in what it brings to students, an arts department, and the school itself. School plays and musicals have the capacity to unite disciplines and draw attention to many aspects of a performing arts department like few other initiatives. For student musicians, backing the school play or musical typically provides an opportunity to learn new music in a different format and work in ensembles with distinct configurations – often alongside professional or accomplished adult performers who do not typically participate in school music groups. These opportunities also provide a plethora of ancillary benefits, including an increased sense of ownership among students and, for department heads, exposure and fodder for advocacy.

For a better sense of how music departments interact with the wide variety of theatrical projects in schools across the country, SBO recently surveyed its readership; it turns out that over 70 percent of responding band and orchestra directors indicate significant involvement in their school’s dramatic productions.

Do you direct or assist with pit orchestras/musical accompaniment for your school’s dramatic productions?


52% – Yes, I direct the instrumental aspect of the music for my schools plays/musicals. 21% – Yes, I provide some assistance to the theatre department with music for their productions. 8% – No, I have nothing to do with the music in the plays. 19% – No, our school doesn’t have dramatic productions that include live instrumental music.

“Yes, but my pit band is 100 percent student run and all student personnel – I sat in the audience for all five shows of our production of Jesus Christ Superstar last year while the senior bass player took charge. I am also the vocal coach/choral director!” Rosemarie Richard, Harwich High School, Harwich, Mass.

If yes, are the students that play in these groups exclusively from the music department?

60% – Yes 40% – No

“We will at times bring in adults to fill out more difficult parts if necessary.” Bret Lee, Marshalltown High School, Marshalltown, Iowa

“Sometimes I will ask a student from another school if I do not have a student that can play the part. We also blend in a small number of hired/professional musicians for the most difficult parts.” Pat Dorn, Monona Grove High School, Monona, Wis.

If you include students in these groups that are not a part of the ensembles in the music department, do you alter your approach to how you teach the music? If yes, please explain how.

8% – Yes 92% – No

“Sometimes I have to take a more audio approach for rhythm section members who are not as familiar with the visual aspects of music.” Shaun Fontaine, Alliance High School, Alliance, Ohio

What are the primary benefits to the music department and the students from your instrumental ensembles from participating in these events?

“The performance and preparation experience can be a good wake up call for those who may have an interest in working in this demanding venue in the future.” Brian Dorr, Andrews Osborne Academy, Willoughby, Ohio

“Playing in a pit orchestra gives a completely different perspective on playing music. In the pit, you are playing a supporting role and can greatly enhance the audience’s experience of the show. On the other hand, you can also detract greatly from the production. It is a completely different way to think about the music and this helps the instrumentalists to do their job even better as a member of their regular ensembles.” Peter Klemp, Concordia Jr/Sr High School, Omaha, Neb.

“It is an incredible experience for the entire music department to come together for one cause. All of our top singers, instrumentalists, actors, and dancers join together to create a spectacular production each spring. It is a wonderful bonding experience for our high school and is one of the big community events of the year. Additionally, having our own high school students performing in the pit really challenges them musically to reach the high level of skill required to play professional Broadway books.” Jennifer Anderson, Cumberland Valley High School, Mechanicsburg, Pa.

“The pit orchestra provides additional high level performing opportunities for our advanced students. It also helps prepare the students for high school (we are the only middle school in the Cherry Creek school district that presents full length musical productions with a student pit orchestra). The dramatic productions provide an experience for the whole Performing and Fine Arts department to work together, and it also elevates our importance in the school.” Ellen Ravnan, Thunder Ridge Middle School, Aurora, Colo.

“Performing in a musical is a unique experience that allows students to interact at all levels with several different disciplines, including acting, dancing, singing, and instrumental playing. It also provides great public exposure for our program. Our community has come to expect a very polished production each year, and there is a lifetime of memories for the students.” Robert Kaiser, Lincoln High School, Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.

Do you feel there is sufficient collaboration between the various performing arts groups in your school?

63% – Yes, we do a great job at this 34% – It could be better 3% – We do not collaborate at all

“Band, choir, drama all work together for the musical. Auditioned wind ensemble members have first crack at pit orchestra; others added as needed. Auditions are held for the musical, and we have band, choir, and drama kids on stage in lead and chorus parts.” Richard Mancini, Camas High School, Camas, Wash.

“If the theater/chorus department wants or expects winds and strings for pit, they must be willing to share the profits of the show with band and orchestra.” Mike Walsh, Alpharetta High School, Alpharetta, Ga.

Additional thoughts on pit orchestras and providing musical support to your school’s theatrical productions?

“Our students enjoy this opportunity and look forward to the challenge of the auditions and performing in a different type of ensemble where every person is a soloist. I feel it has a positive impact on the musicianship of our students, and the positive collaboration among the Performing Arts Department is a powerful advocacy tool within the community.” Daniel Berard, Fossil Ridge High School, Ft. Collins, Colo.

“I try to involve every instrumentalist who wants to be involved. We divide up parts when we have to play more quietly, but on the overtures, everyone plays. The more students involved means the more people who come to watch them. The more people who come foster a greater appreciation for music in the school system.

“We do a musical every other year in the fall. I have always appreciated the drama department avoiding our very busy spring schedule of events.” Daniel Pritchett, Valparaiso High School, Valparaiso, Ind.

“We are very proud of the job our students do. We use mainly students in all of our productions with the only adult leadership being the vocal, instrumental and drama instructors.” Lisa White, Monroe High School, Monroe, Wash.

“This is such a great experience for both the instrumentalists and drama students. Students who plan to go into musical performance or theater performance greatly benefit from this experience.” Scott Stanton, Rockdale County High School, Conyers, Ga.

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