Carmel High pit orchestra brings musicals to life

“Can’t you hear it?” Senior Kent Burns tilts his head, listening. There is a surge in the music. “It’s all around me, like a beautiful pink sky.”

In this scene of the 2016 CHS musical production “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” Burns’ character is in love. To fit that emotion, his impassioned declarations are accompanied by an equally impassioned song warmly emanating from below stage, where, unbeknownst to most audience members, nearly 30 student musicians are playing live.

The only outward sign of this ensemble—besides pulsing rhythms and melodies—is the bobbing head of Brian Handley, CHS music teacher and the show’s musical director, as he conducts.

But it is there, below stage in a small room crammed with people and music stands, that the magic of the pit orchestra happens.

“It’s probably the part of the music department that I enjoy the most,” says senior Marie Rogers, a three-year pit orchestra member, “because it really combines [all] the VAPA programs.”

The 30 student pit orchestra warms up before their second to last performance of the 2016 spring musical "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."

The 30 student pit orchestra warms up before their second to last performance of the 2016 spring musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

Now in its sixth year, the spring musical is a complex and collaborative endeavor drawing on multiple visual and performing arts disciplines. And while the actors may be more visible to the audience, the hard work of the players in the pit, whom Handley handpicks, does not go unnoticed.

“It’s a tremendous amount of work and time,” Handley says. “[But] as far as I’m concerned…there’s nothing like a good pit orchestra.”

Here at CHS, we are lucky to have one of the only working, professional-style orchestra pits on the Monterey Peninsula.Carmel High’s tradition of live accompaniment started with musical variety shows at the Sunset Center, but since the Performing Arts Center was built with a pit among its state-of-the-art facilities, the annual musical has evolved to reach its current level.

This spring, the ensemble consisted of multiple musicians on each instrument, with some, like junior Michael Doyle, switching off on multiple instruments.

Many students, like seniors Ian Wahle and Brynn Dally, have participated in the pit for four years, and some, like 2014 CHS graduate Jonah Svihus, have gone on to perform in pit orchestras for colleges or community theaters.

The students enjoy the camaraderie of the pit and the experience of performing in a setting different than orchestra or concert band. It’s also a great way to earn community service hours.

Of course, playing in the pit is not without challenges, least of which is a demanding rehearsal schedule.

“I don’t get a lot sleep, but it’s only a few weeks long,” sophomore and first-year member Kasja Williams comments.

Indeed, balancing the pit with school and extracurriculars can often be difficult, especially in the week before opening night—known affectionately as “hell week” among pit members. Several rehearsals for the 2016 production even exceeded three hours.

“I’m basically doing something other than homework from 7 o’clock in the morning all the way up until 10 at night,” says sophomore Kenshi Husted, one of several violinists in the pit’s string section.

In the words of junior Alex Meyers, a two-year member, “[The pit is] very frustrating at times, but also very rewarding when you get it right.”

So whether they’re keeping up with on-stage plot with the help of two small TV monitors or mastering technically challenging pieces of music—the unabridged Broadway books for “How to Succeed” contained 47 of them—the dedicated pit orchestra members work not only with each other but with the cast.

In the end, actors and pit musicians come to mutually appreciate one other’s efforts, and the net effect is a lively, synergistic performance.

“People from outside constantly think I’m hiring a pit full of professional adults,” Handley says. “We fool them all the time.”
-Michael Montgomery