Musical notes wash over the tall walls that create the orchestra pit at the CHS Center for the Performing Arts, flooding the audience with warm, melodic sounds. What began as a one-year live music experiment has developed into an annual tradition as the Carmel High pit orchestra embarks on its third consecutive school musical this year.
The CHS pit orchestra debuted in 2011, playing the musical score for Grease, a Monterey Peninsula College Theatre Company production presented in association with the Carmel High School Theatre Arts Department. However, instead of playing in the orchestra pit—a lowered area in the front of the stage that feels more like a bomb shelter—the musicians played directly on stage.
“We were right up in the action,” senior Grease bassist Jordan Miller recalls. “Usually playing in a pit involves being under the stage where no one can see you, so being above the stage allowed us to be part of the excitement and energy.”
After eight performances of Grease, the high school musicians in the on-stage pit received accolades from the crowd who were “telling the director and chair of the MPC Theatre Department that it was the best pit that MPC has ever had,” orchestra conductor Brian Handley says.
With the resounding success of Grease, the CHS theatre department decided to stage its own musical, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, and the pit orchestra was once again ready for action.
The musicians in the 2012 pit orchestra were facing a significant challenge with the music from Charlie Brown, which presented complicated tempo changes, key changes and transitions that most had never faced.
“Preparing for the show in general was the hardest part,” sophomore pianist Jonathan O’Grady explains. “It took a lot of time to master the music.”
The 20-plus hours that go into preparing a pit orchestra for a performance are a grueling process. The late nights and long rehearsals that went into perfecting the music for the Charlie Brown musical paid off because, unlike recorded music, a live pit orchestra can create a unique feel and accommodate the performance.
Both director Michael Jacobs and conductor Brian Handley concur.
“The live orchestra has the ability to accommodate for error,” Jacobs says.
However, coordinating the underground pit with the on-stage performance is the biggest challenge.
Junior Laine Aswad, who played Lucy in last year’s musical, could not agree more: “With a live orchestra, if one of us messes up on stage, you suddenly realize, ‘There are more people than just me freaking out right now!’”
Whatever adversity facing the pit orchestra last year did not faze them, and they played a successful show with brilliantly performed music—“very satisfying to pull off,” Handley says.
This year, the drama department will be performing Hello, Dolly!, and the pit orchestra will once again have an integral role.
With an almost entirely new crew this year, the pit, whose first rehearsal was Feb. 25, will be taking on another challenging musical set for the play, due to open in less than two weeks.
“It’s going to be difficult getting the large amount of music performance-ready in three weeks,” freshman pit member Steve Yoo says.
Senior Will Perkins adds, “I’ve never had to play pieces that fluctuate in tempo so frequently.”
Colin O’Grady has participated in the pit orchestra for three consecutive years and truly enjoys the experience, noting, “There are just not many opportunities on campus which combine so many different people with so many different talents.”
This new Carmel High tradition will likely continue to bring energy to musicals and help the performers “as long as we don’t fall in!” sophomore Woodstock actress Avery Yeatman adds.
Hello, Dolly! is expected to open Wednesday, March 20.