Local Pit Musicians

By Susan T. Hessel  

“It’s fun,” said Stephanie Brookman, who plays flute and piccolo. “My kids are all grown and gone. This is my family now.” She is a former music teacher who still gives private lessons in addition to her work as a cost accountant at Fort McCoy. 

These itinerant musicians go from musical to musical, playing in community theatres and high schools. They are among the unsung heroes of community theatre, although not unplayed. Most are adults, although occasional students sit in with them. 

Among them is La Crescent High School student Leo Chavolla, who, during a production of “Titanic: The Musical” at La Crosse Community Theatre, transposed horn music to play trombone. “I had to do it on the fly,” he said. 

Musicians crawl below rafters to get into the pit under the stage at the La Crescent High School Fine Arts Center. (Do not mention this to OSHA.)  It is a tight squeeze; I was only able to be there because a player was gone for that show. 

Once inside their space, being in the pit had its benefits: bags of candy. It was, after all, Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. The atmosphere is friendly with members happy to see each other. In exchange for hanging with the pit, I did get a “Golden Ticket,” which should have given me a tour of the Willy Wonka factory. Apparently, the factory is not in La Crescent, but I did get a tour of the stage. 

Occasionally, a pit is near the stage but not under it. When something happens in live theatre, the band must not react. At one high school, a performer jabbed himself with a wooden prop, requiring an emergency room visit.

Another time, a microphone was left on at a high school production during a rushed costume change. God, the audience, and pit members heard the female performer offstage saying something like, “Pull it. Pull it. Get it off!” The male assistant for the costume change could be heard saying, “Hold still. I can’t get it! I can’t get stuff off!”

And the music played on. “We had to be stone-faced because we could be seen,” said Catherine McNamara, whose primary instrument is oboe, but who doubles on other reed instruments. “It was not the kind of thing you’d expect to hear in that high school.”

At times, McNamara said playing in the pit is like “walking on a tightrope with no safety net. You never know what will happen.” 

Pit director Kristin Freedlund said, “There are awful jokes, oops moments. You have to roll with the punches.”

Freedlund is the one who holds the entire production together, not just the pit. “She’s talking to the lighting people, the sound people, directing us and cueing the actors on stage all at the same time,” McNamara said. “She is the queen of multitasking.”

While the cast generally rehearses for six weeks, musicians practice together a couple of times and then go through tech week, AKA, hell week. That’s when costumes, sound, lights, set, music and makeup are added. During that week, a production magically goes from rough to smooth. 

It’s easier for the musicians than those on stage because they have sheet music on stands in front of them so they don’t need to memorize what they play. Still, the pit is not for every musician. “Not all musicians like to do this,” McNamara said. “A lot of musicians don’t like to play the same thing every night.” 

Musicians are left in the dark, literally and figuratively, with many unable to see the stage. Those who can see the stage will look up when they are not reading and playing the music. In this production, a couple of musicians also released the fog machine for a couple of songs, including “Pure Imagination.”

“I don’t try to follow the show,” Brookman said. “I can’t see anything where we are sitting. Other pits have monitors.”

Freedlund described playing in the pit as “a very selfless thing to do. A lot of the beauty of it is that people volunteer their time. They are not being paid and sometimes they don’t get the recognition. They come here just for the love of playing.” 

McNamara said, “We play our hearts out and nobody sees us. When they clap, it’s not for us, but for the cast. Not all musicians like that type of situation to play.” 

As director of bands at Longfellow Middle School, Freedlund said her performing demonstrates the “opportunity to play even if music does not become your profession. Music is something you can enjoy the rest of your life.”

Christopher Boyd, who plays trumpet, comes a distance from Amery, Wisconsin, where he teaches music. He stays the weekend with friends.  “I love it. You get to know people everywhere you play.” 

Play director Nick Brandt, who is teaching special education at Longfellow Middle School, called the musicians pivotal to the production.

“Without them, it would not all come together. We can’t perform with true feeling, color and humanity without them.”