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Herriman Journal

View from the pit

Mar 29, 2022 08:52PM ● By Jet Burnham

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

The talented students of Herriman High School impressed audiences with their production of “Les Miserables” at the end of February. The actors were compelling and the vocalists were inspiring, but some of the best performers of the show were never seen by the audience. Student musicians provided the music for the show from the orchestra pit beneath the stage.

“With the pit, it’s a lot more of ‘be heard and not seen,’” violinist Scott Ray, a HHS senior, said. “We had to play well but other than that, you had to be basically invisible.”

Music director Brandon Larsen knew the show’s musical score would be a challenge, but he was confident his students had the work ethic and the talent to handle it.

“Due to copyright, we can't simplify the music, so it is exactly what the Broadway musicians play,” Larsen said. “So then you get this amateur high school student and they're playing it. I’m very proud of the way that our students were able to pull off that music. Live orchestras seem to be a dying breed so it's cool when we get to have one, and one that can perform at the same level as the actors on the stage.”

A surprising 80 student musicians wanted to be a part of the production, but because there is limited room in the pit, they were split into two orchestras that alternated performance nights.

For most, it was their first experience blending with a vocalist. But being under the stage, the musicians could not see or hear the actors. The pit is designed to amplify sound out into the audience, so the musicians can't even hear what's happening on the other side.

“You can only hear what's around you, and you can't hear the stage,” saxophone player Skylar Schwebach said.

Cellist Rachel Kinikini said this makes the musicians more dependent on the music director.

“Things change all the time and you can’t rely on what you know, you have to look up,” she said.

All 65 actors and 60 musicians in each show got their cues from Larsen, who was responsible for coordinating everything happening above and below the stage.

Larsen said there is little room for error in a live performance because the music lines up with what the actors are singing as well as what they are doing on stage. If the timing gets off, it creates a domino effect, affecting the tempo and therefore the mood of the scene.

“They don't know what's happening on stage and oftentimes, if there's a line skipped or if there's something going on stage where they need to stall, the students need to be paying attention to me so that we can all stay together,” Larsen said.

In a live show, everyone needs to stay adaptable. During some performances, actor Radley Haws, playing Marius, a passionate young revolutionary, felt more emotional during some scenes.

“He was able to nonverbally communicate that to the pit conductor,” play director KayCee DeYoung said. “So there were some parts on some nights that were a little bit slower during “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” and some parts that sped up a little bit.”

Larsen said the show was exhausting for him and for the musicians because of the amount of focus required, but also because, unlike most musicals, there was no break between musical numbers.

“From the downbeat of the show starting to the cut off at the end, the orchestra was playing the entire time,” Larsen said.

DeYoung was glad to have the pit orchestra because using a pre-recorded soundtrack for a show has limitations.

“Your performance is alive while you're on stage, but you're still following something that's been manufactured and it's never going to change,” she said. “There's this really awesome magic that comes with a live orchestra.”

Through this experience, the student musicians had opportunities to learn new instruments and to push themselves. Ultimately, they learned that they are a lot more capable than they thought they were.

“I never thought of myself as a really strong player until I was given the opportunity to push myself through this music,” Kinikini said.

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