‘Pit Stop’ – My experience in two West End pits
by Grace Harman
My name is Grace, I’m 16 years old from Ipswich and my ambition is to become a professional musician. I currently play trumpet, cornet, piano and violin, with the trumpet being my first instrument, and which I aim to play as a professional. I play with the Suffolk Youth Orchestra, various school bands including Jazz Band, Brass Group, String Ensembles and Musical Band, and in my two local brass bands: The East of England Co-op Band, and Martlesham Brass. Also, I currently have a part time job, playing piano for a dance class, run by the Co-op Juniors Theatre Company. At school, I am currently studying A levels, including music.
From a young age, I have been particularly passionate about musical theatre. Both my mum and grandma performed in amateur groups as children and their passion for this genre has also inspired me. We now regularly see shows, both in London’s West End, and at local theatres too. I love the buzz and atmosphere of live theatre and the excitement in the air when the orchestra begins its overture. I think it is electric. I absolutely love musicals, with ‘Wicked’ being my personal favourite! I particularly enjoy listening to the pit musicians, who confidently play with precision night after night. A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to go and observe the pit musicians in two of the biggest shows currently playing in London’s West End, during one of their performances…
My first ‘sit in’ was with the brass section, at a big West End show. I contacted Alan Williams, the musical director of the show, and he organised me to sit with the leader of the trumpets. This was Simon Gardner – a big celebrity in the trumpet world, and current trumpeter with the Strictly Come Dancing band! The whole show was totally inspiring, and I learnt so much by just sitting and hearing Simon and the musicians play. This has enhanced my love for trumpet playing, and musical theatre! The genre of music in the show was jazzy, and of a big band style for the majority, with upbeat scores, and a pit full of fun, jokes and a relaxed work environment. From my seat, I was able to see the MD clearly, and hear what he said, through his microphone, which connected to all the musicians’ headphones that they wore during the entire performance. Moreover, the musicians each had a camera of the MD, with an identical image to what which actors can see, which is projected right next to their music. What really fascinated me, was the fact that these musicians could play with clarity, from such little warm up and preparation, let alone being able to play an amazingly high range, straight away. They could also easily switch from different styles between pieces, which was especially amazing! The pit atmosphere was buzzing, and it was filled with musicians, from all different families of instruments. However, when the band played together, it was instantly connected, and not a beat out of time, which I gathered was mastered from playing the pieces night after night. Every minute throughout the show was entertaining, and the music powerful, with the audience fully engaged during the performance. As the show ended, the band carried on, right until the house lights came on, giving it everything right until the very last note. Every note the trumpeters and fellow orchestra pit members hit was top-notch and so powerful, which gives me something to particularly work on and master, in order to play like these professionals. As I left the show, it seemed the audience were enthralled by the production. I must thank the brass section for such an amazing time!
My second sit in was with a keys player and associate MD. It was a totally different atmosphere, for many reasons, including the fact that the music style was very different, the layout of the show was completely oppositional, and the instrumentalists were different, however, equally as enjoyable! The genre of music was more rock, and pop, with a large emphasis on keys, guitars and drums in the pieces. Despite this, orchestral instruments also played smooth and lyrical passages with grace. The layout was different, since I was sitting much closer to the MD, and I could even see some audience members. However, I still had headphones on, to hear the MD contact the musicians, and a screen of the stage, in front of me, so I could see what was happening on the stage, at any one moment! Once again, the musicians were all very relaxed and enjoyable to be around, and this has sparked my passion evermore.
After such eye-opening experiences, I have really taken pride in my playing, and am determined to study music, and become a professional in the future. I am especially hopeful, because there are not many female brass players, including trumpeters. I have many inspirations, such as Alison Balsom, Tine Thing Helself and upcoming trumpeter Matilda Lloyd. I hope I can inspire new generations of females to learn brass instruments. I would not be so passionate about music, If it wasn’t for my school and my music teachers since primary school. At my current school, ‘Kesgrave High School’, the music department is thriving, and they help enhance my learning not only as an individual musician, but also a member in orchestras and in groups.
Being a musician is not easy. For example, this industry is very competitive, and every musician will inevitably suffer knock-backs and rejections. Coming back from that is always hard, but it will make you a stronger person, mentally and physically.
Whilst I study for my A Levels, I am looking for as many playing opportunities as a musician, to develop my learning and playing ability. I am open to any advice or opportunities, including pit and big band playing, as that is the style of music I enjoy and want to try out, and put my sit-in experiences into practise! Feel free to contact me via email and social media.