Tales from the Pit

Hair petting, dandruff snow and kicking children are all part of the act for musicians playing below stage.

For Ramona Pansegrau, music director of the Kansas City Ballet, there’s nothing like being in the orchestra pit conducting a Christmastime performance of The Nutcracker and being touched by the audience’s reaction.

“One time, a little girl came down and started petting my hair in the middle of Nutcracker, Pansegrau drolly recollects. “And you know something’s going on, because the musicians’ eyes get huge. You’re thinking, ‘Okay, there’s something behind me, just don’t move.’”

Well, kids will be kids. Certainly, adults don’t mess with Pansegrau’s tresses. Although some do unintentionally interfere with her duties.

“I’ve had people in the audience during Nutcracker lean over the pit rail and say, ‘Ma’am, could you put down your arms? You’re blocking the view.’ That will stick in my mind forever.”

“I’ve had people in the audience during Nutcracker lean over the pit rail and say, ‘Ma’am, could you put down your arms? You’re blocking the view.’”
—Ramona Pansegrau, music director of the Kansas City Ballet

Why do weird things like this happen?

“People see the back of my head only,” Pansegrau says. “And I think sometimes they forget I’m actually doing something.”

That’s because for ballets and operas in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts — where The Nutcracker will return Dec. 3 to 24 — musicians from the Kansas City Symphony provide music from the orchestra pit, a lowered area directly in front of and largely hidden under the stage. Although essential to the experience, the conductor and orchestra are in essence playing second fiddle to the main theatrical attraction, so it can be easy to forget that they’re even there.

But they’re there, alright. And, judging from their tales from the pit, it’s an experience that delivers an unusual confluence of inevitable distractions, potential antics and dedicated togetherness in tight quarters.

For starters, Pansegrau says, “People hang their coats over the railing and they don’t realize there are musicians right below them. We laugh and smile and gently ask for the coats to be removed. They usually look over the edge and go, ‘Oh, oh, we’re sorry!’”

Also, children sitting in the front row frequently swing their legs and kick the outside of the pit.

“On the inside, it sounds like a giant bass drum,” Pansegrau says. “At first, you’re thinking it might be an instrument, and then you realize what it is. If they’re not kicking in rhythm, it’s quite disturbing.

“The musicians, of course, could be lackadaisical and say, ‘Oh, we’re in a hole in the ground, what does it matter?’ But the Kansas City Symphony does not do that. They are very professional. They are wonderful musicians and they care every time they play.”

The days of dancers, singers or objects dangerously tumbling into the pit are long gone, thanks to netting placed above orchestra members, who would otherwise be exposed to such pitfalls. Of course, players still might suffer a little “dandruff” from falling faux snow or get the sniffles from an over-functioning fog machine. And there isn’t any way to protect ears in the pit from what can sound like a herd of elephants when dancers jump and land on the stage above.

But such challenges to a musician’s concentration in the pit are far outweighed by the aesthetic rewards, maintains Kansas City Symphony associate principal horn, David Sullivan.

“The pit is not the pits,” Sullivan says. “There is so much great music written for operas and ballets that never gets performed in concert version that you really only get to play in the pit. Like the opening of this year’s Lyric Opera season was Hansel and Gretel, whose overture sometimes gets pulled out and played in a concert. But the opera is so beautiful. And if you don’t play it as an opera, you never get a chance to experience the music.”

There’s also a level of in-performance high jinks that can really only occur in the relative privacy of the pit. Kansas City Symphony principal bassoon, Ann Bilderack, remembers a former clarinetist in the pit who was able to perform at a high level while also getting in a good workout.

“He would be playing his part and holding his legs stretched out in front of him just to see how long he could do it, for entertainment value,” Bilderack says. “It would go on for 15 or 20 minutes, maybe longer. He said it was good for his abs.”

Did the conductor see? “He didn’t notice,” Bilderack says. “We were too far back.”

Because pit musicians are out of the spotlight, they can also physically relax more, says Kansas City Symphony Associate principal bassoon, Thomas DeWitt. “There’s a lot more stretching — and yawning,” he says. “You’ll think, ‘I know I don’t have to play for the next 10 minutes and no one can see me.’ Our job is to sound great, but in the pit we don’t have to look great.”

Or smell too splendid. Musicians are seated so closely together that pit etiquette favors no heavy fragrances.

“No one wears a lot of cologne or perfume,” Sullivan says. “Because, I mean, sitting in there, if someone smells like Aunt Ida or something for two and a half hours, that’s going to give you a headache.”

Not to give her conductor a pain, but Kansas City Symphony principal viola, Christine Grossman, has a pit confession: “During the break, I have been known to look up a riddle on the internet and write it in my part, like: ‘I’m running, but I’m standing still’ or ‘I’m dead, but I’m alive — what am I?’ Those kinds of things are perfect during a long stretch of rest to keep your mind occupied or present. And it’s fun to share that with a stand partner, as well.”

One aspect of pit culture that also occurs on the concert stage is a non-verbal form of musician-to-musician complimenting known as shuffling. But, like everything else in the pit, it’s different.

“If somebody plays something exceptionally beautifully or if it’s tricky and you know they nailed it, you’ll either shuffle your hand or you’ll shuffle your feet for your colleague,” Bilderack says. “In the pit, you can be a little more obvious about it.”

Forgive conductor Pansegrau for perhaps not noticing. After all, she may get her hair petted at any moment — or not.

“I pretty much wear my hair up all the time now,” she says. “So maybe the temptation is less.”

Above: Members of the Kansas City Symphony led by conductor John Keenan (left) perform in the pit during the Lyric Opera’s recent production of Hansel and Gretel at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. photo by Jim Barcus

About The Author: Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and pop culture. He was an arts and entertainment writer for more than 20 years at The Kansas City Star. He regularly shares his “Weekend To-Do List” at KCUR-FM (89.3)/kcur.org.

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