Last week, I played in the orchestra pit of the University of Michigan’s Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s (UMGASS) production of The Grand Duke. W.S. Gilbert was a writer and Arthur Sullivan was a composer, and together they were a famous musical-writing duo during the Victorian era. UMGASS is a university-affiliated program that has put on Gilbert & Sullivan musicals every fall and winter semester since 1947. The Grand Duke is my second production with UMGASS, following Iolanthe last spring.
You sit in front of the stage, facing the audience and the conductor. There are special lights on the music stands that you switch on to see your music when the house goes dark. You never play anything the same way twice. Some singers speed up the tempo, some of them slow it down, but you always have to follow what they’re doing. If someone forgets a line or misses an entrance, you do your best to improvise and find your way back to the rest of the orchestra. In the Mendelssohn Theater you can’t hear anything but the person onstage and the person you’re sitting next to, so you just use your best judgment and hope for the best.
Gilbert & Sullivan musicals run for a solid two hours and forty-five minutes including intermission, and the pit musicians are playing for a majority of that time. Between Thursday night and Sunday afternoon, we played five shows. I once acted onstage in a musical that ran multiple times a week for several weeks, and that experience was not nearly as challenging as playing viola for just five performances and two dress rehearsals in one week.
As a musician, I often think of playing my instrument as an entirely mental process. I depend on my brain to make sure the right fingers are going down at the right time, and I never realize that it’s actually my body that is doing all the work of actually producing the music. Even now I’m feeling a little stunned thinking about how when I was playing in the “Finale” of the first act in the musical, my arms were continuously moving for twenty minutes straight. It has been 48 hours since our final performance, and my muscles are still sore. The experience has made me think a little more critically about my future plans to be a freelance musician. I would need to practice a couple of hours a day and go to the gym every day to maintain my endurance for daily performances. I feel a bit silly saying this, but I really think music is a sport!
I am grateful for the experience and I had fun! But now I’m nursing my arms back to health while simultaneously preparing for my performance jury next week and my orchestra concert tonight. This is the life of a musician. I should really hit the gym.