The View from the Pit

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.

My Experience as a Singer in the San Francisco Symphony Performance

I sang with San Francisco Symphony and Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas on Friday, November 14.

A little bit of a background: I sing in the UMS Choral Union, a 175-voice choir that performs for orchestral works with choir. I have enjoyed the relaxed yet productive atmosphere in which I get to meet adults from the greater Detroit area and students across disciplines, not to mention the opportunity to work with Dr. Jerry Blackstone, a Grammy-winning conductor. Choral Union was selected to sing with the San Francisco Symphony, which is making a tour around the U.S. to celebrate Michael Tilson Thomas’s 70th birthday.

Rehearsals leading up to this performance were arduous. The chorus parts for Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé are ruthlessly difficult, with lots of unusual leaps and chromatic intervals. I thought we would never be ready. I was intimidated. It’s that Michael Tilson Thomas (or MTT, as people call him). It’s that MTT that has thrown cough drops at the audience. It’s that MTT that has stopped the performance to get rid of a restless child. It’s that MTT that our choral director — Dr. Jerry Blackstone — warned us that “compared to MTT, I’m a kitty.” I honestly didn’t know what to expect.

However, the man that came on the podium at 9:45am on Friday — round glasses, blue down vest, and a casual smile — did not look like the stubborn person I was imagining from all these stories. Sure, maybe he wasn’t the friendliest and most welcoming person. But he didn’t look like he hated us for being amateurs. Phew!

And so the dress rehearsal started. He took little time socializing with us; instead, he effectively used each and every minute to run through each and every section that the choir sings, and made sure the choir’s style matched his expectations. He was articulate about what he wanted, and the choir did our best to reciprocate what is asked.

What were we singing, you may ask? Because Ravel treats the choir like an instrument, Daphnis et Chloé actually doesn’t have any words. Sheet music tells us either to hum or to sing “À——-” …and that’s it. Easy enough? Not really. The vowel “À——-” can be executed in many different ways, and in fact, we ended up with at least 4 different interpretations on “À——-”: “Ahh,” “Oh,” “Ooh,” “Haah,” “Yah.” It took some serious artistic vision to choose which vowel color to use where, which was what MTT was trying to convey to us in just over an hour.

After 8 or so hours, we stood on the same risers with our concert clothes and gave the performance. As I got to see MTT from the prime spot, it was intriguing to see music happening. The orchestra played exactly what I would imagine an orchestra to sound like based on MTT’s conducting — without making the listeners worry about technicalities. (As a music major, I know how challenging it is to make difficult passages sound easy.) The musicality was incredible, and I’d like to believe that the choir added some vibrant color to the performance.

Performing with San Francisco Symphony and MTT made me realize how much concentration, dedication, and artistry is required for performances. I am really grateful for this opportunity through the UMS Choral Union.

Happy 70th birthday, MTT.


Ever since I can remember, my mom has been one of the primary influences when it comes to things I like. Now that I’m older, I see it’s because I’m basically her when she was a teenager, just in a different era (and maybe a little bit nerdier). But when I was younger, she definitely molded my interests through the things she took me to do and see.

If it hasn’t become clear yet, I’m not from Michigan, but from the mysterious land far, far away known as Houston, Texas. And as most people don’t know, Houston has a thriving and honestly quite amazing arts community.

So this environment, paired with the ingenuity of my mom, you get me: by all accounts, a child hipster. She took me to the children’s museum, to the ballet, she even bought a season at the Hobby Theatre so I could see Cinderella and The Lion King (both amazing performances, by the way). I participated in church choir, and had a strict music program in school that included mandatory extracurricular activities. I still remember going to see Wizard of Oz when I was maybe 4 or 5 years old at the Miller Outdoor Theatre, and being amazed (and slightly scared) as the munchkins came out during intermission to talk to the children and interact with them in their brightly colored costumes.

But out of all those experiences, this weekend, one appeared vividly in my mind.

My mom took me to see the Houston Symphony at Jones Hall one time when I was very little, maybe 6 or 7 years old. I absolutely loved it, and after that time I started listening to the classical channel on my little radio before I went to bed, because the music was so calming. So when my school announced a field trip to go see the Symphony, I was thrilled, because I actually enjoyed this music, not to mention by this time I was probably taking piano lessons.

But that’s not the response I got from my friends.

“Why do we have to go to the symphony?”

“This music is so boring.”

“Everyone’s going to fall asleep.”

I tried to tell them otherwise. “I listen to this music every night” I said. “It helps me get to sleep.”

“Yeah because it’s so boring.”

So while, truthfully, most of my friends fell asleep, I sat, pretending to be bored, but actually engaged in everything that was going on.

This particular instance stands out to me because it was one of the last times I’ve seen a symphony. I’ve been to plenty of plays since that had an orchestra, and I listen to movie scores all the time to help me concentrate on my homework, but it’s not quite the same.

So a few weeks ago, when I found out my friend had a concert with Michigan Pops, I knew I had to go. This weekend, I attended AquaPops, the water-themed musical experience. And I was put right back into my memories. I felt like I was back in Houston, in Jones Hall, where I first heard what music could actually sound like when it came from such beautiful and ancient instruments.

Adam Young, the real name of the ever-famous (or infamous) Owl City, once had a blog that has since been taken down, where he would muse about life, love, and his own music. On this blog one night, he talked about music without words. Specifically, he was referring to electronic, the genre he’s most commonly associated with, which quite often is just a composition of notes rather than an actual song with lyrics. But generally, it applies to all music without words. He said “I find that by listening to material that neither suggests nor blatantly tells me how to think or feel…well, suddenly I can go anywhere, do anything, be anyone. In that moment, dreams are no longer hovering discouragingly out of reach, but instead are made real and vivid, floating right above my head. That’s an invigorating feeling.”

And honestly, I couldn’t have summed up that entire concert any better myself. I found myself lost within the music, finding my way through the notes that were being played. With every pluck of the cello, with every movement of the bow, I was wandering, collecting the pieces of a story that was waiting to be told by me. And yet that story was so completely different from the stories of my friends next to me.

That story is beautiful, and that story that I heard Sunday night is the reason why I will take any opportunity to go to the symphony again.


Notes: Shout out to Arts at Michigan for getting me into the Pops concert for free through their Passport to the Arts (okay, that was a shameless plug, I admit).

Also, shout out to the 1st Chair Violinist and Concertmaster who probably won’t read this but nevertheless had an absolutely stunning solo in one of the best songs of the night, “Scheherazade.”