What’s it like to perform in the orchestra pit during The Nutcracker?

The strains of Tchaikovsky’s beautiful Nutcracker Overture fill the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium. And throughout the audience, children sit in awe, wondering: where is the sound coming from? Is it from a recording? Do they pipe it in from outside? Is it just magically “there”?

Imagine their surprise when they’re walking around the auditorium and suddenly discover a whole room under the stage! A room full of chairs, music stands, instruments, and musicians. What’s that all about?

It’s the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium’s “pit”, a small concrete room with a very low ceiling just below the main stage. From the pit, Symphony Nova Scotia performs Tchaikovsky’s glorious Nutcracker score, right along with the dancers.

Many people don’t even know the pit exists, since opening the pit is a special event that doesn’t happen too often. The pit is only “unpacked” for combined music and dance events like The Nutcracker, says MJ MacLeod, the Nutcracker’s Technical Director. And taking it out is a BIG job.

“We roll up the carpet and take out the whole wooden floor in front of the stage, including the steel supports,” MJ explains. “We also take out the front wall of the stage, and several rows of seats.”

Then, they set it all up for the musicians, with chairs, music stands, and extra plywood on the floor to help the acoustics. “The whole pit is like a concrete bunker,” says MJ. “So it can be quite acoustically painful with all that sound bouncing off the walls!”

During the two rehearsals and ten performances of The Nutcracker, the pit is jammed full to capacity with Symphony Nova Scotia’s 37 musicians. Some are just visible to audience members from the auditorium, while others are hiding way in the back beneath the stage.

Ivor Rothwell, Symphony Nova Scotia’s Principal Bassoonist, holds the special distinction of being one of the musicians furthest back in the pit. “It’s not a place to be if you’re claustrophobic!” he says. “And it can also be difficult to perform in the pit.

“When you’re onstage, you get a sense of balance in the music, because you can hear everything. But in the pit, the sound is trapped, and you lose that sense of balance. You have to go on faith from what the conductor tells you to do.”

Another drawback of being in the pit is not being able to see the performance. Believe it or not, in the many years that Ivor has performed The Nutcracker, he has never actually watched the entire production – he’s always in the back of the pit! “I must say it’s always a bit of a disappointment not to be able to see what’s going on onstage,” he says.

But in spite of the challenges of performing in the pit, the musicians take it in stride. “Whether we’re in the pit or not, we play because it’s what we do,” Ivor says. “The Nutcracker is worthwhile on its own – it’s a lot of fun to play. It’s great music.”

This December, Symphony Nova Scotia’s musicians will be climbing back into the pit, making the magical music happen for Nova Scotians. Don’t miss out! Get your tickets at 902.494.3820 or symphonynovascotia.ca.