Deep Dark Secrets Of The (Orchestra) Pit

Jan 8, 2014

Maeve McIver-Sheridan in Shorecrest High School's instrument storage room. She plays in pit orchestras.
Maeve McIver-Sheridan in Shorecrest High School's instrument storage room. She plays in pit orchestras.
Credit KUOW Photo / Sophie Ding

Tuning her violin for a performance, Maeve McIver-Sheridan knows that she's preparing for a forgotten and thankless task. "You get to the end of a show and no one acknowledges us," McIver-Sheridan said, "unless my parents are there."

McIver-Sheridan, a senior at Shorecrest High School, plays in a pit orchestra underneath the stage, invisible to the audience. It's a different story from the glamor on stage.

Playing under the stage, pit musicians are never the star of the show, and McIver-Sheridan said a good pit orchestra's work goes unnoticed by the audience. "If you’re doing a bad job they’ll notice you. If you’re doing a good job, they don’t notice you," she said.

McIver-Sheridan is a principal and soloist in her school's symphony orchestra and a first violin in the Seattle Youth Symphony, one of the most highly regarded youth symphonies in the nation. A skilled musician, she could do well playing competitively, but she chooses not to. 

"It never seemed to me like the arts should be this huge competitive deal," McIver-Sheridan said. "I don’t thrive on that sort of thing. So I wanted to find a track that wouldn’t have so much of the competition in it but that could still be a way for me to love music."

But life in the orchestra is by nature competitive. Most follow a set of rules that determine where every player sits: the best player is first chair, the second best second chair, and so on. This system matters a lot to many musicians.

Pit orchestra is a haven from that competition, where McIver-Sheridan can perform without pressure. This fall she participated in a community orchestra as part of Lyric Light Opera’s production of “Annie.

Pit does have its downsides, though. McIver-Sheriden said sometimes it's "stupendously tedious," and it cuts into her social life. 

When she isn’t playing music, McIver-Sheridan studies hard as one of the top students at her school while juggling varsity swimming and reading everything from Victor Hugo to Japanese comics. And she’s currently applying to college. 

Still, she finds time to play in pit orchestras - for the love of the music and the camaraderie, if not for the glory. "Honestly, I think people go to a show to see the actors and to hear them sing and as long as we’re not getting in the way, that’s what’s important," she said.

McIver-Sheridan's next pit performance will be with Shorecrest High School in their spring musical.

RadioActive is KUOW's program for high school students. This story was produced in RadioActive’s Fall Workshop in partnership with Neighborhood House - High Point CenterListen to RadioActive stories, subscribe to the RadioActive podcast and stay in touch on Facebook.