Life in the Pit

Being up front and center has its own sets of opportunities and challenges. With unique instrumentation and sounds, the front ensemble adds a new level of musical and visual interest for audiences and judges. however, pit members often need to work extra hard on avoiding phasing issues during performances, transporting heavy equipment, and perhaps most importantly, gelling with the rest of the band.

Photo by David Summers

The front ensemble or “the pit” in a marching band is an important section that adds to the visual and musical content of a field show. Mallet players and other non-marching percussionists have always maintained that they are a part of the band too—but being in the pit presents its own set of challenges, traditions, relationships and opportunities.

The pit usually consists of a combination of mallet instruments such as marimbas, vibraphones and xylophones as well as other stationary percussion instruments such as suspended cymbals, large bass drums, Latin or ethnic percussion, electronics and other non-traditional instruments.

“I just explain to people that our instruments look like xylophones, but some of them aren’t,” says Matisse Molden, a junior marimba player at Claremont (Calif.) High School. “We play with mallets and not sticks. People aren’t used to seeing pit with marching bands; they just see the marchers. We have to explain that we’re in the front and not marching with people.”

Enhancing the Show

While not every band has a pit, when present they can support the band’s sound, add new levels to arrangements and introduce extra elements such as narration and sound effects.

“I just think they are definitely a vital part of what we do,” says Melanie Riley- Gonzales, band director at Claremont. “It really helps to have that melody line and the extra support of what’s being played by the woodwinds. It makes it more full in sound.”

Pit percussion also adds unique musical depth due to the proximity to the judges and audience and the volume of the instruments. “A pit brings the musicality and nuance to it,” says Paul Sauberer, pit instructor at Jupiter (Fla.) High School. “When I listen to groups without the pit, all you hear is the horns and drum line. The pit brings certain little things that other bands don’t have. The pit brings a lot to the table.”

The pit also offers new opportunities for people wanting to learn new instruments or bring in non-traditional instruments.

“We use a keyboard, synthesizer, occasionally we used vocal narration,” says Guy Burns, a senior from Jupiter High School. “Last year we used sirens and sound effects; we had a laptop. This year we’re using a marching machine, troop blocks.”

At Cy-Fair High School in Houston, Texas, current senior drum major Nitish Kulkarni introduced the tablas, ethnic Indian hand drums, into the marching band world. “He was a clarinet player in our band program, and he kept telling me about the tablas,” says John Nelson, band director at Cy-Fair. “One day I told him I would hear him play, and I was totally amazed at his technique and sound quality.

Kulkarni is a professional-level tabla player. Most performers train for 20 to 25 years before publicly performing, yet he already does several concerts a month. Nelson first used him in indoor drum line, and the response was so good that they brought him back on tablas for marching season. He played clarinet for 75 percent of the show and then joined the pit for his features. Now as a drum major, he conducts and does not play although he plans to return to tablas for winter drum line.

“I had to come up with my parts on my own; I had to listen to the battery and the pit parts and the wind parts and come up with a fusion in my head,” Kulkarni says.

The response from judges and audiences was overwhelmingly positive. “The directors really like it, and the judges love it, so it’s been a really neat experience,” Kulkarni says. “I had one of my coolest experiences at state championships. We were rolling out, and while we were setting up, a percussion director from another school came up to me and said, ‘I just wanted to shake your hand because I think what you’re doing is awesome.’”

Nelson says he appreciates the added educational and entertainment value provided by Kulkarni’s tablas. “It was a real good outlet for him—the students, parents and our whole community got exposed to a unique instrument.”

The technique of pit can also add an exciting visual element. “They do some really cool tricks that add some really cool visual content to what we’re doing,” Riley-Gonzales says. “Being in the front, you can’t miss them. Their sticking is all together, and it looks very cool.”

The pit can also add to a show’s theme. Although its pit is normally stationed front and center, Jupiter got creative with its “Mob Mentality” show and put the pit on the field as a police station with all the members in uniforms.

“They were over on the 40-yard line, 15 to 20 steps from the sideline,” Sauberer says. “The pit was the police—they were actually a part of the show, acting. They were in the police station and wearing police costumes. It was a bank robbery, and they were the cops trying to solve it.”

Keeping Time

Since the pit is separated from the band, it can be difficult to keep the section in time and in tune with everyone else. Groups use a variety of techniques to prevent the show from tearing.

“Usually they all listen in to the one center player, the section leader,” Sauberer says. “When she’s not playing, she’s conducting with her mouth; a lot of it is on her. She just goes to all the sectionals and listens to certain parts, so she knows where they are on the field.”

At Claremont, the pit members bob up and down to help keep the tempo. “Bobbing really helps us stay with each other; you can see the other people out of the corner of your eye,” Molden says. “It’s mostly listening back to the band to prevent sound delays, but we really balance between both listening back and looking up at the drum major.”

Moving Equipment

Another challenge for the pit is moving the bulky yet delicate equipment.

“We have so much stuff, we take about a truck and a half,” Burns says. “We have it down to a science where each person has their things, and everyone knows where what goes. It’s a big team effort, and we’ve got it down pretty fast.”

Sometimes moving the instruments can be hazardous. “We don’t have many problems, but there is this big steep hill we have to go down to get to the field,” Molden says. “One time my friend let go of the marimba on accident, and it rolled down and almost fell down a flight of stairs.”

At Claremont, a group of parents helps the pit move equipment for performances, but at Jupiter, the responsibility is all on the students.

“When the parents did it a few years ago, it was tragic, so now the pit just takes care of their own stuff,” Sauberer says. “We have a few parents, but it’s up to each individual to make sure they have everything and to make sure it’s all in working condition. We also have an equipment officer who makes sure everything is ready to go when we travel.”

Riley-Gonzales encourages the rest of the band to help the pit with its load. “I’m really trying to instill in everyone the feeling of family,” Riley-Gonzales says. “So that when we see someone moving a huge instrument, I encourage the people with smaller instruments to go help out. I have a few trumpet and wind players that help move the stuff.”

Instilling That Family Feeling

Because the pit often practices away from the band, instilling that family feeling may take some extra effort. “I’m focusing with the kids and trying to make all the kids see that we’re all one, and there’s no section that is above the other,” says Riley-Gonzales, who is in her first year at Claremont. “I’m trying to change that mentality in the band right now.”

The perception that pit members don’t do anything because they don’t march can be hurtful; however, most of the time they know it’s tongue-in-cheek.

“Sometimes people take pit for granted, like with jokes about us being lawn ornaments and stuff like that, but it’s harder than it looks,” Molden says. “But people are supportive if we ever need to ask for help; they’ll be there.”

In actuality, the pit is far from lazy. Between moving the equipment and their physical playing style, pit members get plenty of exercise. Riley-Gonzales even has them running with the band.

“We all exercise together, communicating to the band that we’re a family first, and you don’t pick on your family,” says Riley-Gonzales. “We’re doing a lot of unity and group games where we’re all mixed up together.”

When Sauberer first started working at Jupiter, he had to overcome old stereotypes. “The pit was dumping grounds for kids who couldn’t march or couldn’t play—I changed it to be for serious percussionists,” Sauberer says. “Everyone now sees the pit as a very good section because they’re so skilled.”

These negative perceptions can begin when the pit practices separately from the band and stays inside. “People think the pit doesn’t do anything and just sits in the air conditioning,” Sauberer says. “But when it comes down to who knows their music, the pit has grown, and it’s a group of good musicians.”

While inside or apart from the band, the pit works on technique, warm-ups and etudes, and playing or memorizing their music. In the end, most pit students do feel they are a part of the band.

“Most of our friends are in other sections; we’re not distant from the band at all,” Molden says. “When we go to percussion competitions, we have a lot of support from the band; they and the color guard people show up for our competitions.” Within the pit, members create close connections. “The pit is a family, and the closest family that anybody’s going to encounter because they spend too much time together,” Sauberer says.

At Claremont, Molden and her fellow pit members have a number of silly traditions—from jokes about arriving to practice extremely early, a secret pit handshake and a watermelon-avocado yoga ritual to chanting about tigers and doing bird calls although their mascot is a wolfpack.

And before every competition, pit members at Jupiter hold hands in a circle, recite a special poem and prayer, yell out chants and get a pep talk. Every year they get a bead color-correlated to the show’s theme to add to a necklace, which they all wear daily. Before each year’s state championships, Sauberer gives students a goodie bag with personalized dog tags, which they wear during the competition.

“The pit likes to have fun and work at the same time,” Sauberer says. “Teaching the pit is—I never thought I would or expected it, but when I got the opportunity I said, ‘Sure, why not,’ and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”

About the Author

Elizabeth Geli is an editorial assistant at Halftime Magazine. She has played flute and marched at Valencia High School in Placentia, Calif., and in the University of Southern California Trojan Marching Band, where she is currently a teaching assistant. She has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a Master’s in Specialized Journalism (The Arts) from USC.

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