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Dear little cellist, 

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to play in the orchestra pit for a West End musical?

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Christopher Fish, the cellist who plays in Oliver, has been playing in West End shows for nine years. He's played in 6 shows back to back. You'll find his name on the CDs of the cast recordings of My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, The Witches of Eastwick and, of course, Oliver.

When I got in touch with Chris to ask if I could interview him for littlecellist.com he invited me to sit in the pit for the matinee performance - and then texted me again to tell me to wear all black! You can read more about what it was like to be in the pit at the end of the interview. But first, here are the questions that Chris answered especially for littlecellist.com:

What is it like to play in the pit? Is it cramped?

It depends from show to show. This is a large band for a West End show and it's a very long thin pit. Most pits run the length of the stage but some are quite deep. I did Mary Poppins at Prince Edward Theatre and that pit extends underneath the stage a little bit so it's wider. This pit's long and narrow which means the band is stretched out and makes it awkward getting in and out as well. There are a lot of children in the cast and when we start the show, they all emerge onto the stage from inside the pit which means that we've lost quite a lot of space. They queue up on two iron staircases inside the pit which then get rotated back into the wall. So yes, it is cramped. I've done two shows in this theatre before this one - My Fair Lady and previously to that, The Witches of Eastwick. My Fair Lady was a similar sized band but we didn't have to accommodate the children so there was more space.

Playing in the pit can be a little bit claustrophobic and it has a certain monotony about it as well but it's quite nice because we're anonymous. Not having the audience looking directly at you means it's a bit more relaxed. We try not to misbehave too much!

Is it hot?

It depends. In the summer, it can get very hot but it's not unbearable. We've all got fans down there as well. They make us quite comfortable! They're having air conditioning put in but I don't think until next year.

It looks as though it's too dark to read the music?

We have lit music stands and we also have monitors to see the conductor. The conductor has to be raised up so the actors can see him and he can see them. There's a camera on him and on all of our stands we have a tiny television.

Little cellists will be really interested in that! That sounds much easier!

I'd never done it before and it's actually harder because you are so used to having a direct visual contact with a conductor. The monitors are very small and they're black and white. It takes some getting used to - looking just above your music at this tiny image - but it makes it easier in the long run. The conductor can see the band but he's got a restricted sightline. The horn players are at his far right and the percussion is extreme left and they are screened off to help block the noise. He can crouch down and glare at us and he often does!

The conductor is entirely responsible for tying us up with the actors. There's something unique in music for shows called 'round and round bars'. There will be a bar of music which is repeated as many times as is required for someone to finish speaking their line. Different actors might say something slower or faster, or sometimes the scenery doesn't come in correctly, so they have to have these devices where the music keeps going and the audience thinks the whole thing is synchronized perfectly.

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Do things ever go wrong?

If something does go wrong, it's usually the scenery. The sets in these shows are enormous and incredibly complicated - there are whole buildings that move in and out and staircases that go up and down. It's all automated - there are banks of computers. I think we had a moment where two pieces of scenery collided and then they stop the show, they make an announcement and they fix it very quickly and they carry on.

If there's an understudy does it make it difficult for the orchestra?

Not necessarily because the understudy's job is to mirror what's being done. In this show, the understudy for Nancy sings two of the numbers in a different key so we have to be aware when she's on so that we replace the music and don't come blundering in in the wrong key!

You said it was a big band for a show but it's much smaller than an orchestra?

Yes, there are about 20 players which is a big band for a show. Some of the players are doubling. The violinist, for example, is also playing the mandolin. The trombonist also plays the euphonium and tuba. That's called a trebling chair because they're playing three instruments. For some of those guys, it's quite specialist. I remember when we did My Fair Lady, there was a very odd trebling chair which was bassoon, bass clarinet and baritone saxophone. It was an odd combination because usually a bassoonist doesn't play bass clarinet, so there were only three people in the country who could do the chair. Apparently, it's a common American trebling chair but not here.

You're just playing the cello. That's because the cello is the most important!

Absolutely!

So when composers are writing for a show, they must have to take account of what's feasible?

They have to take note of how big the pit is. I think the musical of Oliver was a first film so they had a symphony orchestra. (A symphony orchestra can have 100 players.) For Mary Poppins, there were originally going to be no string players at all but at the 'try out' the orchestrator decided that there was a harp there that he didn't really need to use so he wrote a solo cello part to accommodate all the melodies.

Is it usual to have only one cello in a show?

There are shows with more than one cello. Phantom of the Opera and The Witches of Eastwick both had two cellos but it's increasingly rare with synthesizers because the string sound can be padded out. A synthesizer (keyboard) will be making string type sounds in the background which gives the illusion of a bigger string section.

Do you stay with the show for the whole run?

We don't have to - it's a permanent contract but I can give them two weeks' notice and likewise they can give me two weeks' notice. Sometimes people will do a show for a couple of years and then move on, do a new one. But essentially the jobs are ours for as long as we want them.

Is it difficult to play the same thing every night?

That's the question that everyone asks most. I personally don't find it is.  We are given a great deal of time off if we need it because I think they know they wouldn't get musicians of this standard who would just do this eight times a week.

So you have an understudy cellist?

I have six at the moment.

Six!

Yes, because they're very busy as well. If I need to take a night off, I need to know that someone will be free to do it.

I think if you get bored by it then it's time to move on. Sometimes you suffer exhaustion if you've been working all day because you can't give a half-hearted performance ever. I do a lot of recording during the day, or rehearsing with orchestras - so they can be long days. People always say, 'You must be so bored of it' and I think you go through times when it's hard to muster up enthusiasm when you're doing your thousandth performance but on the whole we have a really good time.

So there's a good atmosphere in the pit?

It's fantastic. I've been really lucky with the shows I've done. And we tend to move together en masse. We're all very familiar with each other. Every show I've done there's been at least three or four musicians who did the show I did previously. We spend often eight performances a week with the same people and we do have a good time.

Do you just turn up for the performances or do you also have to rehearse?

We don't rehearse although the cast are constantly rehearsing. But we get called in, for example, when Rowan Atkinson left the show and Omid Djalili took over, they call the orchestra to do a day or maybe only three hours.  The actors only ever rehearse with the piano so it can be a real shock to walk out and suddenly have a 20 piece orchestra. But our commitment to the show is literally 7.30pm and go home at 10.15pm. We have our days free so we can still do other work.

Is it tiring because it's quite a long show?
It can be - it is long and it's pretty much written through with just a few dialogue breaks. If you make the effort, it can be pretty exhausting because shows are quite energetic so the music requires quite a lot of energy as well.

Have you seen the production as a member of the audience?

I haven't seen this one yet but I would like to. I've seen every other show I've done. Usually I save it until the show's been going about a year and then it can revitalize your interest in it.

What is the cello part like in Oliver?

There's a fantastic part for the violin with solo candenzas and klezmer type music. I play a lot with the bass so it's very rhythmic. But my favourite bits are the ballads and some of Oliver's sad songs. Quite often in shows the cello part will switch from being very melodic carrying a lot of the tunes and doubling the bass, or playing the bass line when the bass is playing something else. 

One thing little cellists really mind about is not getting the tune!

Yes - we all moan about that! If any of my colleagues in the band read this, they'll laugh about that because I complained whole-heartedly at the beginning that I didn't have any tunes but that's what cellists do! But there are moments - there's enough!

Do you know the words to all the songs?

You know, I don't - but when you're playing all you can hear is the band. Maybe I do subconsciously!

Which is your favourite song from Oliver?

Probably again the ballads. 'Where is love?' is a nice one to play and one of Nancy's songs, 'So long as he needs me.' And there's a really good dance number - the dance routine from 'Who will buy?' - which is good fun to play. They've turned it almost quite funky.

Do children come and talk to you after the show or in the interval?

We're kept quite separate from the audience. Sometimes they'll come and look into the pit but it's a very deep pit so it's quite hard for them and we leave very quickly.

I think you should stick around!

What would be your advice to young cellists who would love a job like yours?

These jobs are very popular now. I think twenty or thirty years ago they weren't but they're like the golden ticket. They're great jobs. They're reasonably well paid and there's the time off aspect. There's not yet an audition process - it's all by nomination - someone will recommend you or you'll be heard somewhere else. A lot of it is word of mouth - you have to have a reputation and increasingly, they want a good standard.

A lot of the West End musicians are some of the best musicians in the country. There's a trumpeter, Derek Watkins, who has played on every single James Bond soundtrack since the films started. He's one of the most famous trumpeters in the country and he plays on Hairspray. Some of it is luck and some of it is working hard and being recognized in other jobs. One way of getting a West End job is to 'dep' for somebody - one of the cellists dep'ing for me might be noticed by the MD (Music Director) as being particularly good and then if another show comes up that I'm not able to do, they might be offered it. That's quite often how people get their own shows. It's considered quite cliquey because we all know each other. The theatres are geographically all very close together and quite often it's the same people who do the shows. There aren't many jobs - maybe ten cellists in the West End at the moment and the jobs are closely guarded because we like them!

Where else do you play?

I freelance with all the London orchestras: English National Opera, Royal Ballet Symphonia, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. I also do a great deal of recording work for film and television. We record Hollywood film soundtracks so I work at Abbey Road and places like that. I play with some pop bands - there's a band called Keane which I play with quite regularly and I do some touring - I've been on tour with Old American rockers like Lou Reed.

What skills do you need?

Particularly in the recording industry, thre's no room to make mistakes. Sight-reading is crucial. They might tolerate a mistake once or twice but it costs hundreds of thousands of pounds to produce these soundtracks so mistakes cost them money because they have to re-record.

Being on time is absolutely crucial. Everywhere I go, I'm an hour early. I remember one of my teachers telling me once that the only excuse for lateness was death! If I'm meant to be at Abbey Road for a session that begins at ten o'clock, I'll arrive at nine and nearly the entire orchestra is there having their breakfast.

You have to be flexible. You're going to play some good things and some bad things but if you play something bad for someone who has written it, you have to make them think you think it's good! You have to play with enthusisasm always because that's what makes people notice you. If you ever look bored, people aren't that interested in employing you.

And you can't shy away from having a good technique - good intonation is essential. The standard is extraordinary - all the people who work in these parts of the business are incredible players. They can be very highly specialized jobs. One of the orchestras I play with is the London Metropolitan Orchestra - at any given time I can walk in and four of the players are the principal cellists of London orchestras. The real pleasure of doing what I do is playing with musicians of this standard. I've become friends with people who were heroes of mine at college.

How much rehearsing do you do before the first performance?

It really does vary. For Oliver, I think we did three full days of 'band calls' which is just going through the parts, making sure the notes are right. Then we did something called the sitzprobe which is when the cast come into the room that we're rehearsing in and they just sing through the parts but don't act. And then we have a 'seating call' where we decide where we're going to sit and how the microphones are going to work and if we've got enough space. And then finally there are one or two dress rehearsals. 

Are you expected to know the music before the first day?

We don't even see the music before the first day. You are expected to play immediately just by sight. But on the whole the music for West End shows for the string players tends to be easier than for an orchestral or chamber music concert but it's not always the case. Unless there's something incredibly difficult, you wouldn't take the music home. Mary Poppins had a pretty tricky solo cello part all the way through the show so that required some attention. It's the same for the film soundtracks. You sit down at ten o'clock and you start playing it and you have three hours to record the soundtrack. So again sight-reading is very handy!

How old were you when you started to learn the cello?

I was a late starter - I was eight.

That will encourage some children because people always think you have to start at three, don't they?

People are surprised because I'm a professional cellist. Everyone you meet went to a specialist music school but I didn't. For a long time I wanted to be a drummer! I played the cello and I enjoyed the whole youth orchestra thing - more socially but I also enjoyed the music - and I realized it was something I was potentially quite good at. I didn't really want to work for a living - I just wanted to play! So some people start at the age of two, three, four and some beyond the age of ten. I don't think it's ever too late.

Do you have a message for little cellists?

I hated practising when I was young and didn't really do it properly until I got to college. I went to Trinity College and for me it was quite a culture shock. There was a lot wrong with my playing when I got to college. I studied with a guy called Raphael Sommer who was one of Tortelier's students and he was a stickler for technique. So I think the message would be however painful it is, practice is really important because there is so much competition for work in any side of the music business. There are people pouring out of music college and there's not enough room for them in the profession so you have to try to be better than everyone else which means practice! I've been playing professionally for fifteen years and I feel like I just came out of college yesterday. You realize very quickly the level of competition and if you haven't put the work in, you are going to struggle to get work.

Practice is lonely and real practising is practising things that you can't do. So I remember my parents were always aghast when I was practising because it always sounded terrible because I was working on things I couldn't do. It's repetitive but it's a discipline. The way to enjoy it is when you practise something you can't do and you reach the point when you can do it and it's all paid off.

In the pit!


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This is where it started! Chris met me at the stage door and whisked me backstage, down a few very dark steps into the pit itself.

The pit is both very dark - it's painted black - and surprisingly well lit. And from the stage - once the safety curtain lifts - there's a greyish light, the brightly-coloured costumes and all the stage effects of falling snow or smoke. There's also a metal grating above the musicians' heads - presumably to stop an actor falling off the stage and landing on top of them!

The conductor's legs are in the pit but the top half of his body is above the pit because he needs to have a clear view of the stage. Most strange of all, the musicians watch the conductor on very small television screens on their music stands. The musicians can't see the audience at all and only some of the musicians can see the stage, depending on where they are sitting. In the pit you can hear the audience's laughter and applause but they sound quite far off - unlike the music itself, or the stamping of the dancers over your head.

I sat on a tiny ledge at the accordionist's elbow, just behind Chris - close enough to be able to read his music. I could see the double bassist, the violinist and the viola player but not the brass and woodwind players who were on the other side of the conductor. The two percussionists were in a section of their own, sealed off from the other musicians with transparent sound-proofing because they make so much noise! Some of the musicians play more than one instrument in the show and the instrument they aren't playing at the time hangs up on the wall. They also have microphones which they move closer or further away, depending on which instrument they are playing and whether they are plucking or bowing.

littlecellist.com doesn't usually talk about violinists but in this case we're making an exception.
Oliver Lewis, who plays the violin and mandolin in the show, not only got the best tunes but it was wonderful to watch and listen to him play. He was also the only musician not in black because he had to wear costume to go up on stage. In the first half, his string broke. I noticed the wire in a glint of light, hovering like a dragonfly, and saw that he was playing on only three strings. As soon as the song was finished, he had to change the string, just in time for the next number!

littlecellist.com also has to report that it's not only littlecellists who are a little bit naughty. When they weren't playing, the musicians were often checking emails on their smartphones or even reading a book. And I suspect they were slightly better behaved than they might have been if I hadn't been there!

But there was nothing half-hearted about their playing. The fight scenes are at least as exciting down below as they are on stage! It was like having a concert all to myself and no other seat in the theatre will ever be as good!

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