Briana McCormick conducts the pit during Into The Woods.
Briana McCormick conducts the pit during “Into The Woods”.
Claire Kizer

The Makings of a Musical: Playing “Into The Woods”

The audience find their seats, waiting for the curtain to part and the show to start, but, wait, the show has already begun. Drifting through the air are the sounds of violin, clarinet, trombone, and many others as the pit orchestra gets ready to perform live.

A live pit is a long standing tradition at Fossil Ridge High School, with Briana McCormick conducting the pit as the vocal and music director for eight years. The very first pit students could audition for was two years ago with “Legally Blonde”, which has been continued since.

“It’s really fun, it’s a great learning opportunity for everybody. There’s a lot of really great cooperation; the students are treated as professionals,” McCormick said.

“Into The Woods” pit auditions were held in October, two months before the cast auditioned, advertised with the TV’s around school and the daily announcements. This year’s pit includes eleven total musicians with three students: Lillian Capes on bass, Andrew Nelsen on cello, and Shel Zhou on keyboard.

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“I did pit last year in ‘Bright Star’ and I thought about doing tech but…if you don’t have pretty much every day of the week from January until the end of the show, probably don’t do that,” Nelson said. “So I [stuck] with pit.”

Zhou had similar reasons for joining, having done theater since she was a freshman.

“I just wanted to be involved in theater again this year since I did it my first two years and I didn’t think I’d have the time commitment for tech this year,” Zhou said.

The students started rehearsals immediately afterward auditions. They were low stress rehearsals once a week and Zhou did not even attend the rehearsals before Winter Break due to schedule conflicts.

“We started with every Tuesday… but after winter break, we usually do like, one or two a month,” Nelson said.

A majority of the professional musicians in the pit are people who work with Fossil’s very own band program.

“A lot of [the musicians] are actually… staff members of [Fossil’s] band, so I hired all of them because they’re amazing… [The students] got to work with their teachers in some cases,” McCormick said.

McCormick loves providing this opportunity for the students and enhancing their theater experience.

“I don’t know if [people] realize how much of a privilege it is for students to be able to sing with a pit of this caliber,” McCormick says. “The people that are in that pit are like some of the best players in the state. “

The music does not have just traditional instruments. The auxiliary percussion builds up the story along with the keyboard patches.

McCormick and the pit play through some songs after a dress rehearsal. (Claire Kizer)

“Shel plays Keyboard 2 and…  those are synthesized pieces. [She] uses a foot pedal to push to the next sound, but uses the keyboard to make the sound,” McCormick explains. “Sometimes it’s a baby crying, sometimes it’s a cow mooing, so I think that’s an interesting part.”

One of the struggles for the team was the transition to playing with the professionals, then playing with the cast.

“The hardest part of it is probably the communication between all the musicians, me, and what’s happening on the stage,” McCormick said. “When to move on in the music, depending on the lines or what’s happening on stage, is really specific and really difficult.”

Zhou has been playing piano for 11 years, but playing in the pit still provides a challenge.

“It is just going constantly, the show is very continuous. The segues from one song to another is so fast,” Zhou said.

Music-wise, “Into The Woods” is challenging due to the frequent changes in time signatures, meaning you have to pay attention the whole show.

“The nicer part of if you have songs memorized, you’re able to actively watch [McCormick] especially because with some of the trickier time signatures, it really does depend on how fast the cast is going,” Nelson said. “You really have to watch closely.”

“Into The Woods” holds another Fossil first: the entire pit is off. This means the entire front part of the stage is taken off to provide more room for the pit orchestra and allows the sound to project more easily. Previously, just a portion was taken off.

“The micing is actually less important for the show because the sound naturally is in the house pretty nicely balanced,” McCormick said.

The musicians work hard in the months leading up to the show. Not only are the professionals paid, but the students are, too.

“The students are paid, they’re professionals,” McCormick said. “I’d love to have more students involved. There’s auditions usually in October.”

Get tickets to “Into The Woods” on at, students and seniors cost $12 and adults cost $15.

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