• May 26, 2023

An orchestra pit musician’s view of Broadway

An orchestra pit musician’s view of Broadway

An orchestra pit musician’s view of Broadway 499 519 Welcome to Kingston Chamber Music Festival | Kingston Chamber Music Festival

While actors, dancers, and singers might be the most recognizable talents making Broadway shows come to life, it’s the people you don’t actually see who make an equally big impact on a show’s resonance: the musicians. Imagine The Phantom of the Opera without music, for example. Silence wouldn’t deliver the same rich experience for some of the most iconic and evocative moments. One such person you won’t see but will definitely notice is Nick Jemo, a trumpet player and the first recipient of a Kingston Chamber Music Festival (KCMF) scholarship in 2004. He performed in the orchestra pit of The Phantom of the Opera until its close in April, and currently plays for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bad Cinderella. 

The secret life of orchestra pit musicians

Playing in an orchestra pit is unlike other types of musical performance because performers aren’t always visible to the audience. Depending on where the orchestra is located, what the conductor allows, and how often one’s instrument is featured (string players often get less breaks than trumpet players, for example), the musicians can find creative ways to pass the time between playing during the show. They play games, do crossword puzzles, work on their computers, and host intense iPad air hockey competitions. While working full-time for The Phantom of the Opera, Jemo read at least 20 books a year this way. “When you play the show hundreds or thousands of times, you can get completely lost in a book,” he says. “The second your brain hears the cue of when you’re supposed to come in, you just know. If it’s a really good book or I’m in the middle of an intense paragraph that I want to keep reading, I can pick up my book even during just ten measures of rest and know exactly when to jump back in. It’s muscle memory.”

That time a legend called

So how did a kid from North Scituate, RI, find his way to a successful musical career on Broadway? After graduating from the University of Rhode Island in 2006 with a music performance degree, Jemo attended the Manhattan School of Music (MSM) in NYC for a master’s degree and then a Professional Studies Certificate, both in orchestral performance. On his last day of school at MSM – the day of his jury performance, an important and final component to earning any level of music degree – he got the call most hopeful professionals only dream of: the one where a living legend offers you an opportunity. In this case it was Philip Smith, the principal trumpet player of the New York Philharmonic for several decades and one of the greatest orchestral players of all time, and he was calling to invite Jemo to join the Philharmonic for the last concert of the season. Thanks to a connection from Jemo’s teacher Tom Smith, a trumpet player with the Philharmonic, Jemo had previously done an informal lesson with Phil Smith, and he had suggested he might reach out to Jemo if something came up in the future. Something came up, and it was big: conductor Lorin Maazel’s final performances, and they were playing the gold standard of repertoire for brass, Symphony No. 8 by Gustav Mahler. Jemo joined them and played off stage in a balcony with four trumpets and four trombones. That call in 2009 from Smith wasn’t the call that changed everything, necessarily, but it was the call that taught Jemo some invaluable lessons: take advantage of every opportunity you can, and be the type of person others want to seek out. 

The path to Broadway

Like many other freelance musicians on Broadway, Jemo began by subbing. When a musician has a full-time contract (like he currently has with Bad Cinderella), they can take up to 50% of shows off. When they do, a sub steps in. The full-time person gets to exercise other musical interests, and the sub gets experience in an orchestra pit. “Your first time subbing is a show,” Jemo says. “You don’t get rehearsals. It’s a bit overwhelming because your career is riding on it and every performance feels like the stakes are so high. But it’s also ridiculously exciting. I remember feeling at ease because people were super nice.” Jemo began subbing at Mary Poppins in early 2009, and a few months later began subbing at The Phantom of the Opera after the principal trumpet player in Mary Poppins, John Sheppard, recommended him. In 2014, he accepted a full-time position with that orchestra pit. He’s been working at Bad Cinderella full-time since Phantom’s close in April. When Bad Cinderella closes in June, he’ll continue subbing for other shows and doing freelance gigs. 

“Be good to work with”

Now that Jemo is settled in an established career as a trumpet player, he recognizes key points on the roadmap to his success. For example: his mentality upon entering graduate school. “I was so hungry to be playing big orchestral repertoire that hadn’t been available to me before. I took advantage of everything I could, every performance opportunity I could,” he says. “I was very eager. I think it worked in my favor.” Enthusiasm and passion are paramount – but he also points to positive interpersonal skills as being vital. “The number one piece of advice I would give to someone aspiring to freelance is to be responsible, be easy to work with, and be genuinely humble,” he says. “It’s about work ethic and being good to work with. Once you get to a certain level, everyone is going to be good. As a professor said, ‘You don’t have to be the most talented player to get the gig.’ Do the job, be nice, don’t show off, and if you’re subbing, don’t write in the book without asking the regular first!”

The KCMF connection

When Jemo was in graduate school, David Kim, the founder of KCMF and Artistic Director at the time, invited him back to Kingston to play a movement in a piece during one of the festival concerts. Jemo remembers Michael Sachs, principal trumpet player of the Cleveland Orchestra and the head of the trumpet department at the Cleveland Institute of Music, being there that night. Kim joked that Jemo wanted to be “like Mike” — a reference to the popular Michael Jordan quote at that time. “Mike Sachs was an idol to me for sure,” Jemo says. “He’s a legendary orchestral player. And I remember David Kim as being the nicest human. He was super approachable.” And while chamber music is no longer one of Jemo’s primary musical activities, he still has a deep appreciation for it. “I love chamber music,” he says. “It’s great because you ultimately have a lot more control over the final product. You can make group decisions. In an orchestra it’s generally up to how the conductor wants it. And I love the intimate aspect. You’re closer to the audience. As a trumpet player – always in the back – it’s a big change.”

The human condition 

From his time at URI to his current position on Broadway, Jemo has experienced many different kinds of music-making. A common theme he values is how music helps people relate to each other and process the human condition. From the playfulness of colleagues having an iPad air hockey competition while a Broadway show unfolds to the spark between an enraptured audience and a passionate musician, the meaningful human interactions make it incomparable. For example, Jemo notes that while performing in the orchestra pit doesn’t provide direct engagement with the audience during the show, the energy exchange is still palpable. “That’s what it’s all about,” he says. “It’s really about sharing your art with other people. It’s hard to explain the energy shift when the audience shows up and we can share that experience. What words can’t say, music can deliver. It emits serious emotion.” For Jemo, this is ultimately about human connection: it’s personal but also greater than you. And it can move, inspire, energize, and heal. “When you’re sitting in an audience, disconnecting from technology and truly enjoying the present moment,” he says, “you’re experiencing the human condition that is essential to living a happy life.”