Tales from the Pit: Kathy Halvorson
Updated: Jun 1, 2020
Kathy Halvorson is a great oboist, doubler, who is currently on the road with Les Miz. Her blog is on https://lifemusictouringmexico.wordpress.com/ . I asked her the same questions that I asked Paul Baron. Here are her replies.
How did you get interested in music initially? When or how did you decide it would be your career?
I always loved music - I heard jazz and classical recordings around the house, and my parents, older brothers and sisters played instruments. The first time I practiced my flute part at home and then got to play it in band was an ecstatic experience, at age 8. One of our band teachers in 7th grade, Lois Schmidt, told me I would make a good oboe player so I switched from flute at age 12. I hated it at first since I am lazy at heart, but eventually got very good at it with private lessons. At age 13 or 14, inspired by jazz recordings and the sheer love of music in general, I decided I had to make it my life's work since I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had going on in my life. I was developing my own voice with my instrument and to me that was priceless.
Most of us earn degrees in music. Did you ever imagine you’d find your home base in Broadway shows?
No. I kind of just stumbled into the Broadway show world in NYC, around 13 years ago when I started to sub on Phantom. But before that I had been on tour with a jazz group: Charles Mingus's "Epitaph", for three weeks in Europe. I had such a great time on tour with that, and also doing Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado" on tour, when I lived in Boston, that I knew that going on tour with Les Miserables, which I'm currently doing around the US and Canada, could be a fun experience.
I never thought about shows; my world was orchestral music, opera, baroque, jazz, chamber music, new music, and anything and everything else, except shows. But I learned after freelancing in NYC for a few years that shows were a great way to make money. Since I started doing that as just one of the things I do in music, 13 years ago, I've subbed on about 8 shows and had my own show too, "On The Town" on Broadway, from 2014-2015. There is something great and down to earth about playing in shows. The characters I've met and played with in the pits have been amazing and lovable, for the most part. There's a flexibility and relaxed quality to pit playing which I really enjoy. There's great camaraderie and chances to laugh - we laugh a lot during Les Miz because it's such a long and serious show, and when you play it 8 times a week, you have to laugh in order not to cry. What is great about show playing is the flexibility you need and ability to play in different styles.
How do you manage your days? As a pit player, the circadian rhythms are completely opposite the majority of the community. This can be a positive or a negative. How do you make it work?
I usually get up around 9:30-10 am when I'm on tour. I read news, books, and communicate with friends - I cook my own breakfast usually in my room, or in the Airbnb I'm staying in. I make a smoothie and usually make scrambled eggs. Then I have the entire day to explore the city I'm in, or exercise in the gym, or meet other friends for lunch or exploring. I like going to art museums, hiking, and just casual walking around the town and seeing cool shops or places where I can sit down and write. I definitely am interested in reading and writing. I read a lot of books while I play the show. I just got a Nook for the pit, and I'm able to read while I play the show, most of the time. It saves my mind! I try to stay interested in the city I'm in, and have unique experiences there, so they don't all blend together. That's also why I like to stay in Airbnbs with friends on the tour. We cook together and hang out at home after the show, which is always fun. I also have to make reeds, which involves a system I have of working on them over a few days. It keeps me grounded and sane and having good reeds for playing the show, which is very important.
How do you handle moving from town to town? Do you travel with the show or on your own?
Usually I travel with the show but they also give us the option to buy out and make our own travel plans.
What do you do on the days off? Do you have other hobbies or passions that you explore?
On the day off (Monday), we usually travel to the next city but we get excited to get set up in a new place. Often some of us will go out for dinner which means a great restaurant and lots of wine - since we are celebrating that we don't have to play the show that night! Also I have a secret love of learning each city's public transit system and use it to get to the show - it's a great way to get a feel for each city, of the city life and environment. My hobbies are growing more into reading and writing. I've just started a blog called "Magical Les Miztery Tour" on WordPress. I might talk about whatever it is I'm experiencing, but since I've been reading more, I find that my writing meanders into all kinds of things, whatever it is I'm thinking about, reading about, feeling about. I've seen a lot of extended family on tour, and they've come to the show, too. Travel has always been a hobby - and doing this tour allows me to see parts of the country I would never see. For that, I love it!
How long have you been on the road, or playing shows as a local theater musician? Do you have any amazing road anecdotes?
One that pops into my mind was being on tour playing Mingus's "Epitaph". We were in an airport somewhere in Spain, and Dizzy Gillespie was spotted. A bunch of guys in my band had played with him so I got to meet him. He said "oh, there's more women playing jazz these days!"
What are some of your favorite shows?
I did love playing in "On The Town" because of the beautiful music of Leonard Bernstein. I also had fun playing "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder".
After you learn the show, how do you keep your chops up, especially your sight reading?
I have to make oboe reeds, which involves a system I have of working on them over a few days. It keeps me grounded and sane and having good reeds for playing the show, which is very important. Making and adjusting them involves practice so it kind of helps keep it together for me. I like finding random etude books for oboe or saxophone on imslp and sight reading them.
We couldn’t do this without our mentors. Who were yours?
My teacher and favorite oboe player, Bart Schneemann, in the Netherlands. I also loved my lessons with Jonathan Blumenfeld, the 2nd oboist in the Philadelphia Orchestra.