Matthew Hassall is a tutti violinist with Orchestra Victoria

Do you have an early memory of ballet? 
As a young child I was captivated by the ballet Coppelia, totally convinced the dolls were real.  When taken to the theatre I always loved that moment when the lights went down and you heard the orchestra tune and start playing the overture, a moment I still love to this day.

What was your first experience as an orchestra musician for ballet?
It was for the Australian Ballet’s Swan Lake in Brisbane with the Queensland Philharmonic Orchestra in 1991. A great first ballet.

What is your rehearsal schedule?
It changes depending on the season we are preparing. Generally for a major ballet we will have a strings-only rehearsal, two or three days of rehearsals with the full orchestra alone and then two rehearsals in the theatre with the production before opening night. Often we might be finishing off another project while we start working on the new one so the crossover period can be a particularly busy time.

Do you get to know which cast of dancers is on stage just through the tempo required?
Yes, in some ballets more than others. In the very classical or technical ballets you can instantly tell if the cast has changed. Different dancers need totally different tempi and also very different variations of tempi within sections.

How much can you see from in the pit?
It depends where you are sitting in the section; we move around between first and second violins. If you’re against the wall of the pit you can see quite a bit. Generally we are busy fiddling away so it’s hard to see much but I’m often the naughty one looking up when I shouldn’t be. We also get some rostered performances off and the company very kindly gives us tickets to see the ballet. It’s so important for me to see the context of the music and also to hear what is coming out of the pit, what is successful or what needs improvement.

Why do some people look down their noses at “ballet” music?
If they do they are just being ignorant. Yes, there are some ballets that can be a bit “rum ti tum” but even they can be very beautiful to listen to when finely played. It’s important to note that many of the greatest orchestral works ever composed were composed for ballet. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and all the Tchaikovsky ballets just to name a few. Also many new ballets are being choreographed to all kinds of music from Baroque to Heavy Metal so really there is no such thing as “ballet music”.

Are there any physical hazards to playing in orchestra?
Being a professional violinist definitely can be hard on your body. Ballet and opera work in particular can be very demanding physically. Often we have a show every night with two shows on Wednesdays and Saturdays as well as other rehearsals or private preparation during the day. It’s a lot of playing. In a major ballet or opera performance it can be like playing three symphonies one after another. We can also be more confined in the pit so it can be harder to sit and hold your instrument in the most comfortable way. There is also the issue of noise exposure -- it can get very loud down there.

How do you deal with the repetition?
The longest season of a ballet or opera usually would only be a couple of weeks.  More often than not we have concurrent projects so there is enough variation. I was also fortunate to have teachers and mentors in my life who taught me to use my work as a tool to maintain my playing. You can focus on different passages in different ways to keep your technique in check. Of course you can’t love everything you have to perform but you can always find something to keep yourself focussed and busy.

Do you feel overlooked or underappreciated as a pit musician?
I don’t consider myself a pit musician and personally don’t like the term. Our main job is to perform with the opera and ballet companies and I’m very proud of the skill and expertise my colleagues have to do the very specialized work they do, but we also play on the stage in orchestral and chamber music concerts as well as engaging  in educational programs across the state.  When we do perform in the pit we have many audience members who through the years have become big fans of the orchestra so we always feel the love. One request of ballet goers would be not to talk through overtures or musical introductions, that drives us all nuts!

Are there any frustrations?
Audience members talking through our performance just because there’s no dancing on stage at that moment in time.  :)

What is the hardest part of your job?
The bizarre working hours. We often have performances that finish around 10:30pm and then have rehearsals the next morning at 10am. By the time you get home and unwind a bit it’s all of a sudden 1am.  It’s not a job that is great for healthy sleep patterns. You get to be a very good afternoon nap taker.

Any funny incidents you would like to share?
I am blessed to work with an incredible bunch of colleagues, many of whom could have a career on the stage as comics with a couple of practical jokers in the mix. Life is never dull and if you look carefully you might spot the occasional muso fighting off a fit of giggles.

A personal highlight in your career?
Too many to mention. Just having a career and a full time job as a violinist is something that I am always grateful for. Of course the day I won my audition to take my place in Orchestra Victoria is right up there at the top of the list.

This interview was first published in the October/November 2019 issue of Dance Australia. Subscribe to Dance Australia here, or buy Dance Australia at your favourite retail outlet, or online here








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