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‘Lion King’ flutist is queen of the pit

A second, hidden, show takes place during every production of “The Lion King.” It’s down in the orchestra pit, where touring musician Kay Ragsdale lives.

“It’s like another city down there,” said Ragsdale. “It’s exciting, it’s dark and you don’t have the visual cues you can get from (being in) the audience. Your only focus is the conductor; the conductor is your world.”

This subterranean world is especially exciting for Ragsdale, because she’s the touring show’s flutist – and in “The Lion King,” flutist is one of the most complicated jobs of all.

“My part includes 15 different instruments, all flutes,” said Ragsdale. “I have Chinese flutes, Indian flutes, Irish flutes, in-line pan pipes and double-row bass pan pipes from Ecuador – as well as a regular Western flute and piccolo.”

How does she keep them all straight?

“I have a system,” said Ragsdale. “You need to practice your choreography as much as you do your (musical) part. I have a set of trays that attach to the music stand and I have all of the horizontal flutes that are keyless on those, and then I have some floor stands that the bigger instruments sit on.

“And for the pan pipes, I use collapsible dish drainers. They make perfect pan pipe stands.”

“The Lion King” needs 15 flutes because the score has a strong world-music flavor, and also because different sounds are crucial for delineating characters.

“You reserve certain flutes for a certain character on stage,” said Ragsdale. “And it’s a way of providing a commentary for the action on the stage.”

Ragsdale is not only a classically trained flutist, she also studied ethnomusicology in college. That makes her ideal for a job that features so many different musical traditions.

She previously played in the pit orchestra for “Miss Saigon,” which was excellent training for her “Lion King” job; she had to play eight flutes in that show.

But those were all Asian flutes. For “The Lion King,” Ragsdale has had to master many others, including the pan pipes.

“It’s very different, because you’re used to playing with a fingering system, in which the instruments stays stationary,” she said. “Now you have a row of pipes in your hand and you have to move the instrument back and forth. So it is quite a different sensation than we think of in playing the flute.”

Of course, musicians from the pan pipe tradition think a regular flute and piccolo are just as bizarre. Ragsdale recalled a quote from Zamfir, the pan pipe master, who said he “couldn’t imagine putting a stick up your face and just moving your fingers.”

“The Lion King” orchestra consists of 17 musicians – 10 who tour with the show and seven who are hired locally – so it can get crowded down there.

Sometimes Ragsdale is placed so deep in a corner she can’t even see the conductor. She has to watch him on one of the video monitors attached to every music stand.

“It’s always amazing to me, with a show with so many primitive instruments – the drums and the flutes – that this show also uses so much technology,” she said.

Ragsdale has been touring with the “The Lion King” for seven years. She probably has an extraordinary amount of job security.

“I don’t think a lot of flute players even realize a lot of these instruments exist,” she said.