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23 April 2012 @ 12:27 pm
The Real LJ Idol: "Tales From The Pit"  
Tales From The Pit
real lj idol | week 24 | 1821 words
In your wheelhouse

~*~*~*~

There was a time when I dreamed of being a concert violinist. I was no prodigy (or even close), but dreams are often unbound by the limitations of reality.

In college, my ambitions changed. My once-minor stage fright escalated toward panic, making solo work all but impossible. But the larger truth was that as I got exposed to more of the classical music repertory, I discovered that what I really wanted was what everyone else thought of as a fallback profession: I wanted to be an orchestral violinist.

Most of the solo violin repertory comes from the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras. I like some Baroque and Classical pieces, but what I really love is Romantic, Impressionistic, and early Twentieth-Century music. Orchestral works offer a much greater opportunity to play music from those eras. But there's also something uniquely wonderful about being part of the larger whole. Each orchestra section contributes its own melodies, harmonies, rhythms, or tone colors, with all the parts cooperating, overlapping, and balancing each other. It's the musical equivalent of a team sport.

One of my favorite experiences was my senior year of college, when a new performing arts center opened in Eugene. The University of Oregon's Symphony was invited to play as part of a day-long opening ceremony, and our conductor selected the Janáček Sinfonietta as part of our program. That piece needed more team players than the symphony had: nine good trumpet players were required for the brass fanfare in the opening and closing sections. The conductor put up posters and auditioned players, hoping to get enough performers from the music school's students. Her final tally included a percussion major who had last played the trumpet in high school, but it was enough.

Our performance of the Sinfonietta was some of our best work ever. I still haven't found a recorded version that unleashes the soaring quality of the trumpets while maintaining the crispness in the percussion and other brass that our conductor evoked from our orchestra. That opening movement defines the Sinfonietta for me, and demonstrates an unusual side-effect of the orchestra experience. Even though the stringed instruments do not play during that movement, and have wonderful moments later on, that is still my favorite part. Being surrounded by the brass and percussion sounds onstage as they built that wonderful sound was actually more fun than many other pieces I've played.

Concerts offer both glorious and inglorious moments. Some missteps come from other players, as with the performance (also in college) of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. The oboe player who led off the symphony inexplicably began at half tempo, forcing the conductor to urge the pace forward in large, awkward increments. Shortly afterward, the first-chair French horn player lost his embouchure during his big thematic moment, and his once-proud note took an embarrassing dive down the overtone series. The conductor scowled at the offending musicians, but otherwise kept her cool.

Most surprises are due to the conductors themselves, and after weeks or months of uneventful practice, you never see them coming.

We had a guest conductor from Germany for one concert series in college. During the live performance of the Háry János Suite, he suddenly started to crowbar the air with his baton while making chimp-like faces. His movements somewhat matched the comic sound of the music, but he'd never done that before. All the first violinists choked back giggles and desperately looked away—at the second violinists, who were also trying not to laugh. You could hear the flurry of sound as shoulders shifted and heads tipped in any direction that would not result in looking at another person. Somehow, not a single guffaw escaped. It isn't often that the hardest part of a performance has nothing to do with the music at all!

During the three years I worked as a radio-announcer in Peoria, Illinois, I played with both the Peoria and Knox-Galesburg Symphonies. Peoria was about 50 miles from Galesburg in one direction, and 75 miles from Springfield in another, so the three orchestras shared a lot of musicians. They had their practice and concert schedules down to a science, with each orchestra rehearsing on a different day of the week and no two holding concerts on the same weekend. Had I not gotten a job back on the West Coast, I would have auditioned for the Springfield Symphony the next year.

Playing for those semi-professional symphonies really spoiled me. We'd have four rehearsals, and then the concert—a much faster and far more appealing pace than you find in college or community orchestras. We tended not to rehearse entire pieces all the way through, but instead focused on the trickier parts or where the collaboration between instruments was more challenging. That worked pretty well, and allowed the orchestra to do more concerts, which also meant more variety in the music—a win for both the audience and the performers.

Unfortunately, it sometimes also resulted in repetitive-stress injury. We usually had Friday night final-rehearsals and Saturday night performances, but once in awhile we'd rehearse on Saturday afternoon and perform the concert a few hours later. Because of the randomness of how pieces were rehearsed, there was a Peoria Symphony concert where I played second violin and didn't realize until the Saturday rehearsal (with guest soloist) that our section played nearly continuously through both the Mozart Clarinet Concerto and Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony. By the end of the rehearsal, I had severe back pain from continuously holding up the violin, and my left hand had started to go numb. By the end of the concert, my back was spasming and my left-hand grip-strength was gone. I'd played for over a decade by then, and never had that happen before. Suddenly, I understood why string players were sometimes plagued by tendinitis and carpal-tunnel syndrome. We'd had a few in college who were frequent-flyers at the Sports Medicine department, for exactly that reason.

Performances with the Knox-Galesburg symphony were fairly straightforward, except for an outdoor July 4th Pops Concert where it was so hot that I worried for my violin, and my chair came with me when it was time to stand up for applause (the varnish on it had fused with my shorts).

The Peoria Symphony's regular conductor also offered few surprises, except for night I gave in to the temptation to see what the second-chair violist had meant when she said she wished the conductor would stop spitting on her. Often, musicians watch conductors with peripheral vision (which conductors typically hate). That night, I looked up in the middle of the Sibelius Fifth Symphony, and got a full view of the red-faced, foaming-at-the-mouth conductor, who seemed to be on the verge of a heart attack or an outbreak of rabies. I knew he was really just caught up in the music, but still—I looked away as fast as I could, smothering an inappropriate laugh.

For one concert, we had a guest conductor whose regular position was with the Baltimore Symphony. We were a step down for him, and he tried to accommodate us. The program featured Smetana's Moldau, which has a very fast section that is difficult for the violins (and sometimes appears in orchestral audition lists for that reason). We rehearsed that part over and over again, with the conductor having to keep pulling the tempo back to the rapid triple-meter that was the fastest we could play.

It all seemed good until the reality of the concert arrived.

Just as we entered that section of the music, the conductor's arm came down in the large, rapid swoop that indicated he was conducting the tempo in one. That was the speed he'd wanted to take all through rehearsal, and knew we could not do. I don't know what possessed him, or whether he simply forgot who we were, but you could sense the stiffening of spines all across the stage as everyone realized what was happening and came to attention. It was a mad race to keep up with the notes, and by some miracle of luck or concert-adrenaline, everyone did. Fear of embarrassment is a powerful motivator, and we played with greater skill than we should have had.

Some challenges simply required creative choreography. Harris' Third Symphony had arpeggios scored for the first and second violins where all the players around you were playing a different sequence—including your stand partner. It was hard not to get lost, especially after the conductor randomly edited out bars of music in that long, confusing section. My stand partner used blank paper and paper clips to cover up the gaps, and we still had to mark and practice exactly where I would turn the pages so that both of us stayed on target. This was better than the time in college when my stand partner did the same thing using tape on rented sheet music (utterly forbidden—rented music is practically sacred), and managed to glue two of the pages together for the performance.

My favorite choreography was for the Bartok Dance Suite. It has a tuba solo, followed almost immediately by a muted tuba solo. But the tuba is a large, unwieldy instrument, and there was no time for the player to put in his own mute. He worked out a scheme with the trombonist next to him: he played the first solo, tipped the tuba sideways, and then the trombone player slam-dunked the mute left-handed into the tuba bell. It was successful, but looked silly enough to be worth watching during the rehearsals and concert.

My last performance in Peoria was the night before I began the long drive toward Sacramento to start a new radio job. I was part of a pick-up orchestra for a Tony Bennett concert. While it wasn't one of the big symphony programs with important works, it was a pretty nice way to spend what would otherwise have been a tearful evening of leave-taking and all the accompanying mixed hopes and regrets.

That was almost twenty-five years ago, and writing this reminds me how much I miss playing in an orchestra. In Sacramento, the Symphony is full of far-better-talented Juilliard graduates, and the only community orchestra is forty minutes away. The community orchestra didn't appeal when I first moved here, and after more than two decades of rarely picking up the violin, it is now too good for me.

But I do think about whether it might be possible someday—perhaps after the kids have left the house, and I finally have some time alone to practice again. Most of the beloved pieces I never got to play would be out of a community symphony's reach: Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and Firebird ballets, the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra.

Still, I realize now that the chance to be part of that music again—any of it, even Telemann, Haydn, or Handel—would certainly be worth it.




If you enjoyed this story, you can vote for it along with many other fine entries here.

 
 
 
(Deleted comment)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 23rd, 2012 08:59 pm (UTC)
Oh, I still have mad love for the "Erbarme dich" aria from Bach's St. Matthew's Passion, and pretty much all of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater (I keep it in the car, to sing along when no-one else is around). And I've only played in the orchestra for local Sing-it-yourself Messiah concerts, but always thought they were a great idea!

It's funny-- I got to do some singing in college, for composer's pieces or for things like dance concerts. That was because the voice performers would not stoop to doing either without pay, so those of us who weren't officially singers but could sing took their place. No regrets about that either!

Thanks so much for reading and commenting-- and understanding. :)
ruby_jelly: Fireworksruby_jelly on April 23rd, 2012 09:59 pm (UTC)
Wow, really fascinating to read, and it's true? Not fiction? Sounds like a wonderful experience, just a little bit envious of both the musical skill, (didn't recognise a few styles/genres of music, *blush*) and group performance buzz. Thank you.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 24th, 2012 02:05 am (UTC)
It's all true! And this is with other stories/weirdnesses left out, because it's pretty long already!

I'm glad it was interesting to read, especially if you don't have a background in music. Are there certain musical terms that need explaining, do you think, or was it mostly the composers that were unfamiliar?

Thanks so much for reading and commenting!
(no subject) - ruby_jelly on April 24th, 2012 03:58 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on April 24th, 2012 05:08 pm (UTC) (Expand)
medleymisty: boxpersonbubblesmedleymisty on April 23rd, 2012 10:17 pm (UTC)
My sister-in-law plays the cello. She auditioned for the program at the local UNC branch this weekend. I may link her to this entry. :)

As a member of the audience at her school concerts - I do notice that her chamber orchestra plays much better than the middle schoolers, and that the beginning violinists are pretty squeaky. I probably wouldn't notice the stuff that you mention about tempo or notes going wrong.

I love love love music, even if I can't play it or read it or notice the little things like you do. Thank you for sharing this look into how the music gets made. :)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 24th, 2012 02:08 am (UTC)
I do notice that her chamber orchestra plays much better than the middle schoolers, and that the beginning violinists are pretty squeaky.
With the earlier years, it's amazing how much difference even a single year can make. And one of the things no one ever tells you is that if you're a string player, it may be 3-5 years (as a kid, at least) before you can stand to hear yourself play. :0

I'm so glad you love music-- it brings such happiness, even if you don't play or don't know much about the subject. Your ears know, and if they make the rest of you happy you are lucky indeed!
Jennkickthehobbit on April 24th, 2012 02:44 am (UTC)
flautist, could relate to this really well. :(
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 24th, 2012 03:20 am (UTC)
Yay!

How long did you play, or are you still playing?

I wish I'd kept up the violin more, but those stage-fright problems spilled over into not wanting anyone to hear me practicing, and I haven't lived alone since 6 months after moving back out West. :O
copyright1983copyright1983 on April 24th, 2012 03:19 am (UTC)
In high school, I was much more comfortable as one of many voices in a choir than as a soloist, despite (according to our teacher) being the most talented male we had. (Granted, that wasn't saying much...)

So, I can relate. Nicely done!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 24th, 2012 05:13 pm (UTC)
When teachers/etc. fail to understand that some people are not comfortable with the spotlight (and that it's wholly independent of talent), I suspect that they have never personally experienced stage fright. Otherwise, they'd know better!

I sang in two choirs in high school my senior year, and the music you get to sing there is completely different from being the soloist. Plus again, part of the larger group rather than being the fringe solist. I can't think of much that would top being in the chorus for the Polovtsian Dances, which was a joint project between all local high school choruses and the local Youth Symphony. Who knew opera chorus work could be so much fun?
Alephalephz on April 24th, 2012 01:39 pm (UTC)
I sadly have no knack for musical instruments but this is just fascinating.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 24th, 2012 05:14 pm (UTC)
I'm thrilled to hear that it's interesting to read, even though it's not your area of expertise. That's a huge relief, actually!

It's very much a behind-the-scenes look at something that probably seems to come off as very smooth in concert. It's probably better that the audience doesn't know about some of the close calls!
the_day_setupthe_day_setup on April 24th, 2012 04:02 pm (UTC)
Hey, Peoria! I'm kind of from that neck of the woods... not far from, anyway.

I also marvel at the degree of self-injury that violinists and violists are willing to sustain. I decided recently that I wanted to learn to play violin-- but it honestly kind of scares me, as I'm not sure my body is up to the task. The gamba was a *much* more ergonomic instrument.

It occurs to me that for someone who has played as long as you have, it wouldn't take much to at least get back to snuff at the level of the community orchestra. I play enough instruments (albeit consistently badly across the board) that I often have long periods of months or even years where I don't play Instrument X at all. Once you start picking it up routinely again with some degree of focus, though, even just a bit daily for just a week or two, it's amazing how fast it starts to come back.

Don't make your kids an excuse (too easy for me to say being childfree, I know)... get back on the horse, get out there and play! From this entry alone, it's obviously something that is part of you, and life is too short *not* to do it. Plus, I reckon your kids will love hearing you play regularly.

I wish I could've seen the trombonist's mute-slam-dunk. Ingenious... I love human Goldberg contraptions. I've been part of several such things in the percussion section of various bands before, but a tuba mute... too big to miss.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 24th, 2012 05:19 pm (UTC)
I also marvel at the degree of self-injury that violinists and violists are willing to sustain.
We had a few students who got in real trouble in college-- one kept having to postpone her Senior recital because the practicing for it was what was causing her tendinitis! I think she graduated a year or two late, just waiting on it. :(

Plus, I reckon your kids will love hearing you play regularly.
That's part of the problem, actually. I don't like having people hear me play. It got to the point where I annoyed the hell out of my violin teacher, being shy of playing in front of him. And the big problem with the kids is that between my husband and them, I have not had any significant time alone since about 6 months after moving to Sacramento. With the kids gone, that would increase my chances. Nobody ever leaves at the same time for a solid hour or two! *sob*

I wish I could've seen the trombonist's mute-slam-dunk. Ingenious...
It was! As you probably can tell, even though I'd seen it before... I still wanted to see it again and again, just for the synchronized weirdness of it all!

Thanks so much for reading. I was pretty sure some of this might be familiar to you, one way or another. Except for the stage fright issues, perhaps. :)
(no subject) - the_day_setup on April 24th, 2012 05:31 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on April 24th, 2012 05:38 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - the_day_setup on April 24th, 2012 05:49 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on April 24th, 2012 05:54 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - the_day_setup on April 24th, 2012 05:37 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on April 24th, 2012 05:41 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - the_day_setup on April 24th, 2012 05:43 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on April 24th, 2012 05:45 pm (UTC) (Expand)
notodettenotodette on April 24th, 2012 05:36 pm (UTC)
"unleashes the soaring quality of the trumpets while maintaining the crispness in the percussion and other brass that our conductor evoked from our orchestra."

I love this line, it's perfect and captures what the recordings must have failed to capture.

I found this piece incredibly interesting.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 24th, 2012 05:44 pm (UTC)
I love this line, it's perfect and captures what the recordings must have failed to capture.
I'm glad someone noticed that!

It not only was true of the experience, but also of the conductor's interpretation of the piece. I linked someone's performance above that wasn't too bad (though it lacks the snap in the lower brass that I like, and the trumpets seem a little restrained). I listened to an Andre Previn version yesterday too, that had all the right attack and emotion... but was ponderously slow. *headdesk* *headdesk*

I'm so glad you enjoyed reading this. One of the dangers in writing/talking about something you love that's so specialized is that it might be dull as nails for other people. Your comments give me hope!
baxaphobiabaxaphobia on April 24th, 2012 06:51 pm (UTC)
Being a music lover I could appreciate this. I haven't been part of a band/orchestra in many years but I can still remember the stress and tension.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 25th, 2012 12:50 am (UTC)
I sure miss it, as well as the excitement of those unexpected adventures. It's hard to understand the simple joy to be had in making music, unless you've done it, but I tried to convey some of that here. :)
Lose 10 Pounds of Ugly Fat...  Cut Off Your Head.n3m3sis42 on April 24th, 2012 06:52 pm (UTC)
I did choral music for a long time, and a lot of what you wrote hee resonated with me. :D

Just as we entered that section of the music, the conductor's arm came down in the large, rapid swoop that indicated he was conducting the tempo in one. That was the speed he'd wanted to take all through rehearsal, and knew we could not do. I don't know what possessed him, or whether he simply forgot who we were, but you could sense the stiffening of spines all across the stage as everyone realized what was happening and came to attention. It was a mad race to keep up with the notes, and by some miracle of luck or concert-adrenaline, everyone did. Fear of embarrassment is a powerful motivator, and we played with greater skill than we should have had.

I wonder if he thought you were all more capable of it than you believed. After all, you did it! :D
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 25th, 2012 12:52 am (UTC)
I wonder if he thought you were all more capable of it than you believed. After all, you did it! :D

I still wonder about that-- someone else suggested it, too!

A little push from adrenaline, and a group that is thisClose to making that tempo might actually pull it off. OTOH, if not everyone is paying attention and you have people lagging behind at the transition... wow, that will be one massive and very obvious Fail!
Kristenpixiebelle on April 25th, 2012 12:52 am (UTC)
I understand missing something like this, though I was never musically inclined. I think it would be worth it to try your hand at it again. I know I plan on getting back into theater again soon, even if I have to start small. Surely, you can find some way to play? I hope you find a way. Your passion really shines through here.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 25th, 2012 05:51 am (UTC)
I'd like to at least begin practicing again, though where to find the time? I only have "alone" time late at night, and the practicing would wake everyone else up!

Hope you find something in theater that you like. All of those smaller towns around L.A. might prove very helpful for something like that. At least, I hope so.

Thanks so much for reading and commenting!
devon99 on April 25th, 2012 05:33 am (UTC)
This was a thoroughly entertaining and fascinating read. It is obviously something you are still very passionate about, so i hope you find the time to come back to it one day.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 25th, 2012 05:53 am (UTC)
I hope so, too. As emotionally hard as it was to live in Peoria (where I just didn't fit in with the culture at all), playing in those two symphonies as a paid hobby was really wonderful. I knew I'd be giving that up when I moved back out West, and that was one of those areas of unavoidable regrets.

All those years, and I never got to play any Stravinsky or Shostakovich. How is that fair?!?
Myrnamyrna_bird on April 25th, 2012 07:18 pm (UTC)
I love music. Period. I never have learned to play an instrument though I can play a little piano, self-taught. My favorite music to listen to is classical, piano alone or with strings and big orchestral pieces. You have many wonderful anecdotes and funny memories here. I really enjoyed reading it so much. I hope you will find that time to get back into it even if just for your own pleasure.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 26th, 2012 12:59 am (UTC)
I'm so glad you enjoyed it, and the comments here are really encouraging me to at least try to find some practicing time near-term, rather than just waiting another 4-6 years. :)
(no subject) - myrna_bird on April 26th, 2012 02:02 am (UTC) (Expand)
Jemima Paulerjem0000000 on April 25th, 2012 08:11 pm (UTC)
*hugs* There is something beautiful about being a piece of a greater whole. I hope you do get the chance to find that again; it's clear that you loved it. :)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 26th, 2012 01:01 am (UTC)
There is something beautiful about being a piece of a greater whole.
I was afraid that might be something people wouldn't understand, but it looks as if they do!

Being part of a larger, collaborative "something" is completely different from being individual (or even in a small group, like a string quartet), and there is something about it that I always found to be just glorious.

Thanks so much for reading and commenting!
(no subject) - jem0000000 on April 30th, 2012 05:31 am (UTC) (Expand)
A Karmic Sandbox: Camo Teddykarmasoup on April 25th, 2012 10:08 pm (UTC)
I played the cello when I was younger... the flute and the french horn, too... I went to a private school where we were required to try out a string, a woodwind, and a brass instrument. I did love the cello, but, I went with the french horn because the band was much larger than the orchestra, and I wanted that sense of camaraderie with a greater group... I would get it more in band than in a very small string section. Still, I love the deeper, richer, fuller tones, too. (The basoon would have been more my style than the flute, but the band didn't have any, because there wasn't enough parties interested, and my folks weren't willing to buy me one before I was committed to it, and I just couldn't see being one of 18 clarinets.) I can relate to so much of this... if my school had kept band and strings together as a full orchestra, I think I'd have stayed with the cello, though, I did end up falling in love with the horn. Beethoven, Haydn & Handel are among my favorite composers, though, my first love is of course Tchaikovsky. This really takes me back and immerses me in those moments... and makes me also regret losing that era of my life, too.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 26th, 2012 01:05 am (UTC)
You were very consistent in the sounds you like-- the cello voice is gorgeous, and I've always loved the French Horn. The clarinet, too (though it's incredibly popular), much more than the flute. The bassoon... Stravinsky's Firebird has a lullaby in it where the primary melody is carried by the bassoon. Who else would think to do that? But it's so unexpectedly soulful.

I'm glad this brought back such deep memories, even if also a few regrets. If you aren't already familiar with the recordings, I can highly recommend the Chicago Symphony and George Solti recordings of Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony, Bruckner's 4th, 7th, and 8th. The Chicago Brass section, under Solti, was to die for in those performances. If you want more details, PM me and I'll dig up the exact performances. I can't imagine any French Horn player being able to resist them!