Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Ramblings of a Musical Nature

When you have been playing trombone in ensembles around the country as long as I have, you start noticing certain patterns. Let's put a few of them in print.

If an ensemble (orchestra or band) has 105 players and 101 music stands, the low brass players go without.

If there are four bad music stands, or chairs, in the entire rehearsal or performance hall, the low brass players will get them, week in, week out.

The instrumentalists who need the most room for their instruments get the least, and vice versa. It is not uncommon to see the two oboe players lounging in splendor in the center of the stage, their little shot glasses filled with water and bamboo arrayed around them, with more elbow room than a '36 Packard -- while the trombone players are carefully guiding their slides through the uprights (music stands, mike stands, trumpet player heads) while their tuning slides in the back are whacking the timpanist.

If the brass section is up on platforms, the two trumpet players get the big one, while the three trombone players get the small one, and the tuba player has to phone it in on his cell.

Stage hands think nothing of putting the timpani right next to the trombone player's ear.

Stage hands also think nothing of putting the low brass section, seated of course, behind the string bass section, standing of course, and give you a dumb look if you mention it. Maybe they don't believe you really want to see the conductor. Maybe I don't either, but that's beside the point.

Speaking of conductors... There are good conductors, bad conductors, nice conductors, mean conductors, and pretty much conductors of every other kind. Almost all conductors, however, like to talk more than conduct. They could show you what they want with their stick, but they would rather share their wisdom with you verbally. Very few believe you can pick it up from their stick. So they talk. The worst are the ones who do what in baseball they would call a balk. Up goes the stick, up goes the trombone, ready to blow, then he starts talking and down goes the stick. Just a little more wisdom to impart verbally. Relax. You must need it.

The best conductor I have ever played for is Robert Page, who was the head of the music department at Carnegie-Mellon University in the late 1970s. He conducted a performance there in 1977 of the Bartok opera, Bluebeard's Castle, which was one of the best concerts of my entire life. Today, he is still active in music as the conductor of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh -- the greatest choir I've ever heard. Not only is Mr. Page a consummate musician, but he is a gentleman who is extremely respectful of his players -- so much so that he absolutely refuses to waste a musician's time. Somehow, he manages to convey his advice to you while he's actually conducting. And he organizes his rehearsals in such a way that, if you play in only a couple of the movements, he will do those movements first and then let you go, all while he is still waving his arms, without stopping the music. I have played for hundreds of conductors, and Mr. Page is one of a kind. He doesn't tell you how considerate he is going to be, he just does it.

General rule of thumb: the ones who tell you how considerate they are, happen to be the least considerate.


stof said...

Captian, Nice to see you have a blog, I´ve always enjoyed your writings. Even us liberal trombonists are loud as hell. Your last thing reminded me of something I hear in my orch. a lot. "We only want the best for you musicians, etc." If you have to say it, you know it´s crap.
Your buddy,
The Loaf

Lee said...

Great to hear from you, Stof! Hope things are going well in the land of oranges. We need to get together soon and have some crab cakes. BTW, I emailed Mr. Page and sent him a link, and he sent me an email. Amazingly, he still remembered me, probably the least distinguished music student ever to pass through C-MU's hallowed graffiti murals. What an inspiration he's been for me!

Can't wait to get together again with you & the Schmatz! Say hey to Kathy.