Wednesday, November 14, 2007

I hope it doesn't get any worse than this

Forget what I said last week. The disaster was last night. I don't think I've been this embarrassed in a performance since I went skidding across that floor on my accordion.

It should have been fine, a good thing, even. The string section from my orchestra was scheduled to play two slow movements from Mozart string quartets to start off the medical school anatomy memorial service. This is a function organized by the first year students at the end of their gross anatomy course in order to thank their cadaver donors. They invite the families of any of the donors who are available and make quite a nice program of musical performances, poems and eulogies. I understand that for some of the donors it is the only memorial service they may have.

We began the program. Lights came up, we played, then the speaking began while we exited stage right. Hastily, I might add.

This is my recipe for disaster:
* Take one orchestra composed of a range of intermediate-level players.
* Schedule two difficult pieces for performance in concert in too little time.
* Take one scheduled rehearsal two weeks before the concert and have the strings-only practice Mozart quartets that they will need to play three weeks in the future for a different function.
* Have the Maestro conduct the rehearsal, even as he announces that he will not be there because he has a gig that night.
* Do not have the concert master do any significant leading, even though she will be in charge of the extra performance.
* Make multiple contradictory declarations of which repeats to take and which not, depending on whether the piece will be played at the concert, the memorial service, or the white coat ceremony the following weekend.
* Send an e-mail two weeks beforehand to ask who is actually going to be there, as multiple string players have conflicts on that night.
* Don't tell the remaining strings who is going to perform, and definitely don't let them rehearse together in the planned configuration.
* On the night of the performance, have the concert master fail to show up at all.
* Have no warm-up before the performance, a combination of waiting for the tardy leader and other circumstances that dictated otherwise.

What else could go wrong? The second-chair pinch-hitting concert master tried her best, but her count-offs weren't really clear. We spent a complete B section of one quartet with each string section being off by a different beat. But at least each section stuck together. In an actual quartet it's pretty easy to get back together by adding or subtracting a beat, or jumping in someplace you know. If multiple people in the section tried to do that at different times it would be cacophony. I think it was better to keep section integrity and wait for an obvious place to get back together. Hopefully the audience was just thinking "I wonder why that doesn't sound quite right?".

But, the side-effect of all of that uncertainty was tension. Our violins are not what you would consider confident players at the best of times, and under tension they just fade away. Especially the seconds. I was grateful that the nice concert hall gave us a little more warmth than we deserved.

Other bad moments? The hurried instructions at the beginning about what we were playing, the order of the program, and which repeats to take (none). (BTW, we didn't screw up the repeats. One thing that could have gone wrong that didn't.) The moment when one of the cellists asked the stage director, who knew nothing about us, whether we would have a conductor. That gave me a really bad feeling. The moment we stopped playing and didn't know what to do, having not discussed that. (I gestured to the concert mistress that we should stand up and bow, which we did, so we didn't look like complete buffoons.) And walking off the stage with the collective opinion that this is the worst thing we have ever done. Ever. Ever even before my time. And have I mentioned yet that the auditorium was full?

This post is long enough, so I'm not going to talk about what I intend to do about all this. Which relieves me of the responsibility to figure that out in the next five minutes. I'll keep you posted. And thanks for listening.


Guanaco said...

My deepest sympathies. What a nightmare. My story isn't nearly as bad as yours, but our conductor got us a Christmas gig then told us she and the three lead players in our very small and inexperienced group would not be there - they have a different gig.

Anonymous said...

"Nightmare" doesn't begin to describe how I would feel. All I can say is that YOU ALL know you can do so much better - and the audience probably didn't notice nearly as much as you did! Also, have you seen my link to on my blog ? I promise you it will comfort, encourage and inspire, as well as put everything in perspective. Add to that, so many of them are medics, and so you'll feel, not only at home, but also vactly superior!

Anonymous said...

By the way, that "which instrument..." quiz paired me with drums! DRUMS! So much for my obvious delicacy and sensitivity, musically speaking. I feel quite hurt. Although they are the lifeblood of a good, rousing finale....Who knows, maybe I'll nip round to my grandson and see if he can give me a few pointers..

Maricello said...

Your post moved me to tears, not because of all the mistakes and miscommunication, but because you were there.

My mother donated her body to a medical school, and I just want to say thank you for playing. My mother, briefly a musician herself and mother of three musicians, would have understood, and she would have smiled.

Gottagopractice said...

Guanaco - I hope you mean last year, and not upcoming. After this experience I would be running from that one - or madly rehearsing!

Rallentando - no, didn't work. I'm not feeling superior. I think the poblem is that RTO creates the expectation that they will be awful, but we were *supposed* to be good. Thanks for trying to cheer me up, though.

Maricello - thanks for your kind words. We didn't do anything like this at my medical school, but it would have been very meaningful. Gross anatomy is a huge rite of passage, and "my" donor will always be very special to me.

Guanaco said...

I'm madly rehearsing... :(

Erin said...

Bit behind on my reading... what a crap experience - I'm sorry. It's over now though, and you can safely avoid in the future now that you know the warning signs!