Saturday, December 19, 2009
I saw my brain surgeon this morning, and I will write a full report on that tomorrow or Sunday. For some reason, I am very nostalgic tonight and I just feel like writing about a few old memories of mine, something I have been compelled to do several times during my weeks of healing following both surgeries. Anyone's key memories are usually formed when something is done for the first time . . . or when something goes horribly wrong.
When the two are combined, watch out.
Right now I am home with Noah, convalescing for yet another long evening of hot and cold flashes. MJ is out performing “The Nutcracker,” one arm of the triple-hell professional musicians go through every December comprised of “The Messiah,” Christmas Pops, and “The Nutcracker.” Now don’t get me wrong—all of the above is beautiful music. This is why it is played year in and year out. But with repetition anything beautiful can lose its sparkle. So as I re-evaluate every part of my life and continue to put myself back together, my mind wanders to the first time I ever played The Messiah, when everything was fresh and new.
I was a junior in high school. The year before I had changed to my first serious oboe teacher and I was now playing “gigs.” When December rolled around, I was called to play second oboe in The Messiah with a pick-up orchestra. When I arrived for rehearsal, I stopped dead in my tracks. There, in the first oboe chair, was the best free-lance oboist in town, a recent graduate of arguably the top oboe school in the country.
He looked me up and down and returned to his warm-ups consisting of arpeggios in every key. (I wet my reeds and tooted a few notes.) When he was done, he extended his left arm and said, “Okay, let me try your set-up.” I handed my oboe to him along with a reed I had made. He blew into my instrument and sounded good. Real good. He played everything with authority.
“Good,” he said, and handed it back to me. He guided me through the rehearsal, giving me tips. (“In this spot, wait for the celli and don’t come in early,” etc..) I took notes and tried to keep up, but it was the longest piece I had ever played. Endless pages of music. Gorgeous stuff, but I was too frazzled to appreciate it.
The conductor had one odd request: when the chorus was to sing the line from Psalm 22:8, “Let him deliver him,” he wanted the voices to have a nasal, witch-like quality. He did not “conduct” these bars in the traditional manner of beating time but instead rubbed his hands together in sinister fashion.
At the end of rehearsal, the first oboist patted me on the back. “Good,” he said, and left.
At the concert everything fell apart.
It began with a wrong entrance by a cellist. She jumped in a beat early, something musicians refer to as—for better or for worse—a brain fart. The sound of her cello during the silence was so wrong it was funny. In the pure silence it indeed sounded just like a fart.
The seed of destruction was planted. This was my first experience outside of school where a case of the giggles spread like a rogue virus. I expected professionals to be immune to the giggles (and, truth be told, they are for the most part) so it was jarring to see role models doubled over.
I did not want to succumb to it, lest I appear like a giggly kid on his first job. The others had paid their dues and had chits to cash in. I put my mind elsewhere. Anywhere.
My music stand. It was crooked and leaned back too much. If I tilted it forward I could read the music at a better angle. I set my oboe on my lap and tweaked the top of the stand.
The stand needed oil. Everyone heard it and it was louder than the music. But now the stand stood straight up and down and my music was in danger of falling forward. I had no choice but to push it back. I did so with great care.
A bark of laughter popped in the brass section. What previously had been private snickering was now unabashedly audible, and it only devolved from there. What was worse, I had caused this turn of events. What really set things off was that the choral section with “Let him deliver him” was up next. The conductor’s special request for the witch-like timbre could not have been more ill-timed. When it happened, the chorus members contorted their sound so much they might as well have been singing, “I’ll get you, my pretty . . . and your little dog too!” That was all the musicians needed to lose it.
The very first time I played in public I battled the giggles too. It was in the third grade in Australia for a Nativity play. I was the only one in the class who played an instrument that was not the recorder, so I was assigned to be an angel that would play a hymn on the flute right after Jesus was born.
My costume was mostly a smock from art class that was bleached white. On my back I had a pair of wings fashioned from coat hangers and newspaper spray painted gold and attached to the smock with black electrical tape. I didn’t get to see the play unfold, but I knew that when a teacher pointed at me I was to walk in front of everyone in my angel costume, play the hymn from memory, then walk off.
The whole time I was terrified I was going to laugh, but I didn’t. I got through it, and that gave me a supreme boost of confidence. Perhaps even then—my first time as a soloist in the third grade—I felt a little bit of the high I get every night I’m on stage, the guilty feeling that I know I can do something a lot of others cannot.