Air on a down-bow

I joined a string section last week. Well, I say “joined”. I was tacked onto the bass clef end of the strings for a Haydn symphony. So for a brief but enlightening period I left the woodwind section and became…

A cello.

The first thing I noticed: you can see the conductor. Let me explain…

Bassoonists are nearly always in the back row of the woodwind section. We peer at the conductor through a small gap between the first and second oboes. This is especially difficult with oboists who like to sway around whilst playing. You have to sway along in the opposite direction in order to see the bloody downbeat and, believe me, it’s difficult to play the bassoon when you’re bobbing around like a meerkat.

The second thing that I noticed about string sections? Actually, at this point I’m going to apologise to all my string playing friends. I’m about to take the piss out of your single biggest obsession; your bête noire; your favourite topic of conversation. It’s the thing that causes more moaning, more arguments and more getting-a-cob-on than anything else in the world of string playing.

Bowing.

Honestly, I’ve never heard anything like it. I’m so glad I’m a wind player. We never have to worry about what to do with our bow. Having spent a couple of days in the string section, I’ve realised that there’s a war going on in there.

It goes like this: the leader of the section issues his or her battle tactic – down-up-up. Almost immediately there is quiet muttering from the back desks… up-up-down… mutter mutter… up-down-up… mutter… down-up-down. One of them bravely pipes up, “Do you think it may be better if we did an up-bow there?” which roughly translates as “Up yours with the down-bow ”.

Some of them rebel, go AWOL on the bowing front. The bows are going off in all directions. It looks like a storm at sea. At this point the section leader gets tetchy about the down-up-up and says something along the lines of “Shut your gob and do as you’re told”. The pencils come out and the official bowing is marked in the music. Deep frowns ensue.

Meanwhile, the bassoonist fiddles with her reed.

Sometimes, the bowing wars continue in the pub after the rehearsal. For a woodwind player masquerading as a string, it’s all rather entertaining. OK, we occasionally have discussions about where to breathe, but arguments are rare. We just play the notes.

And moan about reeds.

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A quiet word about dynamics

Dynamics. Great word. Comes from the Greek (as all good words do) “dynamikos” which means “powerful”.

Physicists use the word “dynamics” to describe the force that produces movement. Musicians, on the other hand, use it to describe how loudly or softly we play. So does the word “dynamics” mean two completely different things?

No.

Frankly, I’ve played too many gigs where the volume, to quote Spinal Tap, is permanently up to 11. The ebb and flow of the music gets lost in a static, tedious mush and playing becomes a form of competitive sport in which the quietest instrument in the orchestra – yeah you’ve guessed it – is on the losing team.

I’m not going to go on about it. This is just a quiet reminder to all those musicians and conductors out there who don’t understand the law of dynamics.

Sheep May Safely Cough

Bassoonists aren’t allowed to do concertos very often. I could go on about how unfair this is but you’d probably lose the will to live so I won’t. Anyway, I had to do a concerto a couple of months ago. It’s such a rare event that I had to Google it. Not the notes. They were fine… well, mostly fine. No, I had to check what to do when going on and off stage. Concert etiquette. Until I looked it up, I hadn’t fully realised what a load of bollocks it all is.

The rules of concert etiquette apply to two groups of people – 1) the musicians and 2) the audience. Let’s start with the audience.

I reckon people avoid classical concerts is because they’re intimidated by them. Look at it this way. Can you think of any other performance-related event where you’d get tutted…for applauding? Do musicians care if you clap between movements? No we do not.

In Mozart’s time the audience would burst into spontaneous applause when they were impressed with a tricky bunch of semiquavers. Or surprised by an unexpected key change. No one tutted.

Mind you, they were probably pissed. In those days you went along with your mates, had a drink, danced, chatted someone up, and occasionally paid attention to what was happening on the stage. I’m going to make up some new rules for audiences. Here they are…

  • Wear what you like. The musicians are just grateful that you’re there.
  • Clap whenever you like. Especially when surprised by an unexpected key change. In fact, shout “Bravo!”
  • Bring alcohol.
  • Cough. Preferably during the loud bits.
  • Fall asleep. If it’s boring then it’s our fault. Try not to snore. Or fart.

Concert etiquette is equally annoying for musicians, especially the men. Take concert dress. Imagine, if you will, that it’s the hottest night of the year. The audience are politely fanning themselves with their programmes and are wearing as little as politely possible. And what are you wearing?

A full dinner suit. The whole shebang. Trousers, dress shirt, dinner jacket, cummerbund, bow tie. If you’re really unlucky you’ll be wearing a tail coat. For heaven’s sake, is anyone actually impressed by this anymore? OK, it would be disconcerting if the whole band turned up in Hawaiian shirts and matching shorts but really, what’s wrong with wearing black?

Here are my new rules for classical musicians…

  • Wear black. Make sure it matches.
  • Shout “Bravo!” whenever your colleague plays some tricky semiquavers. Or inadvertently makes an unexpected key change.
  • Drink alcohol.
  • Cough. During the loud bits.
  • Don’t fall asleep.

Incidentally in case you were wondering, I came on stage, ignored everyone, played lots of notes. Afterwards I fell off the stage, gave the orchestra the finger and burped.

Elegy on a Large Muddy Field and a Small Union Flag

Musicians call them muddy field gigs and believe me, it’s not a term of affection. Outdoor prom concerts. Most of us would rather chew our arms off than play in one. And that’s before you even get to the bloody fireworks.

One invariably has to turn up ridiculously early for the rehearsal and sit about onstage without playing a note. This is to allow time for a less-than-fragrant sound engineer to crawl about under your chair and find the most inconvenient place to put his microphone.

After several hours of fiddling around, said microphone usually ends up precisely where your instrument needs to be, in order for you to actually play it. Pointing this out to the sound engineer is a waste of time. You are a mere musician getting in the way of his ultimate ambition, which is to work at Wembley with Coldplay.

At this point the Star Turn pitches up. If it’s a soprano she’ll usually arrive with several changes of costume and her own arrangements of well-known arias – pitched several keys lower than the composer wrote them. The sound engineer, who is becoming less fragrant by the minute, makes a beeline to check that her microphone is positioned just so. This is in the hope that she’ll put in a good word at Wembley.

Sometimes the Star Turn is a tenor. The sound engineer doesn’t really care, just so long as they know Chris Martin.

The rehearsal proceeds in a ponderous fashion. It usually ends at least half an hour late.

The muddy field gig reaches its nadir, however, when it comes to green room arrangements. The Star Turn is given a charabanc large enough to accommodate most of the audience. The orchestra gets a small tent. It usually leaks.

And so, eventually, to the performance. The conductor raises his baton. We play. It’s a programme of what is politely called “light music”. I (less than politely) call it crap music.  It’s the type of stuff that audiences like to clap along to. Rousing tunes that fill them with sufficient patriotic fervour to wave a small flag. Or sing…

…which is unfortunate, because after an afternoon spent downing vats of Pimms their version of “Nessun Dorma” is not as tuneful as they may imagine.

Just occasionally, I’ve done prom concerts where we’ve tried to play proper music. This is a mistake. Take the 1812 overture, for example. Proms audiences just want you to get to the bit with the fireworks. Playing the whole thing runs the risk of heckling.

I’ll never forget the look on the conductor’s face when, during the beautiful opening cello quartet, a particularly loud and lagered-up audience member shouted “Spice it up, slaphead”. Unfortunately, he was close enough to a microphone for this to be broadcast across the local countryside. I suspect our folically-challenged maestro may have had a few thoughts about where to stick the fireworks.

Being upstaged by a lorryload of pyrotechnics is bad enough, but the real nightmare begins when the concert finally ends. It’s not unusual to spend two hours getting out of the car park. You can always spot the muddy field veteran. They’ll be off the stage, in the car and on the way home before the applause has finished.  Actually, scrub that. They won’t be there at all. They’ll have found some schmuck to do the gig for them.

Variations on a Jaegerbomb for 4 trombones and contra bassoon

Youth orchestra tours. Honestly,if parents had any idea of the bacchanalian debauchery that goes on, they’d be banned. I’m not joking. And, having spent the last couple of Augusts at Dartington, it occurs to me that international summer schools are really just youth orchestras for grown ups.

The fact is, when classical musicians get together you’d be amazed at the number of alcoholic units we can put away before falling over. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we all spend our spare time downing Jaegerbombs and singing “Get yer tits out for the lads” in perfect 4-part harmony to the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”. Really, I’m not.

However, some of us do. And this is the thing…

It depends on which instrument you play.

After an extremely unscientific study carried out in the White Hart at Dartington, I came up with an Instrumental Chart of Heroic Alcohol Abuse. I lost it on the way home but in descending order it went something like this:

  • Trombones
  • Brass
  • More brass (especially French horn)
  • Woodwind (and French horn)
  • Violas (yes, I know)
  • Conductor
  • Violins – both 1st and 2nd but 1st violins buy more rounds
  • Contra bassoon

Cellists pop in for one or two but won’t usually join in the 4-part harmony thing (unless they’re Scottish – see below). The contra bassoonist occasionally moves up the list, but may lose his trousers during the course of the evening and try to get off with a soprano.

Now, I’m not going to reveal the details of Dartington misbehaviour because I may lose friends. Instead, I asked my mates for their youth orchestra stories… and ended up with 26 tales of unspeakable behaviour.

So it was, frankly, difficult to choose. But take, as a typical example, the well brought-up young lady horn player who, not wanting to be rude to her generous Italian hosts, drank an unfeasible quantity of red wine during a pre-concert dinner. It was unfortunate that she threw up on stage during the 1st movement of Brahms 4th symphony but at least she was sensible about it and upchucked into the bell of her French horn.

Unlike the pair of cellists from the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland who may still be larging it up on the Orkney islands after an incident involving alcohol poisoning, Nigel Kennedy and a ferry.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from this, it’s that parents should be more careful about which instrument they allow their offspring to learn. If you’re waving little Tommy off on his first European tour and Tommy has reached Grade 6 or above on the trombone, well don’t blame me if you get a phone call at 3am telling you that Thomas has somehow wedged himself in the ornamental fountain after over-indulging in the local aperitif.

Actually, you can blame me. That particular incident was, actually, my fault. But bassoonists are sensible and don’t get stuck in fountains. We just point and laugh when trombonists do.

Anyway, I’m off to the pub. Cheers.

Concerto for baton, false teeth and knees

There are a lot of really terrible conductors out there. Seriously. Truly hopeless. I sometimes think musicians would be better off without them, except we’d have to play in baroque orchestras and wear Birkenstocks.

Anyway, I reckon there are 3 basic rules for conducting and they all boil down to the same thing: how to avoid making a musician look like a twat.

I ought to put my cards on the table at this point and confess that I’ve only played with a couple of conductors who do it as a day job. You know, famous names. One of them (let’s call him Fred, to save embarrassment) had the disconcerting habit of jiggling his false teeth during the fast bits. The viola section found this particularly off-putting. But he could get away with it because he was brilliantly, wonderfully (and famously) good.

Fred, incidentally, isn’t the only conductor who jiggles his teeth. One of our local choral conductors also does it, whilst simultaneously muttering instructions to the orchestra. We gave a unique performance of Fauré’s Requiem recently. Unique because it began with a clearly audible “Two, three, four – now!”

Which brings me, in a roundabout fashion, to rule number 1 for conductors:

1. Don’t witter on

Musicians can work out how you want it played from what you’re doing, not what you’re saying. At its most basic, if you wave big we’ll play loudly. If you wave small we’ll play quietly. If your baton goes quickly we’ll play fast and if it goes slowly – well, you get the picture. I’m not going to go on about it.

2. Don’t faff about

It’s a baton, not a paintbrush. Look, this is what I mean:

First beat of the bar, you see – the downbeat. We need to know exactly where it is. Otherwise we get confused.

Richard Strauss, who knew about these things, once said, “You should not perspire when conducting”.

He’s right. The best conductors hardly move at all. It’s all very well showing off to the audience with your twiddles but this is the thing: it’s us musicians that look like idiots when the downbeat drowns in a sea of artistic swirliness.

Another of our local maestros is infamous for the vagueness of his downbeat. We’ve discovered, from a whole series of embarrassments, that the most effective way of following him is to watch his knees. He bobs up and down. Provided we catch him at the lowest point of the bobbing, we’re fine. He also has an irritating habit of blaming the orchestra when we fail to follow his knees.

Which brings me on, rather messily, to…

3. Respect your musicians

  • Don’t blame us when you go wrong
  • Learn the music before you get to the rehearsal, not during it
  • Please notice if we fail to follow – and ask us how you could be clearer. Because we know, you know
  • Allow wind players time to breathe in. We have a tendency to pass out if you don’t

Most importantly, remember that we’re the ones who have to make the music. You’d look like a right plonker if we didn’t, wouldn’t you.

We don’t particularly mind the teeth thing by the way. RIP, Fred.