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.

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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.