Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Grown-up musicians are weird (and not always in a good way)

These are the faces of community band. Study them well. (NOTE: This is not my band!)

Imagine a little kid, maybe 9 or 10, coming home from band practice all excited because he's able to play a vaguely recognizable rendition of "Frosty the Snowman" on the cornet. Adorable, right? Now imagine that same little kid grown into a balding, jowly 50-year-old man. Each week, he lugs his cornet case to a rehearsal space, probably a high school band room or some similarly utilitarian locale, to practice playing a much fancier rendition of "Frosty the Snowman" with 40 or 50 people like himself. Not so adorable anymore.

The Bizarro World
This, friends, is the world of community band. It is a world I have inhabited since the fall of 2003. Two months ago, I began my tenth season with a particular band located in a suburban community about half an hour from where I live. Each Monday night, I drive there for rehearsals. Occasionally, we perform public concerts in places like senior centers, nursing homes, churches, and the occasional school auditorium. The band is run as a "service" of the park district, and I pay $50 for the privilege of being in this organization. I'm the "Bizarro World" opposite of a professional musician: I have to pay in order to play. In addition to playing the euphonium for this outfit, I also serve as a member of the equipment crew. On concert days, I show up early at the high school we use for our rehearsals. Together with a handful of other volunteers, I load huge timpani drums (you know, kettle drums), gongs, instrument stands, chimes, marimbas, and sound equipment onto the back of a moving truck so that these items can be transported to the location of the concert. An "equipment move," as we call them, is actually four separate moves: get the stuff on the truck, then off the truck, then back on the truck, and finally back off the truck again. It is a physically demanding task sometimes, and I have endured numerous minor injuries over these last nine years.

Sousa: My taskmaster
I'm not sure why I do this. Stubbornness? Masochism? An abiding love of music? A desire to preserve something from my childhood? The answer is probably a combination of these factors. If nothing else, it's something which forces me to leave my apartment and interact with other human beings. I used to tell myself that the band was the only social thing I did, but in truth, I try to keep my interpersonal interactions to a minimum. If you knew community band people, you'd understand. Look, there are professional musicians who do what they do for money. And there are artists who have something to express and choose to do so through music. But what makes a person who is well past school age keep showing up week after week to plow through marches and medleys of showtunes? I mean, does anyone listen to the music of John Philip Sousa for recreation anymore? Did they ever? I certainly don't go home from a long day of work and crank up "The Washington Post March" to relax. I'm crazy but not that crazy.

Truth be told, these community band folks are often highly eccentric, but not necessarily in a loveable, endearing way. They can be pretentious, pompous, and prickly. They can be highly judgmental, especially towards someone who has mangled a solo during a concert. (I've mangled a few in my time and harbor a deep grudge against composer Gustav Holst for writing lengthy, exposed euphonium parts into his suites.) They argue over who gets solos or who sits next to whom. Some have such poor social skills that they make me look Hugh Hefner in comparison. At best, they are over-aged nerds who exchange terrible, corny jokes and lean in too close while they yammer on like Trekkies having a "Kirk versus Picard" debate. I have met a few well-adjusted people in my community band, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Then, of course, there are the conductors. Some can be terrors, others are more mild, but they're all insane to one degree or another. Occasionally, you will see band teachers in movies who love music deeply and make playing music seem like great fun. The hell it is! It's a lot of damned work! As a neurotic person, it is sometimes difficult to be around other neurotic people. But I keep doing it, week after week. There is one definite perk: when the band truly coalesces and plays as a unified organism, the sound can be magnificent. Sometimes, I'll stop playing just to soak it in. There's no better seat in the house.

I'll end this piece with some actual (shaky) footage of my community band performing a medley of songs from Mary Poppins. This appears to have been at a high school auditorium. I have no memory of this particular concert, but I remember that the Poppins medley was terribly complicated and difficult, much more than you'd guess from hearing it. You can't see me, of course, but I'm way in the back and I'm probably nervous as hell about getting through this song. This medley runs about 10 minutes, which means that the sheet music involves multiple page turns. Oh, god, if you're not a musician, you don't know about the potential terror of turning pages during a performance.

P.S. - This post has been percolating in my brain for years, but I was finally inspired to write it by an incident at rehearsal last night. I was sitting in the third row of the band, and there was an older lady sitting behind me who kept complaining that I was blocking her view. She mentioned this aloud to the entire band during rehearsal, despite the fact that we'd both gotten to the band room early and had plenty of time to adjust our chairs in advance. Something seemed off about the woman from the beginning of the night. She was fixated, for instance, on removing any empty chairs so that they would not be in her way. After rehearsal was over, I was making my way toward the exit and came close to treading upon her instrument stand. I apologized and went the other way. She pursued me and lectured me about how precarious the stand was. I agreed and got the hell out of there. There was a look in her eyes, dear reader. It was detachment or madness or something I could not identify. I tried to be as polite and cooperative as possible. Whether my meds enabled me to do this, I cannot say. Under normal circumstances, I would probably have been just as polite but would have been seething with barely-concealed rage.

1 comment:

  1. Heh! I am (was?!) a "professional" page turner. If there was a musician that came to the college, I turned pages if they needed it. Mostly pianists, but there was one flautist from the St. Louis Symphony that made a young woman cry when she didn't put his music stand on quite the right spot. (The mark was made from black tape. On a black stage. I'm not surprised she didn't see it!) He was accompanied by a wonderful pianist that was a joy to turn pages for. She made special mention to my piano teacher that she had never felt so comfortable with a page turner. I mean, she could've been lying, but meh.

    The works they played?! Oh, sweet JESUS! One score was a huge CIRCLE that you had to read inward. Another was some weird, non-traditionally notated score that I swear, had 6 staves. I can read orchestral scores, but this was something else! It was during this piece that I had to turn pages for both the pianist and the flautist, which wasn't as bad as they made it out to be. There's always a spot where you can safely get up and turn, even if no one gives you a cue (like my piano teacher! His motto? "Well, hell, you can read music! You know what to do!")

    The only thing I really hated were repeats. Some people took them, some didn't, and if you never got the chance to rehearse with them, it can be tricky. Funnily enough, the only person that I'd ever (almost) panicked with was my piano teacher when he played "Rhapsody in Blue." I never heard him play it. He sight-read the damned thing and just before we went out on stage, I asked him about the repeats. His response: "Oh, yeah! You've never heard me play that, have you? No, no repeats." Sure, I could've asked the conductor, but since the orchestra looked toward my piano teacher for their cues, it'd have been useless. Seriously. The guy timed solos by looking at his watch, not the music!

    I am enjoying the HELL out of this blog, and I'm not a spambot. Thanks for making work less boring!