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Wednesday, February 02, 2005

A decent trombonist

A friend sent my husband and I this excellent piece by Garrison Keillor.

(“Trumpeter*” can be substituted for “violinist” in most places. “Oboist,” or “clarinetist,” should be substituted for “trombonist” at the end.)

A Foot Soldier in God's Floating Orchestra

(From his comfortable position as a well-known author, Garrison Keillor feels every sympathy for his underpaid, overworked violinist wife.)

Orchestra professionalism is a world apart from mine. Mine prizes attitude and a rakish hat, and star quality, and interesting underwear. And this concept of professionalism prizes ensemble playing, and precision, and a sort of selflessness - and this concept of professionalism can be expressed in certain principles. You won't find this list posted backstage, but, my wife tells me, that's because everybody knows this stuff right out of music school.

1. You are, of course, on time. Always! Don't come an hour early (amateurish), but never come late. Never! This is an Orchestra, and you are Violinist, you're not some paper-pusher at Amalgamated Bucket. (Orchestra musicians are experts at finessing public transportation, and if they do drive, at finding parking spaces no matter what, legal, or illegal. Everybody has a strategy for "Getting to the Gig," and a back-up strategy in case the area is cordoned off for a Presidential motorcade, and an emergency strategy, in case of earthquake or civil disorder, or an invasion of the body snatchers.)

2. Don't show off warming up backstage. Don't do the Brahms Concerto. Don't whip through the Paganini you did for your last audition. Warm up and be cool about it.

3. Backstage you hang out with other string players, not brass or percussion. You don't get into a big conversation with the tuba player, lest you be lulled into relaxation. He is not playing the Brandenburg No. 3 that opens the show - you are. Stick with your own kind, so you can start to get nervous when you should.

4. You never chum around with the conductor, too much. Likewise the contractor who hired you; you can be nice but not fawning, subservient. If one of them is perched in the musicians' common backstage, don't gravitate there. Don't orbit.

5. You never look askance at someone who has made a mistake. Never! If the clarinet player squeaks, if the oboe honks, if the second stand cello lumbers in two bars early, like lost livestock, you keep your eyes where your eyes should be. You are a musician, not a critic. String players never disparage their stand partners to others. Stand partnership is an intimate relationship, and there is a zone of safety here. Actually, you shouldn't disparage any musician in the orchestra to anybody, unless to your husband (or spouse), or very good friends. But you never say anything bad about your stand partner.

6. If the conductor is a jerk, don't react to him whatsoever. Ignore the shows of temper. If he makes a sarcastic joke at the expense of a musician, do not laugh, not even a slight wheeze or twitter.

7. Try to do the conductor's bidding, no matter how ridiculous. If he says, "Play this very dry, but with plenty of vibrato," go ahead and do it, though it's impossible. If he says, "This should be very quick but sustained," then go ahead and sustain the quick, or levitate, or walk across the ceiling, or whatever he wants. He's the boss.

8. Don't bend and sway as you play. Stay in your space. You're not a soloist, don't move like one. No big sweeps of the bow. And absolutely never, never, never tap your foot to the music.

9. Go through channels. If you, a fifth stand violin, are unsure if that note in bar 143 should be C natural as shown or B flat, don't raise your hand and ask the maestro, ask your section head, and let him/her ask Mr. Big.

10. You do not accept violations of work rules passively. When it's time to go, it's time to go. If it's Bruno Walter and the Mahler Fourth, and you're in Seventh Heaven, then of course, you ignore the clock. But, if it's some ordinary jerk flapping around on the podium, you put your instrument in the case when the rehearsal is supposed to end. It was his arrogant pedantry that chewed up the first hour of the rehearsal, and now time is up, and he's only half way through The Planets, and is in a panic.

If he wants to pay overtime, fine. Otherwise, let him hang, it's his rope. At the performance, you can show him what terrific sight-readers you all are. It's all about manners and maintaining a sense of integrity in a selfless situation, and surviving in a body of neurotic perfectionists. And it's about holding up your head, even as orchestras in America languish and die out, victims of their own rigidity and stuffiness and of a sea change in American culture.

Perhaps in a hundred years orchestra musicians will seem like some weird priestly order akin to the Rosicrucians or the worshipers of Athens. But in the rehearsal for the Last Performance, the players will arrive on time, and take their places, and play dryly but with vibrato, and not tap their feet. And one violinist will come home and have a glass of wine, and say to her husband, "Why can't they find a decent trombonist?"

*in the 2% of the time I work outside the home, I play trumpet (in an orchestra, usually). My husband is a very fine trumpeter as well.


  • Thanks for posting this! It was great. I tried to find the original source, but got no further than a web page by the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra.

    By Blogger Martin LaBar, at 1:26 PM  

  • Interesting, Martin; I never thought to look it up myself. I enjoyed reading the unabridged version of the intro on the NMSO website.

    What I posted was forwarded by a member of the Phoenix Symphony.

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 5:09 PM  

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