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Where I become a maestro for a day

by John on March 6th, 2012

As it approached lunchtime, I realized that I’d forgotten Lynnette.

Mondays are really long days for me. I wake up at 4 to walk the dogs, take out the trash, and get myself ready for work. And then I head to one office for a videoconference that starts at 6. After the videoconference, I usually have just enough time to grab myself some breakfast1 before heading to my other office by 7:30 for the start of the work day.

As it’s the start of the week, I want to start the week on a good physical note, so I make sure to visit the gym over lunch2. Only, well, I realized that I left my mistress bass, Lynnette, at home. Typically, she sits in the back of my truck all day every Monday, just waiting for some attention. Alas, she was at home.

See, after work on Mondays, I have symphony practice. Since going all of the way home, eating, and heading right back out the door makes me more tired, and kind-of confuses the kids, I try to stop for a beer or two a relaxing dinner before practice. But, that wasn’t going to happen . . . I worked until the end of the day, went home, changed, played with babies, ate3, got a little work done, and made it out the door.

Well, I’m skipping the whole “threw my elbow out” in the “play with babies” part of that, but that didn’t affect me too too much.

Anywho, I went to symphony and was a little concerned by the elbow, because I couldn’t draw a down bow all of the way without pain. But, we were sight-reading music for an upcoming fundraiser, and I wasn’t too concerned . . . it was mostly show-tuney type stuff, and that means a lot of pizzicato.

Only, then one of the French horn players, who happens to be the conductor’s father, went to the podium. It turns out that our conductor, who is actually just a fill-in, was deathly ill from morning sickness5 and wouldn’t make it.

In the past, these types of situations played out pretty easily. If the conductor couldn’t make it due to a last-minute appointment, the concertmaster (who was an orchestra director) would take over. If she wasn’t available, the lead violist would take over.

The thing is, our last conductor actually left the orchestra, so the concertmaster was already the active conductor . . . that’s the one who is all knocked up & stuff. The lead violist was a no show.

We were an orchestra without a leader.

Until I raised my hand.

I’m not shy6, and I’m not, exactly, new to being in front of an orchestra. I’d conducted my high school orchestra. As a high schooler, I actually conducted a full concert for the middle school orchestra. I started college as a music major — being in front of a group of musicians doesn’t phase me.

The thing is, I wasn’t expecting to be in front of a group of musicians right then. And the situation was far from optimal. First off, we were all sight-reading, so I (or any given orchestra member) wasn’t really sure what anything we were playing sounded like. Then, I didn’t have any scores. And I had no baton. And I was the only bass in attendance that night, so we lost an entire section. And because these were show-tunes, and we’ll be performing these songs with a choir, the keys were all very un-symphony-friendly key signatures.

But, again, I’m not shy, and I’m far from shy about making mistakes. So, I got a pencil for a baton7, and I grabbed some violin parts, and I conducted.

Trainwrecks? There were a few. But, it was fun. I’m a big guy. Despite the fact that I didn’t have a glowstick for a baton, noone in the orchestra could claim that they couldn’t see me. And, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned through years of playing in orchestras, a big downbeat can do wonders, even if the entire French Horn section is ignoring me.

From the front of the orchestra, I realized a few things.

  • The ultra-flowy passages where strings are playing, seemingly, run after run after run come across, even when there’s not a single person who actually “nailed” the passage. This made me feel better about “faking” my parts when playing.
  • Some in an orchestra will always insist that they’re in tune, even when they’re not.
  • You can actually feel an orchestra pulling on a tempo when you’re the one who is beating the baton. I treated the whole thing like an odd game of tug of war. And since I’m the one who was throwing out downbeats, I always won.

All in all, it was a fun, though unexepcted night . . . but the orchestra would be in much better hands if my days with the baton were limited.

1 Two scrambled eggs, rye toast, home fries, and bacon. And coffee — lots and lots of coffee.
2 Weight remains “just a number” to me, but “the number” was two less than the previous time I had measured it.
3 A tuna melt . . . with my homemade mayo4, I make really good tuna salad . . . but it only lasts a day or two, so I ate tuna melts on concurrent nights.
4 Not a euphemism
5 Yay for expecting a baby. Boo for puking.
6 File that in your “no shit, Sherlock” folders.
7 Whenever we play a concert, the West Shore Symphony plays a free family concert directly after the dress rehearsal. Considering the age of my kids, this is a great way to get them exposed to symphonic music without worrying about ruining a paid sympony-goer’s afternoon. Anyway, during the last concert, the conductor (who was recently the concertmaster and is now knocked up, and will soon be the concertmaster again when we get a new, permanent conductor) got glow-stick batons for all of the kids, because, hello, fun. My son loved the mini lightsaber, and actually tried to emulate the conductor. Anyway, all of the kids got a mini glowstick, and the conductor used a giant glowstick. That was a truly effective baton.

From → Music, Symphony

  1. OH YES! My kingdom for a downbeat!

    So, when you’re sightreading…how do you follow a conductor? Isn’t that like trying to have your eyes in two places at once?

    I bet that was fun, though! Good for you!

    • When sightreading, I read my music, trying to keep half an eye on the conductor. In a perfect world, for a performance, I’d keep my eyes on the conductor and half an eye on my music . . . but, um, it doesn’t usually work out that way, and I end up performing just like I’m sightreading.

      Then again, practice, for me, usually consists of playing along to a recording of the piece — I’d love more time to really delve into stuff . . . but, you know, these children are a lot of work.

  2. Has anyone told you your insanely busy? And insanely musical? Amazing that you conducted! Bravo, maestro!

    • Why thank you 🙂

      Lately, it’s only been the “insanely busy” that seems to ring through.

  3. we live parallel lives. our monday are so alike.

    awesone story to the rest of the today. you’re agood dad, dude.

    • Thanks, Lance. I’m trying to figure out if the insanely busy Mondays are a good thing or a bad thing for me…I mean, you start out the week running. On a good week, I’m not crashing by Friday night.

  4. This post right here made me wish I still played an instrument.
    Or sang. Or did SOMETHING with music besides listen to it.

    (Also, I want a tuna melt; but that’s another story…)

    • You seem like a person who has music in the soul – what instrument(s) did you play? Why can’t you pick it back up?

      And I’d share my tuna melt with you any day of the week.

  5. I’m tired just reading that.

    I have my first flute lesson in about 1,000 years tonight. I’m a bit nervous. I should maybe try and play for a second before I go, huh?

    PS You absolutely need to direct with a light saber. THAT WOULD BE AWESOME.

    • I’d love to get updates on the flute lessons. In the woodwind spectrum, I only play the skin flute – and nobody seems to count that among my musical talents.

      I’m actually thinking about packing my son’s toy lightsaber to symphony, just on the chance that the stars align and I’m asked to stand on the podium again (it will certainly happen . . . but whether that happens in a week or two years down the line, I don’t know)

  6. You are so full of talent that I cannot decide if I flat-out hate you because I’m blind with jealousy or…some other thing that’s not that.

    Seriously. You amaze me.

  7. Love this. My husband, the former band teacher, would love it even more. Maybe.

    Also? Tuna melts! Yum!

    • The tuna melts were very yummy — I love my sandwiches, so I like to think my tuna melts are truly something incredible.


      I didn’t know your husband was a band teacher — that’s awesome! I started college as a music education major — I really wanted to be Mr. Holland.

  8. pizzicato…I don’t know what that is but, stepping up to conduct? Good job, I woulda been to shy. Maybe that’s why I never got passed 3rd grade violin….

    • pizzicato = playing an instrument by plucking the string, as opposed to playing with a horsehair bow.

      It was only after the rehearsal, where people talked about being amazed that I could “just go up & stand before everyone” that I realized that I really don’t have a fear in front of a crowd. I did have a few nervous moments, but those were, directly, musically related.

  9. How did Lynette come to get her name? Have you told us and I’ve forgotten? I have very little (like zero) understanding of all the musical talk b/c I have ZERO musical talent, but your Mondays are INSANE and you deserve more coffee, more time and more fun b/c of them. 🙂

    • You know, how Lynnette came to get her name is a story worthy of its own post, but the short story is that I started playing ‘cello in the 3rd grade, and my orchestra teacher demanded that we name our instruments.

      I started playing bass in 5th grade, and I got Lynnette – basically, by that time, I realized that I really, really liked women, and I was starting to write my first stories. The first story involved a warrior princess named Lynnette, who could speak with the voice of a man — and, hence Lynnette was easy to name.

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