The perfect snowy evening decked the streets of downtown Anchorage, and I stamped my feet a couple of extra times, ridding the snow from my shoes at the security entrance before making my way, viola in hand, past the lines of miniature leotards filing through the backstage hallways. On my left, the set for the Nutcracker glowed on stage in festive pastels. On my right, in the rehearsal hall, the other musicians were already trickling in to unpack and warm up. Unfamiliar with the new surroundings and odd acoustics, I felt a little like New Girl, taking my seat on the conductor's right. Although I've played in the Nutcracker twice before, on both the first and second violin parts, this would be my first as a violist. If all went well, I hoped to do justice to this particularly tricky score and fall in line with the rest of the section. Countless hours had already gone into learning the part and mastering the numerous runs. It may be Nutcracker, but it's still Tchaikovsky, and Tchaikovsky may be many wonderful things, but one thing he is never accused of being is easy, regardless of which part you are given to learn.
As the rehearsal went underway, I began to feel more comfortable. Not only that, but I kept feeling like I was having more fun than everyone else, trying not to giggle at my stand partner's whispered jokes during breaks. The french horn players on my right egged each other on, and it was difficult not to want to join them. But no talking during rehearsal, right? Yes, we are serious. We are professional. I bit my tongue and tried to keep focused.
"Violas, you're rushing!"
I know, I know, but I'm not quite sure how it happened. The conductor, a guest with the ballet company, began #2, the opening scene, again. I admit, I practiced this movement much faster at home, the way I remembered it the last time I played it on violin six years ago. Impulsively, my bow arm moved forward, and I found myself ahead of the section again. "Violas, you're rushing--watch me!" The conductor halted again. The section leader looked back over her shoulder, concerned. Of course, I felt more determined than ever to stay with the conductor, so I fixed my eyes on his baton, ready to glue my bow arm to his beat. At this point, however, I'd become flushed with embarrassment, and I guess my discernment gets skewed when I'm nervous, because he appeared to begin at one tempo and immediately slow down. Maybe it's simply because he's new to me, and his windmill-like motions keep me from locating his ictus sometimes, or maybe some other section is leading me aurally astray, or maybe I'm just playing in a different time zone than everyone else. Whatever the reason, he stopped us again. It's all my fault.
"Sorry!" I heard my timid voice impulsively calling out, in front of the entire orchestra. Emily! You never apologize during rehearsal! No one else this evening apologized when the conductor got onto them for being out of synch--such a greenhorn, juvenile response! My scathing inner voice chastised mercilessly. As I settled back into my seat with a sigh and shaking of the head in shame, I could feel the scorn of my peers bearing down on me. I may as well have been sent to the chalkboard to practice my handwriting a hundred times over: I will not rush ahead of the section leader, I will not rush ahead of the section leader... I wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear.
Truth be told, it really wasn't such a big deal, and most people have the grace to remember that they've been in my shoes and think nothing more of it--except the perfect people. All of the perfect people wish I was not so stupid and annoying, I thought to myself. When will I ever get my act together and calm down and play perfectly, the way I imagine in my head? If I could just get my mental act together, then maybe I'd get on Santa's good list and I'd finally get my string quartet for Christmas, for real this time.
So, of course, rather than play it cool and move on gracefully, I botched every other tricky passage of the rehearsal. The more I tried not to mess up, the more I failed. If this had been a tennis match, I would have chucked my racket to the ground and crumbled to my hands and knees on the court. Instead, I fumbled my way through the rest of the evening and braced myself for the section's post-rehearsal debriefing I knew awaited me.
What to do, what to do? I can play it all just fine at home, but it doesn't count if you play all of your notes at the wrong time. We have one more rehearsal--our first one in the pit--tonight. Then, six shows commence, starting the day after Thanksgiving. Some of the passages I've only been through once with the conductor. I can only do so much to prepare on my own; the rest of it happens when we put our game faces on and step into character for the performance. So, take a deep breath, Emily, stay calm and...
I will not rush ahead of the section leader.
I will not rush ahead of the section leader.
I will not rush ahead of the section leader...
"How about 'Joy to the World?' That would be perfect for your first Christmas song, and you'll get your scale practice all in one, too!"
Miriam looked puzzled. "But it's too early for Christmas music, isn't it?"
"Too early?!" I exclaimed, "You're behind: most of us musicians started on our Christmas music in October!"
I know, I know, people always complain when the department stores break out the Christmas carols before Thanksgiving, and by the time New Year's comes around, everyone has had it up to their red nosed reindeer with sleigh bells and mistletoe, but ever since I can remember, Christmas preparation begins in October, right about the same time I imagine the elves finalize their projects and begin gift wrapping the year's colossal order. And, just as I've learned with various belated knitting projects over the years, if you want to have it ready by Christmas, you'd better get started early. (Apologies to anyone reading who has yet to receive last year's gift--it's on the way!)
Musicians aren't alone in the early jump to Christmas. Here in the far north, in the land of dwindling daylight hours and subzero temps, most people put their holiday lights up in September before the snow flies, and they'll leave them up all the way until spring breakup. Last week, while walking to rehearsal in downtown Anchorage, I noticed with childlike glee that the park by the PAC had already been transformed into a fairy tale wonderland, brimming with snow-decked spruce wrapped in twinkling blue. It's a welcome and cheerful spectacle all season long--yes, all six months of it.
Yeah, winter can be long and harsh, but ask any Alaskan, and we'd rather have snow come wintertime than not; after all, snow is bright and beautiful in the moonlight, and promotes playful activities like mushing, sledding, and skiing. Even the animals look forward to the first snowfall. You should have seen Chewy's first experience with the stuff! Determined to catch every snowflake before it hit the ground, he danced around in amazement at the sight of his own huge puppy paw prints he kept leaving behind. He's an absolute clown, always trying in vain to eat the icicles off his own whiskers. Our morning walks have become adventures on ice, dogs plunging left and right to fetch far-flung snowballs.
We only made it into the single digits today, cold enough to steal the joy out of anyone's stocking. It's gonna be a long, long time until green grass, Brother Robin. But the North Pole's just around the corner, so it only makes sense to get a head start on the festivities. I'm gonna be passing out the Christmas carols to any of my students who wish to join me in some musical merry-making. Come on everyone, hold hands around a particularly big spruce tree and sing "Fah who foraze! Dah who doraze!" I myself am going to be cracking open some Nutcracker tonight; next week's rehearsal needs to have the viola part polished to sugarplum perfection, and I'm just the elf for the job.
It's almost midnight as I step out of the hotel lobby into the raw night air. The streets are uncharacteristically quiet--much quieter than my next-door neighbors on the eighth floor, who probably don't know that I can hear every single word of their late-night conversation through the thin wall. No matter, I never sleep much anyway, and tonight's no different.
Ah, what should I write about? With shortened steps, I choose my footing carefully over the glazed snow pack. Earlier today, I'd probed Tammy's brain for writing topics as I drove the two of us up to Anchorage for symphony rehearsal. (I will play viola, and she will observe the conductor and meet with him tomorrow to discuss technique.) Some days, it seems almost impossible to write anything without hurting or offending someone somewhere. If I write about somebody, somebody else is offended that I didn't write about them, too. If I share good news, someone might think I'm bragging. If I share sad news, someone might think I'm throwing a pity party, and my parents start to worry about me. (Heaven forbid I should worry my parents!) If I tell a story, someone might get upset that I shared stuff about them. Or maybe I'll get the facts wrong.
"So, what should I write about?"
"You could write about my plumbing problems and how I ran into a grizzly bear on the way to the outhouse the other day," suggested Tammy. One of her neighbors recently rerouted the wetlands and can claim partial if not total responsibility for flooding dozens of homes in her area. Her entire neighborhood now had no running water, and many were seeking action. The Mayor was on the phone with her now, asking about her neighbor's recent suspicious construction activity. I turned down the volume on the radio and eavesdropped on the conversation, intrigued. Yes, this is all very interesting, but why write about septic problems?
What should I write about? I'd thought some more as we navigated through stop lights and crazy drivers on the unsanded streets. Tammy needed to buy clarinet reeds, and I wanted to check out the Christmas sheet music at the store in town. We made it without either of us getting killed, and I congratulated myself on my awesome driving skills. I don't think Tammy was so impressed, but she thanked me, nevertheless. The sales clerk, also a favorite musical colleague of ours, greeted us both with a warm, enthusiastic hug and lots of stories.
It would be ludicrous to write about deeply personal matters, since the entire world can read the internet. As juicy as they might be, you don't put your diaries out for everyone's feasting eyes. No, whatever I share needs to be edited for appropriateness. But then people will think I have my act together, and, of course, nothing could be further from the truth.
But why write at all, anyway?
After a quick bite in the hotel restaurant, we headed across the street to the PAC. The rehearsal began, and I sat in the back of the viola section, taking in my new view. If I wrote about how easy I thought the viola part is compared to the violin, people will expect me to play every note perfectly tomorrow, and I still have a lot of practice to do on the Vaughan Williams. If I write that I'm not too excited about this Brubeck piece just yet, then people will think I'm narrow-minded, and I'll hurt the feelings of whoever reeaally loves this Brubeck piece. And who knows, maybe it'll grow on me.
We took a break, and I went outside to chat with the other two members of my string trio, who I don't get to see much because of the distance. I'm thinking about telling them that I miss playing together, ever since our last wedding gig in August, and maybe we should go out after rehearsal just to hang and catch up. But I don't, so we don't, and so I have nothing really to write about. Maybe tomorrow.
The Vaughan Williams Suite for viola and orchestra leaves me with a melancholy aftertaste. Tammy would be staying at the concertmaster's house tonight. I would be heading up to the hotel room alone, with a lot of time on my hands and nothing to write about.
I don't know, maybe moose.
So many people had no idea what kind of treat they were in for on Saturday when our concert, The Orchestra Moves, unfolded. Heck, I didn't even know how much fun I'd be having, and I participated last year! The viola is feeling much more second nature than just a year ago--and it's a good thing, too, because I'll be playing it next week with the Anchorage Symphony. On viola, I've enjoyed getting my hands on the sophisticated inner parts of orchestral repertoire, and it's such a pleasure to be able to sit next to the cellos for a change.
With the addition of my violin students, the singers, and the recorder players, the stage barely had any room left to breathe, much less move. But move we did! If you had to pick who had the most fun, the teachers and professionals, the amateurs, the parents beating their drums, the kids on the stage, or the audience, I'd have to say it had to have been the conductor: Tammy absolutely beamed. But you'd have a hard time finding someone who needed a collaboration like this more than me. A good moment in music can move me out of the darkest despair like nothing else, and dark days do abound come wintertime in Alaska.
Over a thousand people attended the concert in Soldotna alone, and we met again the next day in Homer for a repeat performance involving the kids of Homer and Ninilchik public schools. After the pre-concert rehearsal, I pulled up a chair and joined a group of colleagues at the back of the stage who were already in the thick of an avid discussion. I always feel a bit honored when I get to hang out with my local music friends. After all, they are some of the brightest and most gifted, caring, and prominent people in the community: they are the public school teachers. Although I have my own degree in elementary education, it takes a very special kind of person to devote his or her life to public education, and I've always seen myself as more geared toward a one-one-one, self-employed type of career; my hat's off to those who have given their lives to music education in the public school.
As I settled in with my knitting, I noticed right away that the group's conversation already included me. Over and over, each of the musicians agreed that our town is long overdue for a public school string program. "How many students do you have in your studio, anyway?" they wanted to know. "Oh, I don't know, with the piano students mixed in, it's tough to say, but I always have a waiting list, and I'm turning down potential string players all the time." Just the previous day, I met new people in the audience who wanted to enroll in lessons. It really is silly that we haven't gotten a string program off the ground yet; it's quite obvious that the demand is already there. I don't exactly have a huge semester turnover, but I can almost guarantee that most of my students who quit playing the violin do so because they have no regular, easily accessible outlet for their pursuit. Just think of what it would be like to be able to play in a string orchestra with classmates during lunch break or recess? Just think of where this could lead? Without a string teacher, we have no string students, and without students, we have no string players to feed our community orchestra, and without string players in the community orchestra, we have our work cut out for us when trying to tackle works like Shostakovich. Who knows what our orchestra could become in ten or fifteen years with a proper string program in place? And who knows whose lives could be made better for it? The first step has already been taken, and that's to get people excited about making music together. The more kids know just how great classical music can be, the more likely they will want to beg their parents to join the orchestra.
Empower. Enlighten. Enrich... Implement a public school string program, and do this and more for your community! I'm already pushing for the next step! Now, to figure out exactly what that next step is...
More entries: October 2013