It was exactly one year ago, while sitting inside a coffee shop in downtown Anchorage, killing time before my departure to Hawaii, that I spied through the frosty window a trickling crowd of concert black and assorted instruments releasing from the Anchorage PAC. Warm sandy beaches awaited me, but at that particular moment, I longed for the concert life, the theater glow, the snow on the stage: the Nutcracker. Hawaii seemed unsuitable for the season; how could Christmas time be Christmas time on a ukulele, with leis instead of wreaths, and palm trees for decking with lights? I’ve always been partial to the traditional Christmas scene. Even though the ideal may not actually exist in reality, the closest thing to portraying the snow-coated, candy-cane gloss that I could imagine was the Nutcracker.
Yes, I know, it’s not particularly fashionable to form high opinions of this overly-marketed package. I’m guessing that for most of you, after about 973 times, you wretch inside like a over-stuffed Thanksgiving glutton. But I feel obliged to impart to you my own experience, since this was actually just my first time to take the pit for the Anchorage/Portland production. For me, the anticipation that built as the week neared felt like, well, just like Christmas.
Just like Christmas, the reality of performing The Nutcracker is a mixture of sweet bliss and disappointed shock. Unlike Christmas, however, the actualization of this ballet involved incredible amounts of mental and physical energy. What, on paper, appeared to be four rehearsals and six performances, in actuality, became 12 hour days of practice and focused performance, interspersed with coffee breaks of variable length. (Oh, and how can I forget the endless circling for convenient downtown curbside parking--in sub-zero temps, mind you--that devoured my gas tank and my afternoons? Such a madness I will not be craving any time soon.)
Our maestro, a guest conductor with the Portland Ballet Company, had an impeccable ear, which I grew to admire and fear. If only I could manage to perfect all the crazy trademark Tchaikovsky runs in one week’s time! Thank goodness I wasn’t the clarinetist, and I could easily slip out for a note or two, unnoticed. Every time I resorted to this tactic, I couldn’t help but give a knowing smirk to my stand partner, who thankfully seemed sympathetic to my freshman status.
Being assigned to the back stand would normally put us at a disadvantage, but this location gave us the driving growl of the demonic bass section, who gruffed out the downbeats and offbeats directly behind us with reliable regularity. They also provided a lovely spiritual contrast for the angelic chords of the harpist, who sat on my left. It was great; I’m sure I had the best seat in the house.
And so we went along, one rehearsal letter after another, balancing the voices, coordinating the pitches, sealing the tempos, and timing the entrances. Every once in a while, I would mentally disengage myself and pretend I was outside, listening in on the sound coming from the united violin section , and I was suddenly impressed at the crisp, flawless staccatos and glassy legatos. If I listened closely, I knew exactly where my voice fit in the whole scheme of things, and it clicked seamlessly into place like a jigsaw puzzle piece. Not every time, not all the time, but sometimes, we were a smooth sheet of silk, or a perfectly symmetrical wave, a sphere, a singular voice. What magic!
Is that what makes it like Christmas? That continued feeling of anticipation, the hope that perhaps the next one will contain the aesthetic essence of the perfect phrase? I get that feeling every time I perform. I’m excited to see what’s in the package, anxious to see if I will get what I want this time. Sometimes, it’s more like socks and underwear, though, and you shrug and nod politely as though that was what you’d always wanted, and then you try to forget about the disappointment as quickly as possible. I wish I could be so trivial, but the disappointment of my musical transgressions tend to haunt me when I try to sleep at night, replaying like a broken record.
Strangely--or perhaps typically, for a musician–-the one image left unpainted in my mind when I think of the Nutcracker is the ballet itself. I may have actually seen it once, but when you join the pit, you automatically sign away any association with the production that’s happening on the stage. The conductor becomes the medium, and the orchestra tries its best to accommodate the unseen choreography based on his cues. The only dancers I saw hung out backstage with little attire, having their makeup applied or stretching. I didn’t even recognize the cavalier, who thoroughly confused me when he flirted with me in the halls. Who is this guy, and why does he want to know about violin technique, there with his rippling biceps and oozing charisma? He’s certainly not a pit musician! But before he could sweep me off my feet, I was swept back under the stage for the second act. It was better this way; he and the sugar plum fairy make a cute couple. And I can’t dance. The entire plot would have to be changed.
What is the plot, anyway? Something about a grandfather, a fairy, a cavalier, some chocolate... And snow. Yes, the snow.
We all saw the snow. We saw it during the first performance when it unleashed all at once in a heaping avalanche and overflowed, unwarranted, into the pit. Being the first show, I dismissed the whiteout as simply the Alaskan way of doing The Nutcracker. I was only informed later that ballet avalanches are always unsolicited acts of God, even in Alaska.
I’m still moved every time I see the snowflakes gracing the stage from the rafters. My homeland, Oklahoma, left me snow deprived as a little girl, and of all the 23 Christmases I spent there, I recall two white Christmases. When snow did come, the excitement that it brought was tenfold. Now that I’ve wintered in Alaska for seven years, I’ve worried that snowfall would become mundane and even repulsive. But no. Every single time it snows, I feel as though the world’s sins have been covered with white grace, and peace abounds. I think of snowmen and hot chocolate and missed days of school, of angels, and fir trees decked in white. You could play it 973 times, and I would never stop feeling that simple childlike joy.
Two days have passed since The Nutcracker's last performance, and clips of its music still cycle along in my radio station head. I don’t mind. Between practice bouts, I still noodle through a run or two in secret, just for the fun of it, smiling.
Wow, did you see that? That was me playing the Nutcracker for seven days straight, that's what that was.
I know you didn't, it's because I was wearing black and hiding in a pit.
This week, when I did practice, I practiced the Sarasate arpeggios while balancing on one foot, and I worked on the Bach Partita in the dark. It works. It gives the mind something to think about other than trying to play arpeggios (since Sarasate arpeggios tend to happen best when one is not thinking too much about them) and brings out the colors in the Bach, like technicolor. Everyone should play in the dark. It’s pretty much amazing, even better than playing with flashlights.
Playing on one foot is best with no shoes on.
And that’s all my advice for the day; can’t give away all my secrets, now.
Sometimes instead of practicing, I sit and piddle around for an hour or two. During this time, I think about practicing, but I don’t. Actually, I don’t do a thing. I zone out for a while, and deep down I hope it somehow counts for practicing anyway, even though I’m not doing anything but piddling around. An hour or two goes by in about a minute, and then I feel kinda bad, like I wasted the chance to make a big improvement or something. But secretly, I’m still hoping that the thinking time will pay off in the long run. I feel really spacious after my piddling times. It’s hard to put the piddle away, though, once it’s out.
Every once in a while, I think about the time I got sent to the principal’s office in first grade for not putting my shoes on after the fifth time my teacher told me to. “Enough! I’m going down the hall, and when I get back, you’d better have those shoes on!” Honestly, it was the same kind of time warp that happened back then, too. There she was, and the shoes were still at my feet, my fingers fumbling on the yellow laces. And then the principal said, “Emily, we can’t have little girls running around the school with no shoes on.” I cried because I knew that I was going to be banned from the public school and be sent away to a school for girls who couldn’t keep their shoes on.
But I got a scholarship instead, so I think I’m right about the piddling time.
A winter wonderland can be serene and blissful. But Satan lives just north of me, and every once in a while he whips out his pan flute and blows. When I awoke this morning to the cheesy howling, I laughed. Ridiculous! Now I get to experience a powdery acid bath every time I dash from building to car. I wasn’t laughing long. 40-mile-an-hour wind combined with single-digit temps will freeze-dry the smile off anyone’s face in a heartbeat. Suddenly, I must reconsider every action that requires outdoor transitions. ...which explains the Taco Bell dinner in a toasty car on the way to the wedding rehearsal. Taco Bell, wedding rehearsal, then tuck myself back home again for the evening to practice for tomorrow’s school concert.
However, about a mile from home, I became aware that an ominous inky blackness surrounded me. With nary a light to speckle the landscape, my stomach sank a bit. Sure enough, I pulled into my driveway to confirm it: I had no electricity. The devil must have succeeded in knocking something onto the power line. The house was already chilling. Unable to practice in the frigid dark, and too apathetic to scrounge up a candle or flashlight, I grabbed my crochet and headed back to my car while it still held a bit of heat. Fred Meyer it is, then.
Fred Meyer is about the only place that’s open late and has a few options for entertainment that don’t involve getting drunk. I opted for the sage colored easy chair in the furniture department and settled into my next snowflake ornament. 90's easy listening music filtered through the air, interspersed with produce advertisements ("Pears: you can eat them!").
Slowly, the aisles filled with people, buzzing with the latest power outage updates. Couples discussed candle options. Old timers offered tips on keeping houses warm sans electricity. Coffee shop girls waved to me between cell phone dialogue. Junior high boys played Capture the Teddy Bear, delineating their territories by department and aisle. Moms and babies, shelf stockers, and janitors all made the rounds as I finished my own round of crochet and began the next, waiting, like everyone else, for time to pass.
But lo, what was that sound over the loudspeaker? Ukulele? No! In a memory as fresh as the catch of the day, the first sweet notes instantaneously took me all the way across the Pacific Ocean, to an island where Bruddah Iz himself strummed and sang to me:
“Somewhere, over the rainbow, way up high,
And the dreams that you dreamed of, Once in a lullaby.
Oh, somewhere over the rainbow, blue birds fly,
And the dreams that you dreamed of, Dreams really do come true.
“Someday, I'll wish upon a star,
Wake up where the clouds are far behind me.
Where trouble melts like lemon drops,
High above the chimney top,
That's where you'll find me.
“Oh, somewhere, over the rainbow, bluebirds fly,
And the dreams that you dare to. Oh why, oh why can't I?”
No–musn’t cry–not in Fred Meyer, and especially not in the furniture section. But for that one instant, I remembered the land of fresh tuna and flora, the land of humidity and mild sand. I remembered suntans and flip flops, and luaus and fresh pineapple, and macadamia nuts and Kona coffee. Was it just me, or did the aisles fall quiet for just a moment, and did people pause from their rough sledding for a brief instant?
Yes, I believe it’s true that there’s no place like home, but a Hawaiian vacation every once in a while doesn’t hurt.
Frustrated. Nightmare. Angry. Those spoken words consume me now. They will haunt me down the corridors of my slumber and remind me once again when I awake. Who knows for how long. If I could rub it off, I would.
And then, just like that, winter came.
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