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Behind the Scene, Ahead of the Scene

Emily Grossman

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Published: November 28, 2013 at 12:34 AM [UTC]

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.

"You're rushing."

"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...

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on November 28, 2013 at 4:06 AM
'The more I tried not to mess up the more I messed.'

Pookie, after all these years on v.commie you know better than this!!!!!!!!!
That thinking is the most absolute guarantee you will mess up.
You should have done the complete opposite and tried to mess up.

BTW. What is a pookie?
Happy Christmas,

From Emily Grossman
Posted on November 28, 2013 at 10:45 AM
Oh I know, that was the kinda ironic point that I was making! Oh, if you only knew how much I've destroyed in my life by trying too hard not to mess up. It's still the greatest lesson for me to learn, and I keep relearning it on a daily basis (sigh). Good news, though: I learned from yesterday's mistakes, and at tonight's dress rehearsal, I was on top of my game, living in the moment and enjoying every minute of it!

The best part about Nutcracker is, if we continually improve by making mistakes and learning from them, then by the sixth show, we should all be pretty swell. :)

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on November 28, 2013 at 10:50 AM
i have ceased being ironic because it didnt seem to have a pay off.
As far as I am concerned moronic is the way to go.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on November 28, 2013 at 10:52 AM
Oh, the bitter morony of it all...

PS Happy Thanksgiving!

From Randy Walton
Posted on November 28, 2013 at 12:41 PM
Well...first of all...Pookie was(is) my daughter's nickname. Actually, it was Pooka-Pooka but Pookie for short.

Professional symphony conductors are notorious for their lack of conducting the rhythm so your failure to stay with him is totally understandable. I sometimes wonder when I watch the Nashville Symphony if the orchestra really follows him or if they just listen to and follow the percussion or whichever section of the orchestra is prominent.

Happy Thanksgiving!! to you and George and Ben and Chewy and everyone who reads this!!!!!!

From Laurie Niles
Posted on November 28, 2013 at 5:26 PM
I love the Nutcracker and played many times in the pit, back in the day. I find the music in the first half to be the best stuff, not all the familiar music in the second half! Though who can argue with any of it? It is all really clever. When my daughter, age 2 (she is now 16), came to one performance, she danced in the aisles and then proudly told anyone who would listen, "My mommy is in the arm-pit!" But the pit is where I would most like to be, for the Nutcracker!
From Karen Collins
Posted on November 28, 2013 at 5:34 PM
Really? You're never supposed to say "sorry" at a rehearsal? I had no idea. I have broken that rule zillions of times, yikes!
From Emily Grossman
Posted on November 28, 2013 at 6:07 PM
Arm pit, that's great! I think I'll call it that from now on...

Karen, I don't know what the rule is, but I know it's not the norm in ASO to squeak out apologies:)

Happy Thanksgiving, Randy, Laurie, and Karen!

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on November 28, 2013 at 7:09 PM
now your getting it.
dont forget to moron your husbands shirts.
Happy Christmas,
Posted on November 29, 2013 at 9:56 PM
Just yesterday I had a chamber music professor telling our group that rushing is actually a good sign: it means you're responding to the emotion in the music...

Of course, he added that it's usually better to communicate these emotions to the listener for them to respond to, instead of keeping them for yourself :-)

From Susan Jeter
Posted on November 30, 2013 at 5:56 AM
Laurie - "in the arm-pit" - that cracks me up! I've played in the arm-pit many times!

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