A Little Not-Music

The collapsing podium was the last straw.

I had joined this community orchestra a few years earlier, when I'd started playing cello again after a long break. The idea had been to meet chamber musicians. I didn't care much for orchestral music, having played far too much of it back in high school. But where better to meet amateur musicians than in an amateur orchestra?
It seemed like a good way to meet people and get some more playing experience. It turned out to be less, so much less.

Before I continue, I should probably say something about the S word. You know, “snob.” Writing about one's experiences in a classical orchestra is bad enough, but going on to complain about its deficiencies is probably enough to convict me in Snob Court. However, I think there are mitigating circumstances.

The thing about snobbery is that there are many different ways to be a snob. If I were, for instance, a social-climbing snob, I wouldn't have had any problems. This orchestra is a social climber's idea of heaven (or at least one of the upper levels of Purgatory). It has among its members any number of the idle rich, as well as lawyers, university professors, a very successful architect, and a Federal appeals court judge. None of this really signified much to me. I didn't want to play in an orchestra with a bunch of swells; I wanted to play in an orchestra that was good. And that's where my troubles arose. Our cast of characters:

The Deaf Flutist. Not stone deaf, of course, but damned close. He could play pretty well, actually, but he was sufficiently deaf that although I knew he could play well, I was never sure if he knew. The biggest problem in his case was that he couldn't hear anything the conductor said. I sat at a stand near his, and after the first couple of rehearsals I realized that one of my responsibilities was to repeat the conductor's instructions in a stentorian bellow directly into the flutist's ear.

The Shaking Oboist. Watching her, I had uncomfortable memories of Dizzy Gillespie, cheeks inflated and eyes bulging. But the strangest thing was the shaking: the instrument, her arms, her head. In case you're wondering, it only happened while she was playing. Closing my eyes helped a little, but not much, as I could still hear the shaking.

The Angry Violinist. He seemed enraged at everything. He talked out loud during rehearsals, correcting other players, and occasionally the conductor. He also made fun of the other orchestra members behind their backs (as opposed to doing it in printed form, like me). Enough said.

“A word of advice: if you ever decide to take up a brand new instrument in your sixties, go for something that's hard to play badly, like the triangle or the bass drum.”

And in my own section, the cellos:

The Late Starter. This is Bob, the architect: a distinguished veteran of World War II, rich, and enormously successful at his work. It's a testament to his self-confidence and love of music that he plays the cello at all, because he didn't start until he was 65 years old.
Learning a musical instrument at an advanced age is never easy, but taking up a stringed instrument is just asking for trouble. The only reason anyone manages to learn to play these things well is that they start as children and sacrifice their social lives in order to get in five hours a day of practicing. This is something that adults are almost never able to do, and Bob is no exception. He is the only person I've ever heard who manages to play open strings out of tune. A word of advice: if you ever decide to take up a brand new instrument in your sixties, go for something that's hard to play badly, like the triangle or the bass drum.

Moving up the section, we meet Emma, otherwise known as Rain Woman. Emma could play in tune, although most of what she played sounded like the desperate moans of a sick cow. But what was especially noteworthy was her social awkwardness. She didn't seem to know how close to stand, or how much eye contact to make, and she spoke too loudly.

This wasn't too bad by itself – she wasn't the only one in the orchestra with some kind of social maladaptation —but, when her relatives showed up at concerts, it was a shock to realize that Emma was by far the best adjusted member of her family. The most memorable of those relatives was the one who seemed fairly inconspicuous until the music started, at which point he started to moan, loudly smack his lips, and rock back and forth in his seat. I wasn't sure if he was enjoying himself or suffering, and of course musing on this philosophical point didn't do much for my playing.

Finally, we reach Oswald, The Founder. The orchestra was his pet project. He had founded it and kept it going for the better part of twenty years through the exercise of some sort of Svengali-like powers of persuasion. At practically every concert, there would be five or ten dazed-looking professional musicians or highly talented amateurs wondering how they'd been hornswoggled into acting as ringers. (This was one reason why the orchestra never sounded quite as bad in concert as we did in rehearsal.) I once asked one of those ringers why he bothered to show up. Looking depressed but resigned, he said to me, “How can I say no? It's a mitzvah.”

Oswald played at the first stand, as befitted his status as founder of the orchestra, and for no other reason. He had trouble playing in tune or navigating quick passages. Like the flutist, he was quite deaf, and for some reason kept forgetting to bring his hearing aid to rehearsals. Like many deaf people, he had no idea how much other people could hear of what he was doing, so he would practice difficult passages while the conductor was trying to talk. Since each of the conductors were working at his invitation, they never seemed comfortable asking him to stop.

Once, most of the cello section (including me) had missed a couple of rehearsals, and Oswald had needed to share his stand with Bob. When I returned, at least three people came up to me privately and said “Thank God you're back.” Apparently Oswald was almost never able to hear any of the conductor's directions, and would rely on his stand partner to indicate where to start playing. But Bob wasn't much help in this department, and on this occasion the conductor finally had to resort to the expedient of repeatedly walking to Oswald's stand and pointing to the right spot on the sheet music.

I suspect that Oswald's powers of persuasion also helped account for the many awards that the orchestra had received. It is, apparently, a model of community service and cooperation between city and university (we got our conductors from the local college's music program). I'm happy to hear it, but mostly I'm happy that I managed to restrain myself from standing up during the award presentations and shouting, “What is the matter with you people? Have you never heard us play? Or have you all gone mad?”

But perhaps it is I who has gone mad. The collapsing podium certainly seems to have pushed me over the edge. It was a podium on wheels, with a collapsible metal barrier (intended, I guess, to prevent audience members from rushing the stage and dragging us bodily from the concert hall). Unfortunately, no one seems to have known how to prevent the barrier from collapsing, and it did so without warning during an interlude at one of our dress rehearsals, with a sound like a rifle shot. I was looking in the opposite direction at the time, and had no idea what was happening. I am just glad that I managed to keep from soiling myself.

I am also glad to have had a clear signal that it was time to take a break from the orchestra. It was fun, some of the time, but I'm not sure my constitution can take much more of it.
This just means I won't play the rehearsals, of course. When concert time rolls around, I expect to get a call from Oswald, and I expect I'll play the concerts as he requests. How can I say no? It's a mitzvah.