Sunday, May 19, 2013


This title comes from a coffee mug my mother sent me, years and years ago. The mug was a campaigner and was my companion on many a tour. Some musicians found it funny, some laughed uneasily; I have a notoriously "true" ear. In fact, I have perfect pitch, or whatever they call it these days and will cheerfully point out egregious tin-ear like behavior at the drop of a hat. It's not necessarily a good thing, because, it's made me lazy. Actually I've made me lazy. A story for another time.

 I get the whole enharmonic thing. Still when you see double F♭♭, or worse, E double-sharp, which looks like a skull and crossbones, I prefer not to go there. Alas, I have no choice. Someone has to do it and my stand partner has usually decided it's a fine time for a nap.

P.S. This ain't my clef, so we're already 2 removes from my reality, whatever that is.

I believe I've mentioned that I am not a big fan of the violin and that most of my gigs in the latter half of my career were non-classical in nature. I did play viola in quite a few of them and had a few stand partners that were most memorable. Somnambula, for one. Here was a guy who would fall asleep, mid-measure, take a nap for about 16 measures, then like some automaton, just wake up and come in precisely where the orchestra was in the waltz.

A Tribute to Fibich, who is famous for "March of the Gladiators." You know that Circus music that every circus in the world plays, when the circus enters the tent. Total cheese.
This is a piano reduction.

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Bach; these are the opening 6 bars. It flat out rocks. It's the one you here in every scary movie and is originally for organ. It's a real challenge for an orchestra and I love playing it. This is the adagio, or toccatta (which means "to touch") Although slow, it is brilliant technically. The fugue itself is difficult as well.

I also had another stand partner who heard voices and kept trying to sit in my lap while we played. After he got carted off to the loony bin, I was designated Principal. Not because I played well, necessarily, but because I was unflappable. But my favorite stand partner was a gal out of Orlando. She was just as nonchalant about all of this as I was. We were playing Pops-type music and the viola parts sucked. So, after the concert, we would go off and get snockered in the Hotel's bar. One night, she whispered to me, “You know so-and-so?” Who was a member of our section. She asked me this after looking around to see if anyone was listening; there wasn't anyone else in the bar. We were closing the joint. I said, “Yeah, I do.” My friend, Beth says all wide-eyed, “I walked by her room and she was PRACTICING this music.”

What's-her-name was practicing something like this. For interpretation? Artistry? Music like this drove me to drink.

Get out! No violist practices this crap!” I said. Beth just nodded. “She WAS! I swear.” Holy cow. You practice Beethoven, you don't practice “Life Is Just A Bowl Full of Cherries.” Anyway, this was the tour where one of the 1st violinists fell asleep against the proscenium during a concert. Since he sat on the outside, everyone could see him. Alas, he didn't get hired on the next tour.

So, I got to play first violin on the Bebe Neuwirth tour and she sings this song about Johnny Surabachi. The manager was daft enough to seat me with my dear friend, Nancy. This is a disaster waiting to happen. There were 4 stands of 1st violins. My friend Bryan, a colleague from the University of Michigan is playing concert master and his partner, Inga out of Julliard, are on the first stand. I can't remember who was on the 2nd stand of 1st violins, then it's Nancy and me and I don't know on the last stand of 1sts. So, 8 1st violins.

There's this passage in Johnny Surabachi that is all bongos and mysterious. The parts are divisi, with the 1st stand playing a couple of measures, then the 2nd stand joins in, with higher notes for a few measures and then it's time for the Mary and Nancy show. Mind you, these F'ing notes are so friggin' high, I have no idea what they are. I don't usually play in this clef and now I'm expected to pull some stratosphere notes out of my ass...

What in the hell? That someone, who put this nightmare together "helpfully tells us "D" string and "E" string. I like the way he hastily scratched in (octave lower) with an arrow pointing, so the dimbulb celli and basses would understand, it wasn't an octave higher. Clearly not a string player. The second staff down is viola clef "B" I climb all OVER my fingerboard and play notes higher than some of the ones on the "E" string on the violin, but I have not clue one what that shit is in the stratosphere on the violin clef. Guess what? Nancy didn't either. She just wings it!

To top it off, the first 2 stands had gone Eek! And Squeak and then just stopped. Nancy and I went Erk. And then stopped and the 4th stand did nothing. Thundering silence. I pretended to tie my shoe, which is a neat trick when you're wearing flip-flops. Bryan turned around and looked directly at us, like “who are you and what have you done with my Mary.” Nancy raised the stand so no one could look at us as we howled with laughter. The conductor called a 15 minute break.

Someone weenused out and wrote 8va, which means they're written an octave lower than they sound.This dingbat thought it would make better sense in color. Lemme just get out my magic markers and color my strings. That'll help.

Nancy and I raced outside and rolled around on the loading dock of the theater. She said between guffaws, “First it sucked, then it got suckier and then it sucked some more.” It was truly, truly awful, but funny as hell; Nancy and I still laugh about it. That's one reason why I hate playing the violin. The stupid notes no one can read.

Not that I haven't suffered debacles playing the viola. Many, many years ago, my stand partner was responsible for the music. She and I had decided that we would copy the third page, because the turn from 2nd to 3rd page was right spang in the middle of a very complicated viola passage. We were playing in this little chamber orchestra up in the choir loft and it was rather drafty. We had all 3 pages set up on a music stand designed to hold 2 pages, and of course, being violists, we assumed the Magic Tape Fairy would provide. She didn't.

The 3rd page wafted out into the audience and Julie and I went from fortissimo to pianissimo and made many serious viola-like playing movements. I believe the term is air-viola. The conductor, who was Romanian and a complete bastard, started waving his stick at us, to make us play louder. I am not entirely sure of the physics involved here, but am fairly sure, that is not it. Julie and I could not even look at one another, as we played these imaginary notes on our air-violas. I am fairly sure that we were playing a Bach something-or-other, where the violas were absolutely necessary, so this just sounded like a clockwork mouse, that someone had stepped on, was still running but missing a part or two.

Free-form music; my favorite

After the piece, the conductor came down off that podium and started leafing through our music to make sure we would have no more “forgettings” as he termed it. After Julie and I got over our laughing fit, we told him we wouldn't.

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