Disasters, Debacles, or, You’re kidding, right?

Talking with a dear friend last night about no-win situations in the workplace got me to thinking about some of my favorite musical disaster stories.

#1 The Oblivious Symphony of Connecticut

When I was 22 I learned about a principal flute vacancy with an orchestra near where I was living. It was a union job, and seemed like a great gig for a newly-graduated flutist. I talked with the personnel manager, and she said that scheduling with the conductor would be challenging. Eventually, she called and asked if I could play some excerpts over the phone with her and the conductor listening. So at the appointed time, I answered the call, set the receiver down on the table, and launched into Peter and the Wolf, Afternoon of a Faun, Brahms 4th, etc., and they said I got the job!

I showed up for the first rehearsal and a Schubert Symphony was up first. The first page of the 1st flute part had lots of repeated 8th notes. Piece of cake, right? Well, the orchestra started, and I watched the conductor with my eagle eye and went right into the fifth dimension. I could not discern a beat anywhere in his movements, and the orchestra was completely ignoring him. But they weren’t playing so well with each other either. Who do I go with? The violins? The basses? The flat oboist? Absurdity went straight to panic. The whole rehearsal was like that. The conductor was completely incompetent and the orchestra was disorganized and unfriendly.

A few days later the personnel manager called and asked why I was not at rehearsal. I looked at my schedule, and there was no rehearsal scheduled for the night she said I missed. No matter, she said the conductor was furious and I was being fired. I was floored, but relieved. Lesson: Research any group you are thinking of joining, even if you’re desperate for a gig. (That was the lesson, but I did not learn at that time!)

#2 The Missing Cathedral Choir

I was contracted to do a “tenor section leader” job for a Haydn mass to be performed on Christmas Eve at one of Washington’s cathedrals. The job description from the contractor said we’d be singing from the choir loft in robes with one of the city’s best organs. It was to be a rehearsal and gig in the same day, which is good for time and money but challenging for preparation. I showed up for the rehearsal and there were five people there: 2 sopranos, a mezzo, a baritone, and me. I waited for the rest of the choir to show up, and no one did. I said, “Where’s the choir?” and the director said “You are the choir”.

Next question. Where do I get my robe? The baritone and I were both wearing khaki pants and a shirt without a tie. “We don’t have any robes.” OK, well at least we’ll be in the choir loft where nobody will see what we’re wearing, right? “Well, no, the organ is in the choir loft and it’s undergoing renovation so the loft is closed, so we’ll be doing the mass off to the side with a piano.” Oh.

So we did a Haydn mass in a packed cathedral with one on a part with a piano in our street clothes. Doing the mass as a quintet made some of the long lines really taxing, way beyond the typical opera aria, for example. Thank God for cathedral reverb to hide the gasps for oxygen that set in after about 4 pages of dotted half notes! We had to stagger breathing among the “sections”. It was a really lame rendition, even with good singers. Lessons: Know exactly how exposed you will be and research which places are nasty cheapskates who do things half-assed.

#3 Head Trip Private Teachers

This will just be random quotes. At least one I have posted before.

“If you don’t show some improvement, we may need to send you back to a TA to study.” Threat from a flute professor who could not play himself. The next semester I won a concerto competition outside of the school while he was on a sabbatical.

“You don’t have the temperament to be a performer.” Comment from my advisor during the last semester of my flute performance MM degree. (I did this degree after several years of paid concertizing with my chamber ensemble.)

“It’s surprising that you sing this way considering that you’re such a good musician.” (Translation: I can’t figure out why your singing sucks.)

(After a year of frustration with my “ah” vowel) “Just say ‘ah’ for me. [I said ‘ah’] Well, that’s a strange way to say it.” No correction, or suggestion about what might be a better way to say and sing it. Help!

From a master class: “Listen to how [master class participant’s name] puts all her vowels in the same resonance space – Excellent”. Her vowels all sounded like “uh”. It was like listening to Frankenstein’s monster trying to sing Sebben crudele. Undifferentiated beautiful grunts.

#4 Faure Meets Schoenberg on the Tundra

I played the flute on many concerts with a wonderful harpist. We covered most of the flute and harp repertoire, and played some transcriptions. One cute piece is Faure’s Berceuse Op. 16. It is rather chromatic, and requires that the harpist change pedals frequently (the harp only has 7 strings per octave, all sharps and flats are inflected with pedal positions). Halfway through, something went really wrong and the harpist missed one of his pedal changes. We played the last half of the piece with him in something like D, while I was in F. Weirdest effect ever, I wish we could reproduce it, because it was hilarious. I’m sure it would have caused the baby to cry rather than sleep.

The recital had been doomed from the get go. The car we came to the venue in broke down a few blocks from the church and it was a very cold and windy winter day in Hartford. We dragged a harp, a harp stool, and our music bags for several blocks for a lousy 45 minute lunchtime gig that paid dirt. Good times, good times. After the Faure debacle the harpist took everything else on the program at 3/4 tempo, which did not do wonders for my breath control. Nasty. Words were exchanged. Lessons: 1) Modal music is your friend on the harp. 2) Get Sugar Mama/Daddy to buy you a decent car.

#5 The Silent Flute, or The Intimate Firing Squad

I auditioned for three grad schools. Two were successful and one was a disaster. At the latter event, I showed up for the audition, and was lead to a piano practice room. The room was about 15 feet square at most, with a grand piano on one side and four chairs on the other. In the four chairs sat the flute faculty. It was a very, very intimate space. I took my place at the crook of the piano, aware that I could count the pores in the noses of my auditors. I attempted to start the Poulenc Sonata, which begins with 4 very fast notes in the flute part, with the piano meeting me on the downbeat. Somewhere between 1 and 3 notes actually emerged, and it was downhill from there. All notes below G were completely gone. It was like I was a mime with a flute in his hands. It was unreal. It was the worst stage fright I have ever experienced and I think a lot of it had to do with the ridiculousness of using a practice room for a major audition. Not even a classroom. What does that say about the school? Lesson: 1) Prepare for anything and realize there will still be surprises. 2) There is such a thing as “too close to your audience”. This was a blessing. Instead of going to a very expensive conservatory, I got a full ride and teaching assistantship at a better school with a good, if head-trippy, flute teacher.

#6 The “Challenging” Middle School Job

For my 5th and final year of public school teaching, I taught in a Florida public middle school. One small sampling of my duties: My last period of the day was a beginning band of 38 kids playing the following instruments: violin, flute, clarinet, drums, trumpet, trombone, and sax. Complete beginners. What would you do? I’m not really sure what I did, but it wasn’t pretty. Uncarpeted room. 38 middle school kids. End of the day. Drums and violins and saxophones. 180 days. I had five periods a day with that kind of absurdity every period, each a variation on “this is hell and here’s your banjo.” Lessons: 1) Programs vary hugely by region. 2) Yes, Florida really is as bad as they say. 3) Get a different job. Thus began my IT career.

The things we do for a buck or a career! I have lots more stories, but that’s probably already too many.

4 thoughts to “Disasters, Debacles, or, You’re kidding, right?”

  1. During my last two years at university, I had a flute teacher just a few years older than me. We had both competed for a position in the local orchestra three years earlier and I won the job. When my original teacher decided to move back to Holland, she was appointed to teach and me, being the naive country bumpkin, just went along with it. Big mistake! I continued to be hired for free lance work and that made her furious so, she made my last two years HELL… assigning obscure music that was out of print and even though she had original scores, I had to provide my own which was impossible. When I could finally locate some of the music via Inter-Library Loan, it would have taken too long for it to arrive. As a result, she wanted to fail me on my graduation recital. Fortunately, the rest of the department stood behind me and said NO! If we fail Craig, we have to fail everyone. She backed down, but behind my back went to the orchestra manager and told him that I wasn't coming back and that they should hire someone else. I only found out when I went to the office to pick up my contract and music for the upcoming season. And that's why I left flute playing! The orchestral politics were just too vicious. As a follow up, I met a fairly recent graduate (piano) from the university recently and she related a similar story about the same teacher that had happened while she was there. What I learned from all this was the necessity to be proactive (both as a student and teacher), supportive and honourable.

    Back in the day when I worked as a lifeguard to support my music habit, there was a woman who regularly "swam" at the pool. She was a dancer (modern & jazz + her own style) and spent several hours (3+) every day there. That in itself is a whole other story, but here's the vocal part! There were two spots that she liked to use to enter and exit the pool and one where she would spend time stretching. All of these areas developed a very greasy/oily slick to the extent that people would slip and slide when walking across them. None of us good figure out why, except that she always used those areas so we knew there was a connection. One day I noticed that she had a very large jar of Vaseline (petroleum jelly) in her bag, so we decided to watch her more closely. Before she entered the pool, she would turn around so the guard on the deck couldn't see and smear a large gob of it on her lips and her teeth, then wipe her hands on the pool deck! That explained the slick on the deck. So, being the friendly guy that I am, I mentioned that I had seen her putting Vaseline in her mouth and did she know that petroleum jelly is not something that should be ingested. Her response left me speechless! She said that her doctor told her to protect her vocal cords from the effects of the chlorine in the pool by coating the inside of her mouth with Vaseline and as she swallowed, it would coat her vocal folds and protect them!!! WOW!!!

  2. Brian, I have often thought a collection of these kinds of stories would make a great book! My favorite:

    The revered Smithsonian Resident Associate Program in Washington, DC, contacted me to sing a program of Swedish songs to go with their program of Nordic arts and crafts. It was to be performed at the New House of Sweden DC, with various dignitaries and ambassadors attending.

    As we began negotiating a contract, the woman organizing the event stopped and asked, "Do you have a piano you can bring with you?"

    There is a favorable ending to this story, but I will stop there…

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