“Don’t worry. It always works out in performance.” Nope. Even as a child I knew that wasn’t true when a well-meaning adult would pat me on the head and offer up those comforting words. What I have learned through the passage of time is how to deal with situations that come up that are unexpected. It can be distilled into 2 rules. 1) Always be prepared. Know your music inside out so when Murphy’s Law pulls you over, you can deal with it. 2) Have a sense of humour. Laughter can lighten many an awkward moment.
I was six years old when I began music lessons and started my life’s journey as a musician. I hadn’t been playing very long at all when I entered my first and only music festival. My instrument at the time was a little 12 button bass piano accordion. It was green, shiny and very pretty. As I walked across the wooden church platform of Saint Andrew and Saint David United Church in Saint John N.B., the click of my black patent leather shoes echoed throughout the sanctuary. I wore my new festival-going frock and my curls were neatly combed into submission. I plopped myself down on the chair, made sure my legs weren’t splayed in an un-lady like position, and calmly placed my sheet music on the stand. I re-covered the music in tin foil so it was sparkly and would look what I thought to be appropriately professional and worthy of a festival. My test piece was a jaunty little tune with the catching title, “Button Boogie”. Before I started to play, I looked for my mom and grandmother sitting in the pew. Once I caught their glance, I took a breath and began to play. My attempt lasted about 6 secs. I forgot to undo the leather strap at the bottom which keeps the bellows together before your arm pumps air into them. You can press a little white button on the side of the accordion to release the air. It sounds like an inflated balloon with a hole in it. But I was not a patient child – a places to go, things to do, kind of kid. The air needed to escape FASTER so I pressed all of the buttons down that I could with my left hand and that made an ungodly racket that sounded like stepping on a lion’s tail. There were gasps from the audience, mainly from my mom. I began my tune again but the mood was shattered. My score of 82 filled me with disgust because I knew I played well. On the drive home, I told my mom I loved music, would keep playing and practicing but no more festivals for me!
Scoot ahead about 2 years – the scene Hillcrest Baptist Church, Dec 24th, Sunday School Pageant. I was a pretty decent alto for 8 years of age and so was my friend Bonnie. Our assignment, was to be angels perched on the top rung of a ladder singing, “Angels we have heard on high”. (I think the choir director gave it to us as a chance to redeem ourselves. A month before, when singing in front of the church leading the children’s hymn, what started as snickers became of full fit of knee slapping complete with shaking hymn books when I noticed one of the parishioners, the lady who always pinched our cheeks, had fallen asleep. Her head had fallen forward causing her wig to hang below her chin and was fastened to her short hair by only a bobby pin. In retrospect, I am not proud of myself for my lack of self-control, but if it had been a Mr. Bean skit, it would have gone viral.)
Back to my duet. I suddenly developed a fear of heights. Hanging on to the ladder, silver garland as halos, cardboard angel wings dangerously drooping down our backs, not a sound was coming out of my mouth. Except of course my laughter. That was the first time I sang a duet in church. The second and last time really didn’t end well either. Good thing I moved onto playing the organ.
The first time I played the organ publicly in church was for a wedding in Sussex N.B. The organ was a little pump organ with one manual. I didn’t know the organ’s condition until I arrived 40 minutes before the wedding. There weren’t enough keys to play the ‘Wedding March’ and the pump pedals stuck. Sue, the soloist had to bend down in her taffeta dress and push them manually. The bride was 40 minutes late. Being 15 years old, my repertoire was slim pickings. After exhausting my ‘party pieces’ and thumbing through the hymn book for anything that didn’t resemble a funeral hymn, I started to play theme and variations on ‘O Dear What can the Matter Be.”
A few months later I had my first opportunity to lead a church service from the organ bench. This means playing a Prelude, Postlude, Offertory, Hymns, solo, anthem, and service music. After the first hymn, the organ died. Well, all the stops on the organ died but two – a 2 Foot and a 16 Foot. (This sounds like a duet between a tuba and a ukulele.) Not good for hymn singing, nor for the confidence of a 15 year old. The hardest thing was calling the organist after the service to say the organ bit the dust on my watch.
After so many firsts going so horribly wrong, it is a wonder that I kept at music. For my Senior Recital at Mount Allison University, I played my beloved instrument, the chapel organ.
The repertoire was heavy and required much concentration – Louis Vierne, Bach, Dupre, Messiaen. I was in full flight, feet and fingers flying when I made a registration change and pulled out one of the stops. I yanked a little to hard. It went flying over the balcony just missing knocking someone on the head. I learned later that my professor sighed heavily and immediately lifted his hands to his face like Macaulay Culkin from the movie ‘Home Alone’. I just shrugged my shoulders, laughed and kept on playing. Lesson I learned was that the show must go on and that if you can laugh about it, even better.
I have mentioned in previous postings that organs dying in the middle of a service is nothing new to me. You make do or go to a piano.
The other hat I wear is as a conductor. Over 25 years now leading Cantores Celestes. Have things gone not according to plan? You bet yah! One concert back in 1995 I had 22 people in the choir. Our dress rehearsal was ticket-boo. Night of the concert, I had 11 people sick, myself included. Coughing, spewing, various states of dishevelledness. I wish I could have run across the stage with a sign that said we sounded great 4 days ago. I had a temperature, ears were plugged and during the intermission I ran out the side door heaving in the bushes because I took so much cough medicine. The next season I increased out membership to 33 and have kept it a healthy size ever since as there are usually 5 people sick or away from the first practise to performance date.
Another Cantores Celestes concert ‘Adiemus’ goes down in my books for testing the patience of any conductor. I had booked at least 13 musicians and we had visuals to accompany this New Age style music. My first violinist ended up subbing in a concerto for the Symphony as their scheduled soloist was sick. My violist ended up in the hospital for various complaints. The cellist forgot her music. My recorder player had a death in the family so I had to find someone new 2 days before. Subway delays. Highway closed. And in the afternoon during the set-up the playback machine for the visuals didn’t work. Adiemus is 45 minutes long and we sing most of it in the dark. There are many passages repeated. My choir sings from memory so I am the choir’s GPS. To make a long story longer, I did manage to hire replacement musicians, and the video play back co-operated at the last-minute.
My brain though didn’t. About 4 pages from the end of the work I felt a fuse blow inside my head. It was the stress of the day and because I saw the double bar coming up I relaxed too soon. It was an existential moment. I read the music in advance of where we are. There was a distraction in the audience and I couldn’t remember if I was in the moment or reading ahead. Did I repeat this page 5 times or 4. I guessed wrong and ended it to soon. The musicians watched me and ended with me with a look of surprise clearly on their faces. We winked and played the concluding short movement.
I have never had a costume mishap but Janet Jackson’s is probably the most famous. It also happens in classical music. Baritone Louis Quilico was in Moscow singing Aida. It was his big aria and he was milking it. Suddenly, his costume fell down. There he was, centre stage, in his briefs. And what did he do? He just kept singing. Meanwhile he tried unsuccessfully to pull up his pants. By this time, the orchestra & chorus were doubled over in hysterics. Ever the consummate performer, Quilico kept holding his final note as a dancer ran over and yanked up his costume. Quilico received a standing ovation after that!
Then there is a wonderful mezzo-soprano who has a beautiful voice and stage presence like no one else I know. She was singing solo in front of a packed house when her straps let go and there she was with the twins exposed for all to see. What did she do? She owned the song and the stage! She just kept singing much to the delight of her audience.
You just keep going. Unless there is a fire alarm or someone is seriously ill, the ‘show must go on’ is the law that performers cleave to in response to Murphy’s. And sometimes, all you can do is laugh and have a good bow. Everyone makes mistakes and stuff happens. It is how you handle it when your skill and character are tested.