Friday, March 2, 2012

"Winds, Brass, etc. . . ."


"Winds, brass, etc."

So rarely is the plight of orchestral percussion summarized so brilliantly in just three words. There is a brutal clarity to it -- at once vague and startlingly accurate in its intent. Percussionists are people too. Thump us, do we not sound?

The verbiage above was included in an e-mail to the non-string members of our local community chamber orchestra regarding the order of upcoming rehearsals. The e-mails are crafted by a lovely woman -- a violist -- who is fond of words. When discussing the need for regular attendance, or mentioning that sweaters might be needed as the heat in the rehearsal room is iffy, or urging folks to sign up to bring snacks for breaks, she is often able to use up to six words where typically one will suffice. So then I can only shake my head when I get to "winds, brass, etc.", wondering how her usual grace and ease with language has somehow failed her once she gets within ten feet of the back of the rehearsal hall. Perhaps it has something to do with the barometric pressure. Or sunspots.

Of course in the orchestral hierarchy, even the lowly brass are thankful for percussion, as the drummers are the only things that keep the brass from rattling around in the bottom of the barrel. The woodwinds, snug up right behind the strings, do their best to identify with their bowing brethren and not with the brass or :gasp: drummers far behind them. My impression is that the woodwinds cling as closely as possible to the backs of the violas and cellos (cringing at the decibels put forth by trumpets and trombones) in hope that the strings won't realize that the flutes and clarinets were once in marching band in high school with the unclean masses in the rear of the room. Distract and deflect. It has worked well for them. Particularly for the bassoonists, whom everyone knows played saxophone in high school, but no one talks about it.

Back to . . . the back of the room. I think perhaps rather than actual disdain for percussion, there is sort of a bewilderment about what goes on in the back of the room. We have lots of parts on one page. We play various strange looking items that we carry around in lots of black bags and boxes. We stand up when we play. We sit down and do nothing a lot between the times that we stand up to play. We have let our choice of instrument (particularly the timpanist) dictate both our choice of automobile and our housing options (have you ever tried to get a 32" timpani through a 30" door?). We are a different breed that I believe only the harpist (she with the van and the special harp dolly) can somewhat understand.

And the nature of the community orchestra vs. the professional orchestra only complicates matters. Apparently this orchestra has never had a standing timpanist or percussion section. Until I enlisted last spring, it was always a matter of the conductor and other players calling in what favors they could to find college or even high school students to make maybe the last few rehearsals to sort-of-learn the parts and play the concert. I don't think the players' names were ever even committed to memory, as they came and went like so many carnies in the night, a few glittering flakes of Tilt-A-Whirl pixie dust all that remained as evidence of their ever having been there.

So I'll let it pass this time. I'll work to raise the profile of my lowly section. I'll be a joiner! I'll try to actually meet and learn the names of some of the string players! I hope they realize that from the back of the room I only see the backs of heads. I don't really know what they look like. And visiting during break is difficult as I have to be first-in-last-out given that the only other option for access to the timpani -- once anyone else is seated - is levitation or a crane of some kind. And I can visit neither before rehearsal because I'm gathering and setting up, nor after rehearsal because I'm breaking down and putting away. . . . Geez, who am I kidding? I can't fix this. This is a problem for the ages. But I'm open to suggestions.

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