strung out
my life as an amateur violist
 

           the lost years  |  # h
 
 

  You find a lot of Italian in orchestral music. Allegro ma non troppo. Pizzicato. Diminuendo. Con brio. A few contemporary composers have tried to rally others into using English terms, with the noble intention of demystifying the score. I think they are missing the point. The Italian is not only beautiful on the tongue and in the ear, but it serves to draw you out of your everyday life and language into a musical mindset.  

Thus Da Capo (meaning literally “the head”) is musical Esperanto for “let’s go back to the beginning.” Capiche?  

A large part of the satisfaction I draw from performing a piece of music is its invitation to engage the composer's world, to try on his or her feelings/locale/experiences. My most intense memory from my three years in the Prep orchestra is of the rehearsals to prepare our performance of Moussorsky’s “Night On Bald Mountain”.  

The rehearsal is where all of the work is done. The bowings (coordinating the bow movements to best express the musical phrasing), the dynamics (the loudness or softness of each section’s part), and the ensemble work (playing together, feeling the exact same beat) are all honed in rehearsal. Professional orchestras are lucky to get one or two. The Prep’s big gig used to be an appearance on the Portland Youth Philharmonic’s Christmas Concert, which meant about 12 rehearsals.  

Barring a few performing arts schools, the Prep orchestra is probably better than just about any high school orchestra in the country. (Correspondingly, the Youth Phil is probably superior to any college or community orchestra barring some musical colleges and conservatories such as Julliard.) That said, Bald Mountain ain’t that easy to pull off. It’s essentially the story of a coven of witches and spirits that slowly come together at said mountain, proceed to gradually whip themselves into a pagan frenzy which then falters and grinds to a halt with the rising of the sun. Pick up a recording. You’ll find that you’ve heard snippets of it hundreds of times in movies and t.v.  

These witches have really got to rock to make this piece work and that calls for some fairly aggressive, high-flying, and drivingly rhythmic playing. At the time I had made it to about the middle of the first violin section. As an orchestra we weren’t ready to perform this piece. Mr. A knew it was a bit of a stretch for us, but was dreading having to back out to a simpler piece with so little time until the gig. After some agonizing and polling, we agreed to an unprecedented mid-week Prep rehearsal. This was a big deal. The overwhelming majority of Prep members didn’t drive. Many of them came from destinations outside Portland (such as Scappoose, where I went to high school).  

I ended up bumming a ride from my Honors English teacher, John Hayden, who happened to live in North Portland. He drove this giant 1950-something Checker that looked to have done actual duty as a cab earlier in its life (vintage Hayden). It was a tank. I dug it. The rehearsal, however, was tense. There was a lot riding on the line and you could see it in Mr. A’s face as we filed in and filled up the rehearsal hall at Glencoe Elementary on Belmont Street. The urgency had focused everybody (yes, me especially) to take a closer look at their parts individually. It paid off. By the end of the night the prognosis was good: we had a good shot at pulling off a passable performance of the Russian classic.  

While some audience members may have thought it odd to hear such a Halloween-like piece the day after Christmas, we were all too swelled with pride at having delivered the goods to care. The chimes that interrupt the dance represent the shafts of morning light, but they could just as well have been an alarm clock warning me that my time with the Prep was nearly up.  

Ironically, my summit Prep experience came amidst a period in which I was growing restless with the group. Clearly, the clock was ticking. I was nearly eighteen years old and had been a member of the Prep for three years without breaking through to the show -- the Youth Philharmonic proper. As I became diverted and committed to other senior year interests I began to skip rehearsals without giving notice -- a major Prep no-no.  

I hadn’t exactly been helping myself a great deal in the technical skills area either. My first Portland teacher was a fine violinist, PYP alumna, and very sweet person, but had focused a bit too long on restructuring my fundamentals, which resulted in my returning to the annual re-audition (oh, had I forgotten to mention that little thing?) with a simple piece that only served to highlight rather than camouflage my weaknesses. Mr. A was not pleased.  

I had a new teacher that was pushing me along the path of progress, but I have to admit I wasn’t committing as much practice time as I should have.  

In the beginning weeks of my college freshman year, I would play once again for Mr. A. I would either break through to the show or settle for the letdown of meeting my musical appetite through a lesser ensemble...  >>

 
 

 days of naze   days:strung out