10 Minutes

22 03 2007

The day after the orchestra’s annual concert is always a little weird for me – on one hand, I’m glad it’s over and done with; on the other, I’m heartbroken it’s done and over with – you don’t spend a year with a group of people, working very hard for something most people consider impractical (if not downright impossible), and not form some serious emotional bonds.

The orchestra waited through the whole program –  8 whopping hours(!!!) –  just to play on stage for 10 minutes.

First, let me tell you that you don’t know the meaning of stress until you’re cooped-up backstage for 8 hours with 20-odd students (aged 9 to 16) armed with stringed instruments. The students were bored, hungry, nervous, and were somehow managing to imbibe ridiculous quantities of sugar – in the form of soft drinks, candies, and frappes from Starbucks – while all the while clamoring for me to tune their instruments. At one point, there were more than a dozen students practicing different pieces within 3 feet of each other all at the same time – while I was trying to hear an A – 440 in my head and tune a fractional-sized violin who’s pegs had conveniently decided to go slack on the day of the concert. No problem.

The minute or two before our turn to take the stage (we were the Grand Finale) was a serious eye-opener for me as to how people respond to great stress (more on this later) – suffice it to say that when I finally walked out onto the stage, I decided to throw orchestra convention (the reverent applause, the dignified start, and a host of other relatively pointless traditions) out the window and try to defuse the unbearable tension we had built-up for ourselves. I apologized to the audience for making them wait for so long, and thanked them for their patience and support.

All of a sudden, a cellist (with a now-endearing but then-panicked expression on her face) frantically informed me that a string was seriously out of tune.

I should probably take this time  to inform the general public that tuning a member of the violin family is not as simple a task as it might appear: the strings are held in place by simple wooden pegs that are in turn held in place only by friction. Since wood expands and contracts with changes in temperature and humidity, the pegs’ ability to stay in place changes from time to time. It’s a stupid problem, really, with all the technology available to us today – I mean, guitars used to be tuned the same way until some brilliant fellow decided that small gears would do the job much better. Why can’t violin-makers do the same? But I digress…I’ll rant on that later.

Anyway, of all the strings to go out of tune, it had to be her A string – the hardest string to tune due to its high pitch and relative frailty. On her particular cello, her A string was also the most expensive string – we’re talking about a single string that costs close to 2000 bucks.

But miraculously, instead of my normal reaction (throwing a fit), I recall thinking, “Hey, we’ve already started in an unorthodox manner – why not go all the way?”. So right then and there, I became the only conductor in the world to stride over to my student, set-down the baton (that inexorable symbol of authority and power), and tune her instrument.

I suppose some people would find it humiliating to have to do so, but I recall only a mild sense of embarrassment for having to make the audience wait a little longer… until my 3rd year students – may they live forever! – started to cheer; at that moment, I knew I had done the right thing.

I would have to tune the concertmaster’s instrument before we could actually get started (she had tried to tune her instrument a few hours prior and the string had snapped, leaving a bloody(!) welt on her hand; she was obviously in no mood to repeat the episode on stage), but when the music finally got underway…it was glorious.

I don’t mean it was perfect; mistakes were made all around (a few by me) – but everyone played with such spirit (my boss even called it “passion”), such enthusiasm (partly because we were all tired of waiting and desperately wanted to go home to warm food and soft beds), that to call it anything less than “glorious” would be committing a grave injustice. The look on the timpanist’s face when she nailed a passage she usually fumbled during rehearsals was absolutely priceless – her smile was could have lit the entire stage.

When we finally played Iris, the orchestra surprised me(!) with sharp focus, precision and – get this – power…something they’d never quite done before. Perhaps, for the very first time, everyone on stage understood that before fun can be had, the work must be done – they had done the work; now they had fun. Even the mistakes became beautiful.

It’s hard to describe the feeling when I hear a concert-goer comment admiringly about the percussionist or the double-bassist or the concertmaster…I suppose you could call it pride; Pride in knowing that they’re talking about one of my students – that my student came through, meeting and exceeding all expectations of him or her; this sort of pride has no monetary equivalent.

A year of preparation for 10-minutes of something divine…

Good trade.

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3 responses

22 03 2007
mico

i left early, because my family wanted to leave already, and missed the orchestra! i am now regretting that i did not ask my parents if we could stay for a while and watch the orchestra play!! anyways, congrats sir!! it was great having you as our algebra teacher! and God Bless in orchestra next year! you rak! \m/

16 04 2007
ovssilang

“But miraculously, instead of my normal reaction (throwing a fit), I recall thinking, ‘Hey, we’ve already started in an unorthodox manner – why not go all the way?’. So right then and there, I became the only conductor in the world to stride over to my student, set-down the baton (that inexorable symbol of authority and power), and tune her instrument.”

You did the right thing. =)

21 07 2007
Counsellor Light

You know who I am, and I apologize for retracting to my old name. Those were such good old days… days that I remember you so well, and feel so proud of, having finally seen you, after all those years ago, in what you truly (truly, really?) enjoy doing.

You raised several good points regarding the whole concert, and I, a humble and a “first-time” concert-goer (er… huh?), other than doing the right thing, thought it was rather humbling (to put it mildly) to become “the only conductor in the world to stride over to my student, set-down the baton (that inexorable symbol of authority and power), and tune her instrument.”

I strongly believe that power and authority are not the only facets in leadership, especially leading a group of young ‘uns, per se, and in the very short “10 minutes of something divine” you did lead, not just impose power and authority.

And because of that, I applaud you. Better yet, I take my hat off to you… if I had one then…

My profound respects, ES…

Am missing your company…

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