Wednesday, August 09, 2006

In which I ruin my knuckles.

Well, my knuckles are almost completely healed now, actually, but it's certainly taken a while.

As I might have mentioned before, I am a charlatan percussionist in a moderately highly-regarded local orchestra (the kind where nobody gets paid). For my first year or so, this imposture wasn't terribly difficult because I restrained myself to instruments like bass drum, cymbals, and triangle. (This is not to denigrate the instrument, but a trained musician can play most bass drum parts at a convincing C+ level after about 45 minutes' aquaintance with the instrument.)

This safe approach got extremely boring. So, to keep myself entertained, I've grown bolder in my percussion fakery- I now ask for the hardest percussion part in a piece, the theory being that anxiety trumps ennui.

So far, this has had pretty good results. I played the gong and (tricky) bass drum part for Rite of Spring, bells for the R. V.-W. Dona Nobis Pacem, tambourine for The Red Poppy, claves, bongos, and starter pistol for a big modern clarinet concerto, and -- most recently -- cymbals for the last movement of Tchaikovsky's 4th.

Now, I had some inkling that the last movement of Tchai 4 was famous for being a hard cymbal part, an 'audition piece', but deep down I figured that, hey, it's cymbals in a 19th century symphony. This was a summer concert, meaning that we got two rehearsals and then a dress, which seemed like ample time for me to get a feel for it. Thus began the cymbal nightmare.

In the first rehearsal -- held in a hot little borrowed high school band room -- we got to play through that last movement exactly once. I had reacquainted myself with the piece in the car on the drive over, and had been feeling capable. Needless to say, it was a total disaster.

The cymbal part in movement IV of Tchai 4 is, for the great majority of the piece, wholly reasonable. I mean, there are a lot of crashes that punctuate the usual dramatics (my college conductor D. Kern Holoman memorably described Tchaikovksy as 'one fucking aneurysm after another') but it's nothing outside the scope of standard 19th century cymbal pyrotechnics.* Then, just when you're feeling secure, it turns into the most cacophonous godawful crashing imaginable. The last three minutes of the piece looks like it was written for a ride cymbal for a set drummer or something- fortissimo crashes on every quarter note, then riding on offbeats, and then every eighth note, all driving on to the conclusion while the brass blare at full volume.

This leads to certain problems, the foremost being that if you're banging cymbals together very loudly, well, after about ten seconds of this kind of concentrated crashing you can't hear anything, just a sort of general noise cloud that envelopes you. It's not really your fault, even, with an instrument like the cymbals- the piece is moving extremely quickly and you can get caught up in your own sense of pulse very easily. So, when Tchaikovsky asks for you to play on the beat in opposition to extended brass off-beats, the whole idea of who's on which part of the beat gets very nebulous, particularly if the conductor is doing tick-tock baton business that actually obscures the beat.

Compounding this difficulty was my friend's brand new pair of beautiful Zildjian cymbals that, I soon discovered, had an approximately 5% chance of inverting on any given crash. In a piece with as many crashes as the Tchaikovksy, they were more or less fated to pop. And indeed, at every one of the rehearsals I'd get about a minute into the big crashy part at the end of the piece only to find -- GOD DAMN IT -- that they'd inverted, yet again. The procedure for unpopping cymbals is laborious and delicate- you put a tennis ball or bass drum beater on the floor, place the disc on top of it, and then, with the help of a friend, attempt to place an even, strong pressure around the rim of the disc to pop it back in the other direction. This takes about half a minute, which is quite a long time when Tchaikovsky is rattling by vivace in the background.

So, at the dress rehearsal things were looking grim. The cymbals had popped again. I had a spare set of crappy high school cymbals handy as the emergency set, but there were all sorts of nasty murmurs in the string section about the problem. This is a sort of ingrained prejudice that amateur musicians seem to have regarding percussion, since it seems like it ought to be very easy to whack two pieces of brass together once or twice in the course of a piece. I'd played through the piece only three times now -- once per rehearsal -- because the other movements and other pieces on the program were swallowing all the rehearsal time. I was starting to feel pretty guilty about how badly my part was sounding.

And so, here's the "Rocky"-esque portion. I decided, first, to just ditch my friends beautiful-sounding but unreliable cymbals in favor of the trash-can lid high school cymbals. Thus equipped, I started on a morning-of-the-concert crash course in Not Sucking At Tchaikovsky. I put in some earplugs (I didn't like the idea of sustaining permanent hearing damage for the sake of one concert) and banged cymbals together for five hours. I worked a long while with just a metronome, memorizing the part, then played along with the recording (via an iPod and big ear-shielding headphones), ticking off every successful play-through on a pad of paper, working toward my goal of three sets of thirteen.

This, it turns out, is really, really miserable for your hands. The way orchestral cymbals are held, you grasp a leather thong in a closed fist, the thumb and first big knuckle of the index finger holding tight at the point where the strap disappears through the disc. The left hand is held underneath, at an angle, the whole weight of the rough brass plate on approximately the middle knuckle, and the right cymbal held above. Now, there are prettier, more dramatic postures, but at the velocity of the Tchaikovksy this was the only option. After the first few hours, I'd worn through the skin on both hands, a nasty process by which the accumulated grime on the brass was rubbed into the wound.

The next step was heading to a friend's house to practice performing in front of someone. I usually try to perform in uncomfortable settings with strangers before a concert, to put things in perspective and calm my nerves. We both put in our rock-club ear plugs and cranked up the Tchai on his computer's loudest setting, undoubtedly delighting the neighbors. This was a few weeks ago, in the midst of northern California's memorable heat wave. I don't know if I can convey the sensation of banging cymbals together over and over, in a demanding, tricky pattern, in a house without air conditioning. It was easily 110°, and the sweat was rolling down my back. The leather thongs in my hands were getting that weird roughness that's unique to wet rawhide (copious palm sweat). My friend conducted as best he could (he didn't have a score, and kept getting tripped up by the brass off-beats, just as I had in rehearsal), but it was a good hour or so of practice under difficult circumstances. My hands hurt so badly that I wrapped them in paper towels, which turned out to be a good solution. I assume the neighbors really enjoyed it, so I had the 'strangers' angle covered. I then went home and put in another hour or so with the iPod.

So, that was where things stood when I headed out for the concert. I hadn't played the piece correctly in rehearsal yet, my hands were throbbing, and I didn't know whether to wear the earplugs for the show. All of my rehearsing, after all, had been with the plugs in, but I didn't know if onstage I should risk them- what if I couldn't hear the orchestra and ended up way off the beat?

The first two thirds of the concert were unremarkable. I played some bells and chimes stuff in Morton Gould's warhorse 'American Salute', and then a comparatively easy cymbal part in Liszt's first piano concerto. All this was stressless and successful, prelude to the main event. For the first two movements of the Tchai we (the triangle, bass drum, and cymbals) sat offstage, nearly a half hour in which to get nervous or sleepy. Then, during the plunky pizzicato stuff in the third movement, we snuck on.

I had decided to wear the earplugs. I'd worn a single one during the Liszt, just to try to get a sense of what it would feel like, and decided it was worth the risk. It was an interesting sensation- you feel a degree of removal from the situation, like seeing a landscape through tinted glasses. I'd left the knotted paper towels on top of the bells set, very picturesque, and carefully wrapped them around my hands as the pizzicatos began to wind down.

And then it went fine.

Unfortunately, there's no way to finish this little story without this anticlimax- it went very well. I didn't fuck up even a little, which can be a rare and delightful sensation in live music. Honestly, in all my years playing clarinet, which is arguably much more work and infinitely more expressive and demanding, I never felt such elation as I did successfully playing cymbals in the Tchai after one day of earnest, knuckle-ruining woodshedding. And that's How I Spent My Summer Vacation.

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*I should add that cymbals aren't exactly easy- they demand a great deal of good taste from the performer. Most composers are very inexact with their notations for percussion, and a certain amount of creativity is required with regard to how long the cymbals will ring, how they will be damped... well, I guess that's it, really. But those issues are more complicated than they might seem on first consideration. Nothing drives me crazier than some hack crashing the cymbals and then damping them inappropriately quickly at a dramatic moment.

3 Comments:

Blogger Daniel Wolf said...

Great story! Did you consider wearing gloves?

7:30 AM  
Blogger Trevor Murphy said...

I did, actually, but the hall we were playing -- a very pretty one, built around 1908 or so -- lacks air conditioning, and all my gloves are of the cold-weather variety. Also, I figured that the lining inside of gloves could slip a little, and I needed a very firm grip.

2:24 PM  
Blogger sfmike said...

That is a great story. Congratulations, Rocky!

12:03 PM  

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