Sunday, November 29, 2009

What's Underneath?

From a distance, a group of professional musicians dressed in black and white looks clean, solid and prepared to demonstrate that practice makes perfect. When I was in my twenties, backstage at the Kennedy Center, I spied a member of the National Symphony Orchestra slipping on his bow-tie and pulling a wrinkled jacket from his locker. As he walked by, I sniffed and did that thing most people do when they can't quite believe their noses -- sniffed again. Perhaps he took too literally the usual performance rule of "no perfumes or colognes."

I think musicians enjoyed being directed by Leonard Bernstein's baton. He could be intimidating with his amazing ear, his remarkable intelligence, his photographic memory, and the fact that often he had composed the scores on the musicians' stands. I remember once he turned to the union steward and said something like, "could we go another 10 minutes?" At the sound of a few grumbles, the steward shook his head and Mr. Bernstein stepped off the podium.

I would like to think the members of a community orchestra who gather unpaid have come to have fun. I think it's fair to say most of us do, although sometimes it requires special effort when we stumble in at the end of a long working day. Too often I see frowns and hear mumbling when our instruments are silent. "That was too fast." "I wish he'd give us a better downbeat." "What happened to the bassoons?"

Some musical groups recognize the truth of their efforts. Their first focus for fund-raising is their own membership. Too many others ask, after a concert, "Why didn't more people come? They missed a wonderful performance. The general public doesn't support music any more."

Hmmm. You can't ride an elevator, wait after punching 1, 2 and 3 for customer service, or watch a movie or commercial without musical accompaniment. This wouldn't happen if folks didn't "support music any more."

On the other hand, too many people expect performances to be as perfect as a professionally produced and carefully edited recording. During the early twentieth century, an upright piano played an important function in every properly appointed parlor. The household member who'd best figured out the blacks and whites led the entertainment, while everyone else sang. Now, almost every day, that piano goes unclaimed when it's offered free for pickup on Craigslist or

One of my gripes is the performer who, all excited, tells you about her every next appearance and insists you attend. Gradually you realize you haven't seen her at any concerts but her own. Listen to someone like Virginia. She won't be asking you to show up. You'll be begging her for a schedule of recital dates. In between, she'll be applauding every chance she gets.

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