I played some summer outreach concerts for the Grant Park Music Festival last summer which featured one of my all-time worst verbal gaffes ever. Every once in a while you’ve got to put your foot in your mouth to keep your ego in check, and boy, did I ever put my foot in my mouth on this gig!
I was the only bass player for these events. I’m still not sure why I was asked to play these concerts—I’m not a member of the Grant Park Symphony. The concert was for grade school kids participating in a Chicago Park District summer camp. The camp counselors made the kids wait for lunch until after the concerts, and that combined with the 2 p.m. starting time of these concerts made for audiences of grumpy, impatient little faces.
Part of the concert programs featured a “competition” between the various sections of the orchestra. The segment was called ‘Orchestra Idol’ (after the über-popular TV show), and the woodwinds, brass, percussion, and string sections all had to play a piece, followed by the kids voting for which section they liked the best.
Now, I love stringed instruments as much as the next person, but let’s be realistic for a moment here. There is no way (I mean NO WAY at all) that strings will ever defeat brass in a competition for coolness at the grade school level. It just won’t happen. It’s like rock-paper-scissors. Brass is rock and we strings are scissors, and no matter what we do, rock crushes scissors. We all learned this back in grade school.
The brass section had picked out the theme song to Mission Impossible as their piece, and, to make matters worse, they had recruited a few percussionists to play with them. Brass AND percussion versus strings? Sorry, strings—you’re going down.
The strings had picked an arrangement of Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen as their piece, and while I have always liked this tune (I’m from
Things were not looking good for the string section.
We string players (only two violins, one viola, one cello, and me) worked on the piece with the conductor during the rehearsal, and we all agreed to go backstage and work for another 20 minutes while the woodwinds rehearsed their piece. As we were walking offstage I grumbled to the violist:
“Well, we’re definitely not going to win with this lame-o arrangement.”
One of the violinists heard me and quickly mentioned that she didn’t think it was a bad arrangement.
“Are you kidding?” I said. “It’s terrible!”
It was at that point that I looked at the name of the arranger printed on the music, and I realized to my utter horror that it was the same name as the violist to whom I had just grumbled.
Nice, Jason. What were those exact words again? We’ll never win with this lame-o arrangement? Great. Very classy.
Once you let out a dumb statement like that, it is pretty much impossible to reel it back in with any grace. What do you say?
“Ooooh… actually, it’s not lame.”
“I meant the other piece we’re playing, not this one.”
“Ha ha… just kidding!”
I decided to just let it hang there, like a big uncomfortable verbal clod. Anything I could say would only make me look spineless. Maybe the violist would RESPECT my forthrightness, my honesty, my lack of sparing anyone’s feelings in expressing my opinion. That’s possible, right?
The worst thing about it was that it wasn’t actually a bad arrangement—I was just venting, annoyed at our imminent defeat at the hands of the brass players. This reinforced a lesson I had learned many times in the past—don’t talk trash for no reason!
We kept rehearsing backstage, and after we got done I lamely said, “You know, I think this arrangement is growing on me! It’s pretty good.”
The violist was not convinced.
The next day featured our first concert for the kids. You can read about it on an old blog post. I wasn’t brave enough to relay my gaffe the first time I wrote about this event, but that post will give you a synopsis of how the concert went. It was hot out. Very, very hot. We’re talking around 100 degrees Fahrenheit and 100% humidity, out onstage with no air conditioning and no breeze. Very uncomfortable.
The ‘Orchestra Idol’ section of the concert happened, and we sting players did our darndest to impress, bobbing and swaying to the music of Queen. Light applause followed from the hungry and sweaty audience of kids.
The woodwinds went next, playing the theme to The Simpsons, and this received considerably more applause. Woodwinds also don’t have much of a chance against brass and percussion, but at least the kids recognized the tune. The percussion section let loose with their own selection, drawing even more applause.
Finally, it was the brass section’s turn. As they started playing the Mission Impossible theme the kids instantly started cheering. The kids went berserk after the brass finished, clapping and screaming and jumping up and down like a bunch of girls in a Beatles audience.
Stupid brass players with their cool instruments.
We all know who won, but the conductor decided to rub it in a little. He had the kids vote for the woodwinds first.
“How’d they do?” he asked.
The kids responded with light applause and a few cheers, the polite kind of cheers you give when a popular kid does a bad job in the school play. The “you’re bad, but we love you anyway” kind of cheer.
Next the conductor acknowledged the strings.
“What do you think, kids?” asked he conductor.
The kids started booing!
Booooo! Booooo! Booooo!
We were getting booed by a crowd of 10 year olds. Ouch! It’s like getting booed by puppies.
Finally the brass players were acknowledged. The kids started screaming and cheering hysterically even before the conductor could ask the question.
All of the brass players started laughing at us.
Stupid cocky brass players with their hordes of adoring children.
We string players decided to revamp our part of the show for the next performance. Maybe we couldn’t win, but we could at least try to avoid getting booed a second time. I didn’t feel so bad ripping on the arrangement after that, seeing as how the 10 year olds also found it to be “lame-o”. We worked up a very cool, slithery Brazilian tune and performed it the next day.
That crowd booed us even more than the first crowd!
Keep in mind, this is an entirely new group of 10 year old campers. What is it with kids booing string players? Why do kids give the woodwinds a pass but jeer at us?
I hate to say it, but multiple audiences of 10 year olds can’t be wrong—strings just aren’t as cool as brass.