You’ve just gotta love this profession. No matter how many roadblocks get tossed in their path, musicians always seem to find a way around them, taking things in stride and laughing about it later with each other over either coffee or beer (depending on the hour!). Whether it’s butchering the Messiah by whacking the transposition button on the organ, dropping bows and breaking into hysterics mid-concert, or finding oneself face-to-face with a leering colleague just as they are about to play a big solo, musicians are often only a hair’s breadth away from making fools of themselves in very public settings. As a result, we musicians are apt to take life’s inconveniences in stride and roll with the punches more often than other folks, making lemonade out of lemons on a regular basis.
I had a recent week of orchestral work that teetered on the brink between hilarity and disaster recently. It’s amazing how unforeseen circumstances can take an excellent pack of musicians (which this group most certainly was) and make them want to tear their hair out by the end of the experience.
But, being both a musician and a person who gets a kick out of borderline disaster situations, I couldn’t help but smile as the week unraveled, knowing that I’d have some great blog fodder for future weeks.
This is one of those tales that, just when you think the weirdness is over, continues to surprise you. I’ll spread this over a couple of posts, so expect more soon.
One quick note before I start–this is an excellent ensemble that I’m referencing, and the wackiness results strictly from unforeseen circumstances and never from musical shortcomings. In other words, I’m not ripping on the group in any way, shape, or form, simply pointing out the bizarre behind-the-scenes situations we musicians regularly encounter.
The week in question started with a Sunday morning rehearsal in a nondescript downtown Chicago office building on a blisteringly cold winter day. Being my usual obsessively early self, I arrived well over an hour before the rehearsal, parking underground, listening to my iPod in the dark, and trying not to accidentally fall asleep as I killed time before the gig. About 45 minutes before the start of the rehearsal, I finally pulled my bass out of the car and maneuvered my way up to street level, strolling over to the venue with plenty of time to spare.
Turning a corner with my bass, I noticed that the conductor for the gig was standing outside the rehearsal venue, chatting with another early arriver while glancing impatiently at her watch. The entire office building was locked tight–not surprising for a Sunday morning downtown, but sure to put a crimp it our morning rehearsal. Like a lemming, I started pulling on the door handle, thinking that it would magically open for me.
I stood outside, bass in hand, my fingers chilling in the wintry air, as the conductor made a series of increasingly exasperated phone calls.
“What do you mean, you left the key? I’m standing outside! Where did you leave it? In your office? How could that possibly help?”
More and more musicians began to arrive, until the entire orchestra was standing outside on the sidewalk, a shivering mass of frosty cases and grumpy faces. Homeless guys were forced to reroute themselves around us as we began to slowly consume most of the sidewalk. In fact, take away the instruments and we could have easily passed for a group of homeless people ourselves, shivering in the Loop on a Sunday morning, huddled in front of the rehearsal space (soup kitchen), getting colder by the minute, waiting for the doors to let us in and play (eat).
Musicians remain musicians no matter what the circumstances, and I watched as two of the orchestra members started to chat animatedly about their various chamber music groups. Pretty soon, demo CDs and season brochures came out as these two players networked with each other, their breath puffing around their faces in the frigid air.
I couldn’t help but glance over toward the Wabash Avenue side of Symphony Center, the home of the Chicago Symphony, directly across the street from where we were huddled. The irony of huddling behind the home of the Chicago Symphony seemed to me that morning a perfect reminder of my place on the musical totem pole. I really am a bottom feeder, scuttling about, trying to get into office buildings when everyone else is asleep or at church.
“Does anyone have an apartment nearby?” asked the conductor. “Maybe we could all cram in and….”
I smiled at the thought of us hauling timpani up some rickety Chicago stairwell and cramming an orchestra into someone’s little bachelor pad. Would the violins be in the living room and the brass in the kitchen? Maybe they’d put me in the bathroom.
“Anybody know anywhere we can rehearse?” asked another ensemble member.
Folks halfheartedly mumbled various locations, perhaps realizing the dim likelihood of being able to actually find a new venue on the spur of the moment. I suggested that we try to ‘crash’ Symphony Center, grabbing the rehearsal room and seeing how long we could play before being shut down. That didn’t go over too well. I then suggested just unpacking and playing on the sidewalk. I had been standing outside for nearly 45 minutes already, so my bass was probably about as cold as it was going to get. Hey, we could even put out hats and collect spare change at the same time–a whole orchestra of buskers, complete with conductor!
No dice. Oh well.
I began shifting back and forth, tightening and relaxing my muscles to try and warm up, my fingers tired and numb from holding my bass up. The contractor suggested that we all head over to Starbucks for a coffee while they try to get things sorted out. I’m always up for a coffee, but especially so after being trapped out in the cold for the better part of an hour. Most of the musicians started to migrate down the block toward for coffee, myself included.
Rotating doors stood in my way, mocking me with their bass-crunching panels. Although it was technically possible to squeeze in one of these with a bass, I was nothing but trouble awaiting me if I attempted it, so I did a little dance through a connecting building, ignoring the suspicious gaze of the security guard, and squeezed through an old-fashioned regular door for my coffee. We had now divided into two groups–the coffee-desiring and the non-coffee-desiring.
As I stood in line, I glanced back toward the rehearsal venue and saw….musicians going in! Someone must have opened the door. Forgetting about coffee, I did a little dance back through the connecting lobby and out onto the street, The last of the non-coffee-desiring musicians were ntering the building as I sped down the sidewalk with my bass, the door shutting behind them just as I was coming up on the rehearsal venue.
I pulled on it.
It was locked.
I looked inside, seeing the elevator doors closing, the musicians heading upstairs a few stories to the rehearsal space. I banged on the glass, now really irritated, as the rest of the coffee-bound musicians returned.
“Where’d they go?”
“Did they….forget about us?”
“Does anybody have a cell phone number….for anybody?”
Apparently, survival of the fittest kicks in when musicians are locked out in the cold. No one returned to let us in! We were yet again trapped outside in the cold (now for well over an hour) without even a cup of coffee to show for it, and no one seemed to notice that half of the orchestra was missing.
One of the violinists started cracking wise about the whole thing, making me smile even in my annoyed state.
“That’s it! They’ve left us. Who’d notice that there are no strings? Who could say? Is this some kind of joke? Where’s the camera?”
About 15 minutes later, one of the musicians we’d seen enter the building came down the stairs. He looked at us, confused.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
I mouthed some very not-nice words through the glass.
He opened the door.
“What’s going on?”
We all tried to cram (unsuccessfully) into the tiny office building elevator, finally making it to the rehearsal space, quite late, cold, annoyed, and grumpy–the perfect way to start a rehearsal.
My bass was a block of wooden ice at this point, and my fingers felt like little icicles. I’ve been trapped in the cold like this with my bass before, so I know the feeling of trying to play the bass with icy club hands , but that doesn’t mean that it feels good. In fact, it feels downright lousy.
I remember locking car keys inside my car with my bass inside several years ago on a day with air temperature hovering in the single digits below zero (Fahrenheit). I had eaten dinner without realizing that I had left my keys in the car, and I then had to call a tow truck, stand in the cold for around an hour, get into my frozen car (with my frozen bass) and tear down the road to try and make my rehearsal on time. I came trampling in just as the tuning A was being given, unpacked my bass with my frozen hands, and immediately started playing.
That day was much worse than simply being locked outside for a while in the cold, so I couldn’t be too annoyed at the situation, but it was only a harbinger of things to come. We had another rehearsal that night in a different location, seven hours later. I had lessons sandwiched together in the intervening hours, so I sped off to the suburbs to go teach some bass, my 13 hour day of bass playing only beginning.