I find there are times when I want to escape the “real” world because it is just too complicated, needs time to sort out, but cannot easily be forgotten. Times when life involves others. Today did not start well mainly because there were leftovers from yesterday, toxic leftovers that need to be reviewed with somebody else before they can be let go and no longer contaminate my life.

My escape today was playing the recorder in our local orchestra where we had invited a guest conductor to try out because our regular conductor has a terminal illness and though he continues to keep going, years after diagnosis, his time will run out and the orchestra will need a replacement if it is to continued. The advantage of having a guest conductor is that all the pieces will be new so that no practising is required, the disadvantage is that all the pieces will be sight read which can be rather challenging for the nerves.

Another advantage of going to orchestra is that all I need to do is write a short email, and magically a car arrives on Sunday lunchtime to take me and my instruments to the venue. Some of the members, myself included, have recorders large and heavy enough that they are difficult to convey on public transport so door to door transport is really handy. It also means that I get to chat to someone I only see once a month for an hour or so which means I guess we always have something to talk about.

P is a university maths lecturer and I am always interested in finding out what going on at her work, students can be pretty funny creatures. We also share a love for skiing, though currently the theme seems to be not skiing. Today though we mainly spent the time talking about our frustrations we have with other people and the challenges of relationships with people who have very different views of the world. It was good to share our monologues and to get some feedback, but after we had arrived at the church hall where the orchestra practice takes place and I had a few moments to myself, I couldn’t help but feel rather sad and despondent.

Fewer people than normal turned up so I hung back a bit to see what instruments we might be lacking in the soundstage. I ended up playing bass which is not my usual instrument but one I am pretty comfortable playing which was fine. I remember saying to a colleague that I could do with playing something not too challenging. The session started well. Our trial conductor asked if it was alright for him to play a Tallis Fantasia on a voice flute, nobody objected. He played beautifully and the piece was spell-binding but all too soon it was over and it was the orchestra’s turn to make the music.

There are conductors out there that know exactly how they want a piece to sound but more importantly they also know how to get an orchestra to play it that way. I guess with professional orchestras the moulding of a piece is easier because each musician is a fine player by themselves who know their instruments and how to play it to get the best sound out of it. We are an amateur orchestra (a few of our members could be called semi-professional though) so the challenge is so much greater for a conductor because they have to teach technique, support people to come in at the right place, and get people to play the right rhythm; to name but a few.

A great conductor will start at piece at the pace they want it to be played and despite the chaos that reigns around them will continue pulling the orchestra along until people are so confused that the conductor calls a stop and we try again.  Each time we go back the conductor will give a few tips to make things easier for certain sections they have identified as needing the most help. The orchestra will then play the section better and we will get further through the movement.

We played the first movement of a Dvorak string quartet. For the first fifteen minutes or so I struggled with reading the rhythm, notes and counting rests. It was demoralising because I just wasn’t getting it but despite the seemingly hopeless situation I kept going. I was on the knife edge of being overwhelmed by the challenge, I wanted to run away but the confidence of the conductor (and I suppose the embarrassment of leaving) kept me going. I remember turning to my colleague and telling them that this wasn’t what I needed today.

It is a privilege to be led by a great conductor and be carried along by their belief in what they can get an orchestra to do. It is a privilege to go from feeling so helpless and overwhelmed by a piece but fifty minutes later play through the whole piece and know that I (and the others) have made a pretty good job of it. The piece is no means finished, there is a lot more polishing still to be done, but essentially we know we could make it sound very fine indeed. To go from the impossible to certainty in less than an hour is an amazing gift to give, it is what makes a good conductor great. Today I experienced my second great conductor, and I look forward to meeting the guy again but boy, it was hard work.

After two and a half hours of concentrated playing, the session ended and I was ready to go back home. Rather than being refreshed from playing the recorder I found myself even more drained. Back home I helped my wife cook dinner which we ate, having the pudding in front of the television. We were both exhausted to do much else, though I think we both read or wrote after the television was switched off. Today I achieved something special with the help of an inspirational amazing individual but as the day ends I still feel rather sad and despondent.

 

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