As a teen I sang and played drums with a show choir, sometimes “going on tour”, to performances and choral competitions out of state. We once performed at the National Cathedral, an impressive venue.
It was an ear-opener. The organ pipes are located considerably farther from the audience than the choir. Wikipedia says the full length of the hall is 457 feet – that’s a full half-second for the first impulse of sound to reach the back, and of course much longer for echos. To keep the audience hearing the organ and choir in sync, the organist would have to play significantly ahead of the choir. A pipe organist has to learn to play only against music in one’s head, and discount the notes still arriving seconds later. I’ve always marveled at this ability.
For the cathedral concert we were given a choral piece to be conducted by the composer himself. As soon as we rehearsed I could tell there was going to be trouble. It was prissy and experimental – written for the composer himself to flesh out some statement he wanted to make about composition. There were multi-octave pitch changes that were hard for amateur voices to land. Rhythmically I couldn’t find any groove.
This is not knocking experimental music. I have a soft spot for musicianship that pushes boundaries, and I’m glad musicians do it. Sometimes this leads to greatness. Composers we revere now, even regard as stereotyped and quaint, were often regarded as experimental in their own time. But often music that is a challenge for the performers and the audience isn’t to be enjoyed so much as intellectually appreciated. Great music comes from emotional power located outside the intellect.
As a drummer, I’m particularly sensitive to this. I find I have two modes of playing. One is practice mode, where I think of individual notes and the technology of playing. In the other, music is felt and flows, thought is at a higher level than the notes, and emotions are accessible to me. Music that is too technical for the skill of the performers gets everyone stuck thinking rather than feeling. When the performers can’t even get into the music, God help the audience.
Here’s what I might be thinking when in the technical mode: “this note now, count out the beats, two-and-three-and-a-now, wait for the bass (I messed this up earlier), an eighth rest and now.” And in the flow mode it is just listening and observing: “That feels right. Let’s play more aggressively. The piano is playing behind everyone else’s beat, bear down and help her out. The bassist just created an opportunity to groove together, ha ha, that was nice.”
Back to my story. Being the drummer, I was asked to play the composition’s scored tambourine part. The piece was irregular and I really didn’t get it. I wanted to understand what the composer was trying to do, but the note placement just felt too random to absorb.
We barely had any time to practice, but did have one small-audience, low-stakes public performance before the big cathedral performance to polish things. When the time came, I lost my place in the score. When this happens one has three choices:
- stop playing,
- play a regular beat until things improve (usually quarter notes), or
Since I had been playing, stopping would be noticeable, so #1 was out of the question. The composer was conducting us as if he thought there was a beat, but since I couldn’t find it, I couldn’t do #2. So I improvised. Since the music seemed sort of random to me, I tried to fit in playing “randomly”, hitting the tambourine every now and then, until the song ended. Lame, but one does what one must.
After this show the composer came up to me. Shit, I thought, I ruined his piece. “Nice job!” he said, smiling. He seemed genuine.
Huh?, I thought. And then: I have it made. He doesn’t recognize how he scored the percussion, so at the big performance I’ll just do this again. No worrying about the nasty arbitrary notes, I’ll just stare intently at the music while playing whatever I like. Relax. There is no need to practice.
And then came the big performance, and trouble. Just before the concert, I’m introduced to The New Guy. The composer thinks it would be even better if there were two tambourine players, and had found someone else to join me. This won’t work at all, because we have to play the same notes at the same time. No improvisation. I am screwed!
(It is only as I write this now that I spot the irony. Mr. Composer may have actually liked my improvisation at the first concert, and had I not pretended it was his work, he would not have doubled down.)
Fortunately, an actual performance often goes better than rehearsals. Sometimes it has less to do with practice, and more with the focus that adrenaline brings. Whatever it was kicked in and I was able to play, more or less, the music as it was written. Which is to say, I played the same thing as the other player.
Until the triumphant climax of the song. I don’t know what happened. Perhaps it was the sense of relief, letting guard down, or maybe the revenge of withheld errors accumulated throughout the piece. The last two notes were played utterly out of sync.
They weren’t even close. Nobody said anything, and likely nobody cared. But I’ve thought back on those two notes more than any others I’ve played.
Sometimes we have to improvise.