Pierce is coming over soon for us to plan music for an upcoming Christmas gig we have playing violin and viola together. It reminds me of the holiday gigs I played last year in December. My sister Cyndi does the number of gigs in one week that I do in one year. Or something like that. Or maybe the talent she has in her pinkie…. However that goes. Anyway, one of those gigs was nothing like I expected.
The event I was hired to play came on a weekend when several other holiday events occurred in the Pikes Peak Region—huge extravaganzas like the Nutcracker—so all the usual musicians were tied up. The broker for this gig needed to call on some players beyond the usual roster (that’s me) to help fill in the chairs for the events she had brokered. This job she called me for was in Denver, so more than an hour out of my way, and there was no usual traveling fee added. But I like playing, so I agreed. The venue was a shopping mall, and we were to play holiday music for the shoppers, a very low stress gig. And fun. Just making pretty music and interacting with people as time and guests and opportunities present is enjoyable. Because I don’t do these jobs everyday—like Cyndi does—I said, “Sure I can play. Second Violin, right?” because that’s what I’d played last time I’d done a wedding for the same broker. Second is much easier because, one, the notes are lower, and two, you don’t have to run the gig, like deciding when to start, stop, or improvise a solution (or musical line) because something unexpected just happened (like a bride forgets to come forward or a groomsmen passes out). But as it turned out, they really needed me to play First Violin because the other three of my quartet were college students (albeit very talented ones) and the broker wanted my “maturity” (old age) and experience for the lead. So silly me. I signed on.
Jason agreed to drive to Denver with me, since I can’t see well in the dark, and because we thought we’d be able to do something in town like go out to dinner afterwards. A nice time out in the big city. It was a good thing I had him there, or I would have had a terrible time getting home when it was all over.
When Jason and I walked into the venue—what we’d all understood would be a shopping mall where we’d be background music with shoppers walking past, enjoying the ambiance we provided—we were in a sit-down theater with an audience quietly seated listening to the show. I nearly had a cow. I had to pull myself together fast, put on my big girl pants, and face the music. Or the potential catastrophe. We had about twenty-five minutes before we were to be up on that stage with a packed room of people sitting and waiting to hear a lovely holiday concert.
I went backstage to find my other three musicians, meet them, and make a game plan. I didn’t even know what they looked like. But I found their instrument cases, so I knew they were somewhere near. I tried to calm my heart and think clearly. Ohmygosh! Total and complete exposure, and I’d never even met my quartet and we’d be sight-reading the entire musical set. The stage manager offered me a bottle of water. If only it had been a bottle of something stronger. I wanted to disappear. I did NOT want to deal with this.
Finally, the three girls came in the back stage door, giggling and happy. They’d been out looking around at the outdoor mall because they’d arrived while the other ensemble was still performing on stage. They hadn’t seen any need to stick around. Quickly, I gave them the run down of what was going on. I handed out the music folders and said, “Let’s tune, warm up, and do a quick overview and talk through some things. We’re doing a sit-down concert in fifteen minutes.” Jason said I stayed incredibly calm and sounded very professional. All I wanted to do was fall down in a puddle and cry. We tuned then looked in the folders at the pieces, trying to find an opening song. I had in mind a very nice Holly and the Ivy that started with a great cello solo. I said to our cellist, “How does this look for you? Are you good with that opening?” We were crammed in a room back stage full of equipment and trolleys and stacks of boxes and didn’t have room to move. The cellist was standing, our music folders were propped on top of our cases on top of carts on top of crap. She tried to play the opening measures and couldn’t do it. We tried again. It still didn’t work. I said, “Okay, move on to the next. How does that look?” I picked out a very simple book and said let’s start with that then move on to more interesting stuff as we get a feel for it. I really wanted to run away, but I didn’t have time and the stage manager gave us our cue that we were on.
We walked out onto that stage and the spots were on us. I was First Violin, responsible for everything that I didn’t want to be. The audience applauded and quieted for us to begin our concert—our impromptu, unrehearsed, naked-while-playing-a-tuba concert. My nightmare had become real.
I had trouble remembering the names of the girls playing with me—the girls I’d met fifteen minute earlier. I tried to get it straight in my head, but I kept getting the violist and cellist mixed up. I think they were sisters. I greeted the audience, introduced our group as best as I could, and we were off. We started with very simple tunes, Christmas carols everyone knew. I invited the audience to sing along. Sing-alongs are a great way to engage listeners—and to help everyone relax and like each other, and not notice that the accompanying quartet is scared spitless.
For an hour and a half, I sat on the front edge of my chair, counted beats like I’ve never counted, kept track of keys and accidentals like nobodies business, and interjected comments occasionally to keep the audience engaged. And I kept my quartet moving forward through that excruciating 90 minutes. Once we finished the simple book of Christmas carols and the listeners were probably bored silly, we moved on to more complex, more interesting pieces. As a Second Violinist, I don’t spend a lot of time playing up in the high stratosphere of seventh position where there are way too many ledger lines for my liking. Suddenly the music I was sight reading skyrocketed into high notes way above the staff that I hadn’t kept company with since college. I had to suddenly remember how to reach them and make them pretty for the listeners and to hold the quartet together. I so wanted to be done. I so wanted to become that puddle and melt and disappear through the cracks between the boards of the stage.
When finally, finally, the whole thing ended, I staggered backstage to pack up and wish my impromptu quartet well. Jason carried my things to the car, and wide-eyed and exhausted, I somehow made it there on my own two feet. My Chronic Fatigue and fibromyalgia had been triggered into full-blown acuity. Not only does a prolonged activity set them off, but large rushes of adrenaline. And I’m telling you, I’d just experienced one huge onslaught of the stuff.
Jason and I didn’t go out for dinner. We didn’t go anywhere, but right to the interstate to get me home to collapse into bed. I could barely sit up on the ride home, so it’s a very good thing he was there to drive. If I went back in time and was asked all over again, I don’t think I’d do it, even for five times the amount of money I was paid, plus a traveling fee. Who would ever want to take money just to live out, in full living color, one’s very worst stress dream nightmare ever? Not me.
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