Crescendo String Quartet, in happier times.
Last week was String Camp. That is a week-long day camp my dad created for string students to come and study under expert coaches and play in ensembles and orchestras to improve their ability and enjoy music, plus perform in two concerts for the public at the end of the week. This year was the thirteenth year of the camp and the first year I personally participated. I played my violin, helped in sectionals, and supported the kids around me in the different groups, answering questions, helping them find what measure we were really on, and simply playing along with them so they could hear how it was supposed to sound.
In the first years of the camp, my kids were too young to participate yet, but they’d been working on their string quartet, and my dad—Grandpa—invited them to play a special piece for the string camp concert, kind of a cute little feature, hoping in the future that they could join the camp as regular attendees—and besides, they were his grandkids. With a little trepidation, and maybe a lot of coaxing, the kids agreed (or just did as they were told) and prepared to join the other students on stage for the final concert.
They were neither thrilled nor completely comfortable with the whole plan, but all of us grown-ups thought it was such a great opportunity—the experience of performing, the chance to participate, the growth, the exposure—oh the exposure. You’re sitting up there totally exposed, vulnerable, unprotected. You might as well be naked. Holding a tuba. At Carnegie Hall without ever having seen the music. We musicians all have a version of that recurring nightmare.
From the moment they left the gate, I knew something was terribly wrong. And I’d made the mistake of sitting way back from the front, mixed in with all the regular audience members where I couldn’t easily, subtly give them cues, or whisper measure numbers, or quietly count for them, or even jump up and scream to bring the whole painful ordeal to a screeching halt, if need be. And believe me, it need be.
They were playing—or at least this was the plan—Bach’s Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring, normally a beautiful piece. But it needs a steady beat, and one that preferably comes at the same time for all participants in the quartet. From the get-go, something went terribly wrong and they didn’t get that essential pulse. Within about three measures I thought-hoped-prayed the kinks would work out and they could all find that elusive rhythm. After all, they’d been playing, for what? A year? Two maybe? That’s months and months of learning. But what was I thinking, letting my babies be exposed to such wicked vulnerability? Months and months, phooey! You barely learn which end of the instrument is up by the end of months and months. Certainly not how to find an ambiguous beat out of thin air when three other opposing beats are fighting for purchase at the other three stands opposite you.
When in those few first measures the beat remained a mystery, and so also did the actual melody, I thought okay then, just stop and restart fresh, while you’re still at the beginning. No one will mind. You guys are cute and unconventional enough, the audience will abide a slight interruption and a do-over. Every single performer in the world has had to have a do-over at some point. You grow from it; you learn from it; you become a better musician because of it.
So they say.
By the time half of the first page had been chewed up and spit out as an unrecognizable pile of broken staffs, clefs, and bar lines, I so needed them to be able to stop. But those stalwart kids of mine kept grinding out the notes, attempting desperately to find each other, to make sense of their Bach-turned-avant-garde rendition, to somehow find the same measure of at least one of the other siblings. By then, the nerves in my body were stretched tighter than every E string in the violin section looking on from behind them on the stage. I had to hold down my body to remain in my chair, gripping with white knuckles to the seat to anchor myself while my brain screamed in my head, shooting brainwaves to Grandpa, who was sitting on the stage about five feet from my kids, to intervene, intercede and stop this now! Save them, help them, stop this excruciating madness! He moved to the edge of his chair, and I took a breath, thinking finally, yes, do something. Stop them, help them start over. But then he re-crossed his legs and sat back. Ahhhh! I was about to blow up all over the inside of the hall, pieces of me—desperate, panicked, hysterical pieces of me—all over everyone and everything. I was dying, a slow, painful, tortuous death. As were my kids, as I knew they had to be. Finally, finally, when probably the entire audience was no doubt ready to start chanting “Help them, Help them,” or to themselves explode into a million stressful pieces, Grandpa stepped up to the microphone and said, “Let’s try this again, shall we?”
He gave them the beat, that elusive, slippery, impossible to find, doggone deceitful beat and they started again. But by then, I was completely used up. I couldn’t hear their playing over all the panicked voices in my head, voices crying out to liberate them, get them out of there, protect them, save them. Oh the trauma. We all had to be bleeding from our eyeballs by then.
When it was finally, irrevocably, woefully over, so many smiling faces reassured one and all how fine it was, how everyone has “those” experiences, that really it wasn’t that noticeable.
I found Charlie curled up into a fetal position in the third row and I couldn’t get him to talk for two hours. That’s how “fine” it was. We’re lucky he ever came out of the house again let alone touched a musical instrument.
Surprisingly, after some healing, they actually played again. Probably never with the oblivious arrogance that can come with young musicianship, that happy-go-lucky attitude believing that all is well and “won’t people be happy for the privilege to hear me bestow my incredible music upon their ears?” No, we never had those delusions. So I guess in the end, the experience did offer growth. Right past pretentiousness. It’s good not to be too overly confident. Right?
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