Music Talk is a series of short articles of general interest, some humorous, some educational, based on my experiences as a musician and teacher. Choose from the titles below to find out more.
I have no doubt that the answer to this question, if asked to lovers of classical music, would be a resounding ‘Yes’. However, this answer would almost certainly be based on seeing or hearing different conductors, at different times, conducting different orchestras, consisting of different musicians, performing in different places. Taking all this into consideration it could be argued, for the sake of comparison, that the link between the conductor and the performance becomes significantly weaker, due to the number of variables. Also, in the case of top orchestras playing music they have performed many times before, it could be argued that the orchestra virtually plays itself. Most of us are unable to make a direct comparison between conductors conducting the same orchestra, in the same place, at the same time. I am very privileged to have had such an experience.
Whilst studying at the Royal College of Music we had a guest conductor come in to conduct the college orchestra, an orchestra filled with very talented, aspiring, orchestral musicians. The head of the college at the time, and the man with whom we had rehearsed, was Sir David Willcocks, a highly respected conductor, particularly in the field of choral music. The guest conductor was to be Lorin Maazel, of international fame. On arrival Maazel asked Sir David to conduct the orchestra first, in order to assess the standard and capability of the orchestra I guess (unfortunately I don’t remember the name of the piece we were playing). This was a very important occasion so everyone was poised to play the best they had every played as Sir David raised his baton. The performance was, in my estimation, faultless. I couldn’t imagine how it could be any better, no matter who was waving the baton at the front. Sir David stepped off the podium to be replaced by Maazel just moments later. I remember thinking that there wouldn’t be any difference, same musicians, same place, same time, how could there be? Again, as the baton was raised everyone was focused, determined to play their very best; and from the moment the baton fell I can honestly say that it was like a different orchestra playing! I am not casting aspersions in any way at Sir David, he is a fine conductor, but on this occasion, under the baton of Maazel, the orchestra played significantly better.
Returning to the opening question, ‘Does the conductor really make a difference?’ The answer must be a resounding ‘Yes’. Just for the record though, I found Sir David’s beat much easier to follow than Maazel’s.
Without doubt some instruments seem more difficult than others. Compare, for example, a guitar, with a mere six strings, to the 47 strings on a concert harp; or an accordion, which requires the use of only one hand on the keyboard, to a piano, which of course requires two. Comparisons such as these are endless, so which is the easiest, or most difficult, instrument to play?
Each instrument has its own set of difficulties to overcome. For sure, with some instruments a student can be playing a tune after just one lesson, whereas with other instruments it could be weeks before a student can even make a sound. At the end of the day I would say that no instrument is easier to play well, than any another. All instruments have their own inherent challenges.
For pianists working in hotels or piano bars it’s not uncommon for someone to come and talk to them, usually a member of staff wishing to convey a request by a client. It doesn’t pose much of a problem for a pianist, provided that they’re not in the middle of a difficult passage, but what defies all common sense is to try to engage a singer in conversation while they’re actually in the middle of singing a song! I’ve seen this happen several times while I’ve been at the piano.
On another occasion, in the middle of a song while playing with a dance band to a full dance floor, someone came to speak to me on stage. At the end of the song the bandleader asked what the man had wanted. “He wants me to move my car,” I said, to which the bandleader replied, “One, two, three, four,” and we started the next song. (Just for the record, although moving my car would have freed a car that had been blocked in, it wasn’t actually my car, which was legitimately parked in an official parking space, doing the blocking).
When situations like these present themselves to musicians there’s only one thing to do – just keep going!
A good number of years ago I was asked if I wanted a free ticket to see Santana at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. “Who’s Santana?” I asked. “He’s a guitar player,” was the reply I got. At that time I wasn’t a big fan of electric guitars, or electric guitar players. The only image I had was of men dressed up in outrageous costumes, strutting about on stage, and making a lot of noise playing distorted ‘power chords’, usually E-minor. However, the ticket was free and I had nothing else planned, so I decided to go along.
I can’t say I waited with excitement before the band came on stage, but from the very first bar I was enthralled. There was no pretension, no strutting about; the musicians performed pure, electrifying music. Among the band members were world-renowned musicians Chester Thompson on drums, Paulinho da Costa on percussion, and Alphonso Johnson on bass.
The band played for about two hours before leaving the stage to loud applause and cries for more. After a short time they returned and performed an incredible two-hour encore! I became a fan of Carlos Santana, and gained much more respect for the electric guitar.
I’m not an organist, and don’t pretend to be, but one of the biggest challenges I have found, when asked to play an organ at an unfamiliar venue, is finding the on/off switch, which in the case of a church organ could be quite literally anywhere.
I have never yet failed but on one occasion, with just minutes to go before guests started arriving for a wedding service I still hadn’t found the switch. It shouldn’t have been a problem as I was looking at what seemed to be an old free-standing pipe organ, slightly out of place I thought, as the church itself wasn’t particularly old. Since there was absolutely no power switch in sight I decided that perhaps the instrument simply needed plugging in, in which case all I had to do was locate the lead coming out of the organ and find the nearest plug socket. It was only after walking round the instrument two or three times, and failing to see anything that resembled a power lead, that it slowly started to dawn on me that perhaps the air for this organ was not supplied by way of an electric pump at all. The two pedals on the organ, one of which I’d assumed to be the volume control for the swell manual, were in fact pumps!
No sooner had I made this discovery than guests started to arrive, so without time to contemplate the task ahead I started to pump and play. Fortunately, everything went off without a hitch, and I was thanked for my services at the end.
I had been booked to play the piano at a wedding service in a modern church. My instructions were simple: when I saw the bride standing at the door I should stop playing background music and start playing the Bridal Chorus for the bride’s grand entrance.
The piano was perfectly located in a corner of the church hall, in clear view of the door, and a young lady wearing a dazzling white wedding gown would be hard to miss. Nothing could possibly go wrong. As I played I kept glancing across at the entrance, but no bride appeared. Then I realized there was a middle-aged lady dressed in blue standing at the door – the bride!
To this day I don’t know how long I had kept her waiting. It may only have been a few seconds, but on the other hand it could have been a full minute or two. I made a mental note not to forget that even at church weddings not all brides are young and wear white.
Traffic signals for musicians are a set of three lights, clearly visible from the stage, giving bands an indication of when their volume is getting too loud. Green means ‘Everything is OK’, amber ‘Take care, the volume is getting a little loud’, and red ‘All power will be cut to the stage in about five seconds unless the volume is reduced NOW!’ The idea behind the signals is sound, excuse the pun: to protect audiences from exposure to harmful sound levels and consequential ear damage. However, in my experience they seldom work well. Either the band bypasses the power sockets on the stage linked to the signals, in which case they don’t work at all, or their sensitivity is set too high, making even moderate sound levels trigger the red light.
I was once playing with a band at a dinner dance in a hall with such signals. Unfortunately the hall was long and narrow, which meant that when the volume was just right for the people sitting at the tables near the front, the people at the back complained that the band was too quiet! Turning the volume up just a fraction produced a red light. Consequently, for most of the evening our eyes were transfixed on the signals high on the wall half way down the hall, as we tried to satisfy the guests at the middle and back by playing a little louder, while at the same time not triggering a total power failure on the stage. It was a fine balance, and a very musically unsatisfying experience.
I’m sure it’s happened to many performing musicians; you’ve been booked to play at an event such as a wedding reception, an anniversary, a corporate function, or dinner dance, and are in the middle of a set when you learn that someone wants to join you and sing a song. Usually some polite discouragement will deter the ‘intruder’, but there are some people who simply won’t take ‘No’ for an answer. The problem gets worse when the person wanting to sing is the daughter of the event organizer and the man who will be paying you at the end of the evening.
On this occasion the uninvited vocalist managed to bring a song off reasonably well. This should have been the end of things but now, with her confidence bolstered, she wanted to sing the very last song of the evening! Her father fully concurred so once again, this time with even greater reluctance, there was no choice other than to accept. Unfortunately the key didn’t suit her, and the performance was an unmitigated disaster as our ‘guest’ strained to reach the high notes, and made abrupt octave shifts only to find that the lower notes were then out of her range too. The audience clapped politely but the whole event ended on an anticlimax. Later, as I was leaving with the regular vocalist, someone commented "We enjoyed YOUR singing."
For musicians taking a real pride in their performance, and the impression they leave on an audience, having an unrehearsed, uninvited, ‘guest’ vocalist is often the recipe for disaster.
For many years I defied the advice of experts and hooked up my speakers with bell wire – cheap wire that’s thin, easy to conceal, and perfect for doorbells – convinced that using better wire would make no audible difference. Even after buying a pair of reputable speakers, which came with several metres of good quality speaker cable, I continued to use bell wire.
Then, one morning, for some unknown reason, I woke up in an experimental mood, and decided to try out the aforementioned cable. I didn’t neatly route the cable against the walls though; why bother when it would be going straight back into the cupboard after I’d proved the experts wrong? Instead, the cable went directly across the floor to the speakers. Then, when I turned on the amplifier to listen to a CD, came the moment of truth. The result…amazing! It was like listening to a different, more expensive, pair of speakers. The sound was much clearer.
Now I was sold on the importance of speaker wire, so much so that I bought more cable and bi-wired the speakers (some speakers allow the tweeter and woofer to be fed by separate wires from the amplifier). Again, I could hear an improvement in the sound, although not as radical as before.
If you have a decent sound system, it’s well worth buying some decent speaker cable to go with it. Top-of-the-range cable can be ridiculously expensive, but basic speaker cable is quite reasonable, and well worth the investment.
I had been booked to play one of the trumpet parts in William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. There was nothing unusual about the gig: afternoon rehearsal, evening concert, get paid, go home. I left my London apartment late morning after packing the standard concert dress – white shirt and black shoes, socks, trousers, jacket, and bow tie – and made my way to the venue: Fairfield Hall, Croydon.
Belshazzar’s Feast is an oratorio of monumental proportions: large orchestra, multiple choirs, baritone solo, and two brass bands! On arrival I found out that I would be playing in one of these bands, but before the rehearsal started disaster struck. I opened my bag and discovered that I had mistakenly packed a pair of dark green trousers! For an orchestral musician, apart from a white shirt or blouse, wearing anything other than black is completely unacceptable. Time constrains prevented me from returning to my apartment, or even going shopping, so what was I to do? My only chance of reprieve would be if the bands were positioned off stage, out of sight of the audience.
Just as I thought that things couldn’t get worse they did. The rehearsal started with the bands positioned at the front of the stage, standing, in clear view of everyone! At least if I had been seated in the orchestra my green trousers would have been partially obscured.
Salvation came from a fellow musician who offered to lend me the trousers he had come in. This wasn’t an ideal solution given that they were corduroys, a little large in the waist, and far too long, but at least they were black. With the trouser legs turned under and a belt securing the waist I felt everything was going to be fine; and it was. From a distance it would have been hard to see the casual corduroys I was wearing, and nothing was said.
When I told this story to my trumpet professor at college, he told me about a musician in one of the top London orchestras who had mistakenly brought brown shoes to a concert. The solution – wear black socks over the shoes! It’s always comforting to know that you are not the only one to make such mistakes.
One year Silhouette, the duo I was part of, had been booked to play Christmas Day and Boxing Day at a hotel in central Birmingham where, for some reason, a coach load of people had decided to spend their Christmas. Our task was simply to provide musical entertainment while the guests ate dinner.
Dinner was being served in a large function room that had a dividing curtain in the middle, to make it cozier for smaller functions such as this one. There was a small stage set up for our performance in front of the dividing curtain, and conveniently located at the other side of the curtain was a power socket that could be used to supply power to my keyboard, sound modules, and sound system. The total power drain for the set up was well under the maximum of 13 amps supplied by U.K. power sockets, so it was with complete surprise when, mid-song, all power to the system was lost, and the singer was left singing ‘a cappella’! Then, just as quickly as the equipment had gone off it came on again. However, this was of little use to the performance as it takes about a minute for everything to boot up, so there was no disguising the abrupt ending to the song.
To this day I don’t know exactly what happened. If a fuse had blown the power would have gone off and stayed off. The power socket didn’t have a breaker attached, so this wasn’t the cause of the problem, and I later checked all the cables for loose wires and found none. The only possible explanation for this Christmas power mystery is that someone at the other side of the curtain, most likely a member of staff, decided that the plug was serving no useful purpose and pulled it out of its socket. On hearing the sound at the other side of the curtain suddenly stop he or she would have reinserted the plug and made a rapid exit.
For musicians doing a gig out of sight of their main power socket, I would recommend using gaffer tape to tape over their plugs. This should tell anyone tempted to remove them that they’re not meant to be removed.
It was 1.00 a.m. and I had just finished performing at a New Year’s Eve function at a Birmingham hotel not too far from home. After arriving at the hotel I had turned on the interior light in my car to locate something and forgotten to turn it off. Now, several hours later, there wasn’t enough power left in the battery to start the engine!
Just as I was wondering what to do next two men appeared on the scene and offered to help jump start my car, and then offered to tow the car when it still wouldn’t start, but with the thin layer of snow and ice on the ground I deemed this too dangerous and thanked them for their kind offer. The only thing left to do was to call the AA, an emergency breakdown service, in the hope that their vans would actually be out on patrol in the early hours of the New Year. I made the call and was told someone would come to my rescue, but no estimate arrival time could be given. I resigned myself to spending most of the night in the hotel lobby. There are many good things to do and places to be in the early hours of New Year, but being in a hotel lobby waiting for a breakdown service to arrive isn’t one of them.
Incredibly, after little over an hour, the rescue van arrived and quickly got my car started. Although it was 4.00 a.m. before I finally got to bed, I was happy because I knew I could still have been at the hotel waiting for rescue.
To avoid having to wait for rescue, especially at New Year, check your lights!