From the Orchestra Library

Always the Last One Out

Posted in Stage and Concert Duties by kschnack on November 23, 2009

It’s just the way things are.  The orchestra librarian is always the last one out of the building.

Although the percussionists and stage hands might try to dispute this claim, they don’t stand a chance.  Oh yes, they obviously have their fair share of packing up after performances (it is how I got to know my husband, after all), but, in the end, by the time the librarian goes home, there’s usually no one else left.

After a particularly rigorous three months, the DSO is more than ready for its Thanksgiving break.  Like nearly everyone else, I suppose, when we get return we’ll be doing back-to-back-to-back holiday concerts.  Sunday’s performance was the final one of an intense run of several weeks with the Music Director before the holiday.

While I was picking up folders and putting them in the trunk yesterday evening, the stage crew was striking our equipment so another group could be in the hall.  By the time I finished the immediate tasks of clearing the music, getting the scores back to the MD, closing up our trunks and taking care of a few folks’ requests, the crew was already done.  I went to the percussion room to deliver some parts that the principal will need this week, and found the section having a little toast to not only the weekend’s fantastic performances of Bolero but also celebrating surviving the last few months in less than ideal circumstances.  The Principal Timpanist, who had played with the orchestra 51 seasons, suddenly retired at the end of August, and that left each member of the section in new territory with the Principal Percussion moving into Timpani, and the others switching instruments from what they would usually play.  They’ve done a fabulous job and sound great, so they deserve that drink for sure.

Even so, 75 minutes later when I finally closed up the library to leave, my colleagues were long gone.  I stayed to finish some e-mail correspondence, lay out our next round of projects and deadlines, double-check the concert schedule for the library, sort the music I’d be bringing home to mark during the vacation, and straighten things up enough that we wouldn’t be returning to chaos after Thanksgiving.  December is chaos enough, thank you!  The three of us are all taking parts home to work on, because, although it’s a holiday, the music preparation is never over and we have to stay out in front of it or we’ll be deluged.  So, whether it’s  bowings during a movie or corrections while listening to the radio and doing laundry, the break is tempered with ongoing work.  Just like the players who have to keep practicing.

I used to think there was something off-kilter about my life as an orchestra librarian — and the last person out after a concert — sometimes 11:00 or midnight.  But I’ve come to realize it’s part of what I love about the job.  I like knowing I’ve closed out the day and evening, that I’m there when the ghost light goes onstage and all others are dimmed to dark.  It’s a similar feeling to the one I get when being in the hall before the performance, before anyone else has arrived, there on stage in a magnificent hall that has, in its short 20 years, already seen and heard so much great music played by wonderful musicians.  I’m not going to go so far as to say the walls are talking to me, then you’d know I was nuts!  But in a place like this, filled with all the music, the walls do feel somewhat hallowed.  It’s a privilege to stand there and know you are participating in something meaningful and special.  Not everyone is this lucky.


There’s No Avoiding the Subject Any Longer

Posted in Preparing Parts,The Music by kschnack on November 16, 2009

I’ve been procrastinating.  It’s under the guise of protecting you, of course.  Seeing as how there are so many things to talk about and stories to tell, I’ve felt justified in putting this one off because I thought it might just be too painful for everyone, including us.  Here at the DSO we’ve had all these big pieces to prepare — Beethoven 9, Romeo and Juliet, Bruckner 9, Mahler 1, Alexander Nevsky, not to mention a commission, an American premiere, numerous overtures and concerti, youth programs, and all those pops concerts I told you about.  And that was just the first 3 months of the season. We’ve long since started on the music for 2010 (doesn’t that just sound so futuristic?) because there is no getting off this merry-go-round at the moment.

So I kept thinking — hoping — there was a bit more time before I could broach this subject, but time has run out. I can’t avoid it any longer.  Librarians, I know you know what I mean.



[To quote an old friend of mine, sorry for yelling and all the exclamation points.]

Now, I love the holidays — it’sChristmas in my house and family — and I get into it 100%.  I do the lights, decorations, gifts, cards, shipping packages, baking, EATING, parties, and, yes, I even listen to Christmas Music.  But, after all these years, it’s still very unnatural to me to start thinking about Christmas long before the Halloween decorations have gone up.  In fact, just like all the other industries that have to go into holiday production well before the rest of the planet (am thinking Fashion at the moment, of course!), we start closer to the beginning of the calendar year than you might expect.  It’s a good thing, it’s necessary, and it’s really the only way to guarantee a well-thought-out, well-prepared, creative and imaginative program.  So, because our main Christmas show is a big deal, we start around March.  Yep.  March.  Sometimes it’s even earlier.  We do, however, ban anyone from discussing it in January.

We have a good team of folks who are part of this whole process, and my colleague Mark Wilson takes charge of the library aspects and is our liaison in the planning.  He’s great at it, working with everyone on the committee (which includes the conductor, a representative from the players, operations, marketing, PR, and others as necessary), fielding repertoire questions, and offering ideas and suggestions to help bring the group’s vision into reality.  He attends monthly meetings, researches proposed pieces, obtains perusal scores, stays in communication with all parties, tracks the music budget, keeps the chorus librarian in the loop, and, as time passes, orders and begins preparation on the parts and scores.

Christmas concerts take a whole lot of work by everyone.  They have elements. You know, aside from the orchestra and chorus and soloists, there are carolers and snow, kids, lights and sets, costumes, narrators, herald trumpets and handbells.  It’s always a true production.

Thank heavens we don’t use puppies or actual reindeer. (Yet?!)

Mark spent the last two weeks alone trying to put together the conductor’s book.  I’m not calling something a score when it’s 11″ x 17″ x 3 inches tall. That, my friends, is a very large Book.  And think of it — first you have to get all the pieces (some 25 or more) and format the scores individually so they can be put together in one volume.  Or two.  Depending on the music.  This is to say, no conductor wants 25 separate scores out there on the podium, for 12 performances, not to mention the cover conductor, lighting tech, and, TV people.  So, there isn’t just one book. There are 4 Big Books.

And do you have any idea how long it takes to make such a Book, copying every single page back to front by hand?  If you have no idea, you need to stand at a copier and try it at least once.  You will then want to shower your librarian with chocolate and wine.

Oh, yes.  I did mention TV.  On top of everything else, our shows are usually aired on a local TV station for the DFW metroplex.  Which means synchronization licenses (visual) have to be acquired for every piece that is under copyright, in addition to being rented from the publisher.  May I just politely remind everyone that you cannot put on television anything you want without the proper licenses?  Thank you.

So, once all the music arrives, including 250 vocal scores for everything, the chorus begins rehearsing (right along with Nevsky and Beethoven 9th and the American premiere), and the librarian(s) hit the part-preparation process.  This year is bittersweet for us as we recently lost our choral conductor, David Davidson, who had planned the program for many months.  So we have worked hard to carry out his vision for the program.  It will be our gift to him.  I’m pretty sure he’ll be listening to his beloved chorus and the orchestra that he would have been conducting.  These concerts made him so happy.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that our main Christmas program is not the only holiday series we perform.  We’ll also have a pops weekend, and a special two-night program with guest artist. All in all the orchestra will be performing approximately 60 seasonal selections this year.

You see why I was putting off telling you about it? I’ll bet you’re stuck with a tape loop of “Frosty the Snowman” playing in your head now!

Nerds? You Betcha!

Posted in Preparing Parts,The Music by kschnack on November 9, 2009

This actually happened [with minor edits for appropriate content].

Orchestra Librarian X writes to Orchestra Librarians Y and Z and sends this video:

OL Y’s response:

I have been fascinated with what can be done on a button accordion.  Been watching lots of these for the past weeks.   Does that mean I’m a nerd?

OL Z’s response:

That’s incredibly amazing, and I never thought I’d say this, but he’s more musical than many of the fiddle players I’ve heard!  As for the nerd question, do we even need to go there??


Anyone get down which cuts he takes?


I was actually trying to catch the cuts as I was listening, but I’ll have to go through it again. Does that make me a nerd?


Of course the answer from his management would be “the usual accordion cuts.”

OLs X, Y, and Z then broke up in much cyber silliness and giggling [heavily edited for appropriate content].

PS. If you are not ROF LOL after reading that you are probably not an orchestra librarian.

PPS.  When librarians, prior to part preparation, ask if the soloist will be taking cuts in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, and, if so, what the exact cuts will be, the first answer is always “the usual cuts.”  Then the librarian has to go back to the artistic administrator, artist manager, or artist, and ask again for the cuts with the specific measure numbers.  Because standard as they may seem, not everyone does them exactly the same, even though they call them the “standard” or “usual” cuts and you really don’t want to have the wrong cuts in the parts at the rehearsal.  Highly embarrassing, especially if said librarian is a violinist too….

PPPS.  To assuage the curiosity of anyone who cares:  the young accordionist took the following cuts in the last movement of the concerto (of course, while playing all the orchestral parts in addition to the solo violin part): the end of bar 68 to the beginning of bar 81, the end of bar 258 to the beginning of bar 271,the end of bar 422 to the beginning of bar 431, the end of bar 475 to the beginning of bar 488.  Standard cuts?  Some?  All?  You tell me.

What Happens Backstage Stays Backstage

Posted in Stage and Concert Duties,The Business by kschnack on November 1, 2009
Tags: , ,

Well, except for the parts I’m going to tell you!  No names of course.  LOL.

Seriously, performers have to be able to trust orchestra librarians to handle backstage situations with professionalism, courtesy, discretion, and, above all else, help when they need something.  It wouldn’t be right to betray that trust, so I won’t — the last thing artists need is some star-struck librarian to “kiss and tell.”

But that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun and entertain you a little about the kinds of things that happen backstage.  Rituals, wardrobe malfunctions, logistical snafus, nerves, you name it.  Because it can be quite the trip.  And just when you think you’ve seen it all something happens that is a complete surprise.

Take wardrobe issues……..You can always tell if a dress is going to be dangerous for the diva during her arias, be it for breathing or bowing, and I’ve been asked more times than I can remember to pin up, zip up, scoop up, fix straps, check hooks, whatever.   The operations people and librarians are the last to see the artist(s) before they walk on stage, besides the stage crew and conductor.  And it’s usually at the very last moment when that look of “OMG, what am I going to do?!” calls for some fast action.  This is precisely why I always keep a mending kit in the library trunk by the stage; recently I had to clip off the sales tag from a soloist’s blouse before she went out.  Of course, she’s telling me to “hurry, hurry!” when, uh, a little checking after buying the duds and putting them on would have been in order!

For the guys it’s the fly-check.  Oh my.  Men, can I just say, if you are going to be all exhibitionist about this part of your dressing routine would you please do it in the DRESSING ROOM??  I really don’t need to see the more, um, personal displays, which, I swear, some of you are doing either to get attention or because of a pre-performance nervous ritual.  I mean, I understand the pre-performance rituals — I have my own, most notably always checking with one last look that I actually did put the conductor’s score out [this subject requires an entire blog post of its own], which invariably is preceded by a spike in blood pressure.  So I know you have to do whatever it takes to make yourself ready to Go Out There.  But does it have to be such a grand gesture?  I find it interesting that when the women check their flies they are very subtle about it, quiet, quick, done.  For the men out there who are also trying to be discreet, I thank you, from all the librarians in the world.

Not that librarians, male or female, can be squeamish about this stuff.  Again, it goes back to trust.  The conductors and artists need to know that we understand the concert hall is a theater, and you just can’t get worked up about people in various stages (pun intended) of getting ready.  Librarians are all the time having to go to the artists dressing rooms to get their scores, or ask and answer questions, and while you’d think those therein would wait to invite you in until they are actually completely dressed, it just slows everyone down so nobody worries about it.  Of course, I’m not talking about anything truly untoward.  Just life in show biz.

There are countless other rituals that performers do, not unlike athletes preparing for a game or race.  Some are famous in concert world lore, like Bernstein kissing his Koussevitzky cuff links before he walked out.  People cross themselves, knock on wood, stretch, jump up and down, make jokes, or just go into a Zen zone of their own.  I try to respect this process quietly unless asked for something, but some actually want a little conversation and companionship before they perform.  It’s important for the librarian to judge the artist’s mood accurately and not do anything that will get them off their game.  It may be old-fashioned, but I always stand at the entrance to the stage before the conductors and soloists go out.  It’s my way of showing support and respect, and staying available if they have any questions. I also like to think they appreciate being with a musician who understands what they are about to embark upon in their performance.

As everywhere else in life, there are some artists who go too far with pre-concert antics.  We had a conductor a number of years ago who completely shocked us all by horking up a huge glob of phlegm and spitting it on the floor before he walked out, stepping on it like someone puts out a cigarette, then taking a giant step over it as he went onstage.  Apparently this maneuver was lucky for him.  I’m sorry, but that’s disgusting and next time you come around, mister, I’m going to tell you so.  This is where we are different than ball players — it’s a concert hall, not a field! And, BTW, can anyone say Germs??  Forgive my detailed description, but I wanted you, dear readers, to have a full understanding of this particular ritual, just in case you know the guy and can set him straight that it is really UNCOOL.  You can also tell him that great rolling of eyes ensues when someone is that grandiose and gross.  Not to mention, it’s gets around.

Then there is the subject of performing from memory.  I understand why performers want to.  It was pounded into us as youngsters that we needed to memorize our concerti; one did not use the music.  I suppose it’s still expected for the standard solo repertoire, but the days are long over when everything has to be memorized.  Especially for contemporary music or premieres. This goes for conductors too.  May I suggest that, unless you really, really know the piece cold, it would be better for all concerned if you used the music? If you go out there without it, and have a serious memory slip, the audience is going to remember the memory slip more than anything else.  But if you use the score and give a tremendous performance, they are only going to remember that it was fantastic.  They aren’t even going to think about whether or not you used music.  No loss of face in that at all. I have witnessed moments of private terror, and have even, at times, offered a score to someone who clearly wasn’t prepared to do the work from memory.  Do yourself a favor. Take it next time!

So, there’s your little slice of backstage life for today.  Very glamorous, indeed, eh?