From the Orchestra Library

From Mahler to Minnie the Moocher

Posted in The Business,The Music,Touring by kschnack on July 11, 2011

Jeff Tyzik, our conductor for the pops programs up in Vail, told the audience the other night that you know you are working with incredible orchestral musicians when they can give a stunning performance of Mahler Symphony No. 6, and then come right back out the next night and do a fantastic concert of unfamiliar and difficult pops charts having had only one rehearsal.

He’s right, and they did.

In the middle of the residency we do four different programs in a row, and those just mentioned are the most difficult. Of course, we had performed the Mahler several times earlier in the season. But it’s never easy and, as you know, is relentless in its 80 minutes without intermission. I took the opportunity to sit in the theater and listen to my colleagues. It was truly an exceptional and moving concert.

Some of the audience members were probably not really up for hearing a work of this magnitude and length. And the house wasn’t terribly full, which means the program likely scared some people off who attend the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival to be entertained in a light-hearted way. But the festival didn’t apologize for this programming, which I applaud, and instead took the time to talk about the piece and why it was important to do.

The festival’s founder and Executive Director, John Giovando, spoke about how this music is so very compatible with being out in nature. He also told the story of Mount Mahler in Colorado, the only mountain in the US named after a composer: Finally, he told the audience that this was the first time in 24 years that the symphony would be performed. It’s always cool to do the premiere performance of such a major work.

The “hammer blows of fate” in the last movement and the order of the inner movements were also mentioned. There remains some controversy about both issues, and both are always a matter of discussion in musical circles. There isn’t room here to go into the respective stories (a quick Google search will give you the basics), but I can let you know that Maestro van Zweden does two hammer blows instead of three, and always conducts the Scherzo prior to the Andante.

I can also take a few minutes to tell you about how those hammer blows are produced in concert. The sound has to be like nothing else in the orchestra, and it has to be “jump-out-of-your-seat” loud. The Dallas Symphony had an instrument made by a bass player in the Chicago Symphony named Roger Cline. Mr. Cline used speaker technology by suspending and cushioning the strike plate on both sides with foam which helps create additional resonance. The hammer is also custom made, and not your basic drum mallet.

The Hammer Blow Instrument

Needless to say, this thing does the trick. Especially when Principal Percussionist Doug Howard goes at it full force. He scared the violin section half to death in rehearsal.

Principal Percussion Doug Howard ready to strike the hammer blow

For good measure, here are the traveling cases for the unique instrument and hammer!

The Hammer has its own box!

There is plenty of other fun stuff in Mahler 6, what with 106 musicians on stage. I liked how the cow bells were set up for rehearsal, complete with the player’s transportation accessories.

Cow Bells with Bike Helmet

Mahler calls for large woodwind and brass sections, as well as celesta, two sets of timpani and four or more harps. We use “only” two, as most orchestras these days do. Costs a lot of money to put this piece on stage, not to mention travel with it. The players were very good-natured about my begging, pleading and cajoling to let me take photos of them at work both in rehearsal and prior to the performance.

DSO Oboe Section for Mahler

Mahler Timps

Two Happy Harpists













The Mahler was really the main event for the orchestra in Vail this year. That’s not to say everything else wasn’t as important; it’s just that when a major work is programmed it can overshadow everything else in the players’ minds. It takes such a high level of preparation, concentration, craftsmanship and musicianship to perform this symphony well that when it’s over there is a collective sigh. And a real sense of accomplishment.

It’s no secret that orchestral musicians as a species are not crazy about pops concerts in general. But we well understand the need for those programs, and we give them our all just the same. Quality of repertoire, artists, music (I mean the actual parts), and conductors make a huge difference in how such a program is perceived by the orchestra. Which is really no different than for any other program.

We were thrilled by the concert Mr. Tyzik put together the night after the Mahler and hope we will be doing this show again back in Dallas. Turning the theater into a musical representation of Harlem’s 1920’s Cotton Club, the brass section sat on one side as the big band, and the strings on the other. Soloists Byron Stripling, trumpeter and vocalist, and Carmen Bradford, vocalist, wowed the capacity crowd both inside and out on the lawn.

Some of our own orchestra members were featured in solos throughout the evening, including Principal Trumpet Ryan Anthony and Principal Trombone John Kitzman. Mr. Tyzik’s point at the beginning of the evening was proved by these players as well as the rest of the orchestra. It’s amazing they can adapt so quickly to the different styles and physical requirements the various programs demand.

One of the highlights of the Cotton Club evening was Mr. Stripling’s tribute to Cab Calloway with his rendition of “Minnie the Moocher.” The audience was captivated, and sang their parts with gusto. It was easy to call up the memory of Cab in his all white suit, hat and walking stick, dancing and singing across the stage. I feel lucky to have worked with both of these gentlemen.

DSO at the Cotton Club

On my drive south through the mountains, my itinerary unfortunately didn’t take me to Mount Mahler. But I did find a couple of other peaks of interest. Colorado’s version of Matterhorn Peak reminded me that the town of Vail was modeled after Zermatt, Switzerland, where the original Matterhorn is.

Colorado's Matterhorn Peak (middle)

And then, all of a sudden, there was Minnie Mountain. I’ll take it.

Minnie Mountain (left)





See the new MOLA Facebook page!

Posted in Library Life,Stage and Concert Duties,The Business by kschnack on October 3, 2010

It is finally a beautiful fall weekend here in Dallas. What a relief. Windows open, breeze coming through the house, and most important — NO SWEATING!

Speaking of relief, I am rotated off this weekend’s performances, and grateful for the opportunity to catch up on all manner of things for life and work. If you don’t know the phrase “rotated” in this context, it is essentially relief-time while the orchestra is working. A very common practice for the players (and conductors, too, of course), there are days and weeks within the concert season when each musician is guaranteed a certain number of “services” off (rehearsals and concerts) that are not considered vacation, personal or sick days, or unpaid leave. In American orchestra libraries, the scheduling is generally a pretty different system and, while we take turns working concerts, we don’t usually have the luxury of a full weekend series off. So it is a real treat when it happens.

This weekend, then, is all about writing and laundry. And some nice walks in the fall air. I’ve been enjoying reading and contributing to the new MOLA page on Facebook, and invite you to visit. Already there are some fun news articles and other good information about an upcoming workshop we are presenting in Chicago:!/pages/MOLA-Major-Orchestra-Librarians-Association/144549815587667

The good feelings about our field and industry are not without worry for our colleagues both near and far. Today, I am thinking about my friends at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Library who will be on strike beginning tomorrow to fight against a truly drastic attempt to change the entire structure, quality, and future of that fine organization. We wish them Godspeed for a decent settlement and a contract that at least treats them with respect. While you are on FB you might stop by their pages as well and offer your support.

Not in the Excerpt Books: Part II

Posted in Library Life,The Business,The Music by kschnack on June 9, 2010
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It cracks me up that I entered Lady Gaga as a Composer in OPAS yesterday.

I was working on an upcoming Idina Menzel concert, who I am embarrassed to say I didn’t know much about until she was booked with us. (Yes, I am seriously behind the times on popular artists.) And then I saw her on “Glee,” and subsequently heard her sing the song that we’ll be doing on our program, which was written by Lady Gaga and which is hugely famous of course. It further cracks me up that I came right home after this exercise and watched two more episodes of “Glee” including the season finale with more appearances by Ms. Menzel. I am now a fan. (I also learned yesterday that she is married to Taye Diggs, which is another excellent reason to be a fan, but forgive a girl for seriously digressing.)

For you orchestras that “Don’t Do Pops” sometimes you are actually missing out on the fun in life! I clearly have been. (Not to mention potentially killer questions for a library audition test. It’s a whole different animal people. The younger librarians have it on us older ones in this area by a long shot. They know the music, the shows, and the different artists’ versions — I was asking questions all day to Shannon about these songs. So study up on the repertoire and instrumentation and stage set and acquisition of materials and arrangers. Coming soon to a test near you.)

Also, coming soon to a city near you — Idina Menzel in her tour with orchestras. If my colleagues need answers to the above questions, we’ve got ’em.

The song in question? “Poker Face.”  “P-p-p-poker face, p-p-poker face…”

You don’t know it? Where have you been??!

I Don’t Think These are in the Excerpt Books

Posted in The Business,The Music,Uncategorized by kschnack on June 3, 2010
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I must have written this memo to the orchestra while I was lost in a flash sideways or something, because weren’t we just doing Mahler???

Dear Orchestra,

This is to let you know that the Video Games Live people no longer send the orchestra’s music in advance, but instead bring everything the first day of rehearsal.

Therefore, they have provided a link from which you can see and/or download practice copies of all of the parts. [Link, user name and password edited out for blog.]

Please note that the “O” in the password is a capital “O” – NOT A ZERO.

Attached is the concert set list for our performances. The numbers in parentheses relate to the numbered selections on the download file. So, if you want to practice “Diablo III-Wrathgate Zero” you go to #37 on the list of selections and click on “Diablo III.”

The instrumentation, in addition to strings, is also attached.

Let me know if you have any questions,


PS. Although I probably won’t know the answers to your questions, as I have no idea what those titles mean, except for Frogger and Mario.


Posted in Library Life,The Business by kschnack on May 29, 2010

Whew, made it. Finished my twentieth season at the DSO last weekend! (Well, that is, the classical season, which always feels like the “end” even though we have about seven more tough weeks to go.) I don’t know why we focus on these round numbers as important milestones, but this one feels like a real passage to me. I’m celebrating all the music and colleagues from the last two decades with an acute sense that things are really changing. And what a way to celebrate, with Mahler 2. It was a magnificent series of performances.

After twenty years in an organization, I think it’s natural to reflect upon the work one has done, how to do better, and what one hopes to continue to build and leave behind later on. Here at the DSO I was fortunate to have the opportunity to develop a library that had not previously been fully set up before I got the job. Everything from the design and layout of work counters, desks and shelving, traffic and work flow, all the way to organizational systems and processes was up to me at the start. Of course, we’ve evolved since then, and my work partners of nineteen years, Mark Wilson, and two years, Melissa Robason, have certainly put their marks on the library as well. But the basic plan is still in place.

Obviously, though, after this much time, the newness has long since worn away in terms of the physical attributes of the library. We fix or replace equipment as needed and as funds are budgeted. These past twenty years in particular have been technically transformational so we are constantly trying to upgrade our hardware, software, printers/copiers, and other tools.

But I am thinking more about the organizational systems, and the huge amount of detail that we process on a daily basis just to prepare music for one concert of one program, let alone 165 concerts of 65 programs. The über librarian part of me is always thinking about what should be kept for posterity, not only for our orchestra but for the field as a whole.

I find that record-keeping is one of the most challenging aspects of this work. And I’m an Organizer. (Remember, I didn’t say Neat. Nope. Not Neat. But a true blue organizer.) There are so many bits and pieces of information that could be useful in the future, and that should be entered into a repertoire database, annotated in a score, or saved in shared files for the next librarian(s). I do a great deal of that already, of course, as do my colleagues. But it’s easy (for me) to feel overwhelmed about this aspect of the work. It would be so reassuring to know that we’d gotten it all recorded, in the right place, easily accessible for future needs, a place for everything and everything in its place.

The roller coaster of our daily working lives doesn’t give us the luxury of chunks of time to meticulously catalogue every iota of data. There is always the next program to prepare. Not to mention that I am genetically incapable of putting everything away every day. So if I can spend a half hour on a day filing e-mail content, or making a note about the offstage setup before sending the parts back, or annotating doublings and divisis in the database, then I figure I’ve at least done something. Something that someday might help us, or others, find one obscure bit of information that will answer a question, save time or locate a work. We can’t come close to doing it all, but we can do Something. I’ve got to believe that such efforts over many years add up and make a difference in the end, and are worth doing.

Because before you know it, it’s twenty years. What a ride! I wonder what the next twenty will bring. I guess it’s time to find out.

Aisle of music between stationary and moveable shelves in DSO Library

Schoenberg and Bugs Bunny

Posted in The Business,The Music,Uncategorized by kschnack on April 25, 2010
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Sometimes daily life in the orchestra library is an exercise in absurdity and irony. As such, it can become great fodder for storytelling. And it also serves to provide endless material for merrymaking so that when the going gets tough we librarians have something to laugh about.

I remember how thrilled I was after graduating from college and getting my first orchestra job, and playing Mahler Symphony No. 1 the opening week. Even the pops concerts in the beginning were exciting, performing with all those “stars.” As time went on, of course, the reality of the job set in and one could be a bit disillusioned by the amount of “non-serious” repertoire that was programmed. I know that many of my colleagues experienced the same adjustment from their expectations of what playing  in a professional orchestra would be like. All those years of study and practice, perfecting every technique so we could execute the most technically demanding classical symphonic, opera and ballet repertoire, to play back-up for a pops show? Yep.

These days I am older and more realistic (and hopefully a little wiser), and I understand better how challenging it is for the artistic leadership to develop creative and appealing programming while maintaining and raising the quality and level of excellence, and……making payroll. So, I admit there are worthwhile pops programs that are not only audience-friendly but artistically satisfying for the players. Of course, some US orchestras “don’t do pops” — or at least if they do it’s called something else — and many players yearn for their dream job in which they wouldn’t have to do those kinds of concerts. But let’s not forget that composers have long crossed back and forth between the so-called serious and popular music in their compositions. For example, Erich Korngold, and, yes, even Schoenberg, had to earn a living after they escaped Europe to Hollywood during the war. Did Schoenberg go tonal to please? Korngold wrote some pretty progressive music for films that, with merely a change in title, could have ended up on the concert stage as “serious” with no one the wiser.*

So, it is with great pleasure that I recount for you the following short incident that took place during a recent rehearsal:

We were well into rehearsals for a week of subscription concerts and the strings had just finished a rigorous work-out on Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. As we finished the stage move to the Brahms symphony set-up I had to make an announcement regarding an upcoming pops program, for which the music had been promised but was delayed by the show’s creator. I got up in front of the orchestra and said “I am very sorry to let you know that the Bugs Bunny music  is late and won’t be here until Friday.”

From somewhere in the cello section I hear: “OH NOOOOOOOOOO!!!”

At which point we all lost it.

Because “Bugs Bunny on Broadway” is a pre-packaged concert that is performed in sync with the film clips of the cartoons, often to some of the most famous classical music ever written (you know, “Kill the Wabbit” set to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”), I like to think Mr. Schoenberg would have found the absurdity, irony, and humor in the situation.

*John Mauceri gave a very enlightening talk examining this subject at a MOLA conference in LA a few years ago. An edited version appears on page 4 of this issue of Marcato and I encourage you to read it:

Auditions, Auditions and More Auditions

Posted in Preparing Parts,The Business by kschnack on February 14, 2010

Timpani Showroom (Photo credit: Melissa Rogers)

Timpani showroom?

Nope, just an audition.

Or rather, one phase of several auditions here at the DSO of late. We have had three days of preliminary, semi and final rounds for the Principal Timpani chair during the last month, and will finish the rest of the semis and finals on Monday following a long day of Assistant Principal Horn auditions. We just last week completed the Second Trombone auditions, and, on top of that, auditions have also been going on for several weeks to fill the choral director position.

You might wonder why I would be writing about auditions as a librarian, because you might think we don’t have much to do with them. But auditions can take a fair amount of careful music preparation. I’m sure most of us in this business have a pretty good idea of what the general audition process is for the players. But I bet most people, even the players, don’t realize what is involved behind the scenes in preparing music for the auditions.

Take a look at this list:

The repertoire lists are determined by the section principals (or, if the audition is for a principal position, by the next ranking person or committee) and conductor, and are sent out to the applicants by the personnel manager. Here at the DSO, we also often have a shorter list drawn from the full one for those who are asked to send tapes. We work with the principal or audition coordinator to identify the excerpts that will be required, getting exact starts and stops marked. Once the repertoire is determined, we then go into production of the audition book itself.

First, we assess which pieces on the list are under copyright, because the players will not be able to purchase those parts and we prepare them to be sent out. Amongst MOLA libraries there is an understanding that we will make these excerpts available to our orchestra’s applicants, but that we will try to do it in the proper, legal way. Currently, that means contacting the publisher for even an 8-bar excerpt of something like Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and gaining their permission to make the necessary copies to distribute or post on our websites (sometimes this involves a fee). Some of the publishers still have the view that allowing us to freely copy or post audition excerpts is a threat to their “revenue stream” and that an orchestra could somehow misuse those excerpts. (I’m not sure how having access to 8 bars of the Bartok timpani part could create any kind of situation in which we could put on a concert and charge a ticket price, but you never know. Perhaps audiences would come to a concert with 50 timpanists playing the audition excerpts in unison…..hey, maybe I should talk to marketing!)

Anyway, after we get permission from each publisher of a protected work, we then create a little book to send to the candidates. This means extracting* the excerpts along with title, composer, key and time signatures, tunings if applicable, and anything else we want the player to have. Here we prefer to send out clean but corrected parts so that the committee can get a sense of how the player approaches the work without imposing our own markings. I should mention that some libraries create the entire audition book to be sent to all the candidates, but at the DSO we generally do not. For the mailing we only reproduce the copyrighted excerpts, since all of the other parts are readily available for purchase. The personnel manager then sends the auditions materials out including the specific list of works with bar and/or rehearsal numbers.

After that part of the process is finished, we move on to preparing the rest of the complete audition book for the actual day of the audition. In addition to those copyrighted excerpts already prepared, we extract the specific passages that may be asked from the other repertoire on the list. For example, if the list calls for Beethoven Symphony No. 7, we know that the candidate will not be asked to play the entire symphony during the audition. (Oh my, can you imagine??) So we extract only the portions that the principal determines are realistically possible to include. This cuts down on lots of extra and unnecessary work for everyone and moves the audition along more efficiently. We make  one or two performance-size candidate books (including all the excerpts for prelims, semis and finals) depending on how many players are anticipated, and up to 10 copies of the book for the committee (8.5 x 11) for reference during the auditions. A cover sheet is put on the front with the list and page number of each excerpt. And then our work is, mostly, done. If the committee and conductor want to allow for the possibility of sight reading, we may have some things ready to hand out on the day if they haven’t been predetermined and included in the book. The candidates are given the information at the audition about what will be asked just prior to each round.

One aside: discretion on the part of the librarian is important. We make sure we don’t talk about, show, or post (like in blogs!) what will be asked on the audition so that everyone has the same info. Of course, most players — especially wind, brass and percussion players — pretty much know which excerpts will be targeted anyway but no one, even in my own orchestra, is going to hear the specifics from me!

Many players bring their own music to auditions, and that is perfectly fine for them to do. I certainly understand this, and did it that way when I was taking violin auditions. But it is incumbent upon the player, then, to read the orchestra’s list carefully and be sure to acquire the proper parts so they don’t have a problem using an incorrect version or something.

Once we are finally finished with our work. we save everything physically and electronically so that we don’t have to start over the next time the same instrument or position comes open. When I am long gone from this job, my successor will have, hopefully, less work to do for auditions.

As for auditions for orchestra librarian positions, that is a separate post (and, yes, I meant to write “auditions”). I will regale you with the good, the bad, and the ugly of that process another day!

*Extracting excerpts used to mean cutting out parts like paper dolls and pasting them in order on clean paper before copying them. Now, with our document manipulation software, we do the cutting and pasting electronically and it is incredibly fun. We are proud nerds.

Timpani Everywhere! (Photo credit: Melissa Rogers)

I Lost December

Posted in The Business by kschnack on December 28, 2009

Well, I didn’t plan to take a 4-week break from writing the blog, but December got the best of me.  This is probably not unusual for people in our business; in my case, I just seem to have taken on more than I could fit in.  There’s really nothing new about that, still working on the old “balance” thing.  And I find that it never fails to pour when raining.

Holiday concerts aside, and despite the much-appreciated time they gave us off at work, there weren’t enough hours or days to adequately handle everything to which I had said “yes.”  Obviously, the source of the problem is…….moi.

Vacations from work have often meant a kind of “busman’s holiday” for me, in that I play church gigs and with other organizations — and have been known to use summer vacations playing in festivals.  As a full-time orchestra librarian with the DSO, the free-lance work brings in a bit of extra money to be sure, but, more importantly, it keeps me playing.  It’s not easy for one’s chops to be at their best when not performing every day. Like many other librarians, I want to maintain my playing right along with the musical skills needed for my day job.  Besides, I enjoy sitting down with colleagues to play (as long as it’s a decent gig with decent music at decent pay — picky, picky)!

This December there were a lot more churches in the DFW area hiring musicians than last Christmas. So it seemed prudent to take the work while it was there.  I know folks who make a sizable portion of their entire annual income over these weeks, and it’s a positive sign when the churches are able to bring in the players.  Good for both the congregations who benefit from worshiping with special music and the musicians who need the income.

Playing as much as I can also helps me back in the library.  You might  be surprised to know how often I draw from my experience as a player when preparing parts or making decisions about materials for the orchestra.  And it also keeps me in touch with what the players have to go through to stay at their peak.  Although in one sense you never forget “how” to play (like riding a bicycle), you can obviously lose dexterity, flexibility (both mind and fingers), controlled technique, and even confidence if you don’t stay in shape. And, let’s face it, I’m not practicing 2 or 3 or 6 hours a day anymore.  A life in the orchestra library commands most of one’s time, energy, focus, and, yes, even creativity.  Odd as that may sound.

So, like everyone else, I’ll be trying to get back on that treadmill now that the holidays are winding down.  The show must go on.

What Happens Backstage Stays Backstage

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

Being the Best That We Can Be

Posted in The Business by kschnack on October 21, 2009

Every year I look down in late August when we start our season, and by the time I am able to look up and catch a breather, it’s almost the end of October.  And every year I say it’s not going to happen this year, that I will take more time to get out of the library, be with family and friends, do more non-work things, have some fun, and enjoy the change to fall.  And every year it goes the same way despite my best intentions — I lose two months.

Where the heck did September and October go????

I’m pretty sure all the other librarians feel that way too, as well as the players and conductors. It’s what we do:  the players are practicing a ton of music for classics, pops, youth and special concerts, and the conductors are jetting around the galaxy for guest appearances in other orchestras, so studying scores for a bunch of different programs at once too.  The librarians are trying to get a handle on the work flow for the season, and prepare the parts as much and as soon as we can so we don’t slip behind when the inevitable music crisis occurs.  I know one thing for sure — everyone I talk to in the business is trying to push through the opening onslaught.  Forget about ever having fall vacations!

I’m not dissing the job here — I am glad for it and the life it allows me to lead.  I’ve certainly experienced the other side of the situation and been out of work, so I know that drill.  It’s terrible.  And many people are dealing with that these days.   Colleagues in our industry are suffering the same fate as in others, and any one of us could be next.  It’s a scary time.

And it’s a time when we need to be careful, in more ways than one, and maybe in ways that seem counterintuitive.  Our orchestras have to bring in revenue over and above ticket sales which are only part of the big picture.  We have to depend upon individual and corporate donors, plus grants and long-term endowment funds.  I understand the temptation to book  more and more “shows” and non-orchestral artists to try and turn a quick $50K.  It makes a lot of sense to knock out those deficits by showcasing popular artists that are not necessarily mainstream classical and that have big followings.  I totally get that, and am certainly not opposed to the need — responsibility, even — to be creative with our programming and who we feature.  And I give credit to the people in artistic planning who are trying to find the right formula, the right balance, knowing that whatever decisions they make, somebody is going to be disappointed.

It’s a little like politicians who have to please their base and keep those core supporters happy enough — or they’ll lose that group over time.  But the politician can’t only please those people, especially if the base is really outside the mainstream.  So, then there is the numbers game about how far away one can move from that base, pulling people from the other side — or center — over.  And then assessing whether it is worth it.

I think Symphony Administrators are dealing with this type of scenario every day.  I put them up for doing so.  Hard work and lots of stress, for sure.  What they are trying to accomplish is more complicated, in a way, than what your average politician is doing.  Because what we do is already considered to be out of the mainstream — and that scares some people into thinking we need to become something else, be what we aren’t.

Which, in my opinion, is exactly the opposite of what we should do.

I’ve been watching how orchestras (the ones I’ve been in and others out there) deal with all this over the years, the economic ups and downs.  I’m personally living though this cycle in a serious way for the third time.  But I still don’t buy what many (even within the arts) would have us believe is the problem.

I don’t believe that classical music is the killer of our industry’s ticket sales and fund-raising.  I also don’t believe that all pops presentations or “shows” have a negative impact on the artistic output of the organization, which is the other end of the spectrum.  I don’t think we should become just pops orchestras, or booking agents, and I definitely don’t believe we should panic and hire sub-par artists or dumb down the quality of our “product” to turn a fast buck.  Cutting corners, as every architect knows, may save money in the short term but it’s a disaster later on for the stability of the building.

I believe that the killer is Bad Music, Badly Played Music, or Badly Marketed Music. Or All Three.

Great music, played well, and marketed with passion, creativity, and belief in what we do works.  It generates buzz and excitement, not to mention civic pride.  It’s okay to do a pops series with an artist that might not fit the usual mold if they perform at a very high level, in a way that can be melded with the orchestra and its fundamental reason for being.  But if it’s an artist whose music doesn’t work well with an orchestra, or, God forbid, someone who isn’t even very good, then we are hurting ourselves.

And I’m not so sure featuring artists without the orchestra helps us at all.  Isn’t the point that the audience hear the orchestra?

I believe our audiences know the difference between Bad Music Played Badly and Good Music Played Well.  They might not understand it, but they know it.  They can hear it and feel it, and they won’t want to be sitting in the hall any more than we want to be on stage if something isn’t good.

I don’t know the answers for all this, and I know orchestras sometimes have to throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks.  But let’s at least make sure that the ingredients we use are top-notch.  Let’s Be the Best That We Can Be.

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