A Guide to Doing Everything Wrong for the Holidays
by ANDREW NISSEN
First-year GD Trombone
♫ “When you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything–” ♫
[music stops, play grinds to a screeching halt]
Brigitta: I thought you just said ONE WORD FOR EVERY NOTE?
Maria: Yes, I did, Brigitta, that’s right.
Brigitta: But when you sing “a-ny-thing,” you are using up threeee notes on ooooone word. I find that confusing.
Maria: Well, sometimes we do that. Hm. Maybe I should have said, “one syllable for every note.” Thank you for clarifying. Any more questions from the peanut gallery?
Kurt: Please explain to me the vocal mechanism by which phonation is produced.
Gretl: What exactly do you mean by “when you KNOW THE NOTES to sing?” Do you mean, when we know the syllables that go with each note? Or when we know the order in which to put the notes so as to form the song in question? Or when we know the pitches of the C major diatonic scale, excluding all other notes from
different keys and tonal systems?
Marta: What does it mean to KNOW something? How can we separate knowledge from our own selves and our own existence? What is truth?
Maria: I’m so glad you asked. I was hoping you wouldn’t notice that I hadn’t explained these things to you, but you’re cleverer than I thought. Let’s abandon this silly song, and let’s try to find all the gaps in the two-minute music theory lesson I’ve just given you. After I’ve answered all your questions, we can really start at the very beginning, go back a few thousand years to Mesopotamia, and look at cuneiform notation…
…The Von Trapp children never sang again.
December 1st deadlines have passed. Thank God. Why is everyone who’s graduating still stressed out? It’s because we don’t know what we’re doing next year! DUH! Please stop asking us if we are stressed or what our plans are. We will continue to be in “unknown territory” until we find out.
Grad school is the obvious next step for many people here. People have been working their butts off in order to get pre-screening material recorded and applications submitted, while still trying to be a person and a student. Oh yeah, it’s finals season too, right? Some people have even started applying for summer festivals! How many applications do we need to submit!? We haven’t even thought about how stressful February will be with so many auditions. Yikes.
For those who aren’t in this boat yet, please relish in your freedom. The time will come for you to submit 20 million applications and pay 20 million dollars in application fees (why do they make us pay so much?). I’m not trying to scare you. Just be aware and plan ahead.
Here is a suggestion for those of you to whom this does not yet apply: Check the application/recording requirements early on. Start early. Record your tapes when it isn’t 30 degrees outside and when your reeds are actually vibrating and sound half decent. Really, do this. You won’t regret it.
Here is a suggestion for everyone else: Everything will be okay. We tend to think there is a prescribed path one must follow (at least in the classical world) in order to be successful and win a huge orchestra job with the Boston Symphony or something of the sorts. But everyone is going to get there by different means. Who knows what’s going to happen– it’s the future! We can try to control as much of it as we are capable of, but we can’t control it all. Things happen for a reason. Trust in that. Trust that NEC has put you in a position after (insert how many years you’ve been here) to be successful in one way or another. Stop freaking out. Know we are all in the same boat. Take a deep breath. Go buy a holiday latte at Starbucks.
It’s that time of year again; Boston’s icy winds threaten to tear off your face every time you set foot outside, Christmas decorations go up all over the city, and the Boston Pops put their noses to the grindstone for a month of holiday pops concerts. It’s a magical time of the year.
But not all was magical last weekend at Symphony Hall, when the slap stick player missed his entrance in Sleigh Ride, ruining the entire performance. In case you haven’t willingly listened to Sleigh Ride since December 2008, the sound of a whip is the biggest solo part in the entire piece. Leroy Anderson writes for the orchestra to drop out for an entire beat, leaving the whip all alone (ba-da dum, bum bum bum bum, bum bum bum BUM…..*CRACK* ba-daah, etc.).
There was a bare, silent gap in the Pops’ performance during which maestro Keith Lockhart gave the percussionist a death-glare, which caused the musician to drop his instrument and miss the second whip crack. The concert inexplicably continued, and the percussionist picked up the clacker and nailed his last few entrances of the number, barely salvaging the experience for the audience.
After that performance, Lockhart demanded that the orchestra rehearse Sleigh Ride again and again, to make sure the whip cracks were always in the right place. It is estimated that during this week, the Pops rehearsed the piece more than they had rehearsed it in the past ten years combined.
Musicians trudged out of the rehearsals, complaining that they just couldn’t get that jazzy variation out of their heads. However, since that awful performance, all the Pops’ holiday concerts have been spectacular, and the whip player hasn’t missed an entrance since.
I sit in Margie Apfelbaum’s office on a very comfortable couch, and I ask if it’s good for sleeping on. “I don’t know,” Margie says. Though I’m inclined to believe her, there’s a hint of something else in her smile.
Margie is a benevolent, cheerful, hard-working stalwart of NEC. Now entering her third decade in service as the Administrative Director of Orchestras, she interacts with most of the instrumental students who come through the school. And she has an awesome couch in her office.
Aside from the couch, I ask, what’s a good part about working at NEC? “It’s a really nice community of smart, talented people– talent both in and outside of music. People seem to be well-rounded and articulate, and I learn something new just about every day. I also get to work with young people, so it keeps me young and energetic.” I wonder aloud if NEC has changed in the years that Margie has been here. “Tremendously,” she replies. “I think we’ve always had very, very talented students here, but – to use a sports terms – we have a very deep bench now. There were years that the orchestra department had, like, three bass players and five violists; the orchestra department has grown very well since that point. The quality of what happens in the orchestra is just really, really high.”
I ask Margie about the sports term “deep bench.” Is it a baseball thing, I naïvely think? “Well, the term applies to any sports. It means there’s a lot of talent throughout the team. I’m a big sports fan.” Is she a Red Sox fan? “Of course!” she grins. “I watched one game at LAX before a red-eye flight, and an entire pizza place in the terminal had been taken over by Red Sox fans. One waiter told us that the Red Sox weren’t going to win the World Series, and went on about how much he hated them. I really wanted to fly back as soon as the Red Sox won and just go…” (She makes a, ahem, colorful physical gesture that can’t be described here.)
Back to music– what’s the worst excuse Margie’s seen from a student for missing orchestra? “Oh! I get some pretty funny emails. I once had a student who said they couldn’t come to rehearsal because of the Boston Marathon. I asked, ‘Are you running in it?’ and they said, ‘No, but I’d like to watch it.’” One of her craziest memories was witnessing a student show up drunk to a concert. She recalls, “The student enlisted a relative to tell me that before the concert a bottle of whiskey had fallen on him, so that’s why he smelled like alcohol!” With a knowing smile, she says, “I’ve been doing this for a while, so I can tell when people are making stuff up.”
We talk about some of Margie’s dreams for NEC. “I’d like to do a festival around the first week of April dealing with humor in music,” she says. “I love comedy, and I’ve done some stand-up as a hobby. I think there are so many humorous pieces, and the festival could coincide with April Fools Day.” Who knows– maybe now that people are reading this article, they’ll become interested in making it happen!
As for upcoming holiday plans? “My partner and I got a new puppy this year, so we won’t be vacationing away during the break. One thing I try to do is invite students staying in town over the break away from family without anywhere to go. [My wife and I] try to get in touch with them and have them over on Christmas Eve for a nice meal.” So maybe she’s a stickler for orchestra attendance– but she gives away free food!
Margie and I talk for quite some time. She’s easy to talk to, and we have many topics to talk about. There’s the time that Bruce Springsteen opened for her during the dedication of the Zakim Bridge (Margie sounded a shofar at the end of the ceremony, and Bruce played at the beginning!) We look at pictures of her beautiful puppy, Louie, who is half Australian Cattle Dog, half “not-quite-sure.” Margie does a lot of photography and has a professional certificate in photography. Very into politics, Margie was always down at the State House around the time that same-sex marriage was in debate in Massachusetts. It’s very important to Margie, as it enabled her and her long-time partner Meridith to finally marry. We also talk about Margie’s resident town, Watertown, which became world-famous for all the wrong reasons this past April as television viewers across the world witnessed police cars and military tanks close in on her neighborhood. “As horrible as the whole thing was, it really was an amazing time in Boston’s history. What terrorists don’t realize is that they galvanize people to care more for one another. The response by everyone at NEC was so amazing. It just showed how thoughtful, articulate, and soulful everyone is here.”
As we part, Margie leaves me with one final gem: “I say that one of the reasons I love what I do is because I’m able to get rich. It’s not measured by money, but by the experiences of my life, the people I get to meet, and the places I get to go. Every time we have a concert here, I watch the transformation from infancy to full-growth. It’s amazing.” I think so too.
Coming out of Thanksgiving this year, I’ve had the chance to consider all the things for which I am thankful. I’m very lucky, and have been given opportunities that most can only dream of. Although Thanksgiving is a holiday celebrated exclusively by Americans, the internationality of NEC has given me a new perspective on this time of year as well as the world at large.
Leaving one’s country is an incredibly brave thing to do; I have the utmost respect and even jealousy for those who are living their lives abroad. Even though I have not left my home country, being surrounded by those who have at NEC has given me the sensitivity to the challenges of living abroad. NEC has exposed me to so much of the world by just attending school, and for that I am thankful.
Americans have a reputation for being naïve, especially in regards to the reality of other countries. Perhaps this comes as a result of shopping centers and restaurants appearing the same from sea to shining sea, a homogenous feel that stretches over a country the size of a continent. Though it may be convenient to order a hamburger in Boston and Los Angeles and expect the exact same lunch, it creates a nation scared senseless of something that stands out from the crowd. Embarrassingly, the first year I spent here I was surprised to find out that not everyone left town to visit family for Thanksgiving as I had grown so accustomed to. Similarly, I was surprised to discover holidays recognized by some of my peers that were not a part of my own calendar. I was unaware of my own international ignorance until my first semester here, and even though it was humiliating, I think now I’m a bit more aware of the customs of others. To students at NEC, differences in international customs are intuitive; it’s a non-issue. Unfortunately, outside the walls of the conservatory, unawareness of cultural diversity still persists.
Along with the end of the semester, the holidays are now upon us. This is the time of year that is recognized and celebrated the whole world over, each culture branding traditions to look forward to. Music, already the signature of the cultures themselves, often serves as the cornerstone on which these holiday traditions are built. Just hearing the music of holidays transports us vividly to them; it carries incredible power. Living abroad may displace you from immersion in the holiday traditions of home, but it will be a time in life you will always remember. Because in the end, we don’t remember the times we were comfortable, but instead the times we were not. The times we stepped out of our comfort zones and into a world we never knew existed. Later, we will call these moments of discomfort nostalgia.
So wherever you call home, transport us there. Whatever songs you sang in December as a child, sing them now with might. America suffers from a mild and childish ignorance to culture, and it’s our job as musicians to expose anyone unfamiliar with such cultures to their wonder and beauty. The diversity we have within ouf conservatory is truly one-of-a-kind, and through music we all have the power to share and experience it in the most potent of ways.
December: the month of holidays. Mention of it conjures up an entire backlog of memories of hot chocolates, scarves and mittens, and perhaps warm nights indoors by the fire in defiance of the cold outside. At least that’s what I think it does for you! Where I come from, December is a month of the outdoors, of late sunsets and early rises, BBQ and cold drinks, tank tops, and flip-flops. Just as my perception of the holiday season is informed mostly by second-hand information from Hollywood and friends, so then would your perceptions be of the land far, far away known as Australia. Allow me to give you a first-hand introduction as to what it’s like to experience a Christmas down under. (Incidentally, flip-flops are not known as such back home. We call them thongs. It makes sense if you think about it.)
Like any child growing up in the nineties, I got most of my education from The Simpsons. The very first episode of the show is a sweet story about how the family receives their dog one Christmas; this was likely my first exposure to the phenomenon of a Northern Hemisphere winter. A couple of things passed through my mind as I watched the episode:
A. What is this magical substance they refer to as snow?
B. Why are they all walking around with lots of clothes on– isn’t Christmas supposed to be hot?
C. Where’s the emu?
I’ll get to that last one soon, but the other questions answer themselves. Indeed, when I finally did experience a Northern Hemisphere winter for the first time at 20 years old, I couldn’t quite shake the nagging feeling that I was walking through a real life movie. None of it seemed like it could be real, as I’d only ever experienced it through the lens of the television.
My family video collection contains footage of a particularly legendary Christmas from when I was a boy. A mischievous uncle had gifted my siblings and me with Super Soakers that year, and he brought along some of his own to make things interesting. What started as three children playfully soaking three burly adults (my two uncles and my grandfather) shortly turned into a full-on war. In my favorite part of the vidoe, my five-year-old self screams, “Hey, that’s cheating!” as my grandfather takes sniper shots out the window from the relative safety of the inside of his bedroom. This is the sort of diversion you can afford to have when it’s 110º outside on Christmas Day in Sydney.
Still, not all traditional Christmas ideas are thrown out the window in warmer climates. Poor, suffering Santa still labors away underneath mountains of woolen fabrics. Christmas pines are still erected, and often inexplicably adorned with fake snow. Chestnuts are roasted, turkeys are consumed, and eggnog flows abundantly. Ever-popular Christmas songs survive intact. Well, almost all of the time.
A popular push was made in the late 1980s to ‘Australian-ize’ the lyrics to many popular carols. Tunes such as “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” have survived fully as they have no reference to colder weather, but tunes like “Jingle Bells” had all Northern Hemisphere references removed and replaced with Australian sound-alikes. Sometimes the results are better than others; take “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” for instance. After the refrain, “On the ___ day of Christmas, my true love sent to me,” the Australian version goes:
An emu up a gum tree
2 pink galahs
7 koalas climbing
8 possums playing
9 wombats working
10 lizards leaping
11 numbats nagging
12 parrots prattling
I remember singing this in elementary school, but I still don’t quite know what a jaibiru is!
So, as you sip your warm drinks and curl up away from the cold with family this holiday season, spare a thought for those suffering under the tyranny of a shining sun and endless beaches in the Southern Hemisphere. I’ll be home in Sydney for Christmas for the first time in three years this year, and I have lots of new cousins – I think I know what Santa is bringing them all this year!
I have lived long enough to have many stories of how I have dealt with stage fright. One friend asked if I had ever considered bungee-jumping. ‘Why would I want to do that?” I countered, “I already know the feeling of jumping off a cliff.” Here is one story from my past that you may find helpful.
Sometime during my college years, I read about the Malaysian Senoi, best known for their work with dreams. They teach their children such ideas as “Never run away from danger in a dream. If you see a monster, either overcome it or make friends with it.” I know my monster, I thought: stage fright. Can I overcome it? Can I make friends with it?
I went back to my little bedroom in the rustic cabin I shared with other young musicians, and curled up in a fetal position underneath the covers, pillow over my head. “All right, Mr. Dragon of My Fears, I challenge you! I will fight with you, and not run away!” My mental challenge struck me as childish, but I stuck with it, imagining the absolute worst thing that could happen. The fear began to grow, and I still kept it as an image right between my eyebrows. After a few minutes I was shivering under the blankets. What if I totally blew it? What if I played out of tune? What if I messed up? What if my peers thought less of me? What if my teachers were disappointed? What if I embarrassed myself? Maybe I would get out there and not be able to do it at all. Suddenly instead of fear I began to feel anger. “Stop it!” I screamed inside myself. “SO WHAT? My mother just died a year ago – that matters. Is all this important? I’ve worked, haven’t I? Fierce Dragon Fear, I defy you!! Do your worst!” On and on I ranted, trembling. Then, just as I began to tire of the anger, I began to feel strength surge through me. “OK, Mr. Dragon, I am strong enough to overcome you. I don’t have to worry about you any more.” Then it all fell apart and I cried. I can’t be perfect, I thought. And a voice came to me, “No, you can’t be perfect. You don’t need to be. Life isn’t perfect. It is beautiful, but it isn’t perfect. Just sing of your sorrow, sing of your grief, sing of your loneliness, and you will reach people.”
Oh. Sing of my sorrow? My grief? My loneliness? I can do that. I can share that with the listeners.
Then a calmness came to me, and I rested. I remembered the love of my mother, the caring person I missed so much. I can sing of my love for her, I thought. I can sing of the joy I shared with her, and when the music calls for it, I can sing of the difficulties we had. As I sing of my love for her I will sing of Love. As I sing of my loneliness and grief, I will be singing of Loneliness and Grief. The personal will be transmuted into the universal.
I will sing through my violin, and I will not be perfect. I will be human, and some listeners will hear human sorrow and joy, loneliness and love. That is enough.