A couple weeks ago I got an email from a string-playing friend. There was a second violin emergency in her orchestra. Violinist needed. Stat. Please. Help. Beethoven 7 – third piano concerto – here are the rehearsal times – here’s what you’ll be paid – will you do it? Can you do it?
My first instinct was no. No, I can’t do it. When I agree to play a concert, I like to be prepared to the max, to have my parts half-memorized, to know who I need to listen to when…to know everything I possibly can, and then to guilt myself for not knowing more. This job, however, would consist of me getting a symphony and a concerto I’d never played into run-through shape for the first rehearsal in a few days. It would be my first chance to make a positive or negative impression on the members of a semi-professional orchestra I’ve watched since my teens, which I’ve toyed with joining for years, in some hypothetical far-flung future where I’ll be much better than I ever am. So far I’d spent the majority of 2012 alternating between lying on the couch sick with the flu and playing slow scales in alto clef. I can’t imagine a worse preparation.
Can you do it?, she asked.
Can you do it?, I asked.
When I was 14 and went to my first orchestra rehearsal, I had no idea what to expect, so I sought advice from an older violinist friend. She said, “When you don’t know what’s going on, fake it.” I faked it the entire rehearsal. But gradually, with work, I stopped having to fake. A few semesters later, I was in the first chair of the second violins, and the conductor shook my hand at the final performance.
When I was accepted into the summer camp I knew I wouldn’t be accepted into, I was struck with a heady mix of terror and excitement. I was the least advanced, worst-trained player there; graduate students and competition winners abounded. One of the faculty members there was a fantastic player and person who had played second violin in my favorite recording of the Bach double concerto. During one of our last concerts, she played in our chamber orchestra, and I was her stand-partner in Brandenburg 3.
When I was asked by a professional musician if I’d like to try some duets sometime, I blanched. It felt like a waste of his time, like a gesture of sympathy, but I couldn’t bear to say no. Nonetheless when we got together I stalled. And stalled some more.
“I’m scared,” I finally said. For some reason, no reason, no reason at all, I was scared.
“You don’t need to be scared,” he said. “It’s just playing.”
He was right.
There have been times when I fell on my face. I’ve bombed auditions. I’ve lost orchestra seats. I’ve mis-read a scale…that was one octave…in C-major…in front of an important teacher…numerous times. Once when I was recording my recital for summer camp, I wasn’t told until a few minutes before I set up the mic that the pianist was actually a trombonist and only played simple Suzuki accompaniments on the side…and I’d brought her a piano transcription of a Wieniawski concerto. So there have been disasters.
But the thing is…now that I think about it, I don’t remember the disasters nearly as clearly as I remember the exultation of the unexpected successes.
One semester my youth orchestra took on three movements of Beethoven 5. It was the biggest musical project I’d been a part of up until that point. At the concert, before we began, the conductor asked us, “Before this concert, how many of you had played a Beethoven symphony?”
A few kids who had been lucky (and let’s face it, wealthy) enough to go to summer camp raised their hands.
He smiled. “Now how many of you have played a Beethoven symphony?”
We all raised our hands.
Is it strange that I don’t really remember anything about how the performance went? But I do remember finishing it and being backstage, waiting for a ride home. The heavy door to outside was open. Kids were leaving and shouting. Everyone was giddy. I sat in front of a bank of lockers and tried very hard not to cry. All that work, and the moment in the hot spotlight, the exultation, all come to this…sitting backstage, the music turned in, the folder empty, everything over. Not knowing when it would happen again. If it would happen again. If it could happen again.
Can you do it?
After deliberating, I hit reply.
The cursor blinked.
“Yes,” I typed. “I’ll do it,” and I clicked send.
Sometimes I guess you just have to jump off the cliff, and have faith you’ll land on your feet, fiddle in hand.