Hunt Orchestra

Once I was there, I loved it. The bass players were cool kids, or jerks if you were the teacher. They would eat snacks during class, and drop the wrappers and Popsicle sticks into the body of the bass. So by the end of the year, the garbage would rustle anytime the bass moved. The cello players would every now and then break out in song, in unison, such as the “Barney Miller Theme” or the theme to the “Odd Couple”. Those guys were having fun, and I liked being there.

I got assigned to the back of the second violins, it was the beginning of the school year, and we all had to audition for our spots by playing a selection of music in front of the whole class. This could be embarrassing. I got used to the embarrassment. This also let you know, right away, how good you were in comparison to the others in class. And, on Fridays, if we wanted, we could challenge the person a seat ahead of us, and if we played better than them, then we could get their seat. Vicious. I think we had to give a week’s warning. I think this was to get us to practice.

However, what it did do, was have all the bad playing kids sitting in the back, where they would hear the other bad kids. Later in life, I got to sit up near the front, and wow, what a difference being able to hear the good players makes. Also later in life, I sat in front of a trumpet section, which was horrible when they first got the music, because it was loud and out of tune. I had a viola coach tell me, “yeah, that’s why the professional will wear an earplug in the trumpet turned ear”!   My theory now, if any music teachers are listening, is that during the normal course of the quarter, pair up good players with not-so good players when rehearsing as a group. And sure, for the concert, have Billy-tone-deaf sit in the back, that cool. But during class, maybe he might get a bit better if he was exposed to one of his peers who could play.

There was just one class, and huge levels of practice and skill and experience were in it. How do you craft a lesson plan for that, keep every one interested, challenge the good kids, but not overwhelm the bad musicians?  One way, was the solo-ensemble contest, which would bring together the local orchestra kids on a Saturday to compete in small group sessions. Small groups were formed, trying to keep them close together in skill level.

I think I challenged someone once, and lost. And she got tired of sitting next to me, and she started challenging her way up the ranks of the second violins, and then I was sitting with Debbie.

Eighth grade…we needed viola players. Debbie and I volunteered. And in South Tacoma education fashion, the teacher gave me & Debbie a couple of books, a couple of violas, and put us in a room to teach each other viola. And thus, we entered the fraternity of violists. I always consider viola players a bit quirky, the viola is the bastard step child of the orchestra, the modern viola has the wrong body design/size for the notes it is required to play and thus has its unique tonal color. In the beginning classical repertoire, Teleman, Hayden, Handel, Corelli, the viola parts are a bunch of eight notes, and the challenge is not to fall asleep while the first violins get the main melody. I’ve heard, in Vienna during Mozart’s time, “even the cooks could play viola” which I suspect is not a complement to cooks or violists. So, the few that take up die Bratsche are a bit weird for wanting a weird instrument, and stick together because we get no respect. At a music camp, during viola sectionals, the teacher pointed out that everybody in the general public know Yo-yo Ma, or Isaac Perlman, or James Galway… but there are no famous violists.  I wonder if oboe players feel the same way?

We had orchestra at lunch time, which was nice, because sometimes some of us would be on first lunch, while others were with the teacher, or second lunch. In effect, the teacher was squeezing another 30 minutes of teaching into his work day! Which might be why I have so few memories of eating in the lunch room. Most of the time, a bunch of us would eat in the hall way, where one of the cool ‘cello players, nick-named, “the Black Salmon” would hold court and entertain us. Or we would talk about TV shows, such as “V” or “the Day After”.  We weren’t supposed to be there, and the choir teacher, or the band teacher would kick us out if we had food, but, one of the benefits of a South Tacoma education is learning to hid from authorities. Where we really wanted to be, was in the orchestra room. And in there, some of us would actually be playing music and/or practicing our parts. But, you know how liability goes, you never wanna leave a bunch of kids unsupervised. So, a few people would get there early, and prop open a door and we would go in when the band teacher left. One of my favorites, I snuck up to the stage door, jammed a piece of bread in the latch for the door, so the door would be closed, but not locked, and thus we were able to sneak in through that way for a week until they finally figured out how we did it. I desperately wanted to inherit the title of “the Black Salmon” when I finally reached 9th grade. I knew I couldn’t just call myself that (Side note: what did Bono & Sting’s friends first say when notified of the name change?) In 8th grade I sucked up to the current Black Salmon, tried to be a loyal Lieutenant, tried to cultivate an interest in the history amongst the 7th graders, … and failed. I tried to be the cool kid in 9th grade, but I didn’t know how, and over-played the shocking, by swearing, telling classless jokes, being a clown.

Probably that should have been my clue not to go into school politics….




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