Maybe not complete and utter chaos, but that’s what we were rapidly approaching. This was an awful situation to be handed, one that not even the great Loki himself could have envisioned throwing on upon us. We were in one of the worst predicaments that I have ever faced as a musician: My director was sitting right in front of me. We were all lost. There was absolutely no sense of leadership amongst the group.
And I wasn’t sure how we were going to get out of this. Let’s back up a minute, or a few hundred thousand. At this time in my life, I am currently in college, aiming for a B.A. in Music Composition. My parents never wanted me to do music; they said that I should make it a part of my life, but that I should do something practical like “Physics” or “Computer Science” or something like that. While being decently good at math and turning out good test scores on the AP Exams, I wasn’t exactly what you might call “STEM Student” material. Sure, I might have a heart of stone and a brain with the logic of a processor, but my GPA wasn’t that high, I often got into trouble at school, and I only managed to get into college because my mother had dictated vociferously to me where she wanted me to go. I didn’t have a choice in the matter; when she decided that I should go to the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara, she made sure, with everything in her power, that I would go there. (It helped that the Dean ended up liking me when I paid them a visit.) Even though I ended up making the right decision, it was the only decision I could make because it was the only program I did get into when I applied for college. Better than nothing, I guess.
Despite my own apathetic reservations to the program, I will have to say, I thoroughly enjoy my time here. I’ve met several great friends in both music and other disciplines, ones that I will cherish forever in my time here, in the days when I grow old and yearn for the past…
Ahem. Sorry about that, where was I? Oh yes, tricking you into feeling existential dread and impending disaster with none other than ink blotches on paper. Let’s continue.
So, despite my own self-absorbed tendencies to stay in my apartment all day, I like playing music more than I like writing music. I was in several ensembles: Orchestra, Percussion Ensemble, Wind Ensemble, Chorus, Middle Eastern Ensemble… if you name it, I was either in it or I was close friends with the director. In Spring of my Second year, my percussion ensemble director approached me on playing a piece that I was excited for, but I knew it would take some challenges to get right.
The director (let’s call him JN), is what you might call a… what’s the word? Ah yes, an asshole. He was very manipulative and bipolar, and our personalities do not mesh together in the slightest. To be fair, his criticisms are not unwarranted. He often will do so when I’m doing something stupid or I haven’t prepared for something. That criticism is leveled. But, for example, he often will blow up at me completely unwarranted, especially when it appears to be none of his business. In one instance, a director of an ensemble asked me if there was a way for the bass drum player to play both the Crash Cymbals and the Bass Drum at the same time. I had told him it was possible, and I thought nothing more of it. The next day, I had received an extremely vociferous email in my inbox saying that I was not allowed to give my opinions on whether something could be helped regarding percussion. Understandably, I was furious. Was I not to be trusted? Was I not to be believed and to be taken seriously? It felt as if I was just a pawn in another chess game, and I could do nothing at the mercy of my superiors.
Despite all his shortcomings, JN has been a wonderful teacher to me, and he’s greatly helped me grow as a person musically, both in my playing and in my own compositions. Whenever I’ve shown him something that I’ve written, he always complements me before delving into his own criticism. I commend him on being able to lead rehearsals effectively, and to be able to conduct them in a timely manner, which is something that you can rarely find these days. He’s a good teacher, just not a good human being. The two are not mutually exclusive.
I remember the very conception from when the troubles started. On one fine Tuesday afternoon in the middle of winter, he handed the ensemble a piece of music called “Mudra,” composed by the great American percussionist Bob Becker. He slyly handed me a part and said, “Take a look. I think you can handle it.”
The top of the part, what I was being asked to play, read “crotales and snare drum.”
The piece was perfect for me. It looked like my old marching band music that I used to have back in high school. Fast rolls, fun accent patterns, and virtuosic playing was littered throughout the page, and I knew it was going to be extremely fun to play and learn. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning opening a present that he didn’t even know he wanted, but he needed. I gladly accepted the part.
That was my first mistake.
Do I think I think he was being facetious? No, not at all. I knew that he knew that I could handle it. But it wasn’t me that was the problem in the piece.
It was someone else.
Nearly everybody was equipped to play this piece, and when I say nearly everybody, I mean that there was one person who was very much not equipped to play this piece; let’s refer to him as “Brian”. Don’t get me wrong, Brian was a good musician, but he didn’t understand the meaning of the word “consistency”. Every time we would run through the piece, he would consistently be inconsistent in a consistently consistent section.
The form of the piece itself is something that is rather interesting. It was originally written for dancers,and the structure follows something like this: slow-fast-slow-fast-faster-slow-fast-slow. The trouble came with the “faster” section in the middle. Here, I would be playing a very fast drum roll, with occasional accents being thrown in between the rolls. The trouble came when Brian had to fit his part in. He was playing a giant 40-inch bass drum for the rest of us to be deafened by, with the head itself being larger than most car windows. Meanwhile, I had a small, 14-inch snare drum in front of me, one that could barely call itself a car window. He had to line up his hits will all my accents, being sure to make the timing consistent. And as usual, this rehearsal, 2 weeks before the concert, he kept screwing up the part, missing his accents and consistently losing the beat from the rest of us. I felt like David trying to battle not Goliath’s strength, but his incompetence and ignorance of the possibility of being wrong. JN would go on to chastise Brian for several minutes about this, while I just smiled smugly in the corner. At the time, it was nice to see somebody else bear the brunt of our director’s criticism. Now, I feel like a fool in my own hubris, but what was I to do? Tell our director to stop? My own confidence was not as fortified.
Not three days before the concert, something else less than fortuitous happened. I fell off of a 3 foot stage and I hurt my ankle, landing face first on the tile flooring in the theater.
My first thought was not to call the ambulance, not to yell for help, nor to even check if I was bleeding at all. I had rehearsal in 15 minutes, and I tried desperately to stand up in order to walk across campus to the rehearsal hall, where I needed to be. The moment I stood up and balanced on the injured foot, an invisible baseball bat filled with pain and anguish clobbered me in the back of the head and left me seeing red as I fell back onto the cold, tile floor that adorned the walkways. The pain convinced me that I had broken something important, which is why I couldn’t walk. Oh frag, I thought to myself, this is bad, this is really bad. The theater was empty, except for a class being taught in one of the adjoining rooms; I was unsure if someone could even hear me if I did so if I tried to meekly call out for help, but I tried to do so anyways. This would be a rather embarrassing way to die, I thought melodramatically.
My teacher Leslie ended up saving me. She was the one teaching the class, and she dropped everything to take me to the clinic on campus. I thank her endlessly for helping me get there and putting me in a wheelchair. Fortunately, the doctors had diagnosed that I only had twisted my ankle, and that there was no fracture to speak of.
During this time, I had the clarity of mind to call my director and tell him what just happened, and he was understandably upset. He was really concerned that he wouldn’t have anybody to play this solo snare part; without it, the piece would be unplayable. However, I was fuming at his tenacity. Who does he think he is, putting more concern over the music than me? Does he not care that I could have broken something!? DOES HE NOT CARE THAT I COULD HAVE HURT MYSELF WAY MORE THAN I-
Ahem. Sorry, I was getting sidetracked again. Let’s continue.
The venue for the final performance was beautiful. It was in a massive church, with frescos adorning the vaulted ceilings, and pews stretching as far as the eye could see. Tall, hellenistic columns stretched up to the sprawling ceiling, and several of them had chipped and cracked at the base due to their aging. The alter itself was very ornate, with gold lining a cross which sat atop a bowl of fake fruit. I still wonder as to what person thought of that idea. It makes me chuckle.
Fortunately, the soundcheck rehearsal for us went very smoothly. Everything fell perfectly into place. The changes were stable, the dynamics were all there, the phrasing was all consistent, and we even managed to play the most difficult section all the way through.
What I wouldn’t give for that to be the final performance.
That is where we are situated now. In this impossible section. At this point, I can’t even remember if it was me or Brian that screwed up. We were lost in a jungle of notes, and the cartography that was the music was trying to provide only made us start playing in circles. Worst of all, JN had a front row seat to this abomination of a train wreck that was our playing. We sounded like a broken record, and neither of us were leading the other.
I froze. I had frozen in fear, in uncertainty of what was to follow. I had decided that the best course of action was to stop playing, and assess the dire situation that we were currently in. I couldn’t tell anybody what to do, where to go, what to do next because people were sitting directly in front of us in this concert hall. But I had to show them somehow. All this misfortune that life, coworkers, and even parents had thrown at me, all of this “choosing for me,” thinking that I don’t know any better because I was just a kid…
It was time to prove them wrong.
I decided that I needed to pick a spot for everyone to start over from, to start fresh from again. And I played the downbeat of that measure to make it obvious to everyone in the group who was in control now. Of course, they were confused, because they didn’t know how to react. But there’s this funny thing in music, where people tend to have a mutual understanding of what to do next, even though we had never rehearsed this scenario. You can plan all you want, but when shit hits the fan, you need to figure out what to do quick, or you’re screwed. This mutual understanding of what to do, had washed over the group. We were out of the jungle, and we managed to find ourselves back out onto the outskirts of the island that was this piece. From there to the end it was smooth sailing.
When the piece concluded, there were some definite words to be said at each other. My friend, Cole, had walked up to me with a mixed look of anger and disdain on his face.
“What the hell just happened?”
“Someone screwed up,” I replied. In fact, I knew exactly what the screw up was. Brian had gotten ahead of the ensemble by a beat, and I had tried to correct for him. Unbeknownst to me, he already corrected back to where he was. The result was that we were in a constant battle of fighting for who was going to be in front. If I would have just paid attention more, I probably could have corrected it earlier, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
“Well, at least we got through it,” he responded. “I wasn’t sure what you two were gonna do.”
“Me neither,” I replied sincerely.
I dreaded talking to JN afterwards. In fact, we never spoke of the piece, and how we royally screwed it up. We had not said a single word to each other of what just happened. That mutual understanding, one of something like assured destruction, had graced our dynamic for a week, but it quickly passed. We went back to our old relationship, where nothing had changed.
Of course, I’ll have to apologize to him about the piece someday.
Nah. It happened. I have no regrets on what happened. Could the piece have gone better? Sure. But I can always do it again.
It’s my life. I can decide what I want to do.
Not somebody else.