It’s fun to be a grownup. It’s fun to be good at something. I love it when I can feel my own progress.
Daphnis et Chloé,by Ravel, is a monumental musical work, and one which is legendary among orchestral musicians for its difficulty. There are approximately ten million notes to play, at very fast speeds, in unexpected meters, in the extreme ranges of the instruments, and, like most of Ravel’s music, it’s very exposed and changes tempos all the time and requires exceptionally soft playing in addition to great power. I’ve performed part of it - the second suite - at least three or four times and each time I work hard at it for weeks before the cycle, and resolve to nail a few more licks, and do, but I’m far from being flawless. It’s just that hard.
When I was newly out of school and freelancing in Chicago, I got a last minute call to cover Daphnis in a Civic Orchestra rehearsal. Yes, a rehearsal, and only the second suite, but at that time in my life I had just “graduated” from Civic and it was still a high-stress situation, with hot young musicians and a demanding conductor. I had a part tucked away in a file, which I had never really explored before, and I spent the ONE HOUR I had before the rehearsal having my mind blown by the sheer difficulty of the task ahead of me. And when I actually sat in the orchestra I did NOT have it together, and I got lost, and couldn’t get through any of the technical parts, or fake adequately to hide my mess, and it was NOT a good experience. I was never asked to sub again with that group.
Fast forward fifteen years. Last Saturday afternoon I was at home, minding my own business, thinking about what I might make for dinner, and I got an emergency call from the Grant Park Symphony. They needed me to come in THAT NIGHT and play their season’s final concert, featuring a brand new work by William Bolcolm and, naturally, Daphnis and Chloe. The full ballet, which I had actually never played. The second oboe part, which I had never played. I had ONE HOUR before I had to leave for the concert, and spent it reading through the part, reminding myself about the trickiest moments, and woodshedding the hardest sections slowly with my metronome. In normal life, I would have wanted four more sessions just like that before I tried to play the piece in front of my colleagues, and at least a few rehearsals to get used to the conductor’s choices and the pitch center of the group and prepare myself for the energy arc that would be required - but that’s not what I had. I was apprehensive as I drove toward Chicago in my concert garb.
But surprisingly, the concert was COMPLETELY fun. The orchestra was outstanding. The conductor was perfectly clear and didn’t catch me off guard. The oboe section was solid and supportive and welcoming and easy to play with.
And, most exciting of all, I could play the piece! Not every bit of the busy stuff, no, but I knew where the exposed material was and how to put it in place. The fast technique wasn’t perfect, but it was stylistic and appropriate, and I didn’t fall into any holes or make mistakes that the audience could hear, and I was able to fit into the group in a way that Greenhorn Me could not have done. Yes, there were long stretches of the piece that I had not played before, but I have played French music. I understand how that level of exposure feels, and I know how to duck inside someone else’s sound or how to bring mine out when it’s required. I know how to watch the conductor and intuit where the tempo might do something dramatic. I know what all of the French words mean in my part. I don’t remember exactly when I learned these things, but I remember not knowing them, 15 years ago, and now I do.
It is nice to be reminded sometimes that I know what I’m doing. I am not anything amazing, but after this many years in the industry I can pull off pretending to be amazing for one night, and it’s a heady feeling. Sometimes I feel old. I go to auditions and see players that I coached when they were in youth orchestra, legitimately trying for the same job I am, and I feel old. But it turns out that experience matters for something. I can ride on my experience and do a job that I could not have done when I was 24.
It’s a good feeling to be a grownup, sometimes.