Thursday, July 21, 2016

Musical Timing, Slightly Out of Sync

My father once told a story about going to a synagogue in liberated France near the end of World War II. Growing up in rural Arkansas, my dad had encountered few Jews outside of his own family and didn’t really know much about Jewish prayer ritual. But on this day, he seemed to be an expert. His secret? He had sat next to an observant man and followed his lead throughout. When the man stood, my father stood. When he prayed silently, my father did the same. When the man said, “Amen,” my father echoed his word.
After the service, some of the other congregants seemed very impressed with my dad’s knowledge of Jewish ritual—for an American GI. My father just nodded and smiled. The moral of the story, my father explained to me, was “Follow the lead of those who know more than you.”

I applied my father’s lesson last weekend when Audrey and I went to a concert at Tanglewood in western Massachusetts. We were on the lawn outside the Seiji Ozawa Hall listening to the Emerson String Quartet play an all-Haydn concert. (When we are in the Berkshires, we like to feel very high-brow.) According to the notes in our program, the Emerson Quartet was celebrating its 40th anniversary, though probably not with the same players all those years. They had a unique style. The two violinists and the violist stood while playing, and the cellist sat in a chair on a riser, so that his head was even with the other three players’. They bowed, plucked, and trilled through the first Haydn piece and then ended with a flourish, raising their bows from their instruments and standing proudly in what I could only assume was an exciting finish. I was ready to clap enthusiastically, but luckily I hesitated. It seemed that the others around me—those who knew more than I—weren’t clapping. They knew there were more movements to go before we could applaud. The Emerson Quartet had faked me out, but they had not tricked me into doing something as foolish as clapping prematurely. And, people do feel foolish when they applaud out of turn at a concert, and those in the audience who don’t applaud turn up their noses with superiority and think how gauche the clappers are.

The Emerson Strong Quartet demonstrates an exciting flourish.
But don't applaud just yet.
Clapping out of turn occasionally is not the worst faux pas I have made when it comes to musical timing. That occurred during my checkered band career at Savannah High School. I sat first chair in the tenor saxophone section, which really wasn’t that impressive because I was the only tenor player that year. The band director handed out a new piece of music called “Riffin’ the Blues” for us to sight read, or play for the first time without any rehearsal or instruction. Unbeknownst to anyone in the band—and especially to me— the piece had sections for three players to go into solo “riffs.” First the trumpet, then the tenor sax, then the trombone.

Key to this story is knowing that our band featured two of the top players in the state, at trumpet and trombone. So two of the solo sections would be well covered. The third called for a talented tenor player, which our band sadly lacked. As the sight read progressed, the trumpet player moved smoothly into his solo. Then there was a silence in the room. There wasn’t supposed to be a silence; I was supposed to be playing. But what I saw on my music sheets were far too many notes racing all over the page.
“Goodman, where are you?” the band director shouted. I just stared back, like a deer caught in the headlights. And then, right on time, the trombone player came in with his solo. I was off the hook temporarily, but I knew we would be playing this piece many more times during the concert season, and I would be expected to fill the silence productively.

And I tried. I tried hard. I learned the notes and even added a little improvising to my riff that was going well. My one problem was that I sometimes began my solo a little late. There would be a slight pause after the trumpet finished until I began. And I would still be playing when the trombone came in right on his cue. Unfortunately for me, the trombone player was a perfectionist, and he was pissed that I sometimes played over his first notes.
Bill Clinton riffin' more skillfully than I ever did on a tenor sax.
Both Bill and my dad came from Arkansas. 
I worked on my timing, and occasionally got it right. But not all the time. Then I found a solution to the problem, based on my father’s lesson in the French synagogue. I decided to follow the lead of someone in the know. As I played my solo, I would look over at the trombone player, and as soon as he rose to start playing his solo, I would stop mine. I might not have hit all of the notes in my solo, but I didn’t throw his or anyone else’s timing off. We were all happy, with the possible exception of the band director, but he was long suffering—which is all part of the job description of any high school instructor, as I would learn a few years later when I embarked on a brief high school teaching career of my own.  

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