During my brief tenure as a cello student at the New England Conservatory, I often earned money as a “ringer.” Various musical groups in the greater Boston area possessed of rather more ambition than talent would put works on their programs that far exceeded the capacity of their members, and we would be summoned to save the day. We appeared for the last few rehearsals, displaced the existing principals, and discreetly collected our checks after the concert. Sometimes the natives fawned over us, but more often we were regarded with bitter suspicion as the ousted regime set out homemade cookies during the break. As an eighteen-year-old I found it ridiculous that anyone would be unhappy to be rescued from the morass of bad intonation and terrible bowing. It was simple: we played well, and they didn’t. Looking back with the perspective of thirty more years, I see that we were somewhat insufferable.
One of our more lucrative gigs was the Melrose Symphony Orchestra. The director, Mr. Baer, had great vision, and an admirable unwillingness to be discouraged by the lack of local talent. He programmed things like Peter and the Wolf, Amahl and the Night Visitors, and the Rossini Stabat Mater, assessed the gaps in his talent pool, and called the Conservatory. He personally drove a van from Melrose to Boston, picked us up, and transported us to the school where we rehearsed. I was happy because not only was I earning money, butthe group of boys who were my constant companions were always on the Ringer Roster – they generally became First Oboe, First Bassoon and First French Horn. Many nights, after a full day of classes, the ride to Melrose, and the rehearsal, I fell asleep on the ride home, my head on the shoulder of one of the boys, half-hearing conversations about chord progressions or Mahler as the dark, Masachussetts night raced past the windows.
In addition to the folding money and an excuse to hang out with my friends, Melrose was balm to my battered ego. In high school I had been good in a fierce, competitive sea of musicians. Our orchestra was nationally known, we played standard orchestral repretoire, and we had chair challenges to keep us on our toes. As high school seniors we played an entire, solo recital and soloed with the orchestra. We graduated and headed to Julliard, Curtis, Eastman or other schools known for their music programs, and became musicians and music educators. I had succeeded in that musical hot house, ignoring the fact that I really hated performing, and that there was really no joy in it for me, ever. At the Conservatory, my chinks became gaping holes, and it was a rare day when I did not see the disparity between Real Musicians and my fraudulent self. It was their passion, the oxygen in their universe, and they grumbled about hard classes or a tough new concerto, but they were energized by the challenge. I was not energized; I was depressed, exhausted, perpetually terrified of exposure and failure, and increasingly unable to see any future in music. My technique was not solid, my sound was muted by fear and tension, and I was too clenched to play with any real emotion. In Melrose, I was still Good. I sat first chair, I sounded wonderful in comparison to the rest of the section, and it was bliss. It was a break, a haven and a chance to be, if only for a few hours, what I thought I was in the first place. A musician.
In the spring of my freshman year, Mr. Baer announced that our next Melrose engagement was a Pops Concert, and that the program would include Franz von Suppe’s Poet and Peasant Overture. The piece, which is somewhere beyond schmaltzy, involves a long solo played by the principal cellist. It’s slow, pretty, and the kind of musical bon bon that requires practice and skill, but sounds far harder than it actually is. I sat behind my cello, trying to remain blank and immobile while a current flowed through my body. I could do it! I couldn’t do it. I would really be a star! God, I’d screw it up. I heard a voice. (A real one). “Ann?!” Mr. Baer was saying, looking at me from the podium. “Can you?”
“I’m sorry, can I…?” There was a quiet titter from the ranks of displaced cellists behind me.
“Can you do the solo – I can bring in somebody older from NEC, if you’d be more comfortable.”
“No” I answered, “I can do it.” I filled my vest with bombs, and started the timer.
“Great.” He smiled and ran a hand through his thick, black hair. “You know you don’t get paid extra, though – just fame and glory.” The laugh came. I smiled, distracted by the ticking of the timer. “Plus,” he added, “there’s a surprise involved.” A scout in the audience? A record of “Melrose Symphony’s Greatest Hits” featuring my solo? The stakes were high, indeed.
So I practiced endlessly, far more than I had practiced anything for the school orchestra, my lessons or my string quartet. The saccharine nature of the music made it easier for me to sound emotional – there was no subtlety required, no interpretation. It was simply a matter of showmanship. I milked every slide, put in a breath of space where it would build suspense, and generally played up the musical drama of the gentle, lyrical poet in contrast to the bombastic and rambunctious peasant in the second part of the piece. Think Little Nell tied to the tracks, followed by a daring rescue; I was playing Little Nell’s theme on the most soulful and plaintive of instruments. It was guaranteed to make the crowd go wild.
The first rehearsals went splendidly; I played well, I hit the high notes, and I was gratified to see admiration in the eyes of those seated behind me. My friends, all better musicians than I was, were delighted that I was doing so well, and the gay one (with whom, predictably, I was in love) offered to French braid my hair for the Big Performance. The night of the dress rehearsal I swaggered in with my cello, feeling that old sense that I was a Real Musician, stickers on my case, the best rosin, a life of adventure ahead. I could end up in Amsterdam, smoking great pot and playing with the Concertgebouw. I could be touring Asia, riding bullet trains in my distressed bomber jacket and reading Camus while the Violins had sectionals. Maybe I’d be in an all-girl quartet and wear flowing, Bohemian dresses and play arrangements of Black Sabbath.
I sat at the front of the cello section at the dress, on the edge of my wooden chair, through the wedding cake opening of the overture. All eyes were on me. The solo was coming. The moment was pregnant with hope and redemption. I lifted my bow and started the solo, thinking I sounded good -damned good – and catching Mr. Baer from the corner of my eye as he nodded encouragement. He backed off the podium, motioning us to continue playing as he backed towards the edge of the stage. When he emerged from behind the fraying curtain he was accompanied by a slender, elderly black man in a vest with a watch chain. As I played, Baer stepped quickly back to the podium, and the old man began to tap dance. He was tap dancing to Poet and Peasant, embellishing my mournful notes with that old, soft shoe. He grinned, he turned to wink at the principal flutist, and and he mugged at me with an expression of comically broad melancholy. I felt terribly hot, then terribly cold, and I knew that no one was looking at me; I had become the soundtrack. He was the surprise. My solo ended, the music became fast and dramatic, and he bucked and winged dramatically across the stage. He was the surprise, he was the show stopper, I was…a mediocre eighteen-year-old cellist getting fifty bucks to make him look good.
On the way home, my friends offered comfort – they knew that I had anticipated a Brave New World, and been sadly disappointed. I stopped practicing the solo all the time; I stopped practicing it at all. I had it, it wasn’t going to get any better, and it really didn’t matter if I played the whole thing with one finger and a straw hat on. In fact, that might have been more appropriate, given the tenor of the performance. I was a bitter, bitter girl.
I showed up on the night of the performance in my long, black dress, my hair French braided with tasteful sprigs of Baby’s Breath, and I knocked it out of the park. The audience was transfixed by Bojangles, from the first gasp when he shuffled on stage, to a standing ovation at the conclusion of his act. Although it is customary for a conductor to ask a soloist to stand and take a bow, I was not really the soloist, and there was no solo bow.
Afterwards, as I packed my cello and picked the itchy sprigs of flora out of my hair, the old man approached. I kept my face neutral; I was not, under any circumstances going to become part of his fan club. “Hey,” he said with a bow, “you play real good. How’d you get to be so good, young as you are?” It was harder to resent him; he was fairly charming. And, I might add, a damned fine tap dancer.
“Practice” I answered, snapping the locks on my case. “you must practice, too, to dance like that?”
“Ah,” he smiled, “I do. That I do. I used to be famous, all up and down the Poconos, other places like that. Not much call for tap dancers now – good to have a show again.” Mr. Baer and the Symphony Ladies were approaching, trailed by a man with a bag of camera equipment.
“It was a pleasure working with you” I said, extending my hand. He took it, turned it palm down, and kissed it.
I only knew that my heart had changed, I did not know that that old man with his watch chain and his clicking shoes had given me more than a great story. He loved what he did, he burned with it, and the smallest gig was a chance to spark an audience and set them on fire. I didn’t have that, and I never would. From where I sit now, my fingers un-calloused, my bow arm gone to seed, it’s clear that it all happened just as it should have.