A long, long time ago in a land far away, there was a symphony orchestra. This orchestra was pretty much like any other orchestra. There were string players, brass players, woodwind players and players of percussion instruments. When they weren’t playing, the string players talked about their bows, the brass players talked about their mouth pieces, the woodwind players talked about their reeds and the percussionists looked far away and smiled.
There was a large dressing room backstage for the women in the orchestra and another one for the men. But the percussion players inhabited a room of their own. It was in the basement just around the corner from the boiler. This percussion room was not much bigger than a closet. It was very narrow and at the back were shelves holding drumheads and other things of their profession. The walls were covered with philosophical quotations. One was “Listen don’t hear. Hear don’t listen”.
The percussionists hung their concert clothes on nails and the unspoken challenge was to wear them for at least one season of concerts and tours before having them cleaned. Jacket armpits were inspected for shredding. A player whose jacket lining had dissintegrated beyond repair was considered the winner. Of what, was not clear. No one ever admited to having his tails dry cleaned.
To some people the percussionists were weird. They were a clique and didn’t hang out much with other players. They seemed to disappear into their closet at odd times. Whispers suggested they were involved in subversive activities. Occasionally undefined odors immenated from the room. A few orchestra members, though never able to prove anything, harbored suspicions, but only the cleaning staff and the stage hands knew what was going on and they weren’t talking.
Percussionists thought their closet adventures helped them play better and experience the music more powerfully. Upon exiting, they felt loose and believed they heard things in the music they’d never heard before. Their playing tended towards the dramatic, a kind of “If you got it, flaunt it”, attitude.
On one concert, a percussionist played triangle during the entire first movement of Haydn’s Military Symphony. Once he began to play, he just grooved on quarter notes. It must have been sublime, only one of the conductor’s eyebrows arched. Then there was the deep military drum suspended in the bowl of a kettle drum and played in unison with another smaller drum for the Debussy Fetes from Three Nocturnes. That one got a glare from the concert master and a look of puzzlement from the conductor. The same guy played the Dies Irae in Verdi’s Requiem on two bass drums simultaneously with croquet balls attached to broom handles. The guest conductor was too terrified to say anything.
But the numero uno “Man, did you hear that?” moment came in New York City’s most famous music hall. The orchestra’s timpanist began the 3rd movement of Mahler’s 1st Sympony twice as fast as written. The life of the principal bass player flashed before his eyes and the conductor’s mouth began moving in strange ways.
Someone said, “If you can remmber the sixties, you weren’t there”. Perhaps, but some things can’t be forgotten. Did you ever hear that?