Last night was tough. It was the first rehearsal of “Honky Tonk Angels” at the Racine Theater Guild where I had to sit out in the audience and not actually be playing with the band or leading them. Metaphors abound. It felt like I was shoving my baby chicks out of the nest so they would fly on their own. It felt like I was handing controls of my 747 over to my co-pilot and parachuting out of the plane. It felt like I was dropping off my five-year-old sextuplets for their first day of kindergarten. I felt like the fire chief suddenly deserting the scene of a massive fire to watch his men’s fire-fighting efforts on TV. I felt like Julia Child handing the spatula to her grandchild just in time for the trickiest part of the souffle recipe. There were even a few brief moments when I felt like I was on the deck of the Carpathian, watching the Titanic try to stay afloat and being able to do nothing about it. It was SOOOOOOOO hard to sit in that audience and just listen and watch. It reminded me of why I actually prefer to play piano for my voice students when they sing recitals. Some people act as though that is an amazing act of generosity on my part, when the truth of the matter is that I would probably be one giant walking bleeding ulcer if I was sitting in the audience listening to someone else play for my students. (I used to be rather amused at how incredibly nervous Dr. Sjoerdsma, the former head of voice at Carthage, would get before his student’s recitals- worriedly running around, trying to busy himself with anything to take his mind off of the impending performance. But I’m realizing more and more that I would be exactly the same way or perhaps even worse if I were but an audience member for my students’ recital.) I am so much more of a control freak than I ever realized – or at least I am when it comes to music. (Most of the rest of the world and its affairs I am happy to leave to their own devices.) And so, for me to be on that stage with my student, able to actually participate and help them is the very best thing for me. I would take that over the helplessness of simply listening any day of the week. I do not enjoy being a Basket Case. (And by the way, where did the term “basket case” come from?)
Anyway, I sat out in the audience last night and tried not to be a Basket Case— and most of the night, I was fine. The band is a good group- nice and talented both – saddled not by any lack of ability but by a time crunch as well as contrasting backgrounds which give them different kinds of musical “lingo.” (A couple of them are rather classical musicians, reading the score pretty literally- a couple others are more country band musicians playing a bit more by ear rather than by reading what’s literally on the page.) So getting certain problems fixed has been tricky because of that. And now that I have handed over the reins to someone else – that is, someone else playing the piano in my place, and another person giving the cues and holding things together – I am having to trust those musicians up on that bandstand to find ways to fix what needs to be fixed.
On the other hand, we are almost out of time- and I am the person who knows this score better than anyone in the room- so at certain points in the evening, the only prudent thing for me to do was to get my sorry butt up on that band- stand and effect repairs. The first time I leapt from my seat and all but ran to the stage and up the ladder to the band stand, my wife and other onlookers in the auditorium thought that they were hallucinating. But no, that was me- Greg “Crazy Legs” Berg. There’s nothing like hearing the lead guitarist play a C Major 7th chord against the pianist playing a c minor 7th chord – CLASH!!!!! – to send me running for the stage like an Olympic bronze medalist in the steeple chase. And for the rest of the night, my frantic sprints to the stage and up the ladder to the bandstand were the cause of some amusement for those watching the rehearsal.
In the end what it comes down to is being able to provide an accompaniment which will be just the right frame for our three marvelous singers. . . rather than being “a distraction due to wrong notes,” a deadly comment which was written about a friend of mine when they played piano for a singer at NATS back when I was at Luther. We are inches away from that threshold of not being such a distraction. . . . and once we cross that divide, whatever it is, I will sleep a bit more soundly than I am right now.
pictured above: some of the capable musicians playing for the Racine Theater Guild’s production of “Honky Tonk Angels.”