52 – Guide to an Orchestra Career
The Young Peoples’ Guide to the Orchestra
To each person, God gives some talent such as comedy, or the ability to suffer, and to some people God has given musical talent, though not to as many as think so. So for a young Christian considering an orchestral career, the first question to ask yourself is, “Do I have a genuine God-given talent, or do I only seem talented compared to other young Christians?”
Because most Christians aren’t musicians, they become choir members.
Mostly altos and basses. And they can be sure that their gift is God-given, because who else but God would be interested? Nobody goes into choir music for the wrong reasons. But an orchestra … do you know what you’re getting into? You’re getting into opera for one thing. Don Juan and Mephistopheles, screeching sopranos being strangled and thrown off balconies. And even if you stick to concert music, where are the Christian composers? Modern ones are existentialists, the romantics were secular humanists, the 18th century was all rationalists, and the 17th were Italian except for Bach. And you can’t make a living playing Bach.
In the Bible, we read about people singing and playing musical instruments
including the harp, the last trumpet, the cymbal, the psaltery. But in the Bible, music was in praise of the Lord, not for amusement. We don’t read that Jesus ever played an instrument or enjoyed hearing other people play theirs. The apostles, and their wives, the epistles, did not attend concerts. They weren’t into the arts — maybe there’s a reason for that. If you decide to play in an orchestra, you’re going to be devoting your life to music that sort of swirls around in spiritual mystery, searching for answers that people could find in the Book of Romans if somebody just showed them where.
But if you’re determined to play in an orchestra, then you ought to ask yourself, “Which instrument is the best one for me to play?” Which instrument would Jesus have chosen, assuming He played an instrument? Probably not a French horn: the French horn takes too much of a person’s life. French horn players hardly have time to marry and have children. The French horn is practically a religious belief all by itself. In some orchestras, the horn players are required to be celibate, mostly by their wives, because they think about the horn all the time anyway.
Should a Christian play the bassoon?
Not if you want to be taken seriously. The name kind of says it all: bassoon. It’s an instrument that isn’t playing with a full deck of marbles. Maybe it’s something you’d do for a hobby “Hey honey, let’s go bassooning this weekend”, but not as your life’s work. Some bassoonists filling out applications for home loans just say “orthodontist.”
How about the Piano ?
Piano is dead easy – all the notes are black and white, all laid out like a smorgasbord. You cannot play bad notes, ie flat or sharp, you can only play some wrong notes, but if you use all 10 fingers and thumbs, most people will not know if a few are not correct. And you don’t have to carry it to the job.
Many Christians start out playing clarinet
Clarinets in a marching band and think of it as a pretty good instrument and kind of sociable. You pick up a clarinet, and you feel like getting together with other people and forming a quartet. But the symphonic clarinet is different: clever, sarcastic, kind of snooty. It’s a nice small town instrument that went to college and after that you can’t get a simple answer out of them … probably a preterist ? It is a French instrument, you know. Ever wonder why there are few French Christians? Probably the wine wasn’t good enough for them.
The oboe is the sensualist
The sensualist of the woodwind section, and if there is one wind instrument you should avoid, it’s probably this one. In movie soundtracks, you tend to hear the oboe when the woman is taking her clothes off. Also a little later when she asks the man for a cigarette. You start playing the oboe, you’re going to have babies, take my word for it.
The English horn sounds Christian ?
Maybe because we think of it as the Anglican horn, but it’s so mournful, so plaintive. And so are English horn players. They all have deep complicated problems. They’re all down in the dumps, especially at night, which is when most concerts are. Maybe because they want what oboe players have.
The flute is the show-off of the wind section
The show-off, the big shot: Jean-Pierre Rampal, James Galway–both millionaires. How many millionaire bassoonists can you name real fast? Well, that’s fine. Everybody knows it’s the hardest, blowing across a tiny hole with your head tilted all your life: it’s like soloing on a pop bottle. The problem with the flute is that it vibrates your brain, and you start wearing big white caftans and smocks and eat roots and berries. You become a pantheist and sit in meadows, and you believe that God is a column of air vibrating–and you know that’s not right.
Now the Piccolo
The last member of the woodwind family is the flakiest and that’s the piccolo. It’s never in tune. Never has been, never will be. All you can play with it is the blues. Christians don’t play blues.
The String Section
Strings are mentioned in scripture and some young Christians are tempted to become string players. But you want to be careful.
Bass, for example. A very deliberate instrument, the plow horse of the orchestra: and bass players do tend to be more methodical, not so spontaneous or witty or brilliant necessarily, but reliable. Which makes the instrument appealing to Germans. And yet bass notes do have a certain texture and a tone, a darkness, a depth that — my gosh, when you see those guys pick up their bows back there, doesn’t it make you think the same thing that I do? And if we do, just think what they’re thinking about…
The cello section seems pleasant, and cellists seem like such nice people. The way they put their arms around their instruments, they look like parents at a day care centre zipping up snow suits. They seem like us: comfortable, mid-range, able to see both sides of things. And yet, there’s something about the cello that’s hard to put your fingers on. It just doesn’t seem right. Maybe, it’s the way they hold the instrument the way they do. Why can’t they hold it across their laps and why do women hold it between their legs? I’m only asking.
The viola section is no place for a Christian and here you have to take my word for it, because I know violists and they’re okay until late at night, they like to build a fire in a vacant lot and drink red wine and roast a chicken on a clothes hanger and talk about going to Mexico with somebody named Rita. Violists have this dark, moody, gypsy streak, especially when they get older, and they realize that their instrument for some reason cannot be heard beyond the stage. You think you hear the violas, but it’s really the second violins.
The first violin is a problem for a Christian because it’s a solo virtuoso instrument and we Christians are humble and decent people. The first violins carefully watch the maestro look to them first, and most of them believe that he secretly takes his cue from watching their bows go up and down. The maestro, who has a great nimbus of hair and is here on a temporary work permit, is hypnotized by listening to the violins and forgets which page he’s on and looks to the violins to find out what’s going on. Most violinists believe in their hearts, that if the maestro dropped dead, the orchestra would just follow the violins while his little body was carried off into the wings, and nobody in the audience would notice any difference except that now, they would have an unobstructed view of the violin section. Is this a place for a Christian to be? Did our Lord say “Blessed are they who stand up in front and take deep bows for they shall receive bigger fees?” No, He did not.
The second violin section is attractive because these people are steady, supportive and helpful, but look who it is they help — they help out the first violins. You want to play second fiddle to that crowd? ( I hope not.) One thing you may not know about second violins is that the parts are so easy they never practice and they wind up staying out late in singles bars on the freeway near the airport and dancing with software salesmen. But I guess that’s their way.
How about the Brass Section ?
Let’s be clear about one thing about the brass section. The rest of the orchestra wishes the brass were playing in another room and so does the conductor. His back is toward you so that you can’t see what he’s saying to them but what he’s saying is, “Would you mind taking that thing outside?” The brass section is made up of men who were at one time in the construction trades. They went into music because the hours are better and there’s less dust. They’re heavy dudes and that’s why composers wrote so few notes for them. Because after they play, you can’t hear for a while.
The tuba player is normally a stocky, bearded guy whose hobby is plumbing. The only member of the orchestra who bowls over 250 and gets his deer every year and changes his own oil. In his locker downstairs, he keeps a pair of lederhosen for free-lance jobs. Anyway, there’s only one tuba in the bunch and he’s it.
The trombonist is a humourist, sort of the brother-in-law of the orchestra. He carries a water spray gun to keep his slide moist and often uses it against his neighbours. That’s why they duck down back there. He’s nobody you’d ever want to see become artistic director; you just hope he doesn’t sit right behind you.
The trumpet is the brass instrument you imagine as Christian, thinking of Gideon and Gabriel, and then you meet one in real life, and you realize how driven these people are. They don’t want to wear a black tie; they want to wear capes and swords and tassels; they want to play as loud as they can and see mallards drop from the ceiling. Of the people who’ve keeled over dead at orchestra concerts, most of them were killed by a long trumpet passage. And most of them were glad to go.
There are two places in the orchestra for a Christian and one is the percussion section. It’s the most Christian instrument there is. Percussionists are endlessly patient because they hardly ever get to play. Pages and pages of music go by when the violins are sawing away and the winds are tooting and the brass are blasting, and the percussionist sits there and counts the bars like a hunter in the blind waiting for a grouse to appear. A percussionist may have to wait for twenty minutes just to play a few beats, but those beats have to be exact, and they have to be passionate, climactic. All that the Epistles of Paul say a Christian should be — faithful, waiting, trusting, filled with fervour — are the qualities of the good percussionist.
The harp is the other Christian instrument. It’s a good instrument because it keeps you humble and keeps you at home. You can’t run around with a harp. Having one is like living with an elderly parent in very poor health: it’s hard to get them in and out of cars, and it’s hard to keep them happy. It takes fourteen hours to tune a harp, which remains in tune for about twenty minutes, or until somebody opens the door. It’s an instrument for a saint. If a harpist could find a good percussionist, they wouldn’t need anybody else. They could settle down and make perfectly good music, just the two of them.
All the above must be deeply pondered !