Perhaps you wonder what our musicians do in the times between Masses and rehearsal – that’s a huge topic that I won’t go near yet! However, you may be interested to learn about my secular music making with San Francisco Opera and this month’s production of Sweeney Todd, which has a huge organ part – indeed the organist opens the show with a mammoth solo an continues to play through a great deal of this complex show.
Its been a good experience working with musicians outside a religious house of prayer where values could be different yet most of the expectations are similar, if not higher. Rehearsals always started and finished on time; breaks were given at appropriate junctures. My colleague musicians were punctual and positive minded and serious about the task in hand. There were welcoming and friendly and supportive of each other. I heard no back biting or gossiping. I received a written letter of agreement outlining my responsibilities and the pay. Payments were made as promised.
At the last rehearsal the music director sent a note of encouragement and thanks to each musician with some clarifications about a hard passage.
In return for this I was expected to learn a very hard organ part and play it in an appropriate manner at the first rehearsal. When there were problems of ensemble and balance, I, and the other musicians, was expected to hear the well placed criticism and find a good solution.
I was expected to put in my learning hours on my own and be appropriately skilled and knowledgeable about my instrument and its role in the performance. That was hard as it was a digital (MIDI) installation and hearing the sound from the audience perspective was not possible from the pit.
What were the benefits for me? First I was able to re-evaluate my part as an ensemble musician and re-hone those skills. Second, I was able to experience clear and logical requests from a director that enabled me to look at my own rehearsal style. Third, I’ve had a reality check about the appropriateness of my skills. Fourth, it was good for me to step outside my usual realm and be a visiting musician and have to fit into an established ensemble.
So now I have to question whether I treat my fellow professional musicians with the same level of trust and high expectations. Do I encourage and help my less experienced musicians to live up to these levels or do I demand something that they cannot return without relevant help? Do I offer help where needed? Do I use their time well? Do I represent my part of the professional well? Will other musicians think more highly or organists or not following this show? Did I do something to promote my instrument?
As I finish writing this column the reviews of Sweeney Todd are being published in the newspapers and on-line. It was a tense time waiting to see if the critics liked the show and if they thought anything of the organ part. I was fortunate in what they said about my part, but I have to wonder what would be the most appropriate reaction if they had not like it and negative criticism had been flowing around the Bay Area. These are unknowns but I am deeply aware that a thoughtful and slow response time is usually the most appropriate.