Four years after my disgraceful but relieving exit from the Birmingham Youth Orchestra, my father continued to worry about my lack of ensemble experience. When the woman who played in the last stand of the second violin section of the Birmingham Symphony went on maternity leave, he got me an audition with the conductor, and I was hired as a temporary replacement.
My stand partner was an elderly gentleman–he was probably in his fifties, but to my eighteen-year-old eyes he seemed decrepit–short, round, and balding. He can\’t have been a very good violinist, consigned as he was at the very end of the second violin rows, right up against the percussion section, but he knew his way around an orchestra score.
I, on the other hand, did not. It\’s not that I wasn\’t able to play the parts–they were not technically demanding–but I kept getting lost. If I blinked and missed a single note, I could never find my place on the score again. The entire string section would be galloping ahead and there I was, embarrassed to be seen not playing along, frantically scanning the page to find something that vaguely resembled the notes I was hearing. Sometimes my stand partner would take his bow off the strings for a nanosecond and point to the right spot on the score, but by the time I put my bow on my strings, I\’d be doubly embarrassed, and behind again.
The long rests were the worst. In an orchestra score, there are frequently rests of forty measures or more. One is not during those intervals supposed to take short naps or review the twelve cranial nerves for the next day\’s biology exam. One is supposed to count measures: one, two, three, four; two, two three, four; three, two, three, four, all the way to measure forty-seven or whatever. Invariably, however, by the sixth measure, I was lost–was it six, two, three, four, or seven, two three four? My only recourse was to watch my neighbor, and start playing when he did.
But there was one situation in which he could not help me, and that was at page-turning time. As the \”inside\” partner–the one playing in the seat farther from the audience–it was my job to turn pages for both of us. This gave me a great deal of anxiety. What if I was lost when it was time to turn the page? What if, while holding my bow with the last three fingers of my right hand as I grasped the corner of the page with my index and thumb, my bow or, God forbid, the entire score fell clattering to the floor?
My months with the Birmingham Symphony were punctuated with musical faux pas. There was the time when, daydreaming during one of those long rests, I jumped a foot in the air as the percussionist clashed the cymbals right behind me…and the conductor saw me. And once I committed that ultimate orchestral sin, the accidental solo. Thank goodness this happened during a rehearsal early on, after which I rigorously abstained from playing either the first or the last notes of any score segment.
I was a freshman in college, majoring in Biology and French, teaching French and Spanish in the afternoons to school children, helping my mother around the house. Spending my evenings at rehearsal and my weekends playing concerts was not my idea of fun.
During my stint at the BSO, I don\’t think I ever talked with anybody, least of all my aged stand partner. I spent rehearsal breaks practicing whatever solo pieces my father had assigned me. I was tired. I had homework. I wanted out of there.
Mercifully, in the spring the woman I was replacing announced her plans to return to the Symphony. I was elated–just one more concert and I would be free.
As we were putting away our instruments after the last performance, my stand partner dug a small paper bag out of his violin case and handed it to me. Inside were two earrings, clip-ons with yellow rhinestones arranged in the shape of a treble clef. They were clearly second-hand, since they weren\’t attached to the little cardboard square that store-bought earrings come with. They looked hopelessly middle-aged to me, and I wondered as I stared at them whether they belonged to his wife. I remember thinking how weird it was to be given earrings by this grandfatherly person.
Fortunately, the gods who watch over teenagers and sometimes keep them from disgracing themselves inspired me to put the earrings on right there, and say a hurried thank-you. Then I closed my violin case and walked out of the Birmingham Symphony for good.
Those earrings rattled around in my jewelry box for a while, and then I gave or threw them away.
But now that I myself have begun to seem elderly to all but my contemporaries, I recognize the sweetness of the impulse of that long-ago violin player to give a gift of earrings to his hopelessly young and inept temporary stand partner.