Because neurotic is the new black....

Ann Nichols

Ann Nichols
East Lansing, Michigan,
December 31
I write, I read, I clean up after people and I worry about things. I have a chronic insufficiency of ironic detachment. My birthday isn't really December 31; it's March 22 but it won't let me change it.


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APRIL 2, 2010 12:09PM

Poet and Peasant

Rate: 33 Flag

During my brief tenure as a cello student at the New England Conservatory, I often earned money as a "ringer." Various musical groups in the greater Boston area possessed of rather more ambition than talent would put works on their programs that far exceeded the capacity of their members, and we would be summoned to save the day. We appeared for the last few rehearsals, displaced the existing principals, and discreetly collected our checks after the concert. Sometimes the natives fawned over us, but more often we were regarded with bitter suspicion as the ousted regime set out homemade cookies during the break. As an eighteen-year-old I found it ridiculous that anyone would be unhappy to be rescued from the morass of bad intonation and terrible bowing. It was simple: we played well, and they didn't. Looking back with the perspective of thirty more years, I see that we were somewhat insufferable.

One of our more lucrative gigs was the Melrose Symphony Orchestra. The director, Mr. Baer, had great vision, and an admirable unwillingness to be discouraged by the lack of local talent. He programmed things like Peter and the Wolf, Amahl and the Night Visitors, and the Rossini Stabat Mater, assessed the gaps in his talent pool, and called the Conservatory. He personally drove a van from Melrose to Boston, picked us up, and transported us to the school where we rehearsed. I was happy because not only was I earning money, but the group of boys who were my constant companions were always on the Ringer Roster - they generally became First Oboe, First Bassoon and First French Horn. Many nights, after a full day of classes, the ride to Melrose, and the rehearsal, I fell asleep on the ride home, my head on the shoulder of one of the boys, half-hearing conversations about chord progressions or Mahler as the dark, Massachusetts night raced past the windows.

In addition to the folding money and an excuse to hang out with my friends, Melrose was balm to my battered ego. In high school I had been good in a fierce, competitive sea of musicians. Our orchestra was nationally known, we played standard orchestral repertoire, and we had chair challenges to keep us on our toes. As high school seniors we played an entire, solo recital and soloed with the orchestra. We graduated and headed to Julliard, Curtis, Eastman or other schools known for their music programs, and became musicians and music educators. I had succeeded in that musical hot house, ignoring the fact that I really hated performing, and that there was really no joy in it for me, ever. At the Conservatory, my chinks became gaping holes, and it was a rare day when I did not see the disparity between Real Musicians and my fraudulent self. It was their passion, the oxygen in their universe, and they grumbled about hard classes or a tough new concerto, but they were energized by the challenge. I was not energized; I was depressed, exhausted, perpetually terrified of exposure and failure, and increasingly unable to see any future in music. My technique was not solid, my sound was muted by fear and tension, and I was too clenched to play with any real emotion. In Melrose, I was still Good. I sat first chair, I sounded wonderful in comparison to the rest of the section, and it was bliss. It was a break, a haven and a chance to be, if only for a few hours, what I thought I was in the first place. A musician.

In the spring of my freshman year, Mr. Baer announced that our next Melrose engagement was a Pops Concert, and that the program would include Franz von Suppe's Poet and Peasant Overture. The piece, which is somewhere beyond schamltzy, involves a long solo played by the principal cellist. It's slow, pretty, and the kind of musical bon-bon that requires practice and skill, but sounds far harder than it actually is. I sat behind my cello, trying to remain blank and immobile while a current flowed through my body. I could do it! I couldn't do it. I would really be a star! God, I'd screw it up. I heard a voice. (A real one). "Ann?!" Mr. Baer was saying, looking at me from the podium. "Can you?"

"I'm sorry, can I...?" There was a quiet titter from the ranks of displaced cellists behind me.

"Can you do the solo - I can bring in somebody older from NEC, if you'd be more comfortable."

"No" I answered, "I can do it." I filled my vest with bombs, and started the timer.

"Great." He smiled and ran a hand through his thick, black hair. "You know you don't get paid extra, though - just fame and glory." The laugh came. I smiled, distracted by the ticking of the timer. "Plus," he added, "there's a surprise involved." A scout in the audience? A record of "Melrose Symphony's Greatest Hits" featuring my solo? The stakes were high, indeed.

So I practiced endlessly, far more than I had practiced anything for the school orchestra, my lessons or my string quartet. The saccharine nature of the music made it easier for me to sound emotional - there was no subtlety required, no interpretation. It was simply a matter of showmanship. I milked every slide, put in a breath of space where it would build suspense, and generally played up the musical drama of the gentle, lyrical poet in contrast to the bombastic and rambunctious peasant in the second part of the piece. Think Little Nell tied to the tracks, followed by a daring rescue; I was playing Little Nell's theme on the most soulful and plaintive of instruments. It was guaranteed to make the crowd go wild.

The first rehearsals went splendidly; I played well, I hit the high notes, and I was gratified to see admiration in the eyes of those seated behind me. My friends, all better musicians than I was, were delighted that I was doing so well, and the gay one (with whom, predictably, I was in love) offered to French braid my hair for the Big Performance. The night of the dress rehearsal I swaggered in with my cello, feeling that old sense that I was a Real Musician, stickers on my case, the best rosin, a life of adventure ahead. I could end up in Amsterdam, smoking great pot and playing with the Concertgebouw. I could be touring Asia, riding bullet trains in my distressed bomber jacket and reading Camus while the Violins had sectionals,  Maybe I'd be in an all-girl quartet and wear flowing, Bohemian dresses and play arrangements of Black Sabbath.

I sat at the front of the cello section at the dress, on the edge of my wooden chair, through the wedding cake opening of the overture. All eyes were on me. The solo was coming. The moment was pregnant with hope and redemption. I lifted my bow and started the solo, thinking I sounded good  - damned good - and catching Mr. Baer from the corner of my eye as he nodded encouragement. He backed off the podium, motioning us to continue playing as he backed towards the edge of the stage. When he emerged from behind the fraying curtain he was accompanied by a slender, elderly black man in a vest with a watch chain. As I played, Baer stepped quickly back to the podium, and the old man began to tap dance. He was tap dancing to Poet and Peasant, embellishing my mournful notes with that old, soft shoe. He grinned, he turned to wink at the principal flutist,and he mugged at me with an expression of comically broad melancholy. I felt terribly hot, then terribly cold, and I knew that no one was looking at me; I had become the soundtrack. He was the surprise. My solo ended, the music became fast and dramatic, and he bucked and winged dramatically across the stage. He was the surprise, he was the show stopper, I was...a mediocre eighteen-year-old cellist getting fifty bucks to make him look good.

On the way home, my friends offered comfort - they knew that I had anticipated a Brave New World, and been sadly disappointed. I stopped practicing the solo all the time; I stopped practicing it at all. I had it, it wasn't going to get any better, and it really didn't matter if I played the whole thing with one finger and a straw hat on. In fact, that might have been more appropriate, given the tenor of the performance. I was a bitter, bitter girl.

I showed up on the night of the performance in my long, black dress, my hair French braided with tasteful sprigs of Baby's Breath, and I knocked it out of the park. The audience was transfixed by Bojangles, from the first gasp when he shuffled on stage, to a standing ovation at the conclusion of his act. Although it is customary for a conductor to ask a soloist to stand and take a bow, I was not really the soloist, and there was no solo bow. 

Afterwards, as I packed my cello and picked the  itchy sprigs of flora out of my hair, the old man approached. I kept my face neutral; I was not, under any circumstances going to become part of his fan club. "Hey," he said with a bow, "you play real good. How'd you get to be so good, young as you are?" It was harder to resent him; he was fairly charming. And, I might add, a damned fine tap dancer.

"Practice" I answered, snapping the locks on my case. "you must practice, too, to dance like that?"

"Ah," he smiled, "I do. That I do. I used to be famous, all up and down the Poconos, other places like that. Not much call for tap dancers now - good to have a show again." Mr. Baer and the Symphony Ladies were approaching, trailed by a man with a bag of camera equipment.

"It was a pleasure working with you" I said, extending my hand. He took it, turned it palm down, and kissed it.

I only knew that my heart had changed, I did not know that the old man with his watch chain and his clicking shoes had given me more than a great story. He loved what he did, he burned with it, and the smallest gig was a chance to spark an audience and set them on fire. I didn't have that, and I never would. From where I sit now, my fingers un-calloused, my bow arm gone to seed, it's clear that it all happened just as it should have.



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bad, bad surprise- good story, but your teacher should have known his students better :/
Ann, I always gush with praise, so you can just recycle my comments from any of your posts. I was knocked over by your realization during your post-show conversation with Mr. Baer. You really know how to set things up for maximum impact.

"I filled my vest with bombs, and started the timer." Lines like this make me green with envy.
The hardest lessons are always harsh.
You might not play anymore, but you are a darned fine storyteller.
Perfect in its tone, pacing, and story. Maybe your heart was just too big and adventurous to settle itself into one talent when you have so many? That is my theory. I hope you still play now and again, just for yourself.
A great story isn't a great story without a fine writer to tell it.
Wonderfully told. It seems like this was the lesson that you were just waiting for.
If Cranky doesn't mind, please add my name to his recycled comments. I would add that your bow arm may have gone to seed but your heart can still make a story sing. (r)
Extremely well-told, Ann. I love your music stories. rated
Cello has to be the most beautiful music in all the world. Keep playing. This was a truely awesome post. You have great talent as a writer!
My son graduated from NEC. He studied trumpet, but when I attended his concerts, I studied the cellists.
Like Cranky, I too am a constant gusher when it comes to your stories. This one is pretty damn brilliant. _r
Beautiful story, and beautifully told! ~r!
Maybe he was afaid if he told you, you wouldn't do it, thus never learn this lesson in life.. Sounds like it would have been an amazing show all the way around.
You are just full of wonderful surprises.
Another one of the Ann gushers. When I see you have made a post, I make a cup of tea, and settle in to read. I loved the line about loading up your vest with bombs too.
Nothing to add. Everyone has already said it all. So all I can say is x2. -r
julie - it was bad, but it was "just" in the universal sense.

cranky - aw, gush some more. No, really.... You have little to be green about, you old Crank; you're pretty fine yourself.

vanessa - they are. And thank you.

bell - thanks. It was just always a bad fit. I think if I started again now, I'd play much better.

ladyslipper - yes, and I'm still looking for one. :)

sophie - it was, although of course I didn't really learn it until much later. I think it flew in under my radar.

clark - you've changed! And thank you.

lezlie - thanks. Fortunately (for me, anyway) there are lots of them.

cindy - i agree about the cello. I think the writing is the calling, and if I'd gotten sucked into music just as I was leaving...it would have taken me even longer to figure it all out.

chuck - good call! Although maybe not from your son't point of view. You have to admit that Jordan Hall is a phenomenally beautiful venue...I still (literally) dream about playing there.

elisa - alas, I wasn't. I write better than I ever played. It's immodest, but it's okay if I say i write "better," like comparitively, as opposed to saying "I write like Faulkner." Right?

joan - thank you. As I told you earlier, I kind of wanted to see if I could still come up with something.

kit - thank you!

lunchlady - you're probably right. Also, he really did think it was great, and that we'd all be thrilled to see the dancer. Now I'd think it was a hoot, but not in the days of fragile ego.

jeanette - thank you. I would like you to write a letter to that effect to my husband and son, directly. :)

suzanne - I owed you a good read today; you gave me something astonishing.

densie - you know that stopped me cold because I thought it was math. I finally figured it out, and thanks!
I like this story. You're quite a good writer.
This tale is too close for comfort in too many ways. I'm reminded the scene in Amadeaus where Solieri curses God for giving him the desire but not the gift. Most people have no idea about the perverse combination of gift, grit, ego, compulsion, obsession, dedication, frustration and selfishness that are required of a world-class performer. And to that you must add a heaping helping of good fortune.
Pitch-perfect, as you would have it no other way. :o) Good story, great story teller. Rated.
I'm with Cranky-- That filling your vest with bombs was a superb line, and I knew it couldn't end well. But at least the tap dancer was nice to you. Still.... must have really sucked.
I love your fantasies of musical glory.

Seems like pretty odd music for a soft shoe exhibition.

Another tale well told. Thank you.
Sprezzatura on the outside . . . lovely view to the inside. I sooo get this. Yes. And then that moment of release, when the joy returns through a simple gesture . . . such grace.
You do have the desire to ignite an audience. That is why you write.
What a wonderful story!
The anticipation of a solo.
The disappointment of becoming background music.
Your conversation with the old man.
Perfectly told.
what a fine telling of an emotional story, my heart has changed by knowing it.
The cellist story in Tous Les Matins Du Monde ain't got nothin' on this one (with the possible exception of Depardieu fils' line "my prick thick between my legs" being as unforgettable an image as you stuffing bombs in your vest). Some writing sticks to us.
Beautiful story, I love the way you tell, Ann.
kissinglessons - thank you!

tom - I know you know what you're talking about. I feel that way about writing, but I never had that kind of drive for music...and you have to have it.

fusun - thank you so much. I like "pitch perfect." :)

shiral - it did suck, but he needed it more than I did.

sixtycandles - apparently tapping to the classics is not uncommon. Not my cup of tea - give me Fred and Ginger any day.

owl - I am nicer than I look. I wasn't terrifically nice at the time this took place, but I was also terribly unhappy. Kind, happy and released is infinitely better.

geezerchick - you got it.

steve - thank you!

diannani - then I did my work well. :)

cleotheo - that's a movie? En francaise? I'll have to check it out.

thoth - thank you, as always.
Bellwether keeps stealing my comments from my head.
Sounds like you are too gifted for your own good. Fascinating story, and so well written.
This post makes me feel something I can't quite put my finger on. My daughter so wanted to play the cello, after she tried to learn to tap dance...the poor child was completely tone deaf. Still is.
fernsy - she's like that; you have to watch her like a hawk. As for my gifts, you are too kind. Writing, cooking and tolerating obnoxious people are the gifts I claim, but playing music was never really a contender. I'm good at listening to music, though!

faye - I believe anybody can learn to play an instrument, and after my experience i would advocate it ONLY for purposes of enjoyment and enrichment. I don't know about tap dancing...I have trouble walking and chewing gum
Ahh, I love the "swaggered in with my cello", such a fabulous image and not easy to do--just like this piece--beautifully crafted.
How lovely. Your touch here is, as always, masterful. You played this piece like the virtuoso you are.
Like Cranky and Joan... and everyone... I gush. Great work. I have been missing OS.
Im sitting at my computer having a glass of wine in my city and I loved every minute of this story.
This is a fabulous story, magnificently written. I must invest in an OS alert system that tells me when an outstanding writer joins. It would save me from being so late to the party.
browneyedgirl - it is harder than one might think, to swagger with a cello. :)

pilgrim - thank you.

kimberly - thank you. It's so good to see you here!!

diary - does that mean you have to drink to read my writing? :)

stim - I'm honored that you think I'm worth an alarm.