Ripples of Righteousness

Claudine Jones-Scene4 Magazine

Claudine Jones

Lord where do I start.

I was thinking I would do a blow-by-blow of the last segment of my participation in this semester's musical offerings. An end of term presentation of Mahler's 2nd Symphony by a gigantic university Orchestra supplemented by what clearly are not students—probably older musicians invited from faculty, or volunteer orchestras. Dunno. A serious affair and in need of a choir. Somebody is always in need of a choir. How many gigs I've done in the last 4 years...either local or touring, in need of a cheap supplement of singers, different in every city. Hell, different in every performance because Share the Wealth. There are so many singers, so few opportunities sad to say.

I'm not privy to this information but it seems as though this Mahler would be the equivalent of a final exam for music students who are studying hard, wanting to graduate on a high. I know they picked the Mahler themselves. But then it can't necessarily be a graduation requirement because I expect the orchestra cannot hold all of the students. So does that mean that you have to audition? Is it for extra credit? I should have asked somebody.

The dress rehearsal went pretty well; I'm placed on the floor level slightly right of center, behind the timpani section. Not too bad. And I loved not having to worry about falling. Other than having to go fast to keep up with my moving line of colleagues, I was okay.

However, being around so many youngsters is somewhat tiring. Post-dress, Designated choir-wrangler, J., in tandem with our chorus manager, R., over a three day period:

R: According to my notes, you requested chairs for UCAC's Fall concert. Will you need a chair for the Mahler concert this week?

Me: Wow thanks for asking not sure how that would work. I think as long as I can sit down off stage during the majority of the symphony, and then just move into place I'll probably be okay.

J.: [three hours later] Specific notes for those who need chairs:

We will be placing chairs at the back corners of the stage (next to the risers on both sides, next to the overflow of choir members).

Please don't line up with the others - you will enter last and go directly to your chairs.

Elizabeth, Marian, Claudine, Joan: enter through wall door entrance on stage right (completely different door!)

An orchestra stage crew member will cue you a few rehearsal numbers PRIOR to the choir entrance.

This gives you time to move from your chair to your designated spot in the chart.

Since the first two rows are sharing the front riser, it will be hard to move in between them, so please:

Go up to the middle riser first, and Walk all the way to where your spot is, THEN come down to the second row.

Since this may seem very confusing, I can also explain it directly to them in person as well - if they can arrive early, that would be great!

Please let me know if you have any questions or need anything else!

Me: [Shortly after receiving this] I read through the new instructions for seating: I won't be able to follow your new arrangement without something to hang on to. Too dangerous without my cane. I'm sorry about the miscommunication.

J: Would it be easier for you to stay where your chair is for the entire time? You would be in the soprano section, but then you don’t have to move.

Please let me know!

Me: [diplomatically trying to withdraw from program.] I think it's time I admitted that I bit off more than I can chew. I can certainly stand while I'm singing no problem, if I'm on the floor level, but with all of the attendant waiting around standing in line etcetera, my leg just won't behave itself by the time our cue arrives. That's why I thought sitting backstage would conserve my energy. Ack! Another 6 months down the road I'm gold but now, it's just not happening. Again I apologize for not anticipating this more accurately.

J: [Morning of performance] No worries! To make things easier for you, you can stand and sing where your chair is.

So I'll place you with Betsy and Marian for the whole performance.

That way you also don't have to worry about getting a cue from a stage crew member (at rehearsal number 26, which isn't even in your score)!

I'll be printing hard copies of the revised standing charts for everyone.

Personal Family drama notwithstanding, I have a reputation to uphold. I do not miss either rehearsals or performances full stop. Our Drama teacher in high school said there are two reasons for missing a rehearsal/performance: you're either in the hospital or you're dead. After this series of emails and a pretty perfect dress rehearsal that confirmed I have no real problems other than standing for long periods of time, I seriously considered just dropping the hell out. Who would miss me? It would only be my internal imperative to be what I call reliable or competent that would be in my way.

I had to ask myself the question how close to the edge do I want to play this? If you plot this on a graph you will see the gradual decline in energy, the ups and downs the potentials for illness or outright loss of quality of voice. That's a real thing by the way. The day after the Mahler dress, I went to a volunteer choir thing at the library down the street. Local musician has decided he wants to form a community choir, no auditions required, that sort of thing. I didn't have anything on my docket for that evening so I wandered down there to check it out. Ended up singing soprano because there were too many Altos. And who do I end up next to but a lovely elderly woman, and I do not consider myself elderly by the way, but man, sitting next to her was painful. She has a vibrato you can drive a truck through. Mind you I do have some deterioration. I acknowledge that, but not to the extent that I would be ashamed to hear myself. This is just based on past history. My son actually was going through a box of tapes I think or files? Anyway he came up with a recording from got to be at least 25 years ago and I was treated to the sound of my own singing voice. I actually sounded pretty darn good even if I don't say so. Not great, but pretty darn good.

Reminds me of the story that my late great Lillian used to tell of how she went to Italy and knocked around the tiny Opera Houses getting whatever gigs she could to support her and her toddler son. She discovered in short order to the temporary decimation of her ego that what she had thought was a glorious sound emanating from her was in fact at best hi-mediocre. There were so many singers there that she had to accept her place in the middle somewhere. That's just the reality. She had one money-maker and that was her F over high C.

Where was I? Oh I came really close to dropping out of this Mahler gig because it was no longer a question of just mindlessly signing on to any old gig just for the fun of it. It was becoming more of a question of I'm getting out of this exactly as much as I am being paid. Which is nothing.

But I didn't drop out. I checked the weather forecast obsessively, I figured I'm okay to just get over there, do my thing, don't complain, get a ride home with a fellow chorus member, yada yada.

Lesson learned? Never go on that basis.

Here are the highlights:

Arrival 15 minutes early for an 8:30 call

Take elevator to 2nd floor warm up room

Find a chair and sit in it

Spend twenty minutes with assistant conductor warming up and going over notes

Expected call time to move to theater, 14 minutes.

50 minutes later still waiting

My two onstage chair-sitting compatriots and I agree that we will be the Three Musketeers

Try not to lose sight of each other

I get antsy and go out into the hallway to check.

No sooner have I done that but a fellow comes racing up the hall

2 minutes 2 minutes he yells

This does not mean two minutes to enter as we soon find out
The Two Musketeers and I find some chairs backstage

Discuss which SR door we're going to go through

We all decide it's the one right in front of us, so that's a good place to wait
10 minutes later we're still sitting there

I decide to visit the restroom quickly

I return find the space with our chairs


Where did the two musketeers go?

Are they on stage?

Did they go through that door?

Should I open that door and make my own entrance?

Probably not a good idea but I can't find crew to ask

They are understandably preoccupied

I just go and stand at the normal SR entrance—people are already lined up there anyway—and it appears that the same person with whom I had all those lovely email exchanges is right there with her clipboard. Maybe if I stand close to her she will notice me and it will all be good. Just then who should appear but the other Musketeers. A quick conference and we realize we're just going to walk right on, no special door or anything. Don't know what that was about. 

I've heard our orchestra entrance cue a few times but not really all that familiar. I think we can rely on Other People who are more familiar with this Symphony, but it's still nerve-wracking to not quite know what I'm listening for since none of us have the extra pages of the score. Mahler has latched onto a Theme that he is now playing around with.

It's evident from body language that we're getting close.

And here we go.

Here's the thing though. One second I'm feeling wow this is kind of cool. The next second I have rounded the corner and see to my horror that while the other Musketeers, who are by the way Sopranos, have moved upstage to a couple of the chairs that have been placed for us—I must be D'Artagnan or something, cuz I'm the closest downstage—I am, I kid you not, a scant 18” away from a massive set of kettledrums, to the extent that I may in fact have to rest my hands on the percussionist's shoulders while I am singing, if I even decide to stand up at all.

Busy wondering if I am indeed having a waking nightmare or I should just get back up and lean against the wall next to my chair giving me an extra foot or so. Unfortunately I have two bars to make up my mind before the basses and tenors come in, acapella, so got to be goddamn quiet and inconspicuous.

So stay sitting down it is. I figure there are four sections divided by some solo and duet work by the soprano and alto soloists, and some instrumental stuff, I could find a time to stand, if I want to. Which is interesting because I can't see shit. I'm basically looking straight into the percussionist nice black shiny suit. No conductor in sight.

Whereas, our assistant conductor left us, seems like two hours ago, with the cheery message that if our faces are not visible and smiling and making contact with something in the audience, we should consider ourselves to have failed. Failed Mahler. We are the finale, we are the exalted.

One positive in being invisible is that nobody will know that you have your finger in your ear in order to keep from being deafened by kettledrums. And I'm right there so I can tell when the guy's got his sound-specific sticks in the air and when he is going to be slamming.

Another soprano has now slid in through the door, which has been left open for the duration. The musketeer to my left is surprised by this extra personnel especially since this young woman entering halfway through our segment is going to position herself directly in front of her. A quiet hand on her shoulder and she moves slightly to her left and squashes into some space that require somebody else to shift. All done with intent not to draw attention, obviously. I see my opportunity and so I rise to my feet, scoot over steady against the wall. Feels good to actually see the conductor. On we go!

If you've ever heard this symphony you know that at the end he kind of pulls out all the stops and timpani goes crazy and it does sort of outdo Beethoven with the false Cadences which make you think it's over when it really isn't and then he goes around again and about 4th time he's going around the block you thinking okay he's got to be done now.  The chorus is already out; we're just waiting for the damn Orchestra to finish.

Audience is now on its feet! There's a lot of parents and siblings I expect out there in the audience so wild ovation blah blah and the conductor has to single out everybody for bows and get some flowers distributed and so forth. Takes a while but then there's that gradual diminution. We have been instructed how to make our exit. We should wait until there is no more Applause, and then get the heck out of there.

I realize to my dismay that unless I start, nobody else in the freaking SR chorus can leave. It's an absolute bottleneck and I am the cork. I glanced to my immediate left Musketeer and see the confusion. You don't want to leave too soon, nor do you want to start a stampede, but all the criteria have been met and the conductor is actually making his way toward me. I make an executive decision, and mutter to myself fuck it,I'm going.

Ordinarily this would be terrific. Be assertive. I've done it before and it didn't always work but no catastrophes. Minor blips at worst. (Did I mention that when I had first sat down my foot slipped on a bunch of cable that had been snaked from backstage through the door along the floor under my chair? Seriously could have been made from I want to say something silicone coated. In other words the most slippery substance known to man right underneath my feet. I moved it out of the way as best I could up against the wall privately thinking stupid fuckers whose idea was this?)

So now I'm in a position of making this quick exit and I feel a certain power in that decision if you will. The problem is that somebody has put small sandbags out of view against the exit door to prop it open. I have left my folded up cane in the chair that was originally positioned by the Phantom door that we Musketeers were going to enter by. I'm fine walking without the cane and I didn't want to deal with it on stage because I thought it would draw Focus, forgetting for a second that nobody can freaking see me.  Now I'm on my feet under a certain amount of duress and I almost take a header over a fucking sandbag as I'm exiting with what I would consider entirely suitable alacrity.

Well, I survived. I guess that's a good thing.

Ladies and gentlemen, was it worth it.

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Claudine Jones has had a long, full career as an Actor/Singer/Dancer.
She writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives.

©2020 Claudine Jones
©2020 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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