Classical Musical Mishaps: It Shouldn't Happen to a Musician
Grand Piano From the Ghost Town of Pripyat, Near Chernobyl
I've been on the receiving end of musical mishaps myself as a schoolchild. Fortunately as I grew up and became a little wiser, they dropped dramatically in number and I saw them happening to other people or came across stories about slip-ups as life progressed. But first, a couple of anecdotes from when I was still green.
The Dreaded Leather Strap Masquerading As Handle
Our school was putting on the annual carol concert at a church about half a mile away. My violin case was heavy and not the most comfortable to carry - the original handle had come off and my father replaced it with a leather strap he fashioned from an old belt. So I thought to myself on the morning of the concert, why don't I pass by the church, almost on the way from my house, and drop it off there? Then I don't have to lug it all the way down to school, only to have to trudge back up the hill with it in the afternoon when the concert was taking place.
The trouble was, at that time in the morning the church wasn't yet open. Instead I looked round the graveyard and spotted what I considered to be the larger sort of resting place nicely out of the way both for the deceased and my fiddle. I didn't want it in plain sight just in case someone passing did happen to spy it and whisk it away. Not that anyone did just pass by as the church was largely surrounded by a large tract of grass. Nevertheless I tucked it well in against the tomb.
I got a terrible fright a few hours later, when, having been very pleased with myself thinking for once I wasn't having to carry the instrument as well as my school bag, I arrived at the church to discover my case had gone. Heart pounding (and wondering what on earth I was going to tell my parents about the mystery of the disappearing violin) I entered the place of worship and thought about offering up a suitable prayer to ask for my violin back. My heart continued to pound well after the vicar called out, asking if 'this violin' he had in his hand, belonged to anyone here? Sheepishly I laid to claim to it and vowed never again to take a shortcut whether the strap cut into my hand or not.
Watch This Compilation of Musical Mishaps on YouTube
Portrait of Edvard Grieg
Sigurd Jorsalfar or Sigurd the Crusader was a twelfth century king of Norway who was the first European king to campaign as a crusader (hence the name) but left most of the spoils of war in Constantinople after meeting with the Byzantine emperor.
I was at the Saturday morning orchestra I attended as a teenager and we were playing Grieg, a popular composer who could write a really good tune, he just couldn't string them together. His legacy is a delightful pot of incidental music such as for Ibsen's drama Peer Gynt. Even in these miniatures where he used a main theme, a middle and back to the main again, you can easily detect the join. He practically comes to a halt between sections, or actually slows to a stop before galloping off again.
Despite his shortcomings Grieg holds a warm place in people's hearts whether classical music afficionados or not and we were performing music from a suite compiled from the music to a play about Sigurd Jorsalfar. In those days I was prone to great flourishes with my arms as I became deeply embroiled in the emotions of the music, and Grieg does have many rousing moments.
So there I was swaying and swinging my little heart out when I brought off my bow downwards in an arcing sweep and brought it back up again in another of my wild gestures, only I landed on the small space between the tailpiece and bridge rather than the correct position between bridge and fingerboard .
Sometimes in avant garde compositions, there are occasions when the composer calls for playing this way. It's extremely high pitched due to the shortness of the strings, thin, squeaky and generally rather unpleasant. It wouldn't have been so bad if that's all I'd done, but worse, I'd swooped in at such an acute angle that the tip of the bow became lodged between the middle two strings, A and D. Worse still, we happened to be giving our annual July concert that evening in the local theatre .
The bow wouldn't move. Nor was I seated in the centre of the orchestra where my dilemma might have gone undetected. Alas I was on the first desk, next to the leader and in full view. Out of the corner of her eye the leader had spotted the precarious position I was in and desperately trying to prevent herself from laughing.
Meanwhile I was trying to decide on the best course of action. I didn't dare simply yank it out. That can cause the bridge to collapse which in turn may bring down the soundpost inside the violin, and I knew from many frustrating attempts to try and manouevre one upright again how difficult that could be. Alternatively I was in danger of breaking one of the strings, or indeed the bow. Somehow, and to this day I don't know how I managed it, I struggled the tip free and carried on. Hitherto my style in public was more restrained. The days of showing off were definitely at an end.
Dodgy Violin Clasp
Viktoria Mullova Plays Her Stradivarius Violin
Mishaps in Motion
Stories abound of famous musicians leaving their instruments in taxis or on trains including the cellists Yo Yo Ma and Lynn Harrell - both have suffered from senior moments.
My transport upset was on a bus travelling to my violin lesson on the other side of town. I stood up to alight at my stop but the tiny clasps on the wooden case had moved and the lid flipped open. The next thing I saw was my violin sliding down the aisle of the bus leaving me with an empty and very unwieldy case. As the bus slowed to a halt I was desperately trying to gather up my violin and various cloths, spare strings and rosin whilst wrestling with my embarrassment and the open case. I showed up at my lesson, flustered but with a miraculously intact fiddle.
If I thought that was a bad memory, it was nothing compared to Viktoria Mullova's. She was on board an air flight and had deposited her Stradivarius in the overhead locker when along came the cabin stewardess and - unknown to the unsuspecting virtuoso - removed it and decamped it to the hold. "It could have been smashed!" she bemoaned. I wonder what choice words she used when she made her complaint.
Two in one night is unfortunate, but it happened to the KwaZulu National Philharmonic in Natal. First, the Steinway grand was being moved via lift onto the stage when it nearly came off. Secondly some of the hundred-strong choir's chairs collapsed when they sat down.
Apart from that, the concert was a success.
The composer Jean-Baptiste Lully might have been called Jean-Baptiste Bully by English speaking contemporaries as he hogged the limelight at the court of Louis XIV as Superintendent of the Royal Music and would barely let any other composer get a look-in.
It can't not be possible that there weren't some cases of schadenfreude among his peers and those impatiently waiting in the wings for it to be their turn to have an opera or ballet staged, in most cases, blocked by Lully, because when he was conducting one of his own works he befell a fatal mishap. His style of keeping the players in time was to bang a stick on the floor to the beat, however he didn't pay total attention to his nearby foot and stabbed it by mistake. Gangrene set in, spread up to his brain and killed him. Ironically, the piece he had been conducting, his Te Deum was in celebration of thanking God for the recovery of the king from surgery.
The Mishap of the Mouth
The orchestra was assembling for the evening performance of Handel's Messiah which included the magnificent solo for piccolo trumpet as one of the highlights, only the trumpeter, Manny Laureano, was missing and his absence was naturally causing concern.
He had gone out during the afternoon, taking his son tobogganing. As the sled wound this way and that, the jagged movements caused the little boy's head to jerk backwards and crack against his father's mouth.
The orchestra duly took up their places, but the trumpet seat was occupied by an unknown figure. The oboist turned to him and asked "Are you a freelance?" "Oh no," he said, "I'm Manny's dentist."
By all accounts he played the exposed nerve-wracking solo with the professional asssurance of a seasoned player.
The great violinist Pablo Sarasate was playing the Saint-Saens third violin concerto in Frankfurt when he lost his place, not once but twice. After resuming, his E string snapped. A case of third time unlucky.
Violin Pegs and Corresponding Placement of the Strings
Exam Nerves and Failures
A young girl was about to take her grade two violin exam, with only minutes to spare before she was due to play when her A string broke. Fortunately another examinee who was waiting her turn was able to lend her another string which was wound on in haste. To her horror when she stepped in to the examiner's room she couldn't tune it up properly and realised it wasn't an A but a second D. The distracted girl rapidly withdrew without playing a note of her exam pieces.
She either gave up altogether or else took on board the good practice of keeping a set of strings for such an eventuality, preferably re-stretched as brand new strings are wont to go out of tune for quite a while before they settle down. A salutary lesson.
Exams do nothing for the nerves and a young flautist was cleaning her flute with a swab as she awaited her summons to the exam room. Unfortunately the inserted swab refused to dislodge from up inside the barrel of the instrument. On the other hand she got to play her teacher's flute who was there to accompany her on the piano and had brought her flute along for the ride - just in case a mishap occurred.
The acclaimed pianist Peter Katin was performing at a concert in Nairobi when one of the pedals stuck. As luck would have it a member of the audience had a screwdriver with them (what else should one take to a recital?) which Katin competently used to free the pedal.
Very cold temperatures do nothing for a wooden instrument. I can't profess to be an expert in physics but it's to do with cold air not holding as much moisture as when it's warm, and that affects the composition of the wood.
Pegs, which are made from dense wood, become loose in wintery conditions making it difficult to keep the strings taut; in summer when conditions are more humid, the pegs tend to stick. Sticking pegs are a real pain. Force them and they could break off, leaving a stump in the peg hole, and then what do you do? Not desirable, I can tell you. I used a thin metal punch and wooden mallet to very gingerly and gently tap the end of the peg and loosened mine, but my heart was nearly in my mouth whist I carried out the procedure.
Then there's the problem of the wood plates making up the body of the instrument cracking, or the sides coming apart. You can see how essential it is to maintain a precious instrument at a reasonably constant temperature.
My first violin teacher told us little ones in our lesson one day about a student who'd left their violin by a radiator. When they came to open the case and lift it out it fell apart because the glue had melted. Now I'm many years older, I'm not sure if was winding us up or not, but a good story nonetheless.
The Not Terribly Good Book of Heroic Failures
The Not Terribly Good Book of Heroic Failures is the perfect complement to my article. I have two copies of this book - one I bought myself and the other came to me as a gift. It's perfect for either a guest bedside table or the downstairs loo as each mishap is in bite sized portions. There is the odd musical upset inside among the general mishaps that make up ordinary living, some hilarious, some almost want to make you weep. An easy book to dip in and out of and to keep you entertained in the home's smallest room. And children love it too!
Pablo Casals and his Stradivarius Cello
If you look carefully at Pablo Casals' left hand, you'll see he's holding a cigarette. It would have been a real oops moment if the ash had fallen on the cello!
You'd think, given the nature of Stradivarius instruments that extreme care would be taken when one was out in public view. Not quite.
In 2012 a photo shoot took place in Madrid at the Spanish Royal Palace where a collection of two violins, viola and cello were held - a string quartet in fact. On this rare occasion, the cello, valued at $20 million, was being photographed and to help with accessibility it was lifted onto a table. It can't have been properly stabilised (a necessary precaution, one would have thought) and off it tumbled, breaking off the neck in the process.
It was the unfortunate cello's second major mishap, the first happening in the nineteenth century when the original neck parted from its body. Second time around the instrument got it in the neck again, already weakened from its previous mishap.
One Final Mishap
And finally...music teachers have to cope with all manner of slip-ups and, not to put too fine a point on it, shenanigans, by their charges. Myself and colleagues were preparing our charges for a concert when I saw another teacher scrabbling on the floor around two young trumpeters. One of them had swiped the valves out of the other's and flicked them onto the stage. Valves retrieved and replaced the concert went ahead without a hitch. There's no accounting for kids.
© 2017 Frances Metcalfe