The ancient Celts talked about “thin places” in the world. The idea is that there are certain spots where the visible world and the invisible world have been rubbing against each other for so long that there is a sort of smooth spot in the fabric of the universe. Waves of the Spirit crash and grind against the shore of the material universe for so many years that the space-time continuum gets turned into sea glass. If you find a “thin spot”, the air will be thick with God, and it is easier to hear when you talk to each other.
When you play a show, you arrive at the hall and descend into the orchestra pit. The pit is one of the “thick places” in the universe. It is jagged around the edges, and though you can still hear God talking, the voice sounds like a recording from a wax cylinder. You can tell that there is magic flying off the stage and puncturing audience members, but it is all happening too far over your head. If, on a rare occasion, some of the “magic” accidentally drips down from a puddle that has been spilled on the stage, there is usually a trumpet player who wipes it up before someone slips on it. While the audience is slurping up stardust, the clarinet player is working a crossword puzzle. The lead actress may be “giving it their all” or “turning it on” (or insert whatever trite, hackneyed, overused Broadway cliché you want), but Mr. Violin II is reading a novel. Once, I saw a bass player play an entire gig with a portable TV and headphones. He watched a hockey game while playing the score for “Into the Woods” and never missed a musical entrance.
Single reed players tend to be the most mischievous. They are like Avolakatishvara, one of the many-armed avatars of Shiva. They can drop a clarinet to pick up a saxophone. While two hands play that instrument, a third is picking up a flute, and a fourth is turning a page. They can destroy worlds with a word. Single reed players, as part of their training, are required to memorize volumes of dirty alternative lyrics to every song in the repertoire. While you are concentrating on listening to the singer, listening to the bass player, watching the conductor, and guessing about whether the B in the upcoming measure is flat or natural, there is a single reed player singing softly in your ear, “Whatever Lola wants…” Some single reed players that I have encountered know lyrics that were passed down from previous generations. They can sing along with a Brahms Symphony using a text that will make you blush.
I believe that the highlight of all pit experiences happened one summer when I was playing for Ann Reinking’s Broadway Theatre Project. We put on a review show each summer after three weeks of rehearsal. Gregory Hines, Savingon Glover, Bebe Neuwirth, et al would come to work with the kids and talk to them. Tommy Tune would show up and tell them to “give it their all” or “one hundred and ten percent.” The show hadn’t come together very well that year, and we were rehearsing right up to the point when the house opened.
Pate, who is a virtuoso saxophonist, was the single reed player on the gig. Pate plays like someone packing a small suitcase with a week’s worth of clothes. After jumping up and down on top of the bag to smash every article inside, he opens it again a few minutes later and notes explode all over the room. Pate also has a personality like a minefield, so I always walk carefully around him. He’s actually wonderful to work with as long as you don’t hit one of the mines.
Many people don’t know that at certain performing arts centers, there exists a long running war between the union stagehands and the musicians. On this job, skirmishes started when we arrived to rehearse in the morning on the day of the show. I descended into the pit with the others, and prepared for a difficult rehearsal. I started pushing the piano to adjust it according to the specific spacing needs of our ensemble.
A stagehand immediately rushed to downstage left and yelled at me, “Don’t move the piano!”
“Well, we need it over a few feet.”
“You can’t move the piano. You’re not covered by insurance.”
“Well, can you move the piano for us?”
“I’m not the piano mover. I only move chairs.”
“Well, can you get the piano mover to come down and move the piano for us?”
“I’ll call him.”
Too many minutes later, a gentleman strolled down the stairs and walked along the cement wall that defines the hallway under the stage. He climbed up to the pit. He began to traverse the instruments and cases that blocked his way to the piano. He took a bad step and kicked one of Pate’s landmines. Actually, he kicked Pate’s saxophone case with some degree of force. Instead of apologizing, he quipped, “If you guys wouldn’t leave your damned cases around, I wouldn’t kick them.” Pate erupted like a well-shaken beer. With the prowess of an Olympic discus athlete, he grabbed the empty case, hurled it twenty feet through the air at which point it met up with the concrete wall in the hallway. The hard plastic of the case greeted the concrete and then bounced along the floor before coming to rest. The noise was as loud as a percussionist who had just been in a fight with his girlfriend. The crash of the case against the wall resounded throughout the hallway, the pit, and the entire hall causing everyone present to momentarily freeze. “That’s exactly what I would have done with it,” grunted the piano mover. He then scooted the piano over two feet and returned to the world above the pit.
We practiced for a few hours, and the union steward called a break. After fifteen minutes, we returned from our brief forage into the world above down to our little purgatory betwixt stage and audience for a final hour of rehearsing. I opened my book, looked across and noticed that Pate was missing. “Where’s Pate?!” the conductor demanded of me.
“I don’t know. I wasn’t with him.” I replied.
She proceeded to ask each member of the band about when Pate was last seen. Despite our best efforts, Pate’s whereabouts remained enshrouded in mystery when we began to rehearse. We made it through one tune, and band members started speculating that Pate and the union piano mover had decided to continue their discussion about pit etiquette in an environment more suitable for physical contact. The second tune went by and the conductor began to burn with fury. Actually, she was the type of person that I often encounter in the musical world. Because of her complete inadequacies in the field that she had chosen, her emotions were at constant low boil. She lacked respect from the professional musicians. It was something that she earned by means of her musical deficiencies. The slightest fanning of the flames made anger bubbles run up to the surface. We started the third tune, and with Pate still absent, she began to seethe.
Pate walked in and sat down. The tune was quiet, and I was the only one playing. She stopped conducting while I followed the singer. Glaring at Pate, the conductor heatedly asked, “Where were you?!” she asked.
“Sorry,” said Pate. “I was in the bathroom.”
“For this entire time?!” she hissed.
“Yes.” said Pate, slowly. “You see, I found the union guy that unzips your pants, but I couldn’t find the one that aims for you.”
The laughter traveled through the pit so quickly that no one survived. People that were supposed to play missed their entrances, the drummer couldn’t keep a steady beat, and I couldn’t see the music because laughter caused tears in my eyes. Even the furious conductor laughed so hard that she couldn’t really punish Pate. The song limped on haphazardly until the director had to stop it for lack of accompaniment. Pate had won the day, but he wasn’t asked to return the next year. Before many years had passed, I chose to express my opinion about the music director, and I too was invited not to return. Pate and I, however, had an adventure or two still to come on future gigs.