Playing with an orchestra
A few years ago I was fortunate enough to be involved in a performance at the Ikeda World Peace Auditorium for Daniel Pearl World Music Day. The dance troupe my wife was leading included a dancer who was also a professional, orchestra caliber, cello player. She was a member of the performing orchestra scheduled for the venue, and had made the connections to get the invitation, and the dancers leaped at the chance to contribute to such a great cause.
(By the way, here is the link. http://www.danielpearlmusicdays.org/ Politics and such aside, it really is a good cause. Check it out.)
I had been playing for about a year at the time, and let me be clear: I had no business being on stage with professional musicians. I let my wife know, in no uncertain terms, no way was I going to drum for them, in front of hundreds of people, and with an actual orchestra behind me. I explained that I had stage fright, no talent, no ability and also mumps, measles, and chicken pox. I was not going to do it!
So a week later at the first rehearsal I met the orchestra players. I walked into the rehearsal as uneasy, nervous, and self-conscious as I could be, carrying just my drum and my seat.
The orchestra members were all very nice, and all curious about the doumbek, and what tones it could produce. I played a couple of short rhythms and fills for them, and no one laughed. The conductor, who was talented, skilled, charismatic, and also had a wonderful sense of humor, asked me where my sheet music was. Note: I, um, do not read music.
I explained, “Um, sir? I am a drummer, not a musician.” The joke worked, and everyone laughed, and the poor percussionist got his share of ribbing and abuse from the other players.
After we stopped laughing and settled down I explained I used notation, and would work with the percussionist so he could transcribe what I would be doing, if that mattered.
During the rehearsals, of which there were three over the next three weeks, we worked out what I would be playing, the intro, where the taksim (dancer and violinist duet) would happen, where my solo would be, and the finale. It was the most painstaking practice I had done to that point, and I cannot really explain how much I learned in that short of time. It was wonderful.
The last rehearsal was the day before the performance, at the actual auditorium. Walking into the empty auditorium, standing on the stage, I was utterly worried. And, enthralled.
The next day was a surreal as could be.
During all the rehearsals and practicing it had somehow slipped my mind to ask when we were going on. Obviously we weren’t the only performance. The orchestra was doing 11 pieces, including us, a West African dance troupe, and a Taiko drumming section. (By the way, Taiko drumming. Wow oh wow!) So, that is how and when I first learned that we were the section right after…Rhapsody in Blue by G. Gershwin.
Oh. My. God.
I burst into hysterical laughter. I was done. I was going to follow Blue? Couldn’t I have followed Jimi Hendrix, or Yo-Yo Ma, or maybe even Beethoven’s Fifth?
Well, needless to say, time passed, and while I was side-stage enjoying the show, when Rhapsody in Blue started the butterflies kicked into a gear I had never experienced before.
I am not joking, even a little bit, when I say that walking up the stairs and across the stage to my soloist chair was one of the bravest things I have ever done.
I got to my seat, got the drum into my lap, smiled at the conductor and the polite applause from the introduction and tried not to pass out.
And then the conductor did the perfect thing: He winked at me.
A tap tap tap of the baton, and we were off!
Here are some of the photos.
This is me at the beginning of the performance.
I have just finished a rizz and slap to end the intro, and the orchestra has just finished shocking me with how powerful and loud they sounded when they joined in. When I say that the difference between rehearsal and live performance is marked, this is one of the memories that cause me to say that. They were really, awesomely loud, and dead on the point. 21 professional musicians, BANG ON!
Note the look of extreme concentration. OK, fear… I have no clue that there is a camera there, so it is a fairly nice picture of me. I am wearing traditional sandals, a black tee shirt made of light silk, and a pair of maroon harem-style pants. Very comfy, looks sharp, and is even semi-traditional looking. I was afraid to wear a caftan and robes, because of the small stairs up to the stage, all the chairs, music stands and cables, and well, if I tripped and fell I would have literally died of embarrassment.
By the way, that is my favorite doumbek I am playing. It is an Alexandria 17” concert drum, but covered in embossed black vinyl. Made of cast aluminum, with a blue mylar head. It is cheap looking and perfect, like a favorite booth at an all-night coffee shop. It really is ugly. On the plus side, it is absolutely comfortable, never gets cold in the evenings, and sounds fantastic. Really, it shouldn’t sound nearly as good as it does. I get a bit of a kick out of showing up at workshops and gigs and such, watching the highly skeptical, worried looks on people’s faces, and then just banging out a clean, sharp tone. The “O” of surprise and raised eyebrows always makes me happy.
This picture is just about mid-performance. These are the dancers, dressed in cabaret style. This concert occurred before my wife discovered Tribal Style, but I think they all look magnificent.
From left to right the dancers are: Karinska (white and gold), Jessenia (copper and black, and Edara (maroon and silver).
At this point the audience was entirely silent, and totally mesmerized. Dancers can have that effect. One great thing about dancers is that you know that no one is looking at you.
The orchestra is in full swing behind me, and I am playing a very basic rhythmic part, keeping my doums a bit before the beat to create a big sound and the teks as on point and sharp as possible for accents.
By the way, if you can keep a 21 piece orchestra in your pocket to pull out and use when you need a background track, I fully recommend it. It is awfully fun!
The well deserved bow at the end of the show.
The dancers were really wonderful and the audience responded with incredible enthusiasm, and a standing ovation. I heard one woman yell, “Encore!” which was really flattering and sublimely ridiculous all at the same time. I can just imagine looking at the conductor and saying, “Hey, can we run that again from the top?”.
You will notice in the photo that the orchestra players are all applauding, while I am playing a light, low tone rizz as my applause. Doumbek players are a little different that way…
This is the dancers applauding me with a zaghareet, which is the trilling, high pitched sound you hear at many belly dance events. It was very kind of them to single me out, and I was very touched.
The orchestra was amazing, especially given the scarcity of rehearsals, the completely foreign tone and feel of the material, the sheer amount of performing they did that day, and probably playing for live dancers for the first time. It was a great experience being involved with professionals, who also happened to be damn nice people.
What I really took away from all of it was a sense of confidence, an absolute spark of inspiration about pursuing drumming, and knowing that the old saying is really true.
Do something that scares you.