Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Fat Guy in a Speedo

This is a phrase I recently learned from a new friend, and it’s also what it feels like to play bass trumpet!   It feels very much like I would imagine a fat guy in a Speedo would feel.   And by that, I mean that it feels totally out of place & completely uncomfortable.  I know, I know.  I could’ve used the “duck out of water” analogy, but the Speedo analogy also conveys the feeling of ‘squeezing’ into a smaller and more squirrelly instrument and ‘baring it all’ in front of your co-workers.
I don’t know if I’ve ever written on the blog about this, but in my opera contract it says that I am obligated to play bass trumpet when needed.  Of course, the two principal players, Ian Bousfield and Dietmar Küblböck, are usually the ones to take on this task.   But every now and then circumstances dictate that I need to pick up this odd little hybrid instrument and earn my keep.      

The bass trumpet, for those who haven’t had the pleasure of being introduced, is just what it sounds like… a large trumpet that plays in generally the same range as a trombone and uses a trombone-sized mouthpiece.   It is seldom used, but it has a really interesting timbre that fits well with Germanic music especially.   You’ll hear it in Richard Strauss’ operas, even in the Rite of Spring, but it’s most famous for its important role in the Ring Cycle.   Wagner uses the bass trumpet in all four Ring operas as a very prominent solo voice, often to proclaim one of the many famous leitmotifs for which Wagner is so known.   It was in this context that I sat down to perform on the bass trumpet just a few weeks ago.    
In my four seasons with the orchestra, I have been called on to play the bass trumpet a handful of times, but never for anything that was really that important.  I’ve done Rite of Spring and Elektra lots, as well as one Lorin Maazel’s own compositions, but none of those have been at the Vienna State Opera, and more importantly, I had never done any of the Ring stuff.     
Back in March, though, one of the principal players needed to be free during a performance of Siegfried and called me to ask if I would mind playing bass trumpet for it.  Sure thing!  Why not?   There was a rehearsal scheduled for it anyway, so I knew I would get some runs of the tricky spots before the performance came.    I took a bass trumpet home (the opera owns a couple of them) and practiced as much as I could stand, and I felt confident and ready for rehearsal.  
Then two days before rehearsal, the conductor fell ill and had to be taken to hospital.  Horrible, right?  I mean, for him of course, but mostly for me!  :)   The rehearsal for Siegfried was changed to a rehearsal for Das Rheingold, presumably because the replacement conductor didn’t know it as well.   Suddenly, I was slated to perform a Ring opera for the first time without any rehearsal.     
The night of the performance came, and it felt just like my first night four years ago.   Excessive sweating?  Check.   Shaky hands?  Check.    Dry mouth?   Not yet…wait...the lights are going down… Check!   Oh, no!  This is not gonna be good.  
Well, I might be overstating it a little bit.  I was nervous, though.   After all this time of learning how to be comfortable in my own skin in an orchestra of this caliber, I felt weirdly out of place and over my head sitting one row closer to the conductor with a foreign piece of tubing in my hand.  
It went better than expected.  I was surprised to hear myself belting out the various solos with relative confidence, although I struggled a couple of times when coming out of a long rest.   My chops kept falling into a classic bass trumpet trap: attempting to play B-flat overtones on an instrument in C.   After sitting for 15 minutes without playing a single note, I would try to bust out a sword-motif and undershoot the first note or two.  But, all things considered, I was pleased with how it went.   The real torture was just feeling so odd and uncomfortable for the whole 5-HOUR Wagner extravaganza.   
Like a fat guy in a Speedo…  
PS - Thanks to my new friend from the SFS for the new phrase!

1 comment:

  1. We're gonna have words tonight. Didn't Don teach you about the awesomeness of the bass trumpet? It's my favorite instrument!