A Slow Descent Into Pain

Sometimes I say I will talk about something later. Sometimes I actually do. It’s a crazy world we live in. Several days ago, the orchestra that Rhiannon and I play in served as the music for The Wild Goose Masquerade Costume Ball. At just a touch over three hours long with breaks, this was the longest performance that either one of us had ever played in.

Suffice it to say that we had absolutely no idea what to expect when we went there and we were not disappointed. If you were looking for old men in suits and masks, you were not disappointed. If you were looking for younger men dressed up in sailor outfits, you were not disappointed. If you were looking for a college-aged girl with combat boots, knee-high black stockings, a pink spaghetti-strap top and one arm completely covered in tattoos, you were not disappointed. All told, I believe that there were around 300 people in attendance.

Sheena went with us, seeing as how her alternative was to sit around at our house by herself. Not knowing what to expect (and knowing we were playing for the “Friends of Traditional Dance”), we had originally worried that most people there would be older and she would be bored with nothing to do and no one to dance with. Put a young attractive blond single girl in a room with men who at least think they know how to dance – she was not bored. (Whether or not she was always having a good time… that may be a different topic for discussion. (But really, we all had a good time.))

For those of you who play stringed or reeded instruments, or, for those of you who don’t play any instrument at all, you may not understand the pain that comes from playing a brass instrument for three hours on one night when you do well to play for more than five hours in any given week.

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I will attempt to take you though the different stages a brass player goes through during a three-hour concert when they are woefully unprepared to play for that long.

-Warm-up: Play two low, long notes. Make sure there is no spit in your instrument. That’s enough, we wouldn’t want to overdo it now.

-Full Orchestra Warm-up: This is the part where you tune and play together so a half-hour later when your instrument is cold, you will have no hope of being any where close to the correct pitch. Also, occasionally, the conductor will ask the brass what the worst possible passage would be to play multiple times and then proceed to rehearse said passage multiple times. Conductors are cruel, heartless people (Hi Mom!).

-Pre-Concert Break: Buzz lips to keep blood flowing knowing full well you don’t have a chance at making it through the upcoming ordeal with half the blood vessels in your lips still in one piece.

-First Set: Start on the highest note you can think of. Hold it as long as you can. Continue to play for the next fifty minutes. In the middle of this 50 minutes, end one song on a note one step above the highest note you could think of to start the concert. Feel good for playing the correct note until you feel the blood return to your head and realize that the pressure must have cut off circulation to your brain.

-First Break: Keep your mouthpiece with you to keep it warm. Drink plenty of water and eat light fruits – nothing that would get in your instrument.

Second Set: Any last vestiges of optimism quickly disappear with the completion of the first song. By the end of this hour, you will have a slight red haze to your vision and an imprint of a mouthpiece will have taken up permanent residence on your embouchure. As a bonus, at the end of this set, you may be asked to play in a polka band with clarinets that will never tire. They are at least 50 years older than and will play you under the table any day of the week. Play 4 songs as loud and fast as you can. Repeat. Several times.

Second Break: You no longer care about what happens the rest of night; this is now a battle for survival. Eat cheese, crackers, and any random shots of pure grain alcohol that may be lying around.

Final Set: At some point, just after you realize that as much air is leaking out the sides of your mouth as is actually going through your instrument. Soon, you will get the brass player’s high. This rare euphoric feeling, only reached in rare circumstances, involves the complete loss of feeling in your head. You are now set to finish the performance strong. Every muscle in your face has been strained or injured in some way. Every note you play does further damage, but you are too far gone to notice. Finish the concert.

In about an hour, your face will begin to tingle and buzz. This is you coming down off the high. You either need to play your instrument again or check into a detox center. Either way, it isn’t going to be pretty.

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All in all, a good night. We go back next spring for the formal Wild Asparagus Ball. Because, really, the Tame Asparagus Ball would just be lame.