Anyone who plays an instrument knows that mishaps can occur. But for professionals, those pit stops can be deal breakers. For instance, what does a violin soloist do when they’re in the middle of a concerto with an orchestra and a string breaks? Stop the show? Run off stage?
Not if you’re with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
“We have a protocol here. It’s not uncommon,” said David Kim, the orchestra’s concertmaster. “If it’s a soloist, they swap their violin with me and I give mine to the soloist. Then I give their violin to my stand partner who swaps his violin with me. Someone always has an extra set of strings.
“So the associate concertmaster changes the string — it’s usually the E string — in about two minutes and then the swap goes the other way. At an opportune time in the music, I give the soloist their violin and I get my violin back. The switch is done so smoothly and it’s always exciting for the audience.”
Kim himself used to experience numerous breaking E strings, something he attributes to “thinking I had to press harder or play louder when I first became concertmaster. I was immature. Now, six or seven years later, I haven’t had a break. I just ride that wonderful Philadelphia Orchestra sound.”
String players learn to deal with these occasional breakdowns and most come prepared. Kim said he has pockets in his case that hold everything from a packet of strings to throat lozenges and even a pen to sign autographs.
But while a loss of a few minutes in playing time in an orchestral string section might not be missed, what do you do in recital? That happened to Elizabeth Pitcairn, the director of the Luzerne Music Center, who plays on the famous Stradivarius 1720 “Red Mendelssohn” violin.
“I was playing ‘Tzigane’ by Ravel and I got into a very vigorous spot and my E string popped,” she said in an email. “I had to leave the stage.”
But after she fixed the string and resumed playing she noticed blood on her fingerboard. The steel of the E-string had cut her pinky and despite the pain, she waded through all the fast-note passages to finish.
“I felt like Chopin playing for the revolution in the movie ‘A Song to Remember’ ” she said.
Strings aren’t the only things that can go. Mary Gilman, the artistic director for the Capitol Chamber Artists, said not only had her fingerboard once become unglued, which made the instrument completely unplayable, but during a recital she didn’t stop to pull off some broken bow hairs — a common occurrence. Instead, because she continued to play, the hairs got caught and prevented her from bowing. As the pianist continued to play, Gilman had to stop, tore off the hairs and then rejoined the pianist.
“It was horrible,” she said.
Violinists’ strings are made of synthetic gut wrapped with tungsten steel but they’re still prone to breakage, Kim said. Made in Germany, they are very expensive. In the old days, it was sheep intestines that were not only risky — one can imagine what the 19th century virtuoso Paganini went through — but also were affected by weather and frayed easily, he said.
Violists, too, break strings and if that happens to the Philadelphia’s principal violist, a swap goes to the associate principal, who does the repair. But Kim said in his entire career he had never heard of cello or bass strings breaking, probably because they’re thicker.
Guitarists also suffer broken strings and sometimes so do piano strings. That happened in January during a late Saturday Albany Symphony Orchestra rehearsal with pianist Sergei Babayan for Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto. The technician, Evan Tublitz of the Used Piano Center in Mechanicville, said he had barely 15 minutes to fix the string backstage — usually a 25-minute job — all while music director David Alan Miller was preparing to give the pre-concert talk from the stage. But like all techs, he has a motto: Be prepared.
“Every note has three strings,” Tublitz said. “In this case two of the strings had broken. And I was nervous. You never know how it’s going to go. That’s why I brought not only two cases of strings but also redundancies. And it’s why I came out on stage before the concerto to check to be sure the note was OK.”
Pianists on tour often have to contend with pianos they’ve never played before, especially at a new venue.
But an out-of-tune piano was nothing compared to what Charles Schneider, the music director of the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra, experienced during the 1960s. In those days, he worked as a Columbia Artists tour accompanist for opera singers. He and baritone Richard Cross stopped in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, where they were to open a new concert series. Columbia Artists had stipulated that a Steinway grand piano was required.
“We arrived there on Friday and when I tried the piano, not one note sounded on the entire keyboard,” Schneider said. “The piano had been in storage for 10 years and mice had eaten all the felt on the hammers. No tuner had even looked at it.”
Promoters suggested he find a piano in the local churches. A Knabe grand was found and brought to the theater by Saturday, a tuner came and Schneider practiced on it for an hour. But at concert time, disaster struck.
Keyboard in motion
“I played a chord and the piano shot off toward the hall’s brick wall. It was really moving,” he said laughing. “The audience was amazed. I was able to grab the piano and pushed it back on stage. Then I found cinderblocks backstage that I pushed against the wheels.”
Prior to the concert, a janitor had cleaned the stage and had greased the piano’s wheels and put it on a dolly with tricycle wheels.
“You could put your pinkie on the piano and it would move,” Schneider said.
At another stop in Davenport, Iowa, the piano had been left in a school cafeteria.
“When I lifted the lid, I found banana peels, orange rinds, bags of garbage,” he said.
While all stringed instrumentalists have stories, wind players rarely have breakdowns.
“They’re all mechanics who have blades, knives and tools ready for anything,” Kim said. “They also seem to have another instrument around.”
They’re also clever.
Ann Marie Barker-Schwartz, the artistic director of Musicians of Ma’alwyck who plays violin each summer with the Glimmerglass Opera orchestra, reported that before one performance, the bassoonist’s bocal broke. The bocal is an arched piece of metal tubing with one end inserted into a sidewing of the bassoon and the other that holds the reed through which the bassoonist blows.
“He used his cigarette lighter and melted the metal,” she said.
Although there are the occasional moments of forgetfulness in leaving the music or even the instrument at home or in a cab, weather delays or even medical concerns, performers are made of hardy stuff. They live by one mantra: The show must go on.