Jumping Off A Cliff

A couple weeks ago I got an email from a string-playing friend. There was a second violin emergency in her orchestra. Violinist needed. Stat. Please. Help. Beethoven 7 – third piano concerto – here are the rehearsal times – here’s what you’ll be paid – will you do it? Can you do it?


My first instinct was no. No, I can’t do it. When I agree to play a concert, I like to be prepared to the max, to have my parts half-memorized, to know who I need to listen to when…to know everything I possibly can, and then to guilt myself for not knowing more. This job, however, would consist of me getting a symphony and a concerto I’d never played into run-through shape for the first rehearsal in a few days. It would be my first chance to make a positive or negative impression on the members of a semi-professional orchestra I’ve watched since my teens, which I’ve toyed with joining for years, in some hypothetical far-flung future where I’ll be much better than I ever am. So far I’d spent the majority of 2012 alternating between lying on the couch sick with the flu and playing slow scales in alto clef. I can’t imagine a worse preparation.

Can you do it?, she asked.

Can you do it?, I asked.


When I was 14 and went to my first orchestra rehearsal, I had no idea what to expect, so I sought advice from an older violinist friend. She said, “When you don’t know what’s going on, fake it.” I faked it the entire rehearsal. But gradually, with work, I stopped having to fake. A few semesters later, I was in the first chair of the second violins, and the conductor shook my hand at the final performance.

When I was accepted into the summer camp I knew I wouldn’t be accepted into, I was struck with a heady mix of terror and excitement. I was the least advanced, worst-trained player there; graduate students and competition winners abounded. One of the faculty members there was a fantastic player and person who had played second violin in my favorite recording of the Bach double concerto. During one of our last concerts, she played in our chamber orchestra, and I was her stand-partner in Brandenburg 3.

When I was asked by a professional musician if I’d like to try some duets sometime, I blanched. It felt like a waste of his time, like a gesture of sympathy, but I couldn’t bear to say no. Nonetheless when we got together I stalled. And stalled some more.

“I’m scared,” I finally said. For some reason, no reason, no reason at all, I was scared.

“You don’t need to be scared,” he said. “It’s just playing.”

He was right.


There have been times when I fell on my face. I’ve bombed auditions. I’ve lost orchestra seats. I’ve mis-read a scale…that was one octave…in C-major…in front of an important teacher…numerous times. Once when I was recording my recital for summer camp, I wasn’t told until a few minutes before I set up the mic that the pianist was actually a trombonist and only played simple Suzuki accompaniments on the side…and I’d brought her a piano transcription of a Wieniawski concerto. So there have been disasters.

But the thing is…now that I think about it, I don’t remember the disasters nearly as clearly as I remember the exultation of the unexpected successes.


One semester my youth orchestra took on three movements of Beethoven 5. It was the biggest musical project I’d been a part of up until that point. At the concert, before we began, the conductor asked us, “Before this concert, how many of you had played a Beethoven symphony?”

A few kids who had been lucky (and let’s face it, wealthy) enough to go to summer camp raised their hands.

He smiled. “Now how many of you have played a Beethoven symphony?”

We all raised our hands.

Is it strange that I don’t really remember anything about how the performance went? But I do remember finishing it and being backstage, waiting for a ride home. The heavy door to outside was open. Kids were leaving and shouting. Everyone was giddy. I sat in front of a bank of lockers and tried very hard not to cry. All that work, and the moment in the hot spotlight, the exultation, all come to this…sitting backstage, the music turned in, the folder empty, everything over. Not knowing when it would happen again. If it would happen again. If it could happen again.


Can you do it?


After deliberating, I hit reply.

The cursor blinked.

“Yes,” I typed. “I’ll do it,” and I clicked send.

Sometimes I guess you just have to jump off the cliff, and have faith you’ll land on your feet, fiddle in hand.


Filed under My Writing, Uncategorized

3 responses to “Jumping Off A Cliff

  1. Ken

    Hey, there! Great story – I wonder how the concert went? Is there going to be another installment?

    I had a nice time at the Minnesota Orchestra on Friday evening. Christian Tetzlaff was playing the Szymanowski 1st Concerto. I think I mentioned to you before that I thought he was one of the greatest players around – now I really believe that. He may be the best out there – it’s still a really close call, but it’s possible.

    I was sad to learn he had to cancel the Saturday performance and indeed next weeks concerts with the SPCO that had been scheduled.

    On a side note, I’m moving to Phoenix in 2 weeks! It’s due to job transfer. That could be a nice location to start a music festival!

    • The concert went really well, thanks! Yeah, I’m definitely hoping to participate again; it will depend on our schedules! I love orchestral playing, especially (weirdly) in the second violin section.

      I wish I could have been there! That was actually one of the concerts I thought about trying to get to this year but ended up not because it was too close to another I really wanted to go to (Acadia premiere). I’ve only heard good things about Tetzlaff. And there’s a part of me that roots for him playing a modern fiddle. (Mine’s an Italian from 2004.)

      Phoenix, huh? Enjoy the winters! A pity we won’t be having your insights into various Twin Cities concerts anymore, but keep reading the Twin Cities blog and enjoy your new home…

  2. Ken

    Yeah, I don’t know if I’m going to like it there or not (but I think I will). They don’t have a renowned orchestra there, like we do here, and that will be difficult. However, I lived in San Diego for 3 years and they also don’t have an orchestra of this caliber there, and it was never a problem for me. People in those cities do different things than the people here do. They are more into outdoor activities, etc… But this opportunity came up, and so I decided to take it. But it wouldn’t surprise me if I were back here again at some point down the road not too terribly far.

    I’m actually rather looking forward to listening to some classical music in the clear, starlit, desert sky. I was in the ARMY when I was fresh out of High School (for full disclosure, I’m 41 now), and I once had to spend 3 months out in the New Mexico desert. While I was out there I had a battery operated radio that I would try to listen to each night. Some nights I was lucky enough to pick up KTEP out of El Paso, Tx…the station barely came in at all normally. Anyway, one night they were playing ‘The Lark Ascending’ by Vaughan Williams. You probably know this one – but it’s one of my all-time favorite evocative pieces. Being out practically in the middle of nowhere and hearing this piece was quite an experience. I can imagine lots of that sort of thing in AZ.

    I’ll continue to read your blog, of course. It’s quite delightful. This also means I will not have the luxury of bumping into you at Orchestra Hall, which also would have been nice.


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