I don’t know what made Jim Martin think that I could play four percussion instruments at once. Whatever it was, I was sure he’d lost his mind. But in my typical modus operandus, I did everything I could to fulfill his expectations (short of growing two more arms). What an idiot (me, not Jim Martin). (I think.)
I wanted more than anything to play in the college orchestra. But there was already a pianist much more talented and disciplined than I in the position. So there went that. I played the clarinet, but not well at all, and I hated it. So I didn’t pursue that position. That’s where I left it, disappointed that my days of accompanying other musicians were left in high school. Until the day when Dr. Martin stopped me in the hall of the music department and told me that he thought I should play percussion in the orchestra. I’m not stupid – I said no immediately. I barely survived percussion class, getting a C just because I sweated so profusely through the finals that the professor must have thought I was working very, very hard and had pity on me. I was thrilled to have that nightmare behind me. It was equaled only by the nightmare of brass instruments. And strings. But I digress. So Jim Martin’s “suggestion” sounded as absurd to me as if he’d “suggested” that I play French horn with my ear. But he looked me right in the eye and told me that I would play percussion in the orchestra, that it would be a good thing for me to do. Then he walked away.
Oddly, I did not panic. I was certain that all I had to do was show up to rehearsal just once to prove how utterly incompetent I was, Martin would get frustrated, then he’d dismiss me and that would be that. I didn’t need to try to screw up, it came naturally with percussion instruments. I was like an elephant with play-dough in my ears; any natural musical talent I possessed evaporated like dry ice when I had mallets or sticks in my hands. It was awful. But Martin seemed not to notice. He did not dismiss me. He handed me the scores for the pieces we were performing for the Christmas concert. And Sleigh Ride was one of them.
I looked at the score, expecting to see only a snare drum part. Instead I saw FOUR parts – snare, block, sleigh bells, and whip crack. That’s right – whip crack. I was trying to visualize how one would do that in the back of an orchestra without taking out a few cellists.
But I thought it was pretty cool that Martin was going to let me choose which part I wanted to play. I settled on the sleigh bells, thinking that they would be easiest. Besides, that was the instrument that was central to the piece. No problem. I could actually handle that. I went to the next rehearsal feeling pretty smug.
Oh, how the haughty are brought low.
We only got through about a third of Sleigh Ride when Martin stopped everyone and just stared at me. I didn’t understand – I hadn’t missed a single jingle.
“Where are the rest of your parts?” Dr. Martin queried calmly.
“Yes. You have wood blocks in measures one through eight. I didn’t hear them.”
Still missing the forest for the trees, I replied, “Oh, those aren’t mine. I’m doing sleigh bells.”
There was a silence that felt physical. I blinked. Jim Martin did not.
“No…they’re yours. They’re all yours.”
I swear to you that at that moment I was certain that I’d forgotten how to understand English.
“……………ummmmmm, that’s impossible. I can’t play four instruments at once.”
“You’ll figure it out,” he stated with a tone that told me there was no discussion. “Okay, from the top.”
After rehearsal that day, I stayed behind on the stage, gazing limply at the array of instruments on the table in the percussion section. As is apropos to the personality quirk that has caused me the most stress in my life, I began to work out exactly how I would accomplish playing four instruments with two hands. Hmmm. Let’s see. I could somehow prop up the woodblock on something else so I could try to clip-clop with one hand…but since it was a hollow instrument, propping it on anything caused it to go from making a clip-clop sound to a blup-blup sound.
Clip the sleigh bells to a music stand to use the clip-clop woodblock mallet on them as well. Great idea, but how to do it? Eliminate the clip? Or the clop?
Then there was the whip crack. Here’s what the instrument actually looked like.
To play it, you held it in your hand and sort of simulated the motion of cracking a real whip. But the catch was that you had to time it properly. Because of the design of the dumb thing, you had to start the motion about a second before you needed the sound. I absolutely could not accomplish this. The only way I succeeded (?) in producing a sound was to hold the instrument in one hand, lift the top slab of wood with the other, and drop it on the bottom one on beat. Great. I’ve just gone from needing four hands to needing five. I wanted to cry. (I might have actually cried. I don’t remember.)
Over the next two weeks, I went through the five stages of orchestral grief: denial (God will save me by causing the world to end sometime before the concert), anger (How DARE he ask me to do this?!), bargaining (Okay God, if you get me out of this one, I *swear* I’ll practice piano two hours every day. Swear.), depression (I’m the worst person on earth because I can’t do this), and acceptance. Well, honestly, I don’t think I ever actually made it to that last one.
The night of the performance. Sleigh Ride is up next. Deep breath.
♪♫ Doot do do do doot doot, Doot do do do doot doot, Doot do do doot doot do do doot, Do do do do do Doot Doot Doot. (“Just hear those”) Jing jing jing jing Jing jing jing jing Jing jing jing jing JING! —and so on. The jingle bells were flawless. Except for when I had to drop them to attempt to clip-clop. Which generally ended up as anemic clips or clops, but never both. Martin was boring holes into me from the podium. I was sweating mightily, trying to keep up and desperately wanting to not look at him. But as he was the conductor, I had to. I think that I might have actually turned to stone once or twice somewhere in the middle, as I fumbled with sleigh bells, woodblocks, whipcrack, and a snare drum.
The worst, though, was the final four measures. The piece is ended by the percussion, and a trumpet whinnying like a horse. It’s supposed to go: clip-clop clip-clop clip-clop clip-clop, SNAP! Whinnny, pause, clip-clop. I clipped and clopped like a champ leading up to that snap. And I was DETERMINED to get the snap right – it was pretty important, after all.
And here’s what happened:
Clip-clop clip-clop clip-clop clip-clop, (pause) (wait) snapwhinney, pause…(silence).
I reluctantly raised my eyes to the conductor’s podium. Dr. Martin’s face was purple, but he didn’t look angry, really. He looked like he was having a stroke. One side of his face was immobile, the other side was animated like it didn’t even belong on the same head as the first side. Blessedly, this was brief, as he had to move on to the next number. To this day, I do not even remember what that was.
Oddly, I don’t cringe anymore when I hear Sleigh Ride. Although I must admit that it took me many years to stop snapping off the radio when I heard that opening riff.
It’s just a song, right?
Please think of me next time you hear Sleigh Ride. Somewhere on Earth a percussionist is getting it right. No, make that a percussion SECTION getting it right. I hate them.