Wind Bashing Apology Post

Last week in a February funk I behaved snarkily to the wind quintet combination.   I said they were only tolerable in the springtime along with all the other chirpy things, and I may have compared them to a screaming toddler.  Well, as I said, it was February.

Actually I quite like wind instruments.  We had a wind quintet play at our wedding.  Well, it was really a wind quartet because we didn’t know any horn players well enough to ask them to travel to California but among our nearby good friends were a clarinetist, an oboist, a flutist* and a bassoonist.  I say, they were among our good friends.  Hopefully they still are.

Even if I weren’t in apology mode I would tell you that I very much admire orchestral woodwind players, a group that includes the players of all sizes and keys of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons. These play solistically all the time; that is, there is only one instrument to a part, each player is totally on his own, and this on an instrument with carrying qualities and a distinctive tone so that anyone listening knows exactly who is responsible for it.  One thing I impress on young string players in a youth orchestra situation is that they must never, ever, EVER turn and smirk at a wind player who has come in wrong.  Strings – except for section principals – do not understand the kind of courage it takes to play a woodwind instrument in an orchestra.  In a major symphony there may be a section of twenty-two first violins arranged at stage front, playing in unison, and although each violinist’s body language implies that he is individually responsible for holding the whole show together, let me tell you that each of them is relying on the principal to bring them in.  If he brings them in wrong, they will throw him under the bus.**

But I digress.  This is supposed to be about the woodwinds.

In contrast to the string players, who sit in packs at the front of the stage reaping a great deal of glory for an investment of relatively little personal risk, the woodwind section is buried in the middle of the orchestra (behind even the violas!), each individual player responsible for coming in on time with huge solos full of chromatic and rhythmic difficulties which he always seems to play with effortless fluidity despite being hindered from making excessive interpretive body motions by the fact that he must keep both hands on his instrument and his instrument centered in front of his body.***  Oboists, flutists, bassoonists, and clarinetists all have so many solos woven throughout everything that we don’t even really count them as solos, which doesn’t seem fair.  When they play correctly we take them for granted.  When one of them comes in wrong we all know exactly who it was.  A woodwind player does not have the luxury of faking away a false entrance.  If a string player has not been counting and thinks it might be time to come in but isn’t sure, he can balk: approaching the string with gusto but not making any noise until the entrance is confirmed by those around him.  No one will really know for sure, because if he was wrong he can easily change a false downbow entrance into a shrug, rolling his neck and tilting his head like he was just relieving a crick, and if it was an upbow entrance he might move his hand quickly from fingerboard to pegs, leaning discreetly to the side and tapping the bow lightly on the strings to pretend that he was checking his tuning.   A false woodwind entrance, though, can be nothing but a false entrance, a bright toot embarrassingly misplaced.

Last weekend Yale Man was playing principal cello so we went to his concert. First up was the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, which I listened to once in Survey of Music and have never felt the need to listen to again.  Sitting there a little glassy-eyed, just waiting for it to be done so we could get on to Beethoven Five, I was startled to hear the sound of a single, very familiar cello and I quickly looked up and focused. There was Yale Man playing a little solo of four measures or so, a tiny beautiful gem with trills, arpeggios and all sorts of good stuff, his cello singing out all alone through the packed hall. The Patient Man and I nudged each other and grinned the whole time and even the Pokerface Joker nodded twice in approval and gave a thumbs up.  It was a really big deal, and if I had known ahead of time it was coming I would have been a nervous wreck on our son’s behalf. I seem to be digressing yet again but I’m not – my point is that here we were bursting with pride over four measures of a principal solo, while virtually every single note an orchestral woodwind player plays is just that exposed and identifiable.

Perhaps it is this constant individual self-reliance that makes the woodwind section seem to be a collection of individuals, sixteen or so independent persons sitting straightforwardly in a line, each facing the conductor head on rather than circling the wagons in the way the strings do.  They do not seem to have the solidarity of the brass players at the back of the orchestra, who look like a football squad and act like class clowns in the back row of English class.****  One imagines that if the trombones came in wrong they would all crack up laughing and then high-five each other, and that a wrongly entering trumpet player would carry it through with alpha-dog confidence, leaving the rest of the orchestra to wonder if perhaps he hadn’t been right after all.  In contrast, all the woodwind players seem to be such sensitive people.  One fears that the clarinetist who toots out wrongly during a rest might crawl under his chair to die, and that a flutist might drop her flute and fall weeping into the arms of her friends. A bassoonist who miscounts might look pained behind a brave facade and then go home and write tragic verse.  One hates to even imagine what an oboist might do.

Okay, one more story about me***** but this one is actually relevant.  It’s rare that a violinist can incur the extent of a conductor’s wrath, but I’ve done it, and so I know how it feels.  I was fourteen, cocky about winning the second-to-last chair in the second violin section of the local college orchestra; I was too lazy to count and too cool to watch the conductor.  In my first concert we played some classical symphony that ended with several chords.  The spaces between the chords were not of the same duration.  Particularly, the rest between the penultimate and ultimate chords was at the conductor’s artistic discretion and I did not bother to look up and see what he wanted.  It’s unfortunate that I decided at that moment to take to heart a comment my dad had made a day or two before, which was “We paid for a whole bow, so why do you only use six inches of it?”  So, with great strength and bravado I used my whole bow on a great crashing fortissi-issimo four-string chord . . . all by myself, into dead silence, while everyone else was still waiting for the cue.

I’ve often tried to find the perfect adjective to describe the conductor’s eyes at that moment, but although I can wield a wide variety of words I just can’t find one that really works.  He controlled his face and his body very well; he flung up his head and did a savage open mouthed grin of triumph and stretched his arms high and wide, fingers clawed and curved to pull the real final chord from the rest of the orchestra, but his eyes (oh, his eyes!) locked maniacally with mine in intense, focused hatred mixed with suspended white hot fury.  After he lowered his arms and the applause began he kept this look skewered on me until the moment he whipped around to take his bow.  It was a look that said, “Because there are people watching and I’m trying to save face, I’m pretending like this is over now, but later I’m going to find you and I’m going to kill you.”  I ran away to cry.  I had really thought that he was going to put his baton right through my head and I knew I would have deserved it.

And that is how I know what’s at stake every time a wind player takes a breath.  I know that every orchestral woodwind player sits on a trap door above a seething pit of a conductor’s fury and this trap door is secured only by his ability to count.  I respect them for their courage to sit there, but what really amazes me is how rarely they fall in.

So, as a humble peace offering, here is a list of some of my favourite music that include woodwind solos great or small:

Smetana, The Moldau.  We practiced this during the first orchestra rehearsal of my freshman year in college.  I was in awe – In AWE! – of the two flute players who had the courage and the skill to play this opening theme right there, all by themselves, with all of us listening.

Debussy, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique (listen for the clarinet solo)

Beethoven, Symphony No. 6, Pastoral

Dvorak, Symphony No. 8 (but then be prepared to spend some time deeply regretting that you never learned to play the French Horn)

Mozart, Clarinet Concerto, especially the Adagio (second movement)

Vivaldi, the Bassoon Concertos******

Mozart, Horn Concertos  (yes, a horn is made of brass, but was implicated in the wind quintet insult so deserves some restitution here, even though all I said was that it had a warm and sunny sound)

J. S. Bach, Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor, especially third movement

J. S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 5

J.S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 2

Mozart, D Major Flute Quartet, especially the Rondo (third movement)

Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue

And on the way home from the Pokerface Joker run this morning I happened to hear Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture. I don’t know if you’d find this one on a list of wind excerpts for auditions, but the winds certainly play their cheerful part and the whole thing is lots of fun to listen to.

Enjoy these selections, and be kind to wind players.

See you soon,


* I know as well as you do that a flutist is really a flautist, but I think if you’re going to say ‘flautist’ instead of ‘flutist’ you have to be consistent and say ‘faggottist’ when you mean ‘bassoonist’ and I’m just not prepared to commit to remembering to do that on a regular basis.

**The conductor will look at them questioningly and they will look back at him in wide-eyed sympathy, making minimal but eloquent shrugs and wry faces that clearly say, “Don’t blame us.  You’re the one who made him principal.”  But really, that’s just violin players.  Cello players generally are too nice for this kind of behavior (they are the trombonists of the string family) and no one hears what the violas are doing anyway so they can really get by with a lot.

*** Except for flutists.  They can dip and sway, like (first) violins, and this is appropriate because flutes are the first violins of the wind family.

****Except for the horns, who look like a Mathlete team.

*****What do you want?  I’m a violinist. 

****** Concerto/Concerti — Cello/Celli — Sorry, I’m just not consistently pompous enough, although I do have my moments.


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5 Responses to “Wind Bashing Apology Post”

  1. Darla Stong Says:

    Your forgiven! 😁 I may crack a rib laughing…..

  2. Tim Hansen Says:

    There was a book Sheri and I had to read in grad school called The Musical Temperament, or something like that. Many of the descriptions of orchestral players were very consistent with yours. And the book went on to explain why. But because that was over ten years ago, I don’t remember why. The book is packed in some box in the garage, and at some point in time I may dig it out to discover, for instance, why a classmate who was getting a doctorate in oboe performance would suddenly burst into tears in the middle of class.

  3. becomingrosamunde2015 Says:

    Found it, ordered it, anxiously awaiting it! Oh how I love Amazon.

  4. Amy DeMartino Says:

    We all roared with laughter and thoroughly enjoyed this! Of course, we’re on our way to an Orchestra concert. I hope this doesn’t jinx Bella😊

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