Posted by Jessica Donohue
Thursday 8th January, 2015

This morning when I unpacked my bag at the WAM base, I discovered that my USB was no longer connected to my lanyard of keys and swipe cards. Somewhere between the journey home last night, and the trek across the sunny campus this morning, my USB had made a break for freedom. Perhaps it took a fancy to finding a new home in the succulent gardens. Or perhaps it had decided to start a new life in the waters of the River Torrens, traversing the murky depths in search of adventure. This was a slight misadventure, as this USB contained all my research and writing for National Music Camp…including for our first major deadline, in three and a half hours. My heart rate rose and my breathing quickened as I emptied the contents of my bag across the table, seeking the past three and a half days’ work. 

What do we do when things go wrong?

At his opening address, 2015 National Music Camp music director James Judd invited us to ‘Take risks’. He encouraged us to be confident challenging ourselves musically, and bound towards opportunities. It was an inspiring speech. However, when taking risks the result won’t always be what you’d hoped. Onstage or under the pressure of an audition, I’m sure many of the young people at National Music Camp have experienced a sickening gulp to keep down one’s internal organs when something went wrong at a critical moment.

Liam Keneally, violinist, described to me a 2012 National Music Camp concert.

‘We were playing Sibelius 2, the third movement. There’s a flute solo, and then all the strings come in fortissimo. Thing is, I came in four bars early.’ I can just picture it, the serenity of the flute lulling the audience to a sense of calm. Then a lone violin striking out for an impromptu solo. ‘Oh yeah, and it was live broadcast on Classic FM.’ Good grief. You can’t rewind in a performance. What happened next? ‘The conductor looked up really shocked, and I kind of looked around and pretended it was someone else. I was at the back of the firsts, so it wasn’t immediately obvious who it was.  Plus I have this innocent expression.’ (He does, actually.) ‘I felt guilty, like I’d let down the team, but it taught me recovery. And how to count. I nailed the last movement.’

Double bassist Hamish Gullick relayed another experience. ‘I had a trio gig for a wedding reception. We played our first piece, then I asked the singer to hold my bass for a moment. She dropped it.’ What? She dropped your bass? ‘Yeah, it was off the stage, too.’ I’m horrified. Musicians are very close to their instruments. Seeing yours break? It’s somewhat like your heart. Hamish, like a total pro, found a way to keep going. ‘By coincidence, one of my students was a guest at the wedding. He’d also come straight from a rehearsal, so he had his bass with him. I played the rest of the gig on his instrument.’ Now that is composure. 

Percussionist Thomas Robertson was involved in an honours project for a flautist at WAAPA. On arrival at the performance venue, he discovered that the tubular bells were gone. ‘Someone had taken them. For a different concert I guess. We were calling everyone we could think of but there were no instruments available, and it was now only ten minutes before the concert was due to start.’ I’m on the edge of my seat at this point, half eaten friand in hand, oblivious to the rabble of morning tea around me. ‘We ended up suspending notes of the vibraphone with our shoelaces, and played the concert on that.’ Percussionists are good at problem solving.

The other percussionists, Katie Thomas and Tegan LeBrun, chime in. It seems a lot can go wrong when you are playing on instruments from the venue, rather than bringing your own like most other musicians. ‘You don’t know what it’s going to sound like until you get to the venue. Every time you play, it sounds different. Percussion is so exposed, there’s nowhere to hide. If you play too soft because you’re hesitant, the conductors don’t like you. If you play loudly and get it wrong, the conductors don’t like you. If you play it loudly and get it right, nobody notices.’

Tegan: ‘You get used to just gunning it. You just have to play confidently and commit to the result, which may be that you get yelled at.’ Lots of noises of agreement. Tegan: ‘Anything can happen with the equipment. I’ve had a timpani mallet split right down the shaft.’ Katie: ‘Heads fly off the end, or shoot up right in the air in concert. You just have to grab new sticks and keep going.’ I’d never realised the life of a percussionist was so unpredictable. How do they manage? ‘You’ve got to be organised so you can reduce the risk. Always have spare sticks on hand and a range of mallets available. You may only use one of the 15 mallets you’ve brought, but if the conductor wants a different sound, you have to be able to produce it. There’s a lot of science to our job.’

Stay calm, think creatively, plan ahead, commit to the result, and just keep going – you can still nail it. These are the things I’ve learnt from my fellow campers. And don’t let a soprano handle your instrument. So what did I do about my nomadic USB? Had it really begun a new career as an intrepid explorer? Well, no. Atop a collection of dirty washing, snug in the pocket of my bottle green shorts, I found it. Some things aren’t calamities after all.

 – Jessica Donohue

Words About Music participants will be blogging daily. 

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