On the Difficulty of Staying Awake Oct21

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On the Difficulty of Staying Awake

We have all seen audience members sleeping during musical performances. Classical music, in particular, can be very soothing after a hard day’s work, a large dinner and a little wine. One can sympathize (as long as it is not one of our concerts!). But have you seen performers fall asleep while performing?

On two occasions I have been in the audience when a conductor actually fell asleep while conducting! In both cases the conductor’s head suddenly dropped, he began toppling off the podium and awoke before he completely fell down. On both occasions the ensemble continued to play[1. In both cases I had noticed the players did not look at the conductor anyway, so it probably had no effect on most of the members.] while the conductor made his way back up on the podium and resumed swinging his arms. One of these performances was during a Western Division Conference of the MENC in Salt Lake City and the other in a similar Western Division MENC concert in San Diego. The latter instance I found particularly odd because the composition was the Hindemith Symphony for Band and the conductor fell asleep in the 5th bar of the beginning movement, a moment very full, strong and forte.

Once when I was a student at Michigan a contrabassoonist fell asleep in a concert while he was playing. He had one of those old style contrabassoons with the long straight bell, looking like the smoke stack of a Mississippi steam ship. Suddenly, like a great tree falling, his instrument came falling forward, wiping out several students, music stands and almost hitting Dr. Revelli. Dr. Revelli, kind and understanding gentleman though he was, did not appreciate a musician falling asleep while he was conducting. On another occasion when I was a student at Michigan a fellow student fell asleep while playing piano during our beginning piano class. This class was scheduled just after lunch, in a hot old building with no ventilation, and the poor fellow simply fell asleep and crashed into the ancient upright piano. The teacher of the class, a doctoral student in piano, was duly shocked, on behalf of the history of the instrument, that anyone could fall asleep while playing a piano.

When I was in the Air Force Band in Washington there was a clarinet player who used to sleep through entire concerts and no one noticed. This occurred during the afternoon concerts of tours. This elderly gentleman would keep himself upright by putting the bell of his clarinet on the edge of his chair, with the mouthpiece in his mouth supporting his head. He then had a means of attaching the sleeve buttons of his uniform to the keys of the clarinet, which supported his arms and gave somewhat the appearance of playing the instrument. There he slept in the middle of the clarinet section during these hour-long concerts, the repertoire of which never varied day after day. In the fashion of ‘Pavlov’s dog’ he would always wake up during the final work, Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever. The band was never asked to stand and bow until this time so he was never caught by surprise during his nap. Our conductor, who was always oblivious to everything anyway, never noticed.[2. During the year I was studying with Ormandy there was an old gentleman who was in the final year of membership necessary for qualification for a pension. The old man’s hands shook, creating a problem for these proud string players. At the same time they wanted to see this long-term member make it to retirement. So they soaped his bow in order that he could bow away with the rest of the section yet never make a sound. Ormandy never knew of this.]
There was one occasion during one of these long tours when the band was angry at the officers, in particular with Col. Howard who always conducted the final Stars and Stripes, and by pre-arrangement we played only the first four bars of this familiar march followed immediately by the last four bars. The conductor was apparently day-dreaming for he gave no indication that anything had happened; he heard the beginning and the end and probably assumed we had performed the entire march. I always wondered what the audience thought as they applauded automatically at the end.

This story will not be surprising to anyone who has experienced a long tour of, let us say, 9 weeks. During such a tour the daily routine never varies: take a long bus ride in the morning, lunch and nap, afternoon concert, dinner and evening concert. The repertoire always is the same, so after two weeks or so all sense of time is lost. It is hard to explain how hypnotic this becomes and how, when one first boards a bus in September and returns home in December, one has no recollection whatsoever of the month of October. Neither does one have any idea what town one is in on a particular day. Frequently an audience member will ask, ‘How do you like Dullsville?’ And one is embarrassed and can make no answer without revealing that he had no idea what town he was in.

I am sure most members of the band had the same experience I did, an almost zombie state caused by the constant repetition of the daily schedule. Often one would sit down to begin the evening concert and then be aware of leaving to catch the bus back to the hotel, with no real memory of the concert itself. Sometimes in the late afternoon one would find oneself asking a roommate whether we had played the afternoon concert or not. I fought this mind paralyzing routine by giving myself various intellectual challenges for the evening concert. One tour I decided to count the number of notes that I played during the two hours. The rules of my little game were strict. I could only count a note at the very moment I was playing it. If I lost count, as for example during a passage of sixteenth-notes, I had to wait until the concert the following day to resume, and always starting again at the very beginning of the concert. I had to mentally pronounce the number while playing (not an easy accomplishment) and, of course, had to remember the count. No pencil and paper. As best I can recall this occupied me on one tour for five or six weeks and I was quite disappointed, when the time came that I could count through an entire concert, to find it was not that many notes. I was playing only several hundred notes, while I had thought previously that it must be thousands.

On another long tour I occupied my mind by the challenge of memorizing my music. Again I could only do this as I played during the concert, no study of the music before or after allowed! And I begin by memorizing the final work, for then I could close the folder and tie it up and be ready to leave for town sooner. Then, I memorized the next to last composition, and so could tie up the folder even sooner. And thus I proceeded, composition by composition in reverse order, until it began to cause questions why my folder was not open.

Of course, if you have your part memorized it allows one to look around the auditorium and day-dream. This is possible as a typical illustration of the ‘frames of mind’ phenomenon familiar to the reader, an ability of the mind to do something on a kind of automatic basis while at the same time another part of the mind, the real you, or id, is engaged in something completely different. When, for example, you are driving your car and engaged in conversation with a passenger the real you is engaged in conversation, but who is driving the car? Conductors experience this frequently in rehearsal as one part of our mind continues the right arm beat pattern while the real us part of the mind is thinking, ‘should I stop and go back and rehearse that last passage?’

A very familiar experience for many is that of driving on a highway late at night and suddenly having the feeling of waking up and finding oneself further down the road than your conscious mind remembers. This experience is very frightening, as one contemplates what could have happened in that past half-mile or so, and it has the effect of really waking you up. I had such an experience during basic training, which in my time was 13 weeks (today it is much condensed). The officers never had enough classes or training to fill 13 weeks and so there remained long periods when, for lack of being able to think of anything else, they would have us out in the hot Texas summer sun, endlessly marching up and down the streets. On one of these afternoons, just like the driving experience, I suddenly had the feeling of waking and finding myself a block further down the street. Somehow the ‘me’ part of my mind slept while another part of the mind kept the body movement of marching going. Again, upon ‘waking’ I was frightened, only in this case it was fear for what the sergeant would do to me if he caught me sleeping while marching! The sergeant was always saying, while pointing at his heavy boots, things like, ‘If you make this mistake again there will be no future generations in your family!’

A much more complex experience of this kind happened to me in 1966 when I was giving solo recitals throughout South America supported by the State Department. One of these recitals was in La Paz, Bolivia, and was given in the home of the American Ambassador. This was in a large old home in which several rooms in line had sliding doors which could be opened to form a large hall-like space. In this case we had been warned in advance by the wife of the ambassador that the piano was out of tune and that the only piano tuner in town was on an ‘anti-American’ strike. Of course I said, ‘don’t worry, we will use it as is.’

When I arrived at the designated time for the evening I found that a dinner came first, with the concert following. The dinner guests, and audience members, were the international diplomatic corps. Since I was, of course, the guest of honor, there followed dozens of toasts by various ambassadors. I was a good horn player, but not a natural one, and it had long been my experience that I could never successfully drink and play. But I had to respond to the endless toasts, at first taking just a tiny sip of wine, and then just pretending to sip. But even the smell had some effect after a time and by the time it was time to perform I was, shall we say, rather loose. The piano turned out to be more than a semi-tone flat, a greater distance than I could compensate for on the instrument’s tuning slide. What to do? One, after this elaborate banquet, could not just turn around and say, ‘Sorry!’

The repertoire of this recital was difficult for the accompanist, the Hindemith Sonata, Strauss and Mozart concerti arranged for piano, etc, too difficult to transpose on the spot. The only alternative left was for me to transpose the entire recital. If I had been told a day in advance I doubt that I could have done it, but coming in so an immediate circumstance, aided by the wine, I just did it. I retain the clearest memory of my state of mind during this recital, a feeling that I was a listener and that someone else was playing the recital. For me it was an extraordinary illustration of the ‘many minds,’ or ‘frames of mind,’ phenomenon. One part of my mind was transposing and performing the recital while another part of my mind, the real me, or id, reposed in wine-induced tranquility, doing nothing.