On Spinning Plates: Christmas Tales from the Pit


This has been one of those semesters where I feel like I’m trying to keep about fifty plates spinning on poles. I remember seeing someone do that on an old variety show when I was a kid, and it always amazed me that they were able to keep the plates in the air for so long. In reality- at least in my reality- those plates inevitably crash sometimes…and yesterday was one of those days.

 I should mention, things happen to me, just like my mother before me. I’ve had epic food poisoning strike-  on a packed stage in front of fifteen hundred people. I’ve had a conductor’s baton fly through the orchestra and hit me square on my lip as I was playing. I’ve hit a chime and also pulled over a music stand as I tried to quietly exit the stage with all of my gear during a concert. I could go on and on. And on. I’ve performed with Shingles, a broken ankle, walking pneumonia, food poisoning (more than once), a bad back, and the flu. Always, always, when people are counting on you, the show must go on. But first, you have to get there. 

It is the end of what has been the most crazy busy semester I have ever had in my thirty years of teaching. All good things for the most part, but the stress of it all has ramped up what Dan calls my ‘Absent-minded Professor’ tendencies. Yesterday morning I was to present a clinic to about one hundred and sixty high school woodwind players as part of our UAB Honor Band Festival at 8:30, followed by dashing across town to a first rehearsal of Amahl and the Night Visitors that would already be in progress. I had everything planned to a tee- just another busy day doing what I love. 

I had a great time working with the students, then grabbed my clarinets and raced to the big Methodist church where my Department Chair is the music director. I knew he had taken over the job at the church where a former prominent vocal colleague had gone, but I hadn’t been there to play in about fourteen years. I finally found a parking place and walked as fast as I could to search for the door they had told me to enter to find the rehearsal, already stressed, as I hate to be late to rehearsal for any reason. 

I finally get into the church, go up the stairs I was told I’d see and found the sanctuary where the orchestra was setting up. Strange…the rehearsal was supposed to have been going on for almost an hour…I sat down next to the principal oboist from the Alabama Symphony and put my clarinets together, noticing a binder of music on my stand. Hmmm, I guess we’re playing some additional hymns.  When I put my part to Amahl on the stand, the oboist looked at it, then looked at me, saying, “Umm, Denise, we’re not playing that.” My stomach dropped like a lead balloon. I was in the freaking wrong Methodist church

I quickly put my clarinets back in the case, my face burning in embarrassment, grabbed my music and clarinet peg, all the while being teased by the musicians. This is Christmastime,  and there are rehearsals going on all over the city for special holiday programs. It just helps when you are in the right one of those rehearsals. With all of the crazy things that have happened to me, I’ve always managed to at least go to the correct venue. This was a first- and not one of those good kind of firsts. 


I raced to my car, telling Siri to direct me to the other Methodist church that my former colleague had worked at, this one downtown close to Dan’s theater. I proceed to get every red light along the way, my blood pressure rising in direct proportion to the expletives that came with each red light. I wasn’t just late- I was late. And then, I saw the flashing blue lights ahead. Sweet Jesus…the Jingle Bell Run. Roads were blocked off, and I got to sit and watch women dressed in antlers, big red noses, and Christmas sweaters amble along, laughing and talking on their Saturday morning stroll through downtown Birmingham. It did not inspire one speck of Christmas spirit in me, let me tell you. 


Finally, finally, the policeman waved me on and I found an alternate route that helped me avoid anymore reindeer games. I found the church and finally found the blessed door that I should have entered twenty minutes earlier. I heard the familiar strains of Amahl and saw my wonderful Department Chair conducting. I was at the correct rehearsal at long last- another Christmas miracle.

 At the break, I went ahead and confessed my sins, as the music world is a very small one, and I had no doubt that word of my rehearsal hopping adventure would travel the circuit faster than you could say Ho-Ho-Ho. Thankfully I work with great people who saw the humor in the situation (my Department Chair laughed and told me this needed to be a blog post).  I’m also thankful that Christmas break is just days away- I obviously need it. Badly. 


7 thoughts on “On Spinning Plates: Christmas Tales from the Pit

  1. Oh, Denise!!!
    I am so sorry; as I read this I could feel your blood pressure rising, the panic setting in as you were stopped time after time trying to get to the right rehearsal!
    And I laughed! A big, giggly, Heavy D laugh, because those things have happened to me and you have to laugh because crying is not an option at the time. Til you get home and tell Dan and the pups about it, and by then, I bet you laughed, too!
    Thank goodness your break is in sight!!
    xoxoxoxo❣️❣️❣️
    Syl

  2. So sorry. I have not experienced your particular problems but I did have a rather funny incident yrs ago at St Andrew’s Episc. I had taken the choir and orch players there in the afternoon from St Mary’s to rerun our Bach cantata from that Sun morning. Forgot to move my little conducting box used up front during rehearsal. As the clergy and choir processed in during the singing of the first hymn, I did not see that people were moving out of the way of the box. I was last in, fell over and while going down… and grasping the air…ripped off part of the white cotta on the last chorister who was just in front of me. OMG. I am dying laughing right now. Have not thought of that afternoon in the last 20 yrs. I bet that anyone in the choir who did not really love me thought….well, she “got hers” today! The church does not seat a lot of people – but just the choir and the orch players as witnesses- too much. If I could be younger than my present 67, it would not be worth reliving various scenes of “unpleasantness” that are lurking in the past. Rather laugh from afar!!! Natalie Tally, formerly Organist-Choirmaster at St Mary’s on-the-Highlands and presently an occasional sub organist for Patrick at FUMC

  3. oh my Denise…I am sorry this happened to you but I did laugh and recalled my own misadventures at being places on time and not making it because of “extraneous forces”.

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