To an audience, the conductor's technique & art are the most mysterious of all the orchestra. Whether it be a world-class philharmonic orchestra, or a youth orchestra of yet-blossoming talent, only a small part of the conductor's work is visible on-stage, glimpses seen perhaps now, as a wave of the hand or baton & maybe then, as a wild dance atop the podium. And the conductor must always perform turned away from the audience, appearing to the outside world as if his or her face were hidden behind a mask…
For a moment, I had to pause and laid my baton on the pencil ledge of the music desk.
An old cliché maintains that Johannes Brahms' melodies in three are beautiful but that those in two are lackluster. I've never thought that a fair assessment of his music, though. The real problem is that Brahms' melodies in duple meter are just too demanding, sometimes even for the most talented musicians, to play well.
"Please, girls," I asked, looking straight at my two young bassoonists. "The opening mood of the the second movement is somber. Slow. D-sharp minor. Can you remember that? Think somber! Please?"
The marked tempo, Adagio non troppo, literally means "not too slow," but in practice, this movement tends to be conducted more largo than adagio. The marking "C" for common time calls for a slow, steady 4-beat frame, but with an orchestra of high school students, subdividing the meter into an 8-beat frame is almost obligatory. Otherwise, some of these overly eager young musicians will be just too hyperactive to play a slow movement like this.
I raised the baton again. The descending melody of the 'celli needed the contrast of its rising counterpoint in the bassoons. I gave the downbeat again and for just a moment was encouraged that we might get through the opening bars this time.
Teenage girls have this charming way of trying not to giggle by tensing their lips and their surrounding facial muscles. The effort usually creases their dimples and most often makes for an adorably cute effect. I see my teenage daughters do this and even my pre-teen son has copied the behavior, all of whom display the same dimpled smile after my wife. I love to hear them giggle when they don't know I'm listening. It makes me feel once again like that teenage boy who fell in love with this charming, giggling girl whom he would marry a decade later.
But not while playing Brahms!
This technique of controlling lip tension is known as embouchure when used to play the bassoon or any other wind instrument. And bassoonists of my own players' talent usually have tremendously strong and otherwise well-controlled embouchures.
My principle cellist sat there, staring at the two bassoon players. He was miffed. And rightly so.
The adorably cute creasing of dimples most often just precedes the build up of air pressure between a girl's cheeks until the labial tension breaks, sputtering into an uncontrolled fit of giggling. The ensuing chain of cause-and-effect, I had carefully noted this time, had first flowed from the bassoons, then diverged through the other woodwinds, until at last had curled into eddies throughout the orchestra.
This time I was sure it was the second bassoonist who had distracted the first. But I was also certain that they were giggling—well—antiphonally! It's almost like one was teaching the other how to giggle by the Socratic method.
I glared as menacingly at my bassoons as possible.
"You!—and you!" I said, pointing my baton at the first, then the second bassoonist, each in turn. "Let me hear each of you play that opening countermelody. One at a time."
I cued the first bassoon to play. She was a pretty girl with beautiful long hair and warm brown eyes, dressed very feminine, but demurely in a simple white blouse, plaid skirt, white hose and flat, black maryjanes. But on her it was absolutely correct. Her look screamed "sweet schoolgirl" instead of "teen hottie," although she would need to be no younger than the others just to be in this orchestra. Somehow, she seemed familiar to me, but I couldn't quite place her. Maybe from the orchestra last year?
As she played, natural roses filled her cheeks, her embouchure creating an effect in real time that most girls try to paint onto their cheeks each morning, hoping against all hope, that the rosy color might prevail throughout the day. Her passions flowed from her bassoon. But the passions were wrong for the music. Simply put, she was being silly when I needed sobriety, like she was investing in giggles today. And in my mind's ear, somehow I heard the Grandfather's theme for the bassoon from Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf.
The second movement, Adagio non troppo, of Brahms' Symphony No. 2 in D Major begins in a very dark place. Tenebrous. It begins in a gloomy D♯-minor descending scale, but then quickly modulates to a majestic B-major, cheerfully warming us up as the music moves along. Yet, it's not giggling happiness, but the joy of consolation born of triumph, like the Resurrection coming forth after the Crucifixion.
I cued the other bassoon next. She had beautiful long, blond hair down to her waist and dressed more to the "hottie" end of the teen spectrum, her clothing showing off her delicately maturing feminine charms, just like any other teenage girls.
Just like my own teenage daughters.
And also, like my pre-teenage son.
So, why was I thinking about that right then?
My second bassoon played the same opening passage as the first.
"Girls—," I began, but a sputter-born giggle from the violas interrupted me. I turned my patented icy stare toward them.
"Sorry, Maestro!" their principal apologized, demurring so cutely that I had to concentrate not to start laughing myself. She then went tight-lipped. Yes, a violist needed to work on her embouchure!
"Girls," again I addressed my bassoon players, "now that's much better and almost what I need. But you're both still fighting the music. If you let the music flow as freely as your giggles, then you'll have it!"
I checked my clipboard with the roster. Since this was our very first rehearsal as an orchestra, I would have the usual task of learning all my musicians' names, on-the-job as it were.
"You're Toni?" I asked, making eye contact with the blonde bassoonist. She looked the more confident of the pair, so I had thought her the principal player.
"No, I'm Tori," she corrected me, then clarified by pointing to the demure, raven-haired girl next to her, "She's Toni." At least they didn't look anything like twins.
Glancing quickly at the roster again, I saw that Winifred, or "Winnie," was my principal violist and Paul the lead 'cellist. Happily for us all, Amy had returned this year, but this time as our concertmistress.
Paul was still miffed at Tori and Toni. The phrase looking daggers came to mind. The best way that I knew to handle that was to get everyone right back into the music.
"You're Paul?" I asked my principal 'cellist by way of introduction.
"Yeah!" he answered.
"As ever!" Paul replied as tersely as I had heard any boy his age speak, as if he had to request permission in order to phrase a complete sentence.
Raising my baton again, I gave the downbeat and they played it the way I needed to hear it. The tones that Paul played blended nicely with Tori's and Toni's. Especially Toni's playing. It had been a year, but I still recognized his tone and style. Sure, he had come a long way but—
His tone and style? Toni? Tony? He had handled his part in Peter and the Wolf wonderfully in the Tri-State Alliance Junior Youth Orchestra. I had been disappointed that Anthony Schmidt's name had not appeared on the roster, since I had expressly requested that he be offered a chair in the orchestra. I kept hoping that "Antonietta" were either a misprint or perhaps a sister or a cousin with like talent.
Now I knew why I had suddenly been so worried about my son, David—or, for the new school year—Davida. I had "read" Tony. If I hadn't been apprised of transgendered issues recently, I could very easily have given away his "natural" gender with unpredictable consequences for everyone.
So, I signaled a cut-off.
"Everyone, it's time for a break," I announced. "Even with all the giggles, the Brahms is coming together more quickly today than I had expected. Take fifteen minutes and we'll start up again. Tori and Toni! Here! Now!"
Toni and Tori weren't giggling or even grinning as they approached the podium. I sat down on the conductor's stool. When they were close enough for a conversation, I held up my arms as if to beckon them into an embrace, but I was gathering them for discretion's sake and they came closer to share whispers with me.
"Listen up!" I whispered firmly to Tony, or Toni, about the risk he had taken. "Do you have any idea of how close you just came to getting 'outed'?"
"What?" Toni asked.
"He 'read' you!" Tori clarified the situation for her friend.
"I didn't recognize you until I had listened to you play," I told the teenage bassonist. "Your tone and style are unique and although it took me a moment, I remember how well you played Peter and the Wolf for me in the Tri-State Alliance Junior Youth Orchestra."
"Victoria—Tori?" I mused reading the roster. "He's in the same school with you now?"
"Yes," she affirmed. "But could you call Toni 'she'?"
"Oh, sure!" I promised. "But y'know, that was the danger. I was focused entirely on the music and I 'made' Toni, while all of you were playing. When I realized I had, I stopped us for a break. If I had addressed you, Toni, right then I might have called you 'he' before thinking it through. And Tori, you seem in on this."
"I started to Tori's school so that I could get away from the bullies at my old one," Toni explained. "And, well, we're dating. Besides, she's sorta like a 'coach' for me."
"A coach?" I asked.
"I show her how to be a better girl," Tori clarified. "I help her not only with dressing up, but also with speech and movement. Learning to be a girl is not all about clothes. It can be hard work."
"But it's a lotta fun!" Toni added. "And once I started, I couldn't stop doing it. I really think I'm more girl than boy."
I felt myself relax for a moment. So that's someone that David, or Davida, might need? A coach? I mused and then understood that maybe his sisters were filling that role for him? But a girlfriend? I hadn't even thought that he might start dating girls, even after becoming one. My own anxiety for my son seemed to relax just then. Maybe doing this might help David come out of his shell?
"Okay, but let me warn you, both, though," I said. "Paul, here, was staring at you enough to concern me. Now that I know who you are, Toni, I think that he may have 'made' you, too. He's from your old school, right?"
"Yes," he—she answered. "He might know me, but I don't think we were even there at the same time."
"In any case, girls, you're drawing too much attention to yourselves giggling all the time," I cautioned them. "Tone it down some. The look in his eyes suggested maybe more than merely annoyance from Paul. Have either of you encountered him before?"
"I don't think we ever met at school," Toni said. "We certainly didn't have any classes together.
"I don't know him, either," Tori confirmed.
I decided that I'd need to get some background on my new principal 'cellist. I certainly hoped that he didn't have any disciplinary record or anything like that to worry about. He played brilliantly and I felt uneasy that his very real gift might be compromised by hidden issues, lurking unseen at the edges of his blossoming life.
"All right, you girls," I said, although now that I knew that "Toni" was a boy—or that "Tony" was a girl?—it felt a little strange. "Go and enjoy the rest of your break!"
Toni and Tori dashed off whither teenage girls go during class breaks.
I closed my office door and sat down at my desk and laughed really hard.
On the wall over my desk was a cherished plaque bearing the smiling and frowning masks for comedy and tragedy of ancient Greek theatre. My wife Sabrina had presented me with it when I passed the Introduction to Theatre course that I had taken with her in college. She was proud of me doing so well in the course. She had majored in Theatre while I did, of course, Music. This was the only course in her major that I was able to take with her while in college.
What I had never anticipated is how important a skill that acting would prove when I began conducting these youth orchestras. Since college, my wife has talked me into attending a few theatre workshops and enrolling in other acting classes. And she has coached me well, too. On the podium, I have cultivated the image of a somewhat irrascible, slightly grumpy, serious conductor with a take-no-prisoners style. Inwardly, I am fun-loving and whimsical to a fault. What really upset me about Toni and Tori giggling was that I felt like giggling, too, and they had made it very difficult for me to keep a straight face. Keeping in full control of your facial expressions is a basic skill for a conductor. Never show anything on your face that you don't want to hear in the music!
So I have learned how to smile and to laugh behind the serious mask. I can also weep and suffer behind the happy one. For me, these are necessary professional skills.
Now, only a week or two ago, transgendered was, for me, merely an abstraction occasionally encountered while reading an educator's journal or a news magazine. Today, the concept applied to at least two kids in my life, one a gifted young musician, the other my own son. I didn't know what to think about all this.
What I did know is that when I hear music like what I'd heard Tony or Toni play, I don't care if the bassoonist wore trousers or a skirt. I'd do whatever it takes to push that young musician as far as he or she can go. So what if he were a boy in a dress? He—or she—was the best musician around. His or her gender identity was really not my concern. In fact, it was none of my business.
But David was my son. I didn't know how I would deal with this. Today, he went to school as a girl for the very first time. I have to admit, though, that he looked very cute in his schoolgirl's uniform. Sabrina told me that he was dressed entirely as a girl, all the way down to his panties and a matching training bra. I was worried about David doing this, but I'd never seen him happier. Maybe he'd be better off as another daughter? I didn't know. But I was afraid I would miss my son.
Symphony No. 2 in D Major
II. Adagio non troppo
Violoncello solo opening of Adagio non troppo from Brahms' Symphony No. 2 in D Major
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