I was very much a “newbie” at playing the viola, starting in 7th grade. My school orchestra director suggested that I go and try playing with a regional youth orchestra. I do remember, vaguely, that trains were delayed, we arrived late, and the orchestra rehearsal had already begun.
Powerful and “professional sounding” music echoed down hallways in the huge building. I turned to my mother and said “…well, it was fun getting here, we’ll be turning around soon.” She said, “You’re here — why not give it a try?”I unpacked my viola and sat down in the last chair of the viola section, trying not to bring any attention to my presence, since I had no business being there at my “newbie” status, let alone arriving late.
Star Wars (the first one – released in 1977), had just come to theaters, and it was the craze at the time! I knew how the music sounded, at least the melody, but didn’t know all of the background stuff. But hey, it would be cool one day to play it!
There was a fuzzy copy of a Star Wars viola part on the music stand. It looked like alphabet soup! There were about 50 things written on the first page, in what seemed to be different languages, all mixed in with the music.
I saw numbers, and brackets, and notes that I never knew existed, somehow connected on the page. There were arrows and exclamation points, squiggly lines, and to top it all, in Bold Capital letters, “WATCH-OUT HERE!
At this point, the Conductor tapped on his stand and said, “Okay everyone, stay with me and let’s see what we have to work.” Remember, I was just down the hall hearing them sound pro, or at least to my “newbie” ears they did. This sound was triggering a loud thought in my head: I want to go home and organize my baseball cards!
The Conductor then made some bird-like gesture, waved the stick he just tapped assertively on the music stand, and within seconds, (which seemed like a day and a half to me) he exclaimed, “STOP!”
This frightening looking conductor then turned and looked directly at me and bellowed “VIOLAS!” I’m so happy you are all here to join us.” He pointed to me and to an empty seat by the second music stand. Still pointing, he said “You are?”
My voice cracked as I said my name. He then said “Move up to the second stand.” Without hesitation, I practically ran to my newly assigned and unwanted seat.
Within seconds, (just after I bumped my viola, hitting nearly everyone in my path), he gestured more enthusiastically than the first time. This time, his motions resembled the wing span of the largest eagle imaginable and the orchestra soared.
As the orchestra began to play, I tried hard to keep up with the bigger kid next to me. I moved my bow and fingers on the strings when he did, trying to keep a very low profile. I admit that I was practically hiding behind the music stand, hoping to be shielded from any more undesired attention.
Again a voice in my head reminded me that I was looking forward to sorting my 1976 METS cards when I got home and ironically, I had just gotten some new cards including a “Victory Leader” card, with some bubble gum.
About a minute passed and the conductor stopped the orchestra, exclaiming louder than before, “VIOLAS!” I should mention that at this point, in addition to violinists and cellists, there were people with trumpets, trombones, flutes, clarinets and drums the size of more than half of my room, and some holding an instrument that looked like a stove pipe, (that I learned later was called a bassoon). All of these strangers were looking at the violas. Their glares felt like Star-Wars style laser beams directed at the violas, and you guessed it, at ME!
The conductor went on to say “You (pointing at me), repeat after me, DIG-AH-DIG-AH, DIG-AH, DIG-AH, DIG AHHHHH!”
Everyone in the room burst out into hysterical laughter, and even I giggled a little. I began to believe I might make it unharmed through the experience, or I hoped. He continued by saying, “I’m serious – repeat after me,” and then he went on to display the most articulate and energetic performance of the background of the Star Wars Theme.
I couldn’t believe it! I recognized the rhythm from the movie. Then, he asked me to repeat the “DIG-AH etc.” I even survived his making me do it again, and then asking me to perform it yet again more clearly and loudly.
Thankfully, I lived to share this story. He told me that when I see parts of the music that looks like a traffic jam on the page; just say the words in your head. He performed it once again to really emphasize his point, “DIG-AH-DIG-AH, DIG-AH, DIG-AH, DIG-AHHH.” He continued and said “Okay, ALL of you players laughing, be prepared to say EVERY RHYTHM! I refer to, each and every page, of every piece, of each and every passage, by the end of today’s second rehearsal.”
At this moment, everyone in the room immediately fell silent. The Conductor then tapped the stand again. With a new-found respect for our conductor, what followed was an incredibly productive and fun rehearsal. Students were paying attention, with much more focus than before the above experience. No one wanted to have their own public, “Dig-Ah Moment.”
During the break, students and their families ate lunch and studied their music. Some kids were really helpful to me, since they had much more experience than I had at the time. We all were sounding out the music in our own way, doing as the Maestro requested. The second rehearsal was even more amazing!
Remember, the Maestro is the teacher. Your orchestra director is your Maestro. They are your best knowledge resource, having learned from other Maestros. Sharing music knowledge is a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation. Be attentive to the knowledge you are acquiring. In this way, you will continue the tradition.