What the Falala

As part of my Christmas celebration, I’ve been ‘rereading’ some favorite Christmas-themed romance novels as audiobooks. I’d discovered the hilarious May Archer this year, whose “Love in O’Leary” series takes place in a quite-deliberately too-good-to-be-true Hallmarky small town where everyone gets in your business. In The Night, photographer Liam shows up in O’Leary with his adopted 7-year-old daughter Hazel Grace to get a divorce from the man he’d married after one night of instant connection and mind-blowing sex in Vegas five years ago. (There’s a lot of backstory there, and it mostly doesn’t hang together, but never mind.) Gideon, the grumpy firefighter he married, is not happy to see him at all, and yet Events Occur and Christmas Magic Happens.

One of the many humorous touches is that Gideon generally swears like a sailor, but now finds himself in the company of this adorable moppet, who is the best character in the book, and who Gideon didn’t know existed until they showed up in town. So he finds himself constantly correcting himself with “What the fu… Fa la la?” or “What the he… Ho ho ho” and so on. And Hazel picks up on it and uses it in her own speech patterns because kids and also she’s super-clever. Anyway, it’s a delight, turn off your brain and read it.


Anyway, I can’t believe I’ve not blogged since Thanksgiving. What the Ho Ho Ho? But it’s been busy with prep for gigs, as well as work being super busy and Christmas. I’ll get to all that.

So first the gigs. I’m playing live music again! I’d gone straight from the Beethoven concert in October to rehearsing the Tchaikovsky concert, and then stepping up and volunteering (rather forcefully) to lead the brass choir in the January chamber music concert. So practicing horn enough to get decently through rehearsals and finding and obtaining the music for the brass choir. But I took the weekend off from that stuff for TubaChristmas!

TubaChristmas was founded almost 50 years ago by the great tuba player and educator Harvey Phillips and happens annually in as many cities as are willing to put it together. There’s a standard book of carols scored in 4-part harmony (written for baritone horn/euphonium on the top two lines and tuba on the bottom two, although that’s just a starting point). The tuba and euphonium players dress festively, decorate their horns with tinsel and lights, have a morning rehearsal and then perform for the public in the afternoon (usually on a Sunday). It’s very amateur, open to all (including those like me who don’t normally play those instruments) and it’s a hoot. I did it several times in Philadelphia, but had never done the famous Rockefeller Center one. My late lamented friend Jennifer had told me they rehearse in a parking garage and play standing on the ice rink at Rockefeller Center, and that sounded miserable. Plus most years here, I didn’t have a tuba or a baritone (although I could have borrowed one, and could have probably gotten away with showing up with an alto horn. Part of the fun is seeing what bizarro instruments show up – helicons and drum corps contrabasses and so on.).

But y’all know that I actually found and rescued a baritone horn from an antique shop in Beacon, NY this summer and had it fixed up and bought a case for it, even though the brass repair shop told me it was a piece of crap and not worth the money. “But it’s a rescue!” I cried, “I’ll play it for TubaChristmas!”. And I did.

It turns out that you do rehearse in a parking garage, and you think that would be super echoey, but it wasn’t bad at all. We had a cordoned off space, were nowhere near actual cars driving in and out, had places to leave our cases, and (most importantly) there were bathrooms. This year they insisted on vaccinations for eeryone, so I wasn’t worried about that, and masks when you weren’t playing. I was surprised not to run into anyone I knew. There were a ton of high school and college kids, bussed in from New Jersey and Long Island, and a few of us oldies. I got in a conversation with a 60sish lady from Jersey, who was a newbie like myself. As always, lots of interesting and beautiful instruments ( was worried about being horn-shamed, but noe one said a word. I was also worried that my rescue wouldn’t pay in tune, but it did just fine, particulary in the wide range of acceptable ‘in tune’ in this setup. We had about 200 players, which is about half of what they normally have at the NYC one.

I did OK. I’d orderd the updated book (more carols than when I’d played in Philly in the 90’s) in large print, and forced myself to read bass clef. (I wont go into the whole baritone horns can play in either clef thing, but I know how to do both – they are each weird for me in different ways.) I played the 2nd line, nice and easy. A couple of the parts were tricky, but I was not anywhere near the worst player there. (I remembered that with this kind of thing you kind of need to turn off your critical musical faculties.) We didn’t play on the ice this time, we played in front of the tree, but facing north, so the ice rink was on our right.

Anyway, despite my introverted (and pandemic) worries about spending a day with a bunch of happy strangers, an instrument that I wasn’t used to and isn’t that reliable, and general anxiety, I had a fantastic time. My friend Martin showed up to hear the end, but we’d already finished (we only played about a half hour, which hardly seems enough). But we got to say hi at least. And then I went to Starbucks and had a snack and a gigantic peppermint mocha and went home.


A week later was supposed to be our QUO concert. Our two big pieces were Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony (which I adore, which I’ve played before) and Saint-Saëns’s third violin concerto (which I didn’t know at all). It didn’t occur to me until today that Tchaikovsky and SS were contemporaries (they were both queer, knew each other, and there’s a famous picture of them dancing, which, alas, I cannot find right now.) But the horn writing for the two pieces is completely different. Tchaikovsky embraces the (new at the time) chromatic valve horn, so there’s plenty of horn playing and lots of interesting scales and runs and it’s quite difficult, although a hell of a lot of fun. (and I was playing 2nd, so very little of it was high range stuff, which can be scary.) The SS horn parts were written for the older natural horn, with written- instrument key changes, and just kind of throwing the horns into the mix when the key the horns are in can play the notes required in wherever the tonic is at that time. Which meant that, even though the SS part was not hard to play, it was very hard to count and even to hear, as you got very little context for why you were playing (and when to come in). So I was far more worried about the SS than the Tchaik.

We had our final rehearsal last Wednesday – but storm clouds were already brewing. Both our oboes were out because of COVID exposure, and so was our assistant conductor. And that sort of thing kept happening through the rest of the week as COVID cases climbed in NYC and Radio City cancelled the rest of the season and so on. And, like watching a truck bear down on you, we found out on Friday night that the concert had been cancelled.

Which sucks big-time, because it would been a terrific concert, but I completely agree with the decision. But that now throws future plans up in the air. Should I keep putting together the music for the January chamber music concert? (be ready to, but probably not) When we gather again, will we pull this concert together or just start work on the next one? Who knows?

So, I’ll follow up in a later post about all the COVID BS and Christmas prep and what’s going on at work. In the meantime, with my chops so beautfully in shape, I’m going to make some Christmas videos. Here’s a practice one I did yesterday using the Jhorn, the plastic baritone horn I bought on a whim this year, not knowing that I’d eventually have a real one later.

Fake instrument, sight-reading (mostly). I’ll probably do a better one later.

More as it develops…

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