At one of my baroque trio rehearsals, my colleagues’s husband remarked that even with all our years of practice, the two of us still could not play together. Very funny, since the music we play is contrapuntal. The themes are all stated as a round, so we rarely if ever play the themes together.
A great skill for any musician is to be able to keep the rhythm and line of his or her own part no matter what the other musicians are doing. This is true come hell or high water, since conductors also make mistakes. The conductor might be in the wrong place in the music or distracted by some anomalous event at the concert, like an audience member coming in late and disturbing everyone. The conductor may be in the middle of a personal crisis. In any case, you may find yourself blamed for their mistake or someone else’s mistake unless you can keep to your part no matter what, be flexible, and move to a new place in the music if you have to. If you can do all this, you can sometimes prevent what is known in concert lingo as a “Train Wreck”, where the music comes grinding to a halt because no one knows where they are in the music. If not, then, as stated in the classic movie, “The Russians are Coming”, “World War Three is starting, and everyone is blaming you!
My training at the art of being able to keep my own line and rhythm no matter what came early. After all, my family was the only Jewish family in an all Irish Catholic neighborhood. Isn’t this counterpoint in itself?
We were living behind and above a grocery store on a corner in Southwest Philadelphia, connected to everyone else in the neighborhood not only by our family business, but also by the fact that all the houses on both blocks were row houses with a common connecting wall between each house. My brother and I attended the local elementary school where I played E flat alto saxophone in the band. This was my first foray into the entertainment industry that was later to include car sales, a stock brokerage license, and computer network sales.
The only possible place for me to practice in the household was in the kitchen behind the grocery store. I dutifully practiced there every day. My practice sessions were invariably accompanied by loud banging noises with no particular rhythm. The noise was present at all my practice sessions, and somehow I chose to ignore it completely. Can I explain my attitude in this? Nope!
Our immediate next door neighbors were an elderly couple, the Zimpsons ( I was 9 years old with a different viewpoint on “elderly couple” than I have now). Mrs Zimpson seemed frail and very quiet. From my 9 year old perspective, she was always reading her Bible, whether she was indoors or out, moving her lips while reading the passages. Her husband, Mr Zimpson, was more outgoing, always dressed in pants and a sleeveless underwear top. He expressed anger and frustration every time I saw him, not at me, but at something or someone.
When Mrs. Zimpson died, she was carried out with her Bible. I was outside the house to witness her exit, and it was a remarkable event for a small boy who lived next door. I wasn’t there when Mr Zimpson was carried out about a year later. But I was in front of their house when a policeman came out. He saw me standing there, and he took the time to tell me what was so strange to him about their house. He said that one of the walls was completely covered with nails. Then it dawned on me. While I was practicing the saxophone, Zimpson was driving endless nails into the wall connecting our two houses!
To this day I am grateful to Mr. Zimpson for training me in the art of keeping to my own part in the face of an angry and determined distraction that has no real sense of rhythm.