Friday- In praise of the F.E.B!!!!

The festival atmosphere surrounding the OES that begins on Thursday evenings comes into full flower after that first tutti rehearsal when all the musicians descend on the bar. Pendleton is somewhat limited in its choices of watering holes, and our standard outing is to a bar called the Rainbow, which is not only the only establishment in North America called the Rainbow which is not a gay bar, but is actually a very famous cowboy bar. Nevertheless, I confidently report that cowboys have nothing on classical musicians when it comes to blowing off steam.

Friday morning and a group of about a half dozen of us, including Jason and a number of musicians from Portland, go out for breakfast at a local diner. Jason has not spent much time in America, and this is his first visit to the rodeo capital of the world, so nothing in his time on earth had prepared him for the shock of the sheer size of the plate that his corned-beef hash arrived on. He was genuinely apoplectic. You see, in Britain we have something called the “Full English Breakfast.” *

(photo from Black Dogs)

The Full English Breakfast is an essential part of British culture. It is food for the mind as well as for the body.

The object of a traditional F.E.B, particularly as served in hotels and restaurants, is to lower your expectations in life. The first lowering is in the area of choice- quietly accepting whatever you’ve been offered with dignity is an essential aspect of the British national character. Whereas an American breakfast joint might have two full pages of different offerings on the menu, you can only choose how much of the F.E.B. you actually want, but you cannot choose anything else.

For my American readers, an F.E.B. consists of 2 eggs, a piece of toast, a sausage (link), a piece of bacon (back bacon, not streaky), half a fried tomato (green around the stem), four or five small fried mushrooms and a black pudding. Oh yes, don’t forget the fried bread (something to remember next time an Englishman tells you how un-healthy American food is- just remember those two words- “Fried Bread”). You can have all of these or only some of these. If you are prepared to weather the withering stare of your waitress, you might ask for another bit of bacon, but forget omelettes, forget pancakes. Just be prepared for the look that says “I am judging you, judging you, judging you…”

The F.E.B., especially as served in public places**, also teaches us not to expect our food to be, say, appealing, or edible. The eggs should be cooked in recycled grease (lots of it!), and left to cool on a table for at least 30 minutes. The sausage skin should be burnt to a crisp and made of the same material used to insulate the space shuttle. The bacon should be usable as shoe leather, and the toast served very cold.

I have a very favourite pub in Kent- the food there is some of the best I’ve ever had anywhere in the world, they have a fantastic wine list, all the beers are wonderfully well looked after. However, their F.E.B.’s taste like they were cooked by a wrinkly old sailor named Cook on the deck of a fishing boat somewhere in the North Atlantic.

The F.E.B. is Britain’s way of reminding all its citizen’s that it is, after all, only 60 years since the blitz, so let’s not get our hopes up.

For Jason, raised in the puritanical culinary repression of the F.E.B., the sight of his giant corned-beef hash platter must have been something like the shock a deeply repressed Victorian gent would have felt if dropped in the midst of a marijuana fuelled orgy in San Francisco circa 1967. When you’ve never even seen an ankle, the full Monty is too much.

After breakfast I’m off to the hall for a couple hours practice. Already the orientation on the fingerboard is feeling more comfortable, so I’m working as hard as I can to find a sound on it. As I learn more, I really feel like the American fixation on technique really misses the point- we don’t teach students to develop a concept of sound. Sound follows concept- the more I think about what I want to hear, and try to articulate those qualities to myself, the faster I improve the results I’m getting.

The hours pass quickly and I’m down to the office to chat to Michelle. The OES is built on three layers of musicians, each equally important. We have our local, core players, our student musicians from area colleges and even the youth orchestra, and pros from throughout the Northwest. The early rehearsals only involve the first two groups, as the pros only come on the weekend. My frustration this week is that one small subset of the student players have not shown up for contracted services this week, and none of us are happy about it. We need them there for early rehearsals to that all the sections are sufficiently populated to facilitate productive work, and they need to be there for those rehearsals because they are NOT professional musicians and simply aren’t good enough to learn the music in the last couple rehearsals.

This gang blew off two rehearsals the week before the concert, then didn’t show last night, claiming they were unable to get out because of snow. Yes, there was snow, but others from their town did make it. I’m ready to sack them, and Michelle and I make some calls to see if we can fill their chairs but no luck. I think this may be their last concert with us, however.

Late afternoon and back to practice. For someone who’s been conducting all year, this is a lot of cello playing for me, and I’m absolutely shattered by four-thirty. At five, Jason and I are off to a dinner party. He’s been out wine tasting with some of the players all day. It’s a bit worrying that the best recreational activities in the area all seem to involve drinking before rehearsals, but somehow we always manage…..

The party is at a beautiful farm house in the country hosted by my friend and former OES office colleague, Shari. Shari is an artist, her husband is a farmer, and they live in an 1887 farmhouse on the rolling plains outside town with an unblocked view of the Blue Mountains. I’ve never been out before- it’s heaven. She serves a simple but delicious soup and some tasty bread that miraculously restores my will to live. Desert is homemade, all-American apple pie- Jason is beside himself with happiness!

All too-soon, we pile in the car and go roaring back into town for another rehearsal, and I know I’ll be sure to play tonight….

c. 2007 Kenneth Woods

*Since the various nations that make up the UK are committed to preserving the uniqueness of their national characters, I should point out that there are clearly distinct breakfasts known as the Full Welsh Breakfast and the Full Scottish Breakfast. The ingredients and preparation are exactly the same as the F.E.B except that each item is preceded by a the name of the country, ie. 2 scrambled Welsh eggs, 1 piece of Welsh bacon, 1 Welsh Sausage, Fried Welsh Bread, Welsh Black Pudding, Half a Fried Welsh tomato (green and tough around the stem) and four or five small fried Welsh Mushrooms flown in from Spain.

** The definitive F.E.B is to be found in the Little Chef on the A 449 near Symonds Yat.

*** For years, I have thought I could finance a diversifaction of my conducting career by opening a great, divers, American-style breakfast place in London, serving everything from waffles to huevos rancheros to delicious skillet dishes. Having seen Jason’s reaction to the Mainstreet Diner corned-beef hash, I know this would be like opening a feminist/lesbian bookstore in Riyadh- it may be needed, but it sure isn’t wanted….

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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