I was recently at a rehearsal of an outstanding conservatory-level orchestra. Strange noises were coming from the contrabassoon. The conductor stopped to try to address the issue- the obvious problem was that it was shockingly out of tune- it sounded like a geriatric bass with emphysema or an accordian with a leak. After a few attempts the contra player informed him that the contra was “broken” but that they’d have it fixed before the next rehearsal.
After the rehearsal, the conductor checked with the bassoon professor. “Is the contra fixed?” he asked.
“It wasn’t broken- she just wasn’t blowing hard enough into it.”
Even as this little vignette played out, on the other side of the room, the clarinet instructor and one of the students were dismantling and re-assembling the bass clarinet, which was also “broken.” I missed the noises that led to that diagnosis, but I know it is a brand new, top of the line bass clarinet.
In fact, I would say that in my long experience as a conductor, any time a work calls for a doubling instrument- bass or e-flat clarinet, cor anglais, contra bassoon, etc, there is a high likelihood (especially with not-quite front rank orchestras) that moments into the rehearsal, the novel device will be declared “broken.” A few years back, I did the Walton Viola Concerto (with a university orchestra), which has a very, very, very important bass clarinet part- the player must must have gone through 8 bass clarinets in rehearsal. Every time we came to the bass clarinet solo, the player would honk out a few strange noises, then declare it “broken.” On the day of the concert, a final bass clarinet was couriered across the city, but I had decided that the chap simply didn’t play bass clarinet. I nearly passed out when he actually played most of the notes in is solo in the concert (and only in the concert- the only time the thing was not “broken.”)
I don’t think I’ve ever, ever, ever had to stop a rehearsal because an oboe, B-b clarinet or bassoon was “broken.” It’s just the doubling instruments that are generally “broken.”
Any time I’m doing New World Symphony or Vaughn Williams 5 or anything like that with a big cor anglais solo, I’m always asked to pinpoint the minute in the rehearsal when we will be playing the famous solo. When the moment arrives, I’ve all too often heard a couple humorous sqwaulks before the thing was declared….. “broken.”
What is it about woodwind instruments? Can “broken”- ness only be determined in an orchestra rehearsal? Do these things actually make good sounds in the practice room, only to explode once taken to rehearsal? Or….. Is it a point of pride for some never to touch a bass clarinet outside of rehearsal? I’ve started to think that the reason the cor player wants to know when they’re rehearsing the solo is so that they know they can safely leave the thing in the case until 8:35, so there’s no chance whatsoever they’ll discover it’s “broken” until 8:36.
And how exactly does a musical instrument get “broken?” A key sticks, a note doesn’t close- this I can understand. But a whole instrument is “broken?” Why was it not broken 10 minutes before the rehearsal (because it was in the case??????) If I had a huge solo and discovered my axe was “broken” and would only make duck noises 10 minutes before rehearsal, I would not be asking the conductor what time he was rehearsing my piece- I’d run out of the building and call the personnel manager, tell them I’d been in a terrible accident and wouldn’t be at rehearsal, then I’d hide.
No, that’s not a suggestion…..
Don’t get me wrong, things break – I get this. I still don’t understand why a bass clarinet is 60% likely to be “broken” while a “normal” clarinet is only .000003% likely to be broken. I guess some mysteries are not meant to be solved. But if you only discover your axe is “broken” in rehearsal, I must conclude you only play your instrument in rehearsal, which is bound to make me a little nervous about that big solo you’ve got in the slow movement…..
Is it just that you ain’t blowin’ hard enough?