My Life in the Orchestra

Serpent in the V&A Museum, London.

Image via Wikipedia

by Zoltan James

PROLOGUE — The faster I move up the actuarial charts, the more inclined I am to divulge parts of my life, hitherto untold, lest I fade away into obscurity before my friends know who I really was, am, or is.

I’m not sure what drives this need other than the urge to get these stories off my chest and onto “the divine record.”  If nothing else, by purging my soul, I might then have the chance to live the rest of my days in peace.  Perhaps, I might even enjoy a more relaxed and intentional state of mind, one which would allow me to fulfill my life-long dreams of winning the Pulitzer Prize, bowling the “perfect game” and shooting a “hole-in-one” – all on the same day!

My friend, you may well be the only one who reads this tale.  If so . . . then . . . so be it.  This episode shall lie in the dustbin of history known only to you and me.  But, if you get the urge, feel free to pass this along to anyone whom you think has the heart, or time of day, or both, to hear this.  Just spell my name right, okay?

I have no delusions of grandeur that this story might someday fill the big screen.  It’s not like some Hollywood mogul, wearing a white suede dinner jacket with a paisley ascot, thin legs crossed at the knee, sits in his white arm chair looking down on the lights of L.A. from his hilltop manse of glass,  wiling the night away reading my spellbinding story on his electronic tablet.  Got that picture?

Good.  Okay, let’s assume he is suddenly overcome with a grand vision and such a sense of golly-glee that he spills his dirty Manhattan onto his white plush carpet. He jumps from his chair, looks wild eyed at his skinny starlet of the month, (who, by the way, is young enough to be his niece from Omaha).  Understandably, she is more focused on the poodle puppy slobbering in her crooked arm, than him. Anyway, suddenly and inexplicably, he leaps from his chair and exclaims, “Oh. My. God. Roxie! We’ve got to do this story!  It has blockbuster written all over it!”

Seriously now, I can’t imagine him forgetting his toppled drink, or ignoring the stained carpet, or him feverishly dialing up his attorney, never mind that it’s two in the morning, and spittling into the phone, “Stephen, my good man, ring up this ‘Zoltan’ character.  Make him an offer.  Draw up a contract.  Post haste, or sooner!  We’re doing his story!”

“Huh,” moans Stephen. “Who is this?”

“Dammit, Stephen. Wake up. It’s me, Frank!” Only he pronounces it as, “Fronk.”

The effervescent Roxie, chomping on lime Orbit gum, leans over the mogul’s shoulder. For a moment, he’s intoxicated by the perfume of her hair which drapes his forehead.  It smells of something sweet, like papaya and cranberry. And, she yells into the phone, with a sultry Midwestern twang, “Yea-ah. It’s, like, Fronk!”

Of course, this is merely a pipe dream.  A fantasy.  It ain’t gonna happen, and that ain’t why I’m sharing this story with you.  Truth is, this is just a slice of my life I thought you might find amusing when you’ve tired of watching another Seinfeld rerun and are casting about in your pajamas for something useful to do.  I believe there’s the hint of a Groucho Marx-like joke lurking in that last sentence, but we’ll act like it doesn’t exist and forge on.

With all that said, here it is.  Finally.  At last. The train has pulled into the station.  Grab a hot bologna and cheese sandwich and a cold beer. Sit back and enjoy. You, my friend, are the first to hear the untold story of – drum roll, please – My Life in the Orchestra.

Believe it or not, I once played in the Benton Harbor Town Symphony Orchestra. We were little known and probably just as well.  In those days, the instrument I played was the serpent (no jokes, please).  Basically, it’s a lip-vibrated bass wind contraption that is a distant and somewhat ugly relative of the tuba.  (See photo above) It has a serpentine shape, ergo the name.  When you lay it flat and look down upon it, you’ll notice it resembles the curvature of the Amazon River, or a not-so-romantic, discarded shoelace.

Needless to say, I played First Serpent in the Benton Harbor Town Symphony Orchestra, as I was also the only serpent player in our fractured and dysfunctional assemblage.

Most of our troubles, and there were many, began long before we ever played a note in public.  For example, our new public announcer came to us mysteriously by way of the Southeast Berlin Symphony. His name, which I later learned was not his real name, and which I shall disclose here shortly, was Herr Joerg (pronounced:YORG) Schicklgruber. He was a handsome, self-assured gent and presented an imposing figure when he strode onto the stage in his long black tails and white bowtie. His mere presence sent a hush through the audience.  When he arrived at mid stage, he would click his heels and bow to the conductor. Fortunately, the audience never saw the pained expression on his face, which to us, in the orchestra, signaled he might soon pass gas. Then, he offered a semi-circular bent, left to right, to the entire ménage of instrumentalists.

Sadie Treblehorn, the freelance culture and city hall reporter, for the Benton Harbor Herald Palladium, once reported that, “When the orchestra members returned Herr Schicklgruber’s bow it was a noisy affair exemplified by a half-hearted, unsyncopated crouch from their seats that resembled an anemic fan wave at a Detroit Lions’ game.”

Nevertheless, Schicklgruber was renowned for his announcing style which we, behind his back, dubbed the “glockenspiel.”  You see, prior to making his first announcements to the audience about the evening’s performance, he would produce a loaded Glock from his tuxedo jacket. We knew it was loaded for it once misfired during rehearsal and the bullet punctured a sound baffle which hung from the auditorium’s ceiling. The retort scared off a family of pigeons, a swarm of swallows, and a battalion of bats who had all made themselves comfortably at home in the rafters.

The concert hall became aflutter with birds and bats flying recklessly hitherto and fro. Some of the old timers in our orchestra said it reminded them of the Bombing of Berlin. In fact, many a winged creature let loose their own form of “bombs” upon us that day.  This sent some of the musicians, most notably the ones who had graduated from Berkley, in retreat to the restrooms; while our three sousaphone players, famous for their beehive hairdos, dove head first into the tuba section. We assumed they were seeking protection from the bats, who, of course, had no intention of nesting in such low-rent districts.

On the nights of our performances, when Schicklgruber’s gun appeared, gasps would trickle through the orchestra and the crowd as though a large balloon were exhaling.  With his arm held high in the air, he waved the pistol like he was trying to knock down some of the pigeons swooping through the hall.

Now that he held the audience’s rapt attention, he presented his Spiel about the evening’s orchestral selections with a commanding basso voice. As though the sight of his gun weren’t enough, his clipped German accent gave us all a chill.  Finished with his announcements, he stood straight as a silent sentinel while our patrons hurriedly fumbled to click off their cellphones. Not a soul in the crowd dared challenge him for fear of getting shot.  Satisfied that everyone had complied, he would pocket the gun, bow, click his heels, and hulk from the stage like a vampire in need of a transfusion.

After he disappeared from view, a sigh of relief whooshed around the auditorium followed by nervous applause. On stage, an odd clickety-clack of sound surged through the orchestra as my colleagues and I sat back in our chairs in great relief to know that, once again, no fowl or mammal had been harmed.

One Saturday evening, prior to our much-heralded American premier devoted to Gaetano Farinelli’s little-known composition, Adagio for Steel Guitar, Herr Joerg failed to appear.  It was both a shock and a relief.  He never did again perform his terrifying “glockenspiel.” His absence left a disharmonious note on the evening, not to mention an embarrassing beginning to a promising performance.

Rumor had it that he was a double agent for Russia and Germany. We learned later that the Bundesnachrichtendienst (The German Federal Intelligence Service, commonly known as BND), nabbed him in the wings while the orchestra struggled on stage with our second number, The Flight of the Bumblebee.

The next day, our symphony board acted quickly and chose to fill the announcer void with the vitriolic Viola Longstemmer, our erstwhile orchestra conductor. At first, she balked at this additional responsibility but when the board capitulated and offered her free season parking at the auditorium, under the adjacent Burger King sign, she graciously accepted.

Viola was, herself, an imposing figure and soon made the audience forget Schicklgruber.  Her persona was old school, with emphasis on “old.”  It was no secret that our Viola had long since passed her prime. The local joke was that she had held the position of conductor since Benton Harbor was a boy.

When she spoke, she pointed her chin high in an arrogant stance which caused the auditorium spotlights to bounce off her round John Lennon glasses. This gave her eyes an eerie opacity to complement her falsetto register.  Meanwhile, her taste for fashion, while consistent, left much to be desired. No matter when or where we performed, she always appeared in a black silk pants suit with matching orthopedic shoes.

The town’s local fashion editor, Hedda Treaklemock, once described Viola as “doing a chic impression of Cinderella’s fugly godmother.”  On another occasion, Hedda wrote, “Viola’s Darth Vader black ensemble was offset this evening by rouge lipstick, the kind that is so riotously red it can send impressionable young men to war.”

Oddly, the fashion reviews resulted in an uptick in attendance. It was plain to see that our patrons, came more to snicker and gossip at Viola’s wardrobe and makeup, than to appreciate our musical virtuosity.

Meanwhile, for those of us in the orchestra who were forced to follow her stern stare and menacing baton, we were well aware of the stress the job caused her. She was strung tighter than a … well, you get the idea.  Despite her advanced age, she stood ramrod straight, had the stamina of Artemis, and suffered no fools.  Interestingly, our orchestra was infested with fools who held varying degrees of dubious musical skills and even far less social skills.

As you might imagine, in this adult camp for the musically and socially challenged, Viola faced a myriad of personnel issues, inflated egos, and embarrassing concert glitches such as the far-too-occasional quickened tempo from the radical oboes, or the errant honk of a clarinet.

Adding fuel to the fire was the ongoing animosity between our haughty string section and the bombastic horns.  The strings were comprised of men and women with Ivy League degrees, or had survived stringent fellowships from European conservatories. They complained aloud that “the horns were not truly qualified to be called musicians.”

While the members of the horn section, mostly from west coast schools, and college marching bands, proposed that the strings had become eunuchs due to sniffing too much bow rosin.  And, nearly everyone in the orchestra held the opinion that the percussionists were simply long-haired beatniks who had never grown up.

One disconcerting and distracting situation involved a feisty love triangle among our hippy-dippy timpanist; our anorexic, but fat-fingered pianist; and the mousey-but-curvaceous French horn player.

The affair had turned so overt and rambunctious that it spilled over into our performances.  It was not uncommon for the timpanist or pianist, or both, to try and intimidate the other by tossing glaring stares and threatening gestures.  When the hormones heated up one or the other might strike his mark or hit his notes with exuberant passion when the score called for just the opposite, such as “pianissimo” or “adagio” rather than “capriccio.” Such childish acts would evoke the God-awful lightening-bolt-stare from Viola as though Thor himself was conducting.  I don’t think the audience ever caught on, but when the jealous emotions flared between timpani and piano, it often resulted in one or more of us swerving onto an unannounced chord change, or a flurry of screeches from the violin section.

This affair all came to a crescendo when Mick Murdock, the timpanist, got wind of Leonard Finklefish, the pianist, getting “aggressivo” as Mick called it, with Lin Su Stin Ki, the horny and spicy Frenchist (as the saxophone section referred to her).  As an aside, it was widely rumored, amongst the male members of the orchestra, that Lin Su was quite the kisser.  Whenever she put her lips to the mouthpiece of her French horn, it invariably set off a jackhammering of rapid leg syndrome down the row of saxophones.

In an attempt to restore order to the orchestra and to resolve the public distraction, Viola decided to take drastic measures.  At the Monday rehearsal, following a pitiful Sunday matinee, she strode forcefully to her conductor’s platform. Her eyes were dark and the way her orthopedic shoes squeaked it foreshadowed a brewing tempest.

A staccato of gulps made its rounds through my colleagues.

She pointed her baton at Mick, “I will no longer tolerate this disregard for the heritage of our music, the ruination of our reputation, and the disruption of performances.  This childish and boorish behavior will cease immediately.”  She wagged her baton at the timpanist and shrilly told him “to beat it.  But do leave the drums.”

She then aimed the point of her baton at Leonard who was nervously cracking his knuckles at the Steinway.  She forbade him to let his fingers touch Lin Su’s valves or she would stop the orchestra in mid-note and personally rap his fingers. Upon hearing this threat, Leonard sat still as a store-front manikin.  And, then, like the turret on a tank, Viola scanned her baton in Lin Su’s direction.  She pointed as though she might shoot off a round. She threatened Lin Su with bodily harm if she didn’t keep her mouthpiece on her mouthpiece.

This set off another episode of rapid leg syndrome that clattered loudly down the row of saxophones.

For a short while, after this dressing down, most seemed to settle back into a normal rhythm, if you will. But, there was mixed reaction among the other orchestra members, as we were now without a timpanist. Viola said it didn’t matter that Mick was gone since he tended to regard the musical signature more as a suggestion than direction and was prone to hammer away on the big, deep drums when silence was called for.

“Perhaps,” she intoned with nasal authority, “We can all move on and improve our collective lot for the good of our orchestra.”  She tried to hit the right note by asking Charlotte Cockburn, our blonde and busty bells and chimes player, to double on the timpani.  After all, it was a mere matter of sliding the short five feet between instruments.  “It’s no big deal.  They both involve the act of striking,” Viola chirped.  “Are you up to the task, Miss Cockburn?”

Charlotte’s eyes flitted around the orchestra. We watched her with great anticipation.  She shrugged and said, “Uh, yeah. Sure.”  This was not the level of confidence we were hoping to hear.

The mistake of this solution was borne out in the next day’s rehearsal when we struggled to master Mozart’s Éine kleine Nachtmusik.”  In German, this means “a little serenade,” and is more inaccurately known as “a little night music,” which is more akin to how our orchestra performed. Inaccurately and in the dark.

As Charlotte turned quickly to her left for the slide to strike the timpani, her mighty breasts accidentally jangled against the hanging chimes. An oblique exaltation of clanking, reminiscent of some bad Chinese jazz, and spilled utensils, sent atonal shock waves across the stage.

Viola’s incessant baton tapping on her music stand braked the orchestra to a halt in mid note, which was ignominiously punctuated by the freakish snapping of the high G-string on the zither, followed by an ill-timed tuba fart.

The supernatural sound set off by Charlotte’s bazooms, accompanied by the zither and tuba, let loose peals of laughter from the usually snotty violins, and a waterfall of drools from the oversexed saxophone section, all of whom were murmuring, “Bunga, bunga.”

Again, Viola swung her baton down hard on the music holder.  This time it landed with the force of a machete chopping at chicken.

As Charlotte screeched to a stop in front of the set of big drums, she stared at Viola with a frighten face of confusion, a deer-in-headlights-look.

“What is the matter, Miss Cockburn,” Viola hissed through gritted teeth. “Why are we stopping?”

Charlotte twirled her massive pig tails, and squeaked, “Well, I’ve been reading up on the timpani, but, I’m not sure if I should use the French or German grip on the mallets.”

This set off a round of snickers from the bespectacled twin harpists, Molly and Dolly Applepickering.

Charlotte dug her forefinger into her cute chin cleft, “And, I’m, like, not sure which of the four drums I should, like, strike first.”

“Oh, for the love of Ludwig,” Viola spat a jawbation that blew the long black hair of the Chilean bassoonist sitting in front of me into such a horizontal fright that I nearly went blind.  “I don’t really care Miss Cockburn! Mozart wouldn’t give a flippin’ Heineken, and the audience, sure as hell, wouldn’t have a clue if you used a sugar spoon or a sledge hammer!”

Silence fell upon the orchestra.  No one dared move or breathe.  I focused ahead on my sheet music and tried to discern if the black spot on the scale was an f-flat or a resting fly.

“Just use the German grip and strike the drums left to right when called for!” Viola said.

“Okay, Miss Longstemmer,” Charlotte said. “I can do that.”

We thought the situation was resolved and we all sat back with a collective sigh of relief.  Viola shuffled through her music sheets.  “Now, where were we?”

But, then Big Clyde Glinka, the bass player, who wore dark sunglasses just to look cool, and who rarely spoke two words in a row, decided this once to be helpful.  For some reason, he thought this an opportune moment to assist by informing Viola that, “Charlotte could also consider handling the mallets with either the American or the Amsterdam grip.”

The three cellists, whom we called Curly, Moe, and Larry, because they were never funny, threw back their heads in barking guffaws.  They fell out of their chairs in a garboil of infectious laughter, like they had been shot.  The laughter rippled through the orchestra like a toppled shelf of canned corn at Gristle’s FoodKart.  It was as though a virus of cackle flu passed through us.  We were collectively destroyed in hysterics.  Most of us, me included, were writhing on the floor, laughing so hard that we could barely breathe.  Frankly, it was a miracle no instruments were damaged.

This was the straw that broke Viola’s back.  She snapped her baton in half.  Her conductor’s music stand wobbled and threatened to topple when she jumped from her platform and fled up the center aisle.

The uptight ladies in the string section just rolled their eyes, while the guys in the horn section seemingly appreciated her exit.

Sally Hunkafeller, our first violinist and concertmaster, stood and announced in a baritone voice, which we always found unnerving, that we “should all take five.”  The sound of her manly voice sent another wave of doubled-over laughter round the horn.

The letting go of Mick and now Charlotte’s confusion over mallet grip choices caused great consternation in the orchestra.  It was beginning to feel like we were all losing our grip. Soon after, a loose confederation of musicians in our group threatened to strike. The two flautists, the mellophone guy, and the newest member, Charlotte, who now resented her forced double duty, called themselves “The Union of Musicologists,” and joined forces as a branch of the Benton Harbor postal workers union, which, parenthetically and enthusiastically, supported the strike threat with its full stamp of approval.

Others in the orchestra harped openly about the kerfuffle.  The trombone section played it cool and let the whole matter slide.  Meanwhile, the guitarist fretted for he didn’t know which side to pick; and the horn section, feeling mellow from a marijuana break, just blew it off.  Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and we opted to stick it out, one for all, all for one.  Unfortunately, however, our new-found commitment “to team” didn’t improve on stage.

Our next performance was a comedy of errors, as if this were the first, which, sadly, it was not. The pressure to play good spoiled our enjoyment of the music, and the evening, I might add, for many audience members.

For some reason, Viola chose to avoid familiar classical works for this particular concert.  Her logic was, “We need to showcase our ‘hip side’ and attract a broader audience.”

In the week’s rehearsals leading up to that evening, she challenged us to attack the ever-popular, “76 Trombones,” but with a bluesy tone; followed by “Muskrat Love;” and the toe-taping finale, the raucous but bemusing, “Piccicata Polka.”

Surprisingly, Charlotte bravely made it through the evening and miraculously hit all the right plinkiplonks and thumpitydumps.

While the audience reaction fell short of breathtaking, the reviews were not very kind.  Sadie Treblehorn, wrote us up as “a collection of dreadful entertainers . . . a shambolic, chivvy, and ragged performance,” she said.  She also pointed out how our contrabassoon was a beautiful instrument when played in the right hands. “Unfortunately, those hands were missing from this orchestra.”  And, finally, she reported how, “Her plumbing, when stressed, produced better sounds than our horn section.”

Collectively, we felt this to be a mortal blow.

Following this concert, our loyal symphony patrons began to drop off (not only in attendance numbers) but during the actual performances.  Other times, fisticuffs would break out among the hoity-toity crowd, as some of the old timers’ snoring unceremoniously drowned out the ferocious sawing of our passionate violinists.  Then, the nouveau riche jeans-and-blazer-crowd, who liked to sneak in Grande cups of vanilla lattes, couldn’t figure out how to applaud with hot cups of special coffee in hand.  As you can imagine, this exuberant show of appreciation resulted in an eruption of foam and the launching of plastic lids which turned into sticky rivers of prime Columbian spillage and little white boats that flowed unchecked and merrily down the floor of the premium orchestral center seats.

Treblehorn reported that while our “orchestra flirted with margins of acceptability, the evenings most interesting performance happened in the audience.”

Ticket sales lagged soon after and before long the symphony board was faced with unpopular decisions to cut costs. To save on expenses, Viola was fired.  The board calculated that with the savings from her inflated salary and benefits, they could siphon off two or three euphonium and triangle players from third-tier orchestras to round out our own, and that the rest of us could rotate conducting responsibilities.  Our union members once again threatened to strike.

At Viola’s farewell tea and cakes party, which was billed as a command performance for all orchestra members under the threat of having our bus passes revoked, we reluctantly attended en masse to pay our respects.

The board chair and town socialite, Ophelia Benton Gutterhammer, the great-great-great-granddaughter of the city’s founder, gushed in praise for Viola’s creative leadership and longevity.  On behalf of her board, she expressed deep sorrow at Viola’s leaving and hoped with all sincerity that she would understand the extreme circumstances which precipitated this action.

Viola remained stoic and offered a faint smile when presented with a rhinestone encrusted baton and a burnished walnut pendulum timekeeper.  For a second, we thought she might strike Ophelia with her new weapons.

The four trombonists and two oboists applauded obsequiously. The clarinets clucked their approval. The rest cowered silently around the chips and dips, while the guitarist and I nonchalantly passed around Big Clyde’s flask.

Two weeks later, after the dust had settled, and Viola had moved to Key West with her two cats, Bartok and Bernstein, the board acted swiftly and decisively.  In a final, desperate attempt to save money, the symphony leaders hired the number one conductor away from Union Pacific.

Niles Upanishad, the erudite editor of the Benton Harbor Herald Palladium, opined in his Sunday column that the bold move just might be what the symphony needed to get back on track.



Announcer Joerg Schicklgruber was sentenced to life in prison in Oppsendorfer, Germany for passing state secrets.  He took full advantage of his basso voice and passed his time playing DJ, spinning jazz albums and reading liner notes on the prison’s closed loop radio station, under the handle of “Daddio.”  His real name was Harold von Hundhausen.

Mick Murdock, the timpanist, cut his hair, moved to Montana, and took a job teaching music at Flat Hills High School, where his jazz bands won perennial state championships.  He eventually married Maggie Mae Doubledribble, the perky gym teacher, who, oddly enough pulled a “hammie” while performing the somersault at their wedding reception.  The act became a YouTube sensation.

Leonard Finklefish, the pianist, finally won the hand of Lin Su Stin Ki, the French horn player.  After the symphony disbanded, the couple moved to Dubuque, Iowa and opened a Dairy Queen franchise. Thanks to a steady diet of hamburgers and ice cream, Leonard put on much-needed weight. For grins, he continued to play cocktail piano at the Elks Club on Saturday nights.  Sadly, Lin Su died of brain freeze, one hot July afternoon, while rapidly consuming a Georgia Mud Fudge Blizzard.

Charlotte Cockburn moved to Hollywood and for a few years made a handsome living playing supporting roles in B-films.  Later, when calls from her agent sagged, along with her assets, she reluctantly retired. She moved inland to Pasadena and lived off her residuals, as well as from fees earned from occasional appearances at dental conventions, where she also sold her calendars in which she posed in suggestive bikinis behind sets of timpani drums.

Big Clyde Glinka moved to Chicago and started a jazz trio, “Big Clyde and the Double Slide.”  He produced numerous award-winning CDs featuring his group’s unique hot-house sound.  Clyde married, Ginger Wannamaker, a sultry hostess, whom he met while flying on Virgin Airlines. After she bore him six children, Clyde gave up the night club life and became a part-time Pentecostal minister, but preached behind his trademark sunglasses. To this day, no one, not even Ginger, has yet to see his eyes.

Five years later, Viola Longstemmer passed away peacefully in her sleep at the age of 99 at her Key West cottage.  When the authorities found her, many days later, she was sprawled on the divan, wearing a colorful Japanese kimono, and a smile. Ironically, her body had decomposed. A vodka tonic sat on a side table, and the CD player revealed she had been listening to the “Greatest Hits of Meredith Wilson.” Her cats were never found.

And, me?  I gave up the serpent and joined the Merchant Marine, but that’s another story.

Remember.  Make every hour your happy hour.


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