I’m an active person, always wanting to engage with projects, things and people that are around me. For many years, I didn’t particularly care for waiting. I don’t know many people who do. Waiting in traffic. Waiting for a movie to begin. Waiting on a line at the airport. Waiting for others to get ready to go out to dinner. Waiting often seems like a waste of time. But I don’t think so any more. As with may things, it all depends on how you look at it.
I took the photo above last month at Yellowstone National Park. I was struck by three people sitting on the boardwalk that surrounds Old Faithful geyser, one of the park’s iconic features. This remarkable geyser erupts to spectacular effect about every 90 minutes or so. Since it erupts with such regularity, great crowds come to see Old Faithful. The three people above came early. About an hour early. So they did not have to deal with this to find a good spot to watch (below):
This is the scene that is repeated many times each day. Several thousand – yes, thousand – people waiting for Old Faithful to erupt. The three people who got there an hour early certainly got a good seat. But they got more than that. They had some time without the crowds, time to think and consider what they had and what they were about to see. I have a feeling they felt the wait was very much worth it.
Musicians do a lot of waiting as well. Trombone players, in particular, spend a great deal of time sitting and waiting for things to happen. Consider Beethoven’s Symphony 9. Here’s the beginning of the first page of the bass trombone part, a part I played dozens and dozens of times as a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Look carefully. See where I played my first note of the piece? It’s in measure 414 of the second movement. I didn’t play a single note in the first movement (that movement has 547 measures). Then had to wait 414 measures (well, actually there were more than that if the conductor took the repeat) to play in the second movement. And my first note was a note that I had to get right – the other two trombone players don’t play there. By contrast, the first violin part requires eight pages of music to get to that same place in the music. So I had to do a lot of waiting before I played my first note of the Beethoven Symphony 9.
One thing I did NOT do was count rests. There are simply too many rests to count to be 100% sure you’ll count correctly. So I made it a point, for every piece I ever played, to study the full score and know and understand the piece so well that I did not need to rely on counting rests. I simply knew when it was time to play. When you count rests for hundreds of measures, you can’t do anything else; you have to concentrate to get the count right. That never interested me. (By the way, my colleagues will attest to the fact that I rarely came in wrong. I don’t say that as a point of pride but simply an acknowledgement of the fact that if you prepare thoroughly, you will not need to count every rest and can have confidence that you will come in correctly.) You’ll see why, below.
When I retired from the Boston Symphony, I received several meaningful gifts from the Orchestra and my colleagues. Several of them are hanging on the wall in my home studio.
The centerpiece is a photo of the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood Festival Chorus performing Beethoven’s Symphony 9 in Symphony Hall, Boston during my last week of concerts; the photo was taken on May 3, 2012 and the performance was conducted by Bernard Haitink. The photo is beautifully framed and matted and my colleagues in the Orchestra signed the matte. It is an exceptionally meaningful artifact of my career. But if you look closely, you will see the orchestra playing – every member in full throat – except the three trombone players. Toby Oft, Steve Lange and I are seen doing what we did for so much time: we were sitting with our hands folded, trombones at the ready but they are silent.
I haven’t done a calculation, but my guess is I have spent years of my life waiting, and much of that time was done at orchestra rehearsals and concerts. Since waiting is unavoidable, the question arises: What are you going to do while you’re waiting? You could just sit there and be bored, unhappy that you’re not DOING something. But I learned that there are a lot of things you can do while you’re waiting to play. You may come up with a different list but I think the important thing is that you HAVE a list of things that you can do to redeem the time that you spend waiting. Here are some things that I do while waiting to play.
- Listen. I always felt like I had the best seat in Symphony Hall. I could hear every note that was played with great clarity. Sometimes I would simply listen to the great orchestra around me and enjoy it like I was attending a concert.
- Pay attention. My students will tell you that the words “pay attention” are a theme of my teaching. So often we experience things and so much goes by without our even noticing. Sometimes I would choose a particular colleague and pay attention to what he or she was doing. While it’s true that Edward Kleinhammer and Keith Brown were my trombone teachers in college, if asked who my teachers were, I rattle off a list of dozens of names – and most of them were not trombone players. They were my colleagues in the Boston Symphony who taught me so much when I took the time to intentionally pay attention to what they were doing. I am a much better trombone player because I paid attention to string, woodwind, percussion and other brass players exercise their craft. Likewise, I learned a great deal from observing soloists and conductors. Too many trombone players are only interested in the trombone parts. Pay attention to others and you will experience tremendous growth as a musician.
- Watch the audience. People go to concerts to hear and see an orchestra. But it’s also true that those on stage are aware of the audience. Over my nearly 30 years in the Boston Symphony, I got to know many audience members. Some I met personally; others I observed only from a distance. I recall one woman who came to concerts with her husband when I first joined the Boston Symphony. As the years went on, she began to come to some concerts with her daughter. Years later, she came with her granddaughter. And in my final years in the orchestra, she came again with her husband. It was a touching thing to see each Thursday night. It taught me something about inter-generational relationships and the love a family shares.
- Analyze the music. When I prepare to play any piece, I study the score to understand it better. This is not just so I wouldn’t have to count lengthy numbers of rests. It is so I can enjoy and appreciate the music on a new level. I would always read the program notes written by the Boston Symphony’s expert scholars and writers and I often would read a book about the piece we were playing. With that background, I often sat during concerts and analyzed the composer’s work, seeing how themes weaved in and out, doing harmonic and rhythmic analysis. I felt that every concert was a music history lesson. I learned so much.
- Pray. Prayer is not a singular event that I do at a particular time of day. The worship of God is something that I do all day long, all the time. The title of a book by my music-spiritual mentor, Harold M. Best, says it well: Unceasing Worship. When I had long movements where I didn’t play, I would often pray. Pray for family and friends, pray for our country and its leaders, pray for wisdom and understanding, and much more. Surrounded by God’s great gift of music, prayer flows naturally.
Waiting is an exercise; patience can only be learned while in a situation that makes you tend to be impatient. But waiting can be a great blessing, even a thrill, if you look at it as an opportunity to to do more than simply sit with your hands folded in your lap.