Preparing for Anything

by Jeffrey Irving, percussionist

While in school, music students are exposed to relatively little opera repertoire - after all, opera is a massive undertaking, and repertoire is limited by the need to allow vocal students' voices to mature in a natural and healthy way. Finding oneself in an environment like the MET Orchestra is clearly a shock to the system - especially as a substitute. Percussionist Jeffrey Irving, an experienced freelancer and frequent MET Orchestra sub, shares what his experiences have been like.

What was your first experience subbing at the Met like?

In 2004, I was hired to play one of the offstage anvil parts in Das Rheingold with James Levine conducting. At that point, I had only been out of school for two years and, while I had played with some excellent regional, freelance, and festival orchestras, I had not yet played with an orchestra of the Met's caliber, so I was slightly terrified at the first rehearsal. The Met uses 12(!) anvil players - three players in each of four stations (stage right, stage left, stage right tower, stage left tower). This would be a tricky bit even if we were all in the same place, but lining all that up when we're hundreds of feet away from each other makes it a whole different story.

When the stage manager called us to places for our first cue, we grabbed our anvils and our earplugs (the veterans made it clear that I would be sorry if I forgot those!) and found our way in the dark to our station. There was a table, a monitor of Levine, and a speaker so we could hear the orchestra in real time. After a minute or so, the stand lights came up as the orchestra began the interlude. It was so exciting for me to watch Levine conduct and hear such drama coming from the orchestra. However, when I finally put my earplugs in, I could barely hear anything over my own heartbeat! I was so nervous! As we neared our entrance, one of my colleagues counted down the bars: 5...4...3...2...1...CLANK-IT-Y-CLANG-CLANG-CLANG-CLANK-IT-Y; CLANK-IT-Y-CLANG-CLANG-CLANG-CLANK-IT-Y! Needless to say, that wasn't a typical orchestra experience!

How long did it take you to get comfortable with how the orchestra plays?

It took me a quite a while. Prior to 2009, when I finally had a chance to play in the pit for Turandot, I had only done stage parts, offstage parts, a MET Chamber Ensemble concert, and one of the symphonic concerts in Carnegie Hall. By that time, I had already done quite a bit of playing with many different full-time, part-time, and freelance orchestras in many different halls, but none of that really prepared me for the unique demands that playing an opera at the Met presents. The biggest challenge for me was (and still is) note placement. Right away I noticed that some of the orchestras entrances were right where I expected them to be in relation to the conductor, but many were later, and some were a lot later. I wasn't always able to figure out right away which notes would be like that or why, so I tended to play early the first time we ran through something. What I didn't really realize at the time, but gradually learned, is how acutely the orchestra listens to the stage for placement.

A perfect example of this are the tuned gong notes in “Nessun dorma” from Turandot. These happen with the tenor and orchestra, after a fermata the beat before. I don't know how many times I botched that before having the courage to wait long enough to play them in the right place! "Conductor just gave the downbeat...Don't play yet...If this were any other orchestra I'd play that here...Not yet...Wait...Did the tenor sing his 16th-note pickup yet?...There it is...Don't play yet, though...I'm hungry...Now?...OK, maybe now!"

How is subbing in opera different from stepping into a symphonic gig?

To make a very broad generalization, I would say that because the singers are the main event in opera, percussion takes a little bit less of a leadership role in opera music than symphonic repertoire. Of course, there are exceptions, but more often than not, even if you have a part where it seems like you really should be in charge, you might be playing along with a chorus of 100, so you have to be sensitive to that and adjust if necessary. Playing opera is very different acoustically, as well. When you're on stage with a symphony orchestra, you can see and hear everybody. At the Met, if you're playing anything other than bass drum or cymbals, you're playing under the overhang and there is a prompter's box separating you visually and acoustically from nearly the entire right side of the pit. This can make it difficult to hear what we need to hear, whether it's the singers on stage or the harpist with whom we have to line up a triangle note. That overhang can also make our instruments sound very raw and loud. I know from having watched a number of operas from the audience that the sound does warm up in the house, but when you're playing, it can be hard to know what you really sound like out there. All of this is challenging for me as a sub because, even though I've gained more experience with all of this over the past few years, I'm not there every day like the regular members.

What tips would you have for people having to sight-read a show?

Photo by Rob Knopper and Melissa Jordan Photography

Photo by Rob Knopper and Melissa Jordan Photography

Oh, boy…Well, I suppose that depends on when you get the phone call! If you get called at 10:30 AM for a 7:30 show, you’ll probably have time to get the music, listen to a recording, and practice any passages that may need to be practiced. If you get a call at 4, the situation is very different. I can only speak from the standpoint of a percussionist here, but everyone in the percussion section has always been very helpful the handful of times I've gotten called at the last minute to sight-read a show that I've never played before. I'm not shy about asking whatever questions I need to ask them to get the job done. When the performance comes around, you just have to keep your head on straight, be attentive, and simply use all the tools at your disposal to try and make great music. Thankfully, I've never felt at the Met that I've been overly scrutinized by the other section members in these types of situations. As an aside, I think that in these types of situations, freelancers have an advantage. We're constantly working in different environments and playing different types of music, sometimes under less-than-ideal circumstances, so we've sort of developed a natural skill to be able to make a good hand out of the cards we've been dealt. 

How do you (or can you, even) balance gigs as a freelancer? If the Met calls for tonight and you already have a commitment, what do you do? How does that fit into the larger “etiquette” that’s expected?

This is an excellent question! I just began a series of entries called On Professionalism on my blog to address these types of subjects, and a future entry will deal with this very question. Balancing things as a freelancer can be very challenging at times, especially when you're young and trying to build a good reputation. You never know where an opportunity might come from, so you want to say “yes" to everything and “no" to nothing. Before you know it, you've booked yourself solid doing this, that, and the other thing, then you get a call for something that conflicts with all of it, but you feel you just cannot turn down. My general rule is this: Always be prepared to honor your commitments. It's incredibly important as a freelancer to demonstrate to contractors and other musicians that you are reliable, trustworthy, and not just out for your own immediate gain, regardless of how ambitious you might be. You don't want to be generally regarded as that person who is constantly trying to skirt his obligations every time a better opportunity comes along. That being said, there are exceptions to every rule.

As you move through your career and demonstrate that you are reliable and trustworthy, you will automatically develop solid professional relationships with the people you work for and when that "can't say no" opportunity arises, there will be some flexibility. If the Met were to call me to play tonight and I had a prior commitment, chances are I would honor that commitment. However, let's say my conflict was Wicked...I've been subbing on that show for over ten years, have a good working relationship with Andy Jones, the regular percussionist, and there are potentially other subs who would be free to play and be happy to get the work. In that situation, I would give Andy a call, explain the situation and offer to do the legwork of calling someone else. If nobody was available, I would happily honor my commitment to him and turn down the Met. Saying “no” to a big opportunity can be really painful, but you will eventually come out ahead if you make it a general practice to honor your commitments.

Gigging percussionists usually like to have a clear idea of what they'll be expected to play so that they can bring the right gear (mallets, instruments, etc.) to the rehearsal or performance? How do you handle it when it's a last-minute call, or the part assignments are ambiguous or unclear?

This is an aspect of being a professional percussionist that gets better over time and with experience. I remember freaking out as a college student one time - I got hired for a gig for which they didn't hire enough percussionists. I just got a stack of music dumped in front of me 30 minutes before rehearsal began! Don't ask me how it went because I honestly can't remember! Anyway, nowadays that type of situation might still be a little stressful, but I would most likely be able to skim through everything, quickly figure out will likely be most important, and divide things up relatively well. I'm actually in awe of some of my more experienced colleagues' ability to do this! In general, though, if something is last-minute and I can't get much information about what I will be required to do, I just try to prepare for any eventuality. If I get a very last minute call for the Met, obviously I'll know what instruments I'm playing, but I may not be completely familiar with every nuance of the music.  In this case, I'll just bring whatever mallets and/or accessories I will need to have the widest variety of sounds as possible at my disposal.