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How to Make a Tavern Band

This season, The Met Opera introduced a new production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck by William Kentridge. In this production, our very own MET Orchestra Musicians are featured on stage as the tavern band – an integral part of the action. While many of us are used to playing in stage bands, we think this banda is pretty unique! We took some time to ask our amazing Wozzeck tavern band a few questions about this whole experience.

L-R: Anton Rist (Clarinet), Bill Schimmel (Accordion), Morris Kainuma (Tuba), Ann Lehmann (Violin), Fred Hand (Guitar), Yurika Mok (Violin)

What was the timeline to get ready for this banda performance? Could you walk us through that process?

(August/September 2019 : Preparation)

Ann Lehmann (violin) : We were asked to participate in the Banda in August. I started looking at the music at the end of September and it took me about a month to memorize!

Anton Rist (clarinet) : I started learning and memorizing the part in September, when we were told that it would need to be memorized. The very first rehearsals were for staging, so it needed to be memorized from the start. 

(December 3rd 2019 : Rehearsals)

Yurika Mok (violin) : Our first rehearsal was beginning of December. We had a run through by ourselves and then had our first C-level rehearsal immediately after. 

(Mid-December 2019 : Costume fittings)

Anton : Costume fittings were closer to the stage rehearsals. It was really fun to see the costume shop give the band their signature look! I really like how thorough the costumes are, right down to period correct glasses.

Fred Hand (guitar) : For the previous production of Wozzeck, the musician’s costumes were baggy and it was kind of one size fits all.  The new costumes are a military style and much more elaborate. The measurements for each musician had to be much more precise. I asked for extra material to be added around the shoulders to allow for me to curl my arms around the guitar.

Ann :  In the costume fittings, they tried on several outfit and shoe combinations on us. I liked some more than others, but am happy with the boots and hairstyle I ended up with! 

Yurika : They had us try on a number of different pants with a couple of different coats.  It was very time-consuming because we had to take on/off lace-up combat boots every time we changed pants.  They also wrapped my pant legs, which is apparently what a soldier would do in those days to keep warm (especially if he didn’t have the means for leather boots).  I can vouch that it is really warm.  

Was it a challenge to memorize your part? How did you go about it?

Yurika: Once I was asked to play in the stage band, I immediately looked to see if I still had the music from the last time I performed it (18 years ago!) and being somewhat of a hoarder I did still have it! I played through it just to make sure I still could, and to see if I could memorize it. Over the next few months, I’d work on it and listen to it so that I could get it to seep in a bit. I continued to look at it bit by bit (but often), gradually learning it.  I find memorizing like this is ultimately the easiest (albeit luxurious) way to do it.  I got a copy of the score from the library which I attempted to study. Additionally, I googled a lot of German words and had to ask my German colleague for translations. For people who are unfamiliar with atonal music, this type of music is very complicated and Berg wrote a lot of directions in the score.  

Bill Schimmel (accordian) : Luckily, I had memorized it before for a Geneva Opera Production! I had also performed it many times in the previous Met Opera production. 

What are some of the challenges you face when it comes to performing in this particular stage band?

Ann : The main challenges is how the closet is set up for each performance. It’s a little different each time and it takes some time to acclimate to the setup. Once we’re out of the closet everything is fine and we can do what we need to do!

Fred : The first of course is playing from memory. Then there’s the additional component of moving on stage in character and even playing while adding characteristic movements. Because we’re physically so close to the principal singers, that seems to magnify the importance of every note that we play. 

Anton : Memorizing it definitely added another level to the preparation. We all had to put in a lot more time than we normally would. There’s so much sensory overload going on while we’re performing, it can be challenging to really focus on the cues that we need from each other and from Yannick, let alone the music and the stage directions. 

Yurika : There are several things that we have to deal with on stage: setting up in the closet, trying to be mindful of our instruments in the cramped space, coming out together in character, getting set up without colliding with anyone, and then ultimately coming in at the right time with the right notes!  

How much do you rely on one another in terms of ensemble?

Fred : I rely on the rest of the group in terms energy and spirit, and also locking into a rhythmic groove. In addition to Yannick’s cues and us counting between entrances,  I’m always reassured to hear my colleague’s parts being played right before I have an entrance. All the parts are so interrelated and dependent upon each other.

Yurika : My tavern bandmates are rock solid … I can always count on them to be consistent and flexible and we’ve been a great team.  I should also add that Ann and I played this together the first time in 2001, so it’s been really nice to do this again with her!

Anton: I think everyone in the group relies on each other for certain entrances, especially after long periods of rest. It’s really reassuring when everything happens where you expect! It’s been totally inspiring seeing and hearing everyone’s dedication and focus.

What kind of stage directions were you given? Did you have to do any acting?

Bill : The Tavern Band was an important factor In European villages. They were at your birth, marriage and at your death … they knew everyone. Personally, the village Tavern Band story works for me in the show. It keeps me focused and I always keep it in the back of my mind. In terms of playing, we were encouraged to play ugly to sound beautiful. We had to reverse a lot of what we learned in Conservatory.

Yurika : We had a lot of stage direction from Luc, assistant to William Kentridge.  He explained we were shell-shocked and injured and should move in a skittish/deranged manner. In rehearsals, he told us not to be afraid to be extreme about it.  

What is the most enjoyable part about performing in this stage band? 

Fred : Being such an integral part of the action on stage is exhilarating. Also, there’s a wonderful camaraderie that developes, not only with each other, but also with the people you interact with backstage, both cast and crew. The most fun is making music with Ann, Yurika, Bill, Anton and Morris. They’re such beautiful players and their musicianship is inspiring. And, we’re hearing the most incredible vocal performances in such close proximity. At one point, Peter Mattei is singing right next to me… amazing! 

Anton :  It’s been so much fun being a part of the action onstage! It’s also been great to see all of the extra work that goes into each run of performances, and working closely with people in the building that we don’t often interact with. Because it’s memorized, and we’ve spent so much time with the music, we all feel very comfortable. Once we get onstage, it really does feel like we’re just a tavern band improvising! 

Yurika : It has been very fun to experience being on stage and performing and interacting with all the different directors, assistant conductors and cast members who are involved in the opera.  It is super cool to see how a scene is put together and the amount of people and work it takes to pull this off on the highest artistic level.

Ann : I find the whole experience fun! From the costumes, to the camaraderie backstage, to the actual performance with my fellow performers, to the conversations about how each particular performance went, to the stage bows … It’s a real experience! I love working with the whole band!

THANK YOU to our wonderful Tavern Band for taking some time to answer our questions! We’re in awe of your dedication to making each performance unforgettable! You can see them on stage tonight, as well as all remaining performances of Wozzeck.

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