An examiner colleague calls up to tell me of an incident; “The candidate came into the room and told me; ‘I’m afraid I haven’t been able to practise the Mozart Sonata in D as the D on my piano at home doesn’t work’. What did he want me to do; tell him not to play it? And could it really be that every D on the piano wasn’t working?”, she giggled. Such things are sadly very common; the violin with a string missing (“It broke last week and we haven’t been able to find a new one”), the trumpet case opened in the exam room to reveal no trumpet (“I think I left it at school after my last lesson”), the saxophone with no reed (“My teacher told me you would have one”) and, my personal favourite, the guitar taken from its case and strummed to reveal six strings roughly sounding the same pitch; “My teacher tuned it for me at my last lesson”, “When was that?”, “Oh, I missed last week’s and the week before was a holiday, so it must be three weeks ago”.
From our privileged and comfortable position behind the examiner’s desk, it is easy to find these things amusing but, at heart, we all sympathise with the poor candidate whose exam nerves, stretched almost to breaking point simply by having to do the wretched exam, are put under even more pressure by instrument malfunctions. And the problem is, as we all suspect, it’s not the poor candidate’s fault. What teachers think they are doing sending a candidate into the exam room at an early grade without at least someone present to deal with last minute crises involving the instrument defeats me; and how they can call themselves teachers when they have allowed their students to progress up the grades without giving them even the most basic instruction on simple maintenance and tuning procedures, defies belief. I’ve seen grade 8 clarinettists unable to deal with a broken reed and diploma trumpeters scouring the waiting room for valve oil; simple matters which should have been ingrained into the student years earlier.Examiners yearn to help when things go wrong, but their hands are tied. Some years ago the late Geoffrey Smith - an examiner who loved examining in Malaysia so much that he went to live there – was so upset by the tuning of a young violinist’s instrument and by the inept attempt of the accompanist to tune it, that he took matters into his own hands, grabbed the instrument and attempted to tune the recalcitrant string himself. The result was not just a snapped string but, somehow or other, a collapsed bridge. An angry parent took matters further, claiming that the word “Stradivarius” printed on the inside of the instrument was an indicator of its great value (happily ignoring the “Made in Hong Kong” label next to it) and it got as far as the courts. From that day onwards examiners have been forbidden from touching the candidates’ instruments.
The problem is that so much teaching focuses on playing right notes and assumes that nothing else matters. Yet it is well said that the sign of a great musician is not an inability to play wrong notes but an ability to deal with wrong ones so that you think they were right all along. So it is with mechanical failures. All instruments are prone to these, and the ability to cope with them is part and parcel of learning the instrument.One of the most memorable concerts of my life was a performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto by David Oistrakh sometime during the late 1960s. In so many ways this was an electrifying performance, not least because shortly before the end of the first movement a string broke with an explosive snap. The collective gasp of horror from the audience, dreading the fact that the mesmerising spell Oistrakh had cast over us was about to be broken, soon turned to one of amazement as, apparently without batting an eyelid, he carried on to the end of the movement before slipping off-stage to replace the string. Which string it was, precisely where it snapped and what the rest of the movement sounded like, I cannot remember simply because I was held in such thrall (as were we all) by the sheer effrontery of the man to carry on regardless. What split-second mental processes were going on in his head to deal with revised fingerings and adjusting the bow defy imagination, but such things are the mark only of the very greatest players on earth. “Oh! My string’s broken, what should I do?”, a not uncommon student response to the problem, is clearly indicative of a future of failure as a fiddler.
Then there was the peerless Sabina Pade, for an all-too-brief time Principal Horn of the Malaysian Philharmonic. I well remember going backstage to congratulate her after she had done an absolutely brilliant job of the horn solo from the Shostakovich 1st Cello Concerto. With her customary self-effacing attitude she thanked me for my praise but added, “I was so worried. My second valve was sticking”. You would never have thought it! And, among the great and good of the MPO one cannot ignore the magnificent timpanist Paul Philbert who I once recall seeing let fly a stick during a rehearsal of Pines of Rome. Undaunted, he merely picked up another from the stand beside him and continued to the next break with two unmatched sticks. Now that’s professionalism, and Paul has it by the bucket-load.Of course every instrument has its mechanical problems, but my own, the organ, seems to suffer more than most, not least because it is more of a machine than most. I have lost count of the ciphering and broken notes which have necessitated last minute changes of key and registration. Suddenly discovering the solo Tuba had gone drastically out of tune on the note B flat just before a service in which we were to sing Stanford’s Te Deum in that key, I put the whole thing down a semitone to avoid the ghastly note. I did all right, but the choirmen were none too happy about it; I hadn’t appreciated just how many of them suffered from Perfect Pitch (and it is a sufferance rather than a boon).
Perhaps the best handler of the unexpected organ crisis was Robert (Harry) Joyce, the charismatic organist of Llandaff Cathedral during the 1960s and early 1970s whose antics were as much inspired by his phenomenal musicianship as by his love of the bottle and glass. Stories were legendary. Of how, taking a quickie in the Bucher’s Arms between weddings, he suddenly realised that the next wedding was due to start and as he reached the west door of the cathedral was horrified to see the bridal procession already part-way up the aisle. The Assistant Organist was manfully playing the Wagner, but Harry knew that this couple had ordered the Purcell, and he hadn’t passed the message on. While they solemnly marched up the main aisle, he darted along the south, bounded up the organ loft stairs, sat next to the puzzled assistant, moved his hands over the keys, motioned the assistant away, and seamlessly moved Wagner into Purcell without so much as a change of key or tempo.The best Harry Joyce story was the time he inaugurated a new organ at a church in the south Wales valleys. During some monotonous Langlais piece, the siren from the colliery next door (such things existed in the 1970s) started up and drowned out the organ. Not to be outdone, Harry merely pulled out more stops and as the siren slid up in pitch, so Harry followed it, slid back through the keys and stops as it wound itself down, and jumped off where he had started as if nothing had happened.
If anyone had the presence of mind to do that in the examination room, they would deserve both our grateful laughter and a fistful of extra marks.