A symphony audience gazes at a stage full of black-clad musicians and sees brass and ebony gleaming. Nobody notices the bag of mutes that Susan Slaughter slides under the riser, the packet of cigarette paper that Jan Gippo uses to absorb moisture from his piccolo, or the photo of Diana Haskell's new husband taped inside the cover of her clarinet case.
Transcendence is guaranteed through a million details.
Trombonist Tim Myers always takes his score home, so he carries his music onstage himself. "I have a pencil attached to my trombone so I don't forget it, to mark directions from the conductor," he admits. "I bring a little squirt bottle of water to lubricate the slide so it doesn't get sticky. And I bring mutes, the thing you put inside the trombone to change or soften the tone."
There are straight mutes, there are mutes born in jazz bands of the 1920s, and then there's the plunger mute, "which is exactly that," says Myers. "Take the stick off a toilet plunger and it's the voice of Charlie Brown's teacher on Peanuts."
Haskell brings all three of her clarinets onstage, just in case, and three or four reeds, marked because sometimes one is especially suited for a certain passage. They come from French cane fields, and they vary like wine vintages, sometimes too green, sometimes too grainy. "You have to let them mature," she says. "Soak them and let them dry, soak them and let them dry. Then you start playing on them, a few minutes a day. After you've 'played a reed in,' you can play it for a few hours. But out of a box of ten, you might only get one or two that work."
Slaughter, who is the principal trumpet, brings a bag that holds mutes, valve oil and grease for the slides, and cork for what brass players elegantly term a spit valve. "Press the spring and the moisture comes out," she explains. "But sometimes the cork will fall out. Or the spring will break‹so I have a rubber band and an opened-up paper clip." She also brings a black washcloth ("You don't always want to be wiping spit on your good clothes") and has her own little wooden chair, its red cushion attached with Velcro. "The chairs onstage are too tall and too deep for me," she says, "so I used to sit up on the front edge. To rest I'd have to lean way back and look stupid. So I never relaxed." After 20 years, back spasms convinced her to experiment. Now her chair "fits in the wardrobe box and goes all over the world" with wooden blocks to raise it and nailed-on jelly-jar lids to keep the chair legs from wiggling off the blocks.
Lisa Lalev brings her oboe, two cases of 12 reeds apiece, a knife to whittle them, and a razor knife and cutting block for the final shaping‹which she often does on the Powell stage‹after putting them through the guillotine, planing board, and gouging machine at home. (For obvious reasons, Lalev's bag also holds Band-Aids.) Oboes need double reeds, and some only last a day or two before they lose pliability or change tone quality.
Another important tool for Lalev is a cotton swab. "You can pull a silk swab through the instrument in one fell swoop, but it can knot and get lodged inside," she says, wincing. "I also bring cigarette paper, because if you're blowing moist hot air and the climate's cool and dry, moisture collects and it can get under your fingers in a keyhole. When you lift that finger it will make this horrible gurgling sound. I had it happen during a big solo at Tanglewood."
Gippo remembers playing a piccolo concerto and realizing a water bubble was trapped. "I have techniques, like banging on a key to pop the bubble. But this was in the first movement, where there is no rest. It was just awful. You are trying to be an artist and all of a sudden you have to be a mechanic."
Onstage, he carries a wooden attaché case given to him 20 years ago. Its indentations perfectly fit a flute in three parts and a piccolo when it's all put together‹which is how he likes to keep his, once he finds the right angle. He also brings reverse bifocals with the longest distance at the top, so he can glance up quickly and see the look in the conductor's eyes. Then two head joints‹"They have to be hand-cut, which is why good ones are very rare"‹and a handkerchief to mop his brow and keep his embouchure dry. "The lips and muscle and the shape that makes, that's the embouchure, it's how we focus the air," he explains. "The lips need to be moist, but have no moisture around them. Their muscles are round and quite tender, with great sensitivity. That's why we kiss with our lips, and mothers kiss their babies' foreheads to see if they have a fever."
What about talismans? Do any of the musicians carry a scapular sealed around a few molecules of St. Cecilia, perhaps, or an amulet to ward off cacophony?
"That doesn't seem to happen with us," Gippo replies. "You can't even whistle backstage at an opera house. But instrumentalists are not superstitious."
Jeannette Batz Cooperman is a freelance writer living in St. Louis.