The chance of a lifetime falls into a musician's lap. But how to master a dauntingly complex program in less than three weeks?
The highway of life sometimes presents us with unexpected adventures. Late last August, after teaching my advanced computer music class, I received a text from Nick Didkovsky, a New York City-based composer-guitarist and founder of the well-known avant-chamber rock-jazz octet Doctor Nerve.
Didkovsky had an urgent request. Because of a family emergency, his longtime saxophonist couldn’t perform in the band’s upcoming European tour. Could I fill in, he wondered? The tour would begin in just three weeks at the Rock in Opposition Festival in Carmaux, France, followed by an additional concert in France and others in Italy, Switzerland, and Germany.
I’ve long used Didkovsky’s music in the classroom to illustrate the Downtown New York style, which in Didkovsky’s case is characterized by avant-garde techniques and complex, asymmetrical rhythms, and as an example of computer-assisted composition. This seemed like a wonderful opportunity to perform some great music while collecting teachable moments.
I asked Didkovsky how many pieces we would perform. When he said “sixteen,” my heart sank. Didkovsky composes very thorny and difficult material that routinely includes extreme ranges and rhythms. If I took this gig, I would have less than three weeks to learn sixteen challenging saxophone parts well enough to perform them convincingly. It was a tall order.
But it was also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I agreed (and got a colleague to cover my classes). I plunged into an intensive practice schedule. Getting up to speed with this music was going to require hours of practice with the scores, building up my soprano saxophone embouchure, and playing along with audio tracks that Didkovsky sent me via email. After gaining some facility with the music, I isolated the challenging passages and measures and repeated them over and over again until they became embedded in my muscle memory.
After the first forty-eight hours of practice I was ready to throw in the towel. There didn’t seem to be much hope of achieving the requisite level of professionalism the music would require. But instead of giving up, I read through each composition and constructed a lengthy checklist in the form of a ladder containing all the challenging measures and passages. The bottom rungs had less challenging materials than those occupying higher positions.
Slowly, I made my way up the ladder, until passages that at first had seemed nearly impossible became fluent and second-nature. Only after checking off most of the items on the rungs, with just days until the first concert, did I feel confident that I would be able to pull this off.
Then there was the matter of practicing with the rest of the band. Two weeks after Nick’s call, I rehearsed with him via Skype. It was less than ideal because of latency (there is an audible delay in the sound), so we spent most of our time making corrections to my part and talking about negotiating difficult entrances.
Despite the state of current online technologies, nothing replaces live, face-to-face rehearsal. So, five days before we were to depart for Europe, I drove to New York to rehearse with the band. The night before our Sunday morning rehearsal, I combed through each measure of every score with Nick, into the early morning hours, finding and correcting various notational errors.
The next morning, at the band’s midtown Manhattan rehearsal space, I practiced for the first time with my new bandmates (except for the pianist and bass guitarist, with whom I would rehearse for the first time on location in France). This left me more than a little apprehensive. It was challenging enough to learn sixteen rhythmically complex and physically demanding compositions. But the shows would also include conducted improvisation, along with improvised solos that featured the saxophone, plus an “educational outreach” element in which the band, breaking through the fourth wall, would leave the stage to sit with audience members in order to teach them to sing one of the compositions that had just been performed. For two of the concerts, moreover, we would perform additional sets, which required learning even more pieces. And I had to teach the band one of my own compositions, titled Frantically Refreshed.
In the end, this was one of the most memorable musical and personal experiences of my life. It was like being adopted into a large family that includes a crazy uncle who plays strange sounds on his bass clarinet and a sister who is a virtuoso keyboardist fond of ferociously attacking her instrument.
Touring with Doctor Nerve was far more intense than I could have imagined—really, a dream come true. I can happily say that I nailed my parts. Best of all, we clearly touched the hearts and souls of many people for whom we performed.