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playing wolfgang webToday’s Playing With Wolfgang was written by Ellen Shallcross. Enjoy and Happy Thanksgiving!

I grew up in a musical household. My dad was always listening to classical recordings, my mom taught piano, my sister played, and when I was old enough, I begged her to teach me piano, too. In the 4th grade, I left the piano behind to focus on a new, mysterious instrument that I’d discovered – the cello. I took private lessons and played in orchestra at school, as well as joining Tucson Junior Strings, a local youth orchestra.

TJS had six orchestra levels, and they all performed without a conductor. We learned to lead ourselves, and everyone was given a chance to sit as first chair of their section. I worked my way up from the beginner level, Sinfonia 3, all the way up to the highest level, Chamber I. Chamber I went on a tour every year, and in the three years that I was in it, I got to travel to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, Chicago, and Cleveland.

Cleveland. This was the tour we went on in 2005, my final tour, and what a final tour it was. We stayed at a small hotel located in a sketchy part of town. It was dark and falling apart. The power would fluctuate and the lights would flicker whenever the elevator was in use. The buildings surrounding it were deserted – nothing inside except for some trash and an overturned chair or two.

We took a walk one night as a group to find the nearby mall, and passed honest-to-goodness real dark alleyways. Like the kind you see someone get mugged in right before Spiderman swoops in to save them. One day, a group of guys went for a walk and were mugged. Thankfully, the only thing stolen was a brand new baseball hat, but after that we weren’t allowed out on our own any more. On top of everything, the symphony was out of town the one week we were there, so we missed out on the opportunity to be mentored by the professionals. Overall, Cleveland was not shaping up to be a very good tour.

The last day of tour was always reserved for making a recording of that year’s music. We set up in a conference room in the hotel and started recording on the director’s camcorder. One of the pieces we played that year was the Italian Serenade by Hugo Wolf. It was a complicated piece; six pages full of notes, extra sharps, key and time changes everywhere. It had taken months for me to fit all of the pieces together and create a cohesive piece of music in my head. It was my least favorite piece that we played all year, until that last night.

We had been recording for a while and we had moved onto the Wolf, when suddenly, the hotel lost power and we were plunged into total darkness, in a room with no windows. A few people panicked, being high school students, the rest of us started joking and goofing off. And then some of the first violins started playing the Wolf. A couple of second violins joined in. Then some violas. Then the cellos. Suddenly we were playing this complicated piece from memory, in the pitch dark. We didn’t even realize we had it memorized, but playing a piece of music as regularly as we had for a year, it had snuck itself in.

We were listening to each other more closely than we ever had before; if someone forgot their part, they would drop out and another person would pick up and fill in. As we reached the limit of our memories, about four pages in, people were dropping out, and the few who were left couldn’t keep going at that point either. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t finish it, our director and section leaders and chaperones were clapping and laughing. It was our best performance, in the dark conference room in that run down hotel, a musical experience only shared by those 50 people, and the high point in an otherwise disappointing tour.

Ellen Shallcross is a videographer, cellist, and Navy wife. She is working on earning her degree in small business and entrepreneurship. She lives in San Diego, CA but is currently in Tucson, AZ while her husband is away at sea.

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