Notes on a Page
by Barbara A. Barnett
Yesterday Maestro Fuhrmann took the Beethoven so fast I was gasping for breath; today I'm
wondering if I'll make it to the end of the phrase before turning blue in the face. Rehearsals like
this leave me wishing I had learned violin instead of oboe -- string players aren't encumbered
by the limits of their lungs. But as the maestro is so fond of reminding me, I have another
limitation to worry about.
"Feeling, Ms. Adams!" he says, his German accent as thick as his eyebrows. Every criticism
begins with those same words, that same exasperated tone of voice that makes me want to crawl
inside the music and hide behind the staff lines. "Beethoven wrote a piece full of passion. You're
just playing notes on a page."
As if there's no passion to be found in that. In precision. One note under pitch, one late entrance,
one sustain held a second too long and an entire piece can collapse into cacophony. And so I
play in service to the way every single musical element comes together with mathematical rigor
to form a seamless whole -- at least in theory. In practice, I am alone among my fellow
musicians, the eccentric who refuses to impose some abstract sense of emotion upon technical
The maestro moves on to entreating the strings to give him a fuller, more bombastic sound.
While he sings the phrase at them in that overly theatrical way of his, Josef, the principal flautist,
tries to catch my eye from his seat two stands down. A subtle lean forward, an unsubtle smirk.
He mouths "Mozart" and points to my music stand.
Great. Another one of his love notes.
I pull the Mozart concerto out from behind the Beethoven. Josef's handwriting, as artsy as that
ridiculous beret he wears, fills the left margin: You + me = plenty of feeling. I'm amazed there
isn't a slime trail to accompany the winking smiley face he's drawn. I grab a pencil from the lip
of my stand and start erasing so vigorously that the music tears.
"Again," Maestro Fuhrmann calls out. "Top of the page."
Too quickly, I shove the Mozart back behind the Beethoven; the music crinkles. Too slowly, I
raise my oboe to my lips; my entrance is late, my embouchure ill formed. I come in with an
under-pitch squawk. The maestro glares in my direction. If there's one thing he despises more
than my lack of feeling, it's amateurish mistakes.
When he finally calls for break an hour later, I rush from the stage, my eyes fixed on the floor. I
manage to avoid Josef, but my escape route takes me past the conductor's podium, where I
overhear the maestro muttering to the concertmaster about "reconsidering the sound of the
orchestra." I've been here long enough to know what that means: at the end of the concert
season, someone will be asked to leave. I don't need to guess which player he has in mind.