Cymbal Crash

In Grade Nine, as the youngest member of the high school concert band’s percussion section, I was assigned the cymbal part for a long symphonic piece whose name I have forgotten. 

On the night of the concert, the auditorium was filled with parents and students. I stood in the back row on the highest riser, a tall, skinny kid feeling uncomfortable. Partly my discomfort was due to the tie that was strangling me, but mostly it was because I had had very little rehearsal time for this number. There were, it seemed to me, about 5,000 measures of rest, including several repeated sections and other confusions along the way, before my single cymbal crash. The cymbals were heavy, 16 or 18 inches in diameter, and I stood for a long time, hands gripping the leather straps, a cymbal at each side resting lightly against my thighs. In vain I searched the music with one eye and kept the other on the band director as he conducted, hoping fervently that he would give me a sign when my moment was near.

To crash the cymbals properly, however, required some preparation. I had to raise them up in front of me, about six inches apart, one about twelve inches higher than the other. I worried that the band director, having more important matters at hand, would not alert me long enough before the crash to give me time to prepare. Finally it seemed to me that I had better get ready, so I raised the cymbals up to their proper positions and waited. Just as my arms were starting to quiver under the weight of the cymbals, the director looked at me and discreetly shook his head. 

As inconspicuously as possible, I slowly lowered the cymbals and stood again with my hands at my sides. Only later did I realize that a tall, skinny boy raising a large pair of shiny cymbals in the back row provided, for most of the audience, the only real interest of the performance.

The piece continued, and I waited, hoping desperately for either a section of music that I recognized, or a sign from the conductor. 

Nothing. 

Once again, fearing I would miss my cue, I raised the cymbals, and waited. Again my arms began to tremble. Again the conductor shook his head, and again I lowered the cymbals slowly to my sides.

I can’t remember now whether this sequence repeated three times, or four, but finally, my arms now visibly shaking, the conductor nodded. With immense relief I recognized the crucial passage of the music, and I successfully crashed the cymbals, right on time. 

My relief turned to shock, however, when—right in the middle of the piece—the entire audience erupted in applause! They had been waiting through almost the entire, dreary number for that cymbal crash. The tension caused by my repeated false starts must have been excruciating.

A week or so later, my French teacher kicked me out of class and sent me to the vice-principal’s office. She was angry with me because I refused to carry the heavy textbook home each night to complete her five-point homework assignments. “If you did your homework, you could have an A!” she shouted in exasperation. When I told her that I was quite happy with my B+, she kicked me out.

The vice-principal, hardened by constant experience with rather more serious discipline problems, listened to my story, looked at me without expression, blinked once, and invited me to sit down. “I really enjoyed that band concert,” he said. “You did a great job with those cymbals.”

Taken aback momentarily, I recovered my footing and we talked for several minutes about the weight of crash cymbals. We discussed the care one must take not to catch one’s tie in between the cymbals and thus spoil the crash. And so on. We pretty much exhausted the topic. Then he looked at me and asked, “Do you think she’ll let you back into class now?” He wrote a note for me and sent me back.

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