Outside Chance

John Robert Brown

I hate playing outdoors. However good the orchestra, however pleasant the company, however exciting the repertoire, in every respect the experience would be better indoors.

I'm talking about playing, not listening. For the audience, outdoor music is pleasant if heard at the right time, in the right place. Pleasant is the correct word; I put it no higher than that. Nevertheless, I agree that music al fresco can be enjoyable for the listener, given that distractions such as noisy motorbikes, ice cream vendors, overhead jets, chiming church clocks and distant barking dogs can be tolerated. But for a musician, to play outdoors is to suffer a catalogue of inconveniences never encountered indoors.

In Britain the weather is the big gamble. The wind blows - and you don't. Either your music is quickly spread across the surrounding meadows, or hanging in a nearby tree, or it is rucking and fluttering so much as to be unreadable. Heavy-duty clips can keep the dots on the desk. You can use wind irons to lay across the page or - my preference - place large, hinged, sheets of perspex over the parts. But to make the desk top-heavy with this protection is to make the thing liable to blow over, taking the music with it.

When a few drops of rain fall, so does the size of your audience. For me, the word 'Glastonbury' conjures up thoughts of mud, mud, glorious mud, even though I've never been near the place.

Direct sunlight is worst of all. In summer the varnish on fiddles melts, pianos sag out of tune, the music curls, your skin burns, your mouth goes dry, we seniors worry about the sun stroking our bald patch and low sunlight gets in everyone's eyes.

'God in His wisdom made the fly, And then forgot to tell us why', wrote Ogden Nash. We know why. It was to annoy musicians playing outdoors. Sunny days also bring out the blight of the bumblebee and swarms of assorted midges, wasps, mites, bugs and spiders. Not to mention birds, whose airborne toilet habits make no allowance for anything or anybody.

Bugs vanish in winter; I can't think of any other advantage that cold weather brings to playing outdoors. Condensation freezes, fingers turn blue, and the mouthpiece of a brass instrument becomes something that can strip the skin. The whole experience becomes so awful that the only advice is to avoid outdoor winter gigs if at all possible.

String instruments were designed for indoor use. String players who accept a number of outdoor gigs frequently own a picnic fiddle, or a party cello, an expendable, less expensive version of the instrument played professionally. Psychologically, this is bad; it means that as soon as you take the instrument from its case you know that you are in for a less-than-ideal experience.

Clarinet players have the option of choosing a non-wooden instrument, something once called a tropical clarinet. First developed long ago, robustly constructed in metal, these instruments resisted variations in temperature and the influence of the weather. In the tropics, termites found them inedible, hence the name. Metal oboes and bassoons were developed for the same reason. With the advent of instruments made of plastic, tropical clarinets and bassoons became fascinating museum pieces.

Then there are the outdoor acoustics. Or, to be more accurate, there is the lack of acoustics. Wise ensembles take advantage of their surroundings by sitting near to a building or a wall for the extra help it gives with the sound. If they can, wily veterans set up well away from main roads and other competing racket. Otherwise the sound goes nowhere. Once I played on Southsea beach to celebrate the finish of The Daily Telegraph national power boat race. The shoreline offered no acoustic help whatsoever. We pitted our dissipated sound against the crash of the waves and the roar of several power boats each propelled by a couple of unsilenced aircraft engines at full bore (bore is the right word), in addition to the noise of two hovering eye-in-the-sky helicopters. It was hopeless; making music became a humiliating waste of effort.

Frequently counterproductive is help offered to outdoor players by sound engineers offering what they call sound reinforcement. The kindest thing that can be said is that this is a trade in its infancy, much taught but rarely mastered. They'll get it right one day. What a pity that they learn at our expense.

So there you sit, fully equipped to play in comfort in some far flung field, using your picnic cello or your termite-proof clarinet, umbrella to hand, legs crossed, your Bug Off! Adult Biting Insect Repelling Wrist Band in place around an arm plastered in sun tan oil, peering at fluttering pages of music through sunglasses, worrying about sunstroke, knowing that what you play is almost certainly not going to be heard clearly by anyone other than your immediate neighbour.

What fun!

There's a brighter side. Nearly fifty years ago I had a regular Sunday afternoon gig playing music in the gazebo bandstand in Jephson Gardens in Leamington Spa. At least there was a roof to protect us. As we played, rowing boats cruised past on the River Leam. This was an era when any musical performance ended with a version of the National Anthem, during which all present would stand in silence. As we began our outdoor version of The Queen that lazy afternoon we surprised a couple rowing past. Both tried dutifully to stand up in the unstable little boat, creating a scene reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy. We couldn't play for laughing.

Now that wouldn't happen indoors.

This article first appeared in Classical Music, 13 August 2005. Used by kind permission.
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