January 21, 2016

The 14 Hour Conducting Final

Everyone has a class final disaster story. Mine is from Intro to Conducting. It took over 14 hours to complete a 10 minute assignment, several different pieces of video equipment were broken and it showed me how Aikido relates to conducting. Please note; the names in this story have been changed to protect the embarrassed.

Music majors all had to take Intro to Conducting. This had two basic points. One was to perhaps inspire one or two of us to take up the career or at least let us know the basics if we ever had to be substitute teachers in a high school band class (I've got a story about that too). The other was to help us follow conductors better; you can follow most conductors pretty easily but it does help to know what they THINK they are doing.
Our grade was based on both practical conducting exercises and paper assignments and tests. For our last assignment, we had to record ourselves conducting several different short pieces and turn in the video tape at the in-class final which was at 8 am on the last day of finals. Incomplete assignments would be tossed out and because of how this assignment was weighted, not turning it in meant failing the class.
We worked in groups of at least three, each taking turns conducting the other two. My group was made up of Mike (tuba), Nicole (marimba) and myself (flute), an odd set of instruments but not a problem since only the conducting was being graded. There was a room in the library set up for the class to use (this was before everyone had video recorders on their cell phones) but Mike owned a video camera so we figured we could get together outside of library hours which was good since our schedules kept not matching up. We finally got together in the afternoon the day before the video was due, thinking we had plenty of time since we each just needed to get about 10 minutes of conducting on video. Mike set up his camera and then discovered it wasn’t working. He tried to fix it for a while but eventually borrowed another one from a friend and spent an hour or so making that one work. We finally got the equipment working around 9:30 pm and got started. I count this as the actual start time and the earlier stuff as merely preliminary aggravation.

Nicole went first. She was very picky and redid all her pieces several times trying to get the best one. Understandable since this was for a final but it kept getting later and later. After an hour and a half, she finished. Then I took my turn. I was determined to finish as fast as possible since after all, I wasn't a conducting major and I was still hoping to study for the in-class final (a dream that never was realized). The first take of my first piece went ok (meaning I made no major mistakes and we all got to the end together) so I decided not to redo it. Before I started on the second piece, I put my hair up since it had been getting in the way. (Remember this! It matters a lot later in the story!) After one or two fumbles, I finished all my pieces and we moved on to Mike. He was also picky and took about an hour to finish. It was much later than we expected but we still needed to get our videos onto separate tapes to turn in to the teacher. (I forget why we couldn't simply record directly onto our own tapes but we couldn't.) So we trooped off to Mike’s room since he had the equipment to handle that. But the VCR machine wouldn’t work. He smacked it around for a bit but couldn’t get it to cooperate. We knew we could do this in the library but by this time it was after 2 am, the in-class test was at 8 am and the library wouldn’t open till 9 am. Since we were out of options, we decided to beg the teacher for some extra time to use the library’s equipment to transfer our finished videos onto our own tapes. We all crawled off to sleep for a couple of minutes.

Nicole and I got to the final about 10 minutes early (rather bleary) and threw ourselves on the teacher’s mercy. He said as long as we got the tapes turned in before he left campus at noon, he’d take them. We thanked him profusely, breathed a sigh of relief and waited for Mike to get to class. And waited. And waited. The teacher handed out the test and Mike still wasn’t there. We began plotting how to break into Mike’s room to get the video after the test or something. Just as we were finishing the test around 9, Mike came RUNNING into the room with his hair standing on end and looking like he was about to cry. He had slept through his alarm and had had a rather rude awakening. I think he hurt his knees hitting the floor to beg to take the test but luckily our teacher was a nice guy and technically, there were two hours blocked out for the test anyway. Mike got to take as much of the test as he could in the slightly less than one hour left. Nicole and I got the video tape from him (along with many apologies and variations on "I'm getting a new alarm clock this afternoon") and headed off to the library, thinking the worst was behind us.
We got into the video-audio room and set things up to transfer our recordings to our tapes. And the VCR machines stopped working. This was clearly Nicole's breaking point; she sort of slid out of her chair and collapsed under the desk, softly mumbling "we're all gonna fail" over and over. Now, I am one of those people who walks into a room and all the electronics stop working right. This means I was very familiar with all the ways the equipment in the audio-visual center broke. I could even fix quite a few of the most common break downs and knew who could fix the others. This particular issue could only be fixed by one person; the head of the audio-visual department. So I made sure Nicole wasn't going to hurl herself out of the window or anything and went hunting for him. He was in a meeting so I waved at him through the window till he came out and got him to fix the machines. Nicole emerged from the depths and started babbling happily in relief to anyone within 3 feet of her which was oddly even less helpful than hiding under the desk had been. But we got her video transferred without further incident.

Then we set up for mine. Now remember what I said about putting my hair up AFTER finishing the first piece while we were recording this? First I appeared on camera with my hair down. Then there was a blip in the film and I was standing there with my hair up. Mike had recorded over the first piece by mistake. (I should mention that normally, Mike was a pretty responsible person-this final just did him in.) After some initial panic, I realized the teacher had given us some time and we were in the library thus making it possible to re-record that piece. The trick was that these pieces had to be in the specified order meaning I couldn’t transfer the other pieces and tack the missing one on at the end. I had to re-record first. And just to complicate things, we realized Nicole’s marimba couldn’t be transported to the library, so she couldn’t play the music for me. My one hope was to find another student from our conducting class who had their instrument with them and would help me out. After going up and down all four floors (while courting a fine case of denial), I ran into Louisa, another flute player. I told her a highly abbreviated version of what was happening and she dropped everything and came to my rescue. With Louisa in tow, I planned on grabbing Mike when he finished taking his in-class test and quickly cranking out a fast, sloppy, version of the missing piece.
By now, it was almost time for me to go to work so getting that time restraint out of the way was the next issue. My work-study job was one building over, so I went to talk to them. They asked how my conducting final had gone (they were really nice people) and why I looked so stressed. I told them I'd been working on it for almost 12 hours (at that point) and wasn't done yet and could I have the time off to finish? They commiserated and made me promise to tell them the whole story later. I crossed my fingers and hoped nothing else would go wrong.

Back to the library I went. Mike had gotten there and was getting his video transferred. But then he revealed that he couldn’t stay to re-record my missing piece. He had to go to work. I think I stared at him for about 5 minutes in shock. Nicole and Louisa suggested I go through the whole library floor by floor (for a third time) looking for yet ANOTHER student from our class. On the last day of finals when most students had finished all their classes. At 11 am when most people LEFT the library for lunch. This is when I sat down on the floor and began to cry, thinking “this will be a funny story if I pass. Maybe even if I don't.” Fortunately, Nicole came out of her I’m-so-happy-to-have-finished trance at this point and realized I needed some help. Somehow, she found another student from our class, Guy, at HIS work-study job in the library stacks and dragged him into the video room at baton point. Then she ran to the rehearsal hall next door to get his trumpet so he wouldn’t technically be leaving work. I pulled myself back together, thanked everyone and took over the recording room.
I yanked out my (very battered) music and tried to lead them through the missing piece. And it fell apart. We were all so tired no one could follow me. Or find the beat. Or remember which way was up. We could not get through the piece without stopping and we weren’t allowed to have any “breaks” in the pieces themselves. Out of desperation (and after five or six tries), I decided to use an Aikido technique; extending ki and one-point. The idea is that you send your energy and intent throughout your whole body and out into the space around you. This makes your body move in precise and controlled ways, which works great for throwing people in a martial arts class. I was hoping that I could somehow take control of Guy’s and Louisa’s instruments with my mind and little baton and at least get through the wretched piece once without having them stop. And it worked! To my absolute amazement, we made it through the whole piece in one go. They played with better tone and technique than all the earlier attempts and Louisa even commented that my conducting was suddenly better than anything I’d done in the class up to that point. She then suggested I re-record the other pieces doing "whatever that was" again. I said I didn't think there was time (since who knew how long it would take to drag them through the other pieces) and I just wanted to turn in a complete assignment, never mind what grade I got. So she and Guy wished me luck and left.

First piece done, I went to transfer the other pieces to my tape. And the VCR machine stopped working again. (Yeah, I know, I should have expected THAT!) I whimpered and headed off to drag the head of the audio-visual center out of his meeting again (it really was his job and there really wasn’t anyone else capable of dealing with this glitch), and he fixed it. Again. And FINALLY, completed tape in hand, I bolted off to the faculty mailroom, double checked that the teacher hadn’t left early (which I WAS expecting but my luck had finally changed) and turned it in with 15 minutes to spare.
Then I crawled back up to my room, where my roommate was just getting up. She had last seen me heading off to start the recording the previous afternoon and naturally asked how my final went. I said it would take too long to explain or even sum up and I would tell her about it after I slept. And that I just might, after the end of class, have figured out how to handle a baton effectively.

And yes, I passed. With an A.