My apologies to readers who are used to waking up to a fresh Portly post in their inboxes, ready to enjoy over a hot cup of coffee at 6:30 AM. Since Thanksgiving, I’ve been working pretty much nonstop. Since probably 2009, when I started my two-year stint as the Cultural Coordinator at the Sumter Opera House in Sumter, South Carolina, the first half of December has been a brutal yuletide slog for yours portly.
Christmas 2010 was particularly grueling, with an event at the Opera House every night for the first two weeks of the month, including outdoor music on weekends for the City’s Festival of Lights. I was so stressed that I developed a painful sore on the roof of my mouth, which made it unpleasant to eat anything but the softest of foods. That was an unintentional blessing, as it kicked off my 2011 Weight Loss Odyssey, a journey during which I shed a whopping 110 pounds in about eleven months. Even in extreme stress, there are hidden blessings.
Regardless, my Christmastimes for the past decade have been jam-packed with events. That’s not always a bad thing: I like keeping busy, and Christmas gigs can be very lucrative (about four years ago I played a bank Christmas party while suffering from a gnarly head cold, but a steady supply of cough drops and water got me through to the $300 reward on the other side). There is one event that looms over all others this time every year, though, one that I paradoxically love and dread: the annual school Christmas concert.
To be clear, this isn’t your typical school Christmas concert, with a few cute kids singing a handful of carols and playing a few piano solos. This concert is a big production, involving almost every student in the school (plus, we don’t have an auditorium, so it happens in the gymnasium—yeesh!).
One reason for this massive involvement is that the Foreign Language students sing songs in their respective languages. As the school has grown from around 100 students in 2011 to over 400 today, that makes for a daunting task to stage. There are ninety-three Spanish students in one section alone—far more than we can feasibly fit onto the stage (as such, we’re going to have them sing from their bleachers this year).
If I could put on the concert I wanted to stage, I would eliminate these performances entirely. I have nothing against the Foreign Language classes, and their songs are usually fun, but their pieces present a logistical nightmare. One year I did put around eighty Spanish students on stage. The combined weight of the students broke the wheels on the bottom of the stage extension platforms, which made for a bit of a surfboard effect (no one was hurt, fortunately, though it made for an unintentionally humorous situation).
Our gym is technically a “gymatorium,” in that it is an athletic gym with a stage for productions. Gyms are terrible environments for live sound, as the wide space and high ceilings kill sound (and, unlike a concert hall, they aren’t acoustically designed to carry sound). Unless you’re blasting a recorded track through an auxiliary cord, they are extremely sub-optimal for live sound, especially for spoken word. I’ve struggled to get a good sound mix for stage plays in our gym for years, using a combination of Crown floor mics and some hanging condenser mics. They create a tenuous, tinny field of sound that works fine if students project and enunciate clearly, but which doesn’t pick up mumbling or normal speaking well.
For live music, though, it the room works well enough, as students can sing directly into their mics and get a good, strong sound out to the audience. If I could literally just put one class of students on stage and get everything set just so, it would be a breeze. Indeed, that’s what we do for pep rallies, where we are often setting up in an hour, and it works out nicely.
But for this concert, there are a ton of moving parts. Besides the aforementioned Foreign Language classes, there is the challenge of setting up sound equipment in advance in the gym during basketball season. For some reason, basketball players need to practice constantly (as if musicians do not), and there’s always been an uneasy sharing of the space. This week we have home basketball games every night of the week except for Friday, so I won’t be able to do the final setup until Friday morning. As such, my High School Music Ensemble students and I have already begun putting instruments on the stage to get ready.
Where I really lost it mentally this week was when, on Monday afternoon, I was suddenly told that a bunch of gymnastics equipment and other athletic accouterments needed to be placed on the stage for storage. I helped moved the equipment with a grim sense of fatalism, realizing that massive tumbling mats on my stage would make it impossible to setup instruments early. I just glumly thought that I would figure something out.
Fortunately, another coach spoke up on my behalf (albeit after we’d moved everything) and the next day the equipment was moved (and this time, I didn’t have to do it). Still, this kind of thing happens almost every year, and it’s frustrating.
Another peril of these games is that I won’t be able to do a true soundcheck until Friday, which will be an extremely hectic day. Not only do I have to have my students, both middle and high schooled prepared to play, I also have to make sure I have tracks for our Dance classes; the Foreign Languages; and soloists. Additionally, I’m responsible for making sure everything is setup to minimize time between acts, and to help with a smooth flow between them. All that and I have to make it a clean, clear mix.
The last Christmas concert, which my students dubbed “Corporate Christmas” due to the various restrictions put on us that year, was in 2019, as 2020 fell during The Age of The Virus. In addition to dance students, Foreign Languages, and my own music students, the former Drama student insisted on staging some Christmas skits as part of the concert. That meant I had to have floor and hanging mics available to try to pick up their sound. We also had basketball games during the week building up to it, so I had to run sound from the stage—never ideal, but necessary at times.
Not ten minutes after the concert was over—while my students and I were frantically tearing down equipment to accommodate a basketball game!—I got a call from the office to report to the Headmaster. He chewed me out for the poor sound quality, and for having the fun-loving audacity to play bass guitar with students instead of conducting them. To be clear, playing with the students is something the students themselves enjoy, as do (I believe) their parents, and it’s a hallmark of our Music Program. I also conduct the students as I play, a la the harpsichordist in a concerto grosso.
At that point, I pretty much decided to do whatever I wanted. Readers can also get a sense for why I was so bitter and burned out in 2019 and early 2020. The Age of The Virus has been horrendous for a number of reasons, but at least it freed me from the crushing sense of obligation to, not to mention the complete lack of disrespect from, my employer.
I’m afraid that old bitterness is seeping back in. I love my job when I can just do my job and not have imperious oversight dangling over me constantly.
I’m excited for the concert. I’m also excited for it to be done. If I get chewed out again, stay tune—and maybe subscribe to my blog so I can earn my freedom.