This is the story of how I found myself a soloist in front of a symphony orchestra. I am not a soloist.
That sounds like one of those dreams where you stand in front of an audience, then look down to find you have no pants on. But, no, in this case I took the gig with eyes open. I researched carefully, I practiced hard, and the final result satisfied.
Leroy Anderson, the composer of Sleigh Ride, also penned The Syncopated Clock, Bugler’s Holiday, and The Typewriter, which he completed in 1950. The short, lively piece features an actual typewriter (manual, not electric) as a solo percussion instrument. The first violin section doubles the solo rhythm, adding melody, while the second violins and the rest of the orchestra provide harmonic and rhythmic backbone.
I have an, ahem, certain reputation hereabouts (comedy acting credits and jazz music experience) and so when the Washington Idaho Symphony spiced up their 2019 holiday concert with The Typewriter, a scheming cabal of string players suggested my name to the music director, who promptly drafted me. I guess being a lifelong goofball comes with perquisites.
As I encompassed this challenge, one thing became apparent immediately. The piece ticks along at a blistering 140 beats per minutes, and the typewriter part is full of eight notes. Translation for non-musicians: it’s fast. It’s really fast. It’s terrifyingly fast. According to Anderson, even professional stenographers cannot do it, although I myself will not speak in such absolutes: I’m sure that a sufficiently determined stenographer could manage. For the 1953 recording, all but two keys on the typewriter were disabled to prevent jamming. As I contemplated this challenge, I wasn’t prepared to do irreparable harm to an antique icon of office equipment. All my keys would remain operational, increasing the risk of jammed keys during the performance.
And so I began auditioning typewriters. Which had the most satisfying clack sound? Which had the best “action” as regards keystrokes? You see, when one key clacks, it had better then get out of the way because the next hammer is scheduled to arrive a few milliseconds later. If the two hammers pass each other too closely, one heading in and the other heading out, they will collide and often stick. That’s called jamming. For an ordinary typist, it’s a common but innocuous hazard because a jam locks up all of the keys so the typist cannot type at all and hence adds no compounding mistakes even if they hit a few more keys before pausing. For a typewriter as percussion instrument, however, a jam means the clacks stop, while the typist reaches into the machine to clear the jammed hammers. The phrases whip by so fast in Anderson’s The Typewriter that any jam means at least one phrase will be toasted, and possibly two, before the jam can be cleared.
I scoured local thrift stores and bothered my local writer’s group for access to their typewriters. I tried various Coronas, Underwoods, and Royals and generally made a pest of myself to shopkeepers and friends. “Oo, nice one!” I would exclaim after I poked a typewriter. Or, “No, that sounds dead.”
Moriah’s Royal had the most amazing ratchet sound in the carriage return, but its keys were sluggish even after liberal squirts of machine oil. In the end I used my trusty Underwood, pictured here, even though it weighs about the same as a baby moose.
I would also need a typewriter stand. Furthermore, for purposes of performance, the “carriage return bell” becomes a separate instrument on the table. I used what’s known as a call bell, service bell, or desk bell: a small dome-shaped bell with a button on top. Another subtlety that I knew of (because I am old and therefore full of memories of past mistakes) is that the violence of the carriage returns during the performance would likely walk the typewriter off its stand if I wasn’t careful.
So I built a side-stop for the typewriter and bell-holder and I bolted it to an antique metal typewriter stand of the same vintage as the Underwood itself.
And the final arrangement looked this this. All the steel made it stable, and heavy (probably over 50 pounds for typewriter and stand).
I did mention that it was a holiday concert, yes? Hence, ribbons and bows.
But I probably didn’t mention that I was to be dressed as Santa Claus. The schtick during the performances was that I played an imposter St. Nick typing out the naughty list for the orchestra members. I roll my eyes at the onerous job and request background music. The conductor, Dr. Pham, obliges. After the applause, the real Mr. Claus chases the imposter offstage.
Eventually, the performance went off quite well, and hundreds of people experienced the delight of Leroy Anderson’s genius. But the magic was built with steady, hard work. I memorized the tune, built the performance rig, and devised the microphone placement and sound reinforcement.
Trivial things became crucial. For example, the optimal keys for decreasing jam frequency were the “a” and the semicolon “;” because those hammers come in from the most obtuse angle. Some phrases needed to begin with the left hand, others with the right. Anderson’s rhythms are intentionally off-kilter for their comedic value, but that makes them like obstacle courses for the performer. The carriage returns were balancing acts. Too fast and they were too percussive and just sounded like a door slamming. Too slow and my fingers could not travel back to the keys in time to catch the beginning of the next phrase.
There was no substitute for patient skill development. I practiced daily for a month on the speed, the phrasing, and the ability to unjam a typewriter under extreme time pressure without losing the tempo.
Let me just mention that the Washington Idaho Symphony is an amazing group of people. The first violins dazzled as their fingers flew over the fingerboards. Under the baton of Dr. Pham the sixty musicians unite as if sharing a single genius-level brain. Their balance is consistent and controlled.
Thus, this flash of brilliant light illuminated my life for a moment, and it will be a memory I cherish for the remainder of my ephemeral days. My portion, however, was quite a small chunk of the whole program, which featured a lush Christmas Overture by black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), and contrast to Sleigh Ride (which they played, too) called Rocket Sleigh by Delvin Chase. I was really blown away by Russian Christmas Music by Alfred Reed. It involved a lot of deep brass work and used steel hubcaps as percussion instruments. I found the harmonies and overall structure of the piece to be fascinating. The concert also included Music from Frozen by Anderson-Lopez and Lopez.
I can’t post concert recordings due to copyright (and also I can’t be both photographer and subject) but here is the 1953 recording of Leroy Anderson’s hit, The Typewriter.
In closing, shortly after this 2019 concert, along came 2020 and a certain pandemic you might be acquainted with. Performing Arts organizations worldwide are suddenly thrown into a struggle for survival because they cannot deliver their performances as usual. I would therefore beg, if you are lucky enough to have income in this time, to modestly donate to your local symphonies, theaters, and dance studios.
Thanks and blessings to you.