By Ricky O’Bannon
robannon@bsomusic.org

Classical musicianship is a serious pursuit, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for practical jokes.

Many musicians from the high school band room up to high end concert halls enjoy a great prank.In honor of April Fools’ Day, here is a list of some legendary practical jokes that fellow musicians will appreciate.

 

1. You know the Mendelssohn, right?

If there is a musician equivalent of the common taking-a-test-you-haven’t-studied-for nightmare, it is probably what happened to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra concertmaster. Violinist Uri Pianka was scheduled to perform Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, but conductor Zubin Mehta decided he would play a prank on his concertmaster.

In Smiles, Pranks and Coughs at the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, author Israel Philharmonic horn player Yaacov Mishori explains that Mehta told everyone else in the orchestra they would play the introduction to the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto instead of Tchaikovsky’s. To make matters worse for the violinist, while the Tchaikovsky concerto has an extended orchestra opening before the soloist comes in, the Mendelssohn violin entrance is almost immediate.

“The shock on the soloist’s face was noticeable, but to his credit, he regained his poise within seconds and began playing the Mendelssohn,” Mishori writes.

Two minutes in, Mehta stopped the orchestra and let the audience in on the joke. Pianka took the joke in good humor but admitted that for a moment he worried about his memory.

In case you think giving your concertmaster a heart attack is an uncommon practice in the orchestra world, the Berlin Philharmonic pulled the same prank on their soloist in a 2013 rehearsal.


2. Terror and Comedy in the Classroom

Let this video be a lesson to all student musicians that if you don’t practice, you might finally push your orchestra director over the edge. Well, that, or this is an April Fools; joke involving a pawn shop violin and horrified students that went viral back in 2010.


3. When the Stagehands Call Shenanigans

In The Great American Symphony Orchestra, a behind-the-scenes look at the orchestra world, percussionist and composer Anthony J. Cirone relays the story of a prank pulled on one unfortunate percussionist by his stage crew. The orchestra was performing George Crumb’s Echoes of Time and the River. Cirone writes that the piece required several unconventional elements.

“At one point, three clarinetists marched (while playing) from one side of the stage to the other. The clarinetist who led the group was a bit uncoordinated and found it difficult to march and play at the same time. So, instead of moving in step with the other performers, he swayed, similar to a giraffe’s gait, which was quite humorous to watch.”

The score also called for a large tub of water to submerge a gong after it was struck, causing the sound to bend and distort. Cirone writes the stage crew responsible for setting up the tub of water for rehearsal and performance found all of this absurd and were not pleased with the assignment. As a result, they decided to pull a prank the night of the first performance. When the percussionist struck the gong for the first time and prepared to submerge it, he noticed a goldfish swimming in the tub and struggled throughout to keep his composure.


4. Horned Helmets and Spyglasses in the Concert Hall

Barry Green’s book The Mastery of Music: Ten Pathways to True Artistry is full of pranks and practical joke stories from musicians in some of the most esteemed orchestras in the country. Green suggests that humor (at the right times) is a great way to bring an ensemble together and foster a loose, creative environment.

In one story, bassist Inez Wyrick recalls donning a long blond wig, Viking headpiece, pie pans for breast plates and a huge dress for a rehearsal of Wagner’s Die Walküre with the Amarillo Symphony to welcome the new music director — a gesture everyone enjoyed save the music director. In another, bass trombonist Douglas Yeo explains that he and trombonist Eric Carlson regular pulled pranks on one another while playing with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in the early 1980s.

“I thought I had trumped him one time by filling his straight mute with water… but nothing could have prepared me for the night when I picked my own trombone up off [its] stand for an entrance. When I blew, absolutely nothing came out — for a second — and then whoosh!” Yeo says in Green’s book.

Carlson had filled Yeo’s trombone slide with the water from his spray bottle, and the air pressure from Yeo playing forced the water out of his mouthpiece, showering him from head to toe during a performance.

A final story from Green’s book suggests you might want to pick your spots for pranks. In 1938, the Pittsburgh Symphony was on tour in Quebec under conductor Fritz Reiner. Green writes that Reiner was known for his incredibly small and slight baton movements and efficient but statuesque conducting style.

A bassist named Gerald Greenberg loved practical jokes and shopping for antiques while on tour. On one of those shopping trips, he bought a telescopic spyglass, which he decided to pull out during a concert as if he was searching closely to find the conductor’s tiny baton movements. According to the story, the concert continued but Reiner wrote “You’re fired” on his shirt’s cuff. Green suggests that last detail is probably an embellishment, but the bassist was no longer a member of the orchestra a few weeks later.


5. Sometimes the Composer Pulls One on the Audience
 

Timpani Score
Score Excerpt from Mauricio Kagel's
Concert Piece for Timpani

In a few cases, composers have been known to show their sense of humor in their scores. Mozart was known as a prankster and the false endings of Haydn’s “The Joke” string quartet probably confused and amused audiences who didn’t know what was coming.

However few composers probably have as many surprises and practical jokes built into their music as German-Argentine composer Mauricio Kagel. Kagel’s music often brings in theatrical elements such as odd, specific stage instructions for musicians such as what facial expressions they should wear while playing.

A performance of Kagel’s Concert Piece for Timpani has gained a small Internet following because the music’s odd requirement for the timpanist in the piece’s finale (pictured in the score on the right), which undoubtedly would be a surprise for the audience.

In case you don’t read music, here is what that would like in performance.