Sunday, December 11, 2005

Hospital Corners

Professional baseball players often carry out pre-pitch routines with vaudevillian finesse: some thump the bat against their shoe--one, two--while others swing it (and their hips) in luckily numbered arcs across the plate. Performance likewise brings out the tics of professional musicians, from the guitarist who kicks off his shoes to the vocalist who downs a final shot of whiskey glycerin warm honeyed tea just before taking the stage. Others indulge their quirky habits right up to the raising of the baton, like the squirrelly percussionist giving thorny passages one last “silent” run through or the lone clarinetist chancing a swab even as the conductor bows--one hand artfully placed at the edge of the music stand or tucked into his waistcoat--to the audience. (Let’s not get started on brass players’ elaborate spit decantations in the middle of movements.) These habits are not always necessary, but they comfort and, as such, are prone to exaggeration. My ritual of making “hospital corners,” for example, began as a matter of practicality but too quickly evolved into an act fit for comic caricature.

Pianists who accompany and play chamber music read from scores that almost always include all the vocal and instrumental staves of music in addition to the piano part. Though accustomed to, even dependent on, this concession, a pianist must turn pages four to five times more often than an instrumentalist reading only a part score. Never caring for the hovering presence of a page-turner, I long ago learned the trick of rumpling the bottom right hand corners to facilitate speedy turns. Now, however, I obsessively crimp and ruffle those corners--one flat, one folded, one flat, and so on--in the final seconds before having to play. Yes, I could tend to such matters backstage, well before the performance, but something about the eleventh hour handling of each page best soothes my nerves and preps my mind. Apparently I fidget and fuss over the pages of music with a seriousness that disguises the compulsiveness; recently, a well-wishing audience member swooned over my meticulous method of putting all the music in its place, “and you never forget those corners!” Notes, dynamics and phrasing? Nah, it’s all about me thumbing through the score.

Perhaps long ago, and similarly seeking comfort within her chosen profession, a busy nurse devised a system for keeping patients secure in their beds. Making hospital corners became her tic, the last little thing she had to do to successfully perform the rest of her job. With every bed sheet drawn taut and tucked just so, she eliminated the possibility of anyone “falling out of bed” and could then calmly direct her attentions on more urgent situations. For me, turning up and dirtying the corners of my music for the hundredth, thousandth, time eliminates the possibility of “falling out of the music,” of getting lost or dropping notes. In contrast to true hospital corners, my silly tic allows the “real” work, the playing, to tumble forth playfully and uninhibited. Fold, flatten, fold and flatten. Unless someone devises the reel-to-reel score, I do not intend to alter my habit of fretting over the page. It’s a ritual to which I’ve become too committed.

For the record, I refuse to make my own bed with hospital corners. After all, who wants to feel folded, pressed and sealed into some business envelope of bedding?


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