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Saturday morning rant

October 7, 2011


–Ron Andrico to his lute,
Thursday 6th October 2011

Having filmed our concert for public television just last night, and having had the experience of half the pegs of an eight-course lute spontaneously letting go in the middle of a song in front of a largish live audience with cameras rolling, we thought we would invite others to add their own stories this week.

When lute pegs slip and strings go slack, it takes a considerable length of time for the strings to settle back to a stable pitch.  A considerable time.  This can not only create a bit of awkwardness in television studios but can also drive a normally calm musician to fantasize about converting a cherished lute into very small bits and subjecting it to the composting process.

We all know the reason for this sort of maddening event.  The change in temperature and humidity that results from transporting a lute from the rustic homestead (after what has been an extremely wet summer) to the climate control and bright lights of the television studio tends to foster a bit of resentment in the old bundle of timber.  But I ask, is it fair?  Is it just?  Is anyone looking for a harmonica player?

Have your pegs ever caused you grief and embarrassment by going on strike at a crucial and very public moment?  Misery loves company:  we invite you to share your favorite horror stories on the comment thread below.

  1. I had the opposite experience. A live radio broadcast for Radio Scotland of Dowland songs with a soprano, who shall remain nameless. I played the intro – I cany remember which song – but then the singer just refused to sing. She froze. Completely. I kept playing with a few ornaments here and there. 2nd verse – again she refused to come in. So I kept playing for another verse, then stopped. Next song – same thing, then she walked off. I ended up playing as many solos as I could remember. The producer helped by interviewing me for what seemed a LONG time. What a day…

    • Did you ever find out why she walked?

      • She was nervous. Her parents were sitting right in front of her. A real train wreck. She recovered and went on to make CDs and many other recitals after moving to London. She probably doesn’t want to be reminded of an awful afternoon twenty years ago.

    • Rob: That sounds like an awkward situation. At least we were taping the live concert for later broadcast (20th October) and I had the opportunity to quickly retune – sort of. Being abandoned by your singer during a live broadcast would be a bit much. I guess that’s what happens when you work with sopranos. I would gladly play the ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ on a bass lute if it meant my singer would sing at a little lower pitch. I have my theories as to what causes such behavior among sopranos but will politely keep them to myself. Of course there are exceptions – Cecilia Bartoli can do no wrong, and Helen Atkinson, who accompanies herself on the lute, is my new favorite soprano.

  2. I had a bad experience one time years ago in a concert, in which 5 pegs let go at the same time, and it was horrible. The only good thing is i had used synthetic Pyramids (many years ago), and they all went back into tune rather quickly.

    For my vihuela, the issue is solved, as I have gotten rid of pegs, and am now using planetary gears. They are marvelous, and never slip, never stick tune very accurately. You should consider them, as they are very nice appearing aesthetically, as well as reliable.

  3. Thanks, Ed. I have to say, the only string that did not cause problems was the Gamut varnished gut chanterelle I had put on only the day before. This was the first time I’ve had such problems with the synthetics while a gut string behaved itself.

    Ronn McFarlane told me with satisfied smile on his face that he has recently re-fitted some of his lutes with the planetary tuners. It seems like a very practical solution to playing an archaic instrument under distinctly modern conditions.


  4. Bill Samson permalink

    Not a peg story, but related. I remember Diana Poulton telling me that she did live lute performances on radio during the 1940s. She eventually decided not to do any more after one fraught occasion when a gut top string broke just seconds before she was due to go on air.

    Why do we put ourselves through this trauma? Isn’t life challenging enough?

    • “Why do we put ourselves through this trauma? Isn’t life challenging enough?”

      To wax lyrical, I think lute-playing symbolizes the aesthetic of a completely different age, a time when we were forced to endure the difficult process of creating a sound world through hard work, intense focus and with an enormous reservoir of patience. Such virtues are not required today because most imperfections can be fixed, or at least altered, electronically. I’ve seen well-known rock guitarists in live performances fake brilliant solos that were pre-recorded and punched in by the sound engineer.

      Yes, life is challenging enough but I still appreciate observing a listener become aware that he or she is hearing very clear polyphony coming from a stringed instrument played by one person. We owe it to the world to set an example of what is possible.

  5. Ned permalink

    Not being a professional performer, slipping pegs represent an inconvenience for me, but not a crisis. The worst that happens is that I hold up a music playing session with friends while I retune my instrument; although the very worst – but fortunately very rare – occurrence is when all my cello strings slip, releasing all tension, and the bridge and sound post fall. Resetting everything does take some time.

    I do try to remember to keep a humidifier in my cases (both lute and cello) during the drier, winter season here in normally humid south Florida. For those facing the prospect of performing in varied climatic conditions, planetary tuners seem a prudent (though expensive?) means of averting disaster.

  6. Stephen Arndt permalink

    I don’t play much in public, but in my twenties, when I played classical guitar, I was once playing a Bach piece for a meditation after communion at mass. Someone decided to take my picture, using a flash. The flash startled me so much that I jumped, nearly dropped my classical guitar, and, of course, stopped playing, at which point I had completely lost my place in the piece.

  7. Margaret Nichols permalink

    I don’t play professionally, but I know of a similar episode involving a piano. It was at a Saratoga Music Festival concert some years ago, when a brand-new Steinway had just been dedicated onstage during the intermission, and then Andre Watts came on to play a Liszt piano concerto. A few minutes into the concerto, the damper pedal fell off the piano. They stopped the music, and a piano technician was summoned, but he was unable to fix the problem. Finally the brand-new Steinway was wheeled off, an old Baldwin was brought on from offstage, and they played the concerto over again, this time with no problem. (As a rabid Steinway fan I report this incident with some pain.) They don’t make ’em like they used to …

  8. Many years ago Claire, Stewart (McCoy) and I did regular concerts for the guitar festival organized by the late Brendan McCormack in Birkenhead. One night it was dense, freezing fog as we made our way very slowly down the motorway towards Birkenhead Priory, a medieval unheated building. When we arrived, in an attempt to raise the indoor temperature to something at least a little above freezing someone had put a massive heater (well, flamethrower actually) in the room. After a few minutes, all the pegs popped out of my 7c lute. Luckily this was an hour or so before the concert.

  9. Similar to Robb’s experience : I was invited to play at an outdoor music event at the Berkeley Rose Garden.. I was playing in a classical guitar duo. We started the program with some renaissance pieces and then went into our baroque repertoire which started with a few of the Bach inventions.
    Two measures in a second voice is supposed to start. Silence. I stop and rewind Again silence. A third start and again! Silence! At that point my partner walked off the stage. I had to glean through my memory and play solos the next fifty minutes from memory and on the cuff. I never want to it that way again.

  10. David permalink

    Could you not have done a pete townsend? Smash the lute before the performance!(jo king)-
    On a more serious note: what about two lutes? Just a thought. Perhaps not feasible-I’m not a lute player- but it sounds the most frustrating experience.

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