He can play Richard Strauss on the trombone, but wishes he’d applied himself to more than retro-surf-bubblegum-pop.
I started learning the piano as a child but decided to give up because I didn’t warm to Miss Ford, the rather strict teacher. My father said: “You will regret this for the rest of your life.” He was, of course, right. Yes, I can play the piano a bit, I can get by on the guitar and once even mastered the opening of Also Sprach Zarathustra on trombone for a sketch about global warming (tenuous connection, don’t ask) but I bitterly regret not being able to read music at anything other than a snail’s pace or play a counter-rhythmic bass line with the left hand. I can play two-thirds of the C Major Prelude in Book One of The Well Tempered Clavier but inevitably grind to a halt, despite there being no sharps or flats.
At university, I was in a band called The Musical Flags, a beat outfit that played retro-surf-bubblegum-pop, a niche genre that played well to our lack of outstanding musical talent. I don’t think you can have more fun than playing in a band. Later, as an actor, the performances I most fondly remember all involve music. In the late ‘80’s we did a show called Living in the Seventies, about an inept cover band given the chance at the big time by supporting an international touring act. We used a real drummer, bass player and lead guitarist, but we four actors filled in the rest – vocals, keyboards and guitars. We played everything from Stairway to Heaven (I played two recorders for harmonic interest) to Jump in My Car. The triumphant finish was a not-too-shabby version of Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, although the only archival video we have to prove it is two hours of white noise and static due to a technical problem. I believe an audiocassette survives but it plays at eight different speeds.
One of my most memorable evenings was when I, alongside my colleagues Drew Forsythe and Phil Scott, performed with the Hunter Orchestra under Roland Peelman in the Civic Theatre, Newcastle. The place was packed, and although we’d done our act as Three Men and a Baby Grand for years, to have a full symphony orchestra behind us was exhilarating, especially when we finished as the three tenors doing Nessun Dorma, down a tone or two because it’s tricky getting that second-last note when you’re on your knees for comic effect.
We later repeated the concert with the Sydney Symphony and I can never forget the trepidation as we walked into their rehearsal room for the first time, shuffling nervously as 70 consummate musicians turned to us and silently asked: “What the hell are you doing here?” Luckily, our jolly japes and knockabout business soon won them over – well, the brass section laughed but that’s hardly saying much.
When I’m working in opera, my favourite moment is the Sitzprobe, or first rehearsal with the orchestra. Suddenly everything expands as you hear orchestrations the rehearsal pianist could only hint at, as the percussive volume of sound wraps around you and everything is given a burst of energy. And then the real singers open up and ride effortlessly above it, while we mere mortals sit there and hope the microphones work when it’s our turn.
Yes, to me music is the greatest and purest of all the artforms. It’s a thrill to be able to use music in my creative life but frustrating to not be an intuitive, accomplished musician. Who knows what could have been had I stayed under the stern guidance of Miss Ford and actually practiced?
Jonathan Biggins directs Michael Frayn’s Noises Off for Sydney Theatre Company, February 17-April 5