EMERSON ESSAYS 1.1.11

The Right Triangle

When I was still in high school I received my first triangle as a Christmas present from my mother. I knew how Mickey Mantle must have felt when he got his first baseball bat, or Johnny Unitas his first football.

My mother didn’t know much about triangles but she always did her research and always bought the perfect Christmas present. She called up my drum teacher, old Mr. Goucher and asked his advice. He found the perfect triangle for me in one of Washington D.C.’s better music stores. It was under the tree, waiting for me on Christmas morning.

The perfect triangle? Aren’t they all the same? Isn’t it just a piece of metal that you hit and it goes “ding?” No! Triangles are as diverse as  violins or flutes. There are good triangles and there are inferior triangles. The next time you hear a booming symphony being played by a hundred and ten piece orchestra listen carefully to the triangle during the loud parts. If the percussionist has selected the proper instrument, you should be able to hear the bright shimmering sound of the triangle above the large choir of trumpets and trombones. For smaller, more intimate pieces, a good percussionist selects a smaller more delicate instrument and strikes it with a small thin triangle beater for just the right sound.

A more interesting sound can be achieved by shaking the instrument after it’s struck. This gives the sound a vibrato. An artistic percussionist uses the vibrato on the triangle as discretely and tastefully as a virtuostic string player would on a violin or cello. Also, a good triangle doesn’t produce just one note, but a whole spectrum of other pitches called overtones, which have to sound pleasant with the rest of the orchestra and not clash discordantly.

The triangle Mom and Mr. Goucher select for me was perfect because  it had the power to cut through a large orchestra yet the finesse and élan to play in a smaller ensemble. This triangle was versatile. It was able to get “down and dirty” for pop music or add a happy splash of musical color to a Broadway show tune. I went on to collect other triangles but this is the one triangle that I’d want to have with me, if I were stranded on a desert island.

To play with the Boston Pops was something I had aspired to all of my musical life. As a teenager, while most kids collected Beatles records or Rolling Stones LP’s, I collected Boston Pops recordings. I knew what their percussion section sounded like, what instruments they used and how they played them. While other boys from Maryland had posters of Brooks Robinson in his Baltimore Orioles uniform on their walls, I had a poster of Maestro Fiedler brandishing his baton with much flair and panache.

It was the summer of 1970. I had just graduated from the New England Conservatory and I was freelancing in Boston. I received the phone call I had been dreaming of. Would I play for the Fourth of July concert with the POPS? Gee…let me check my date book.

There was to be one rehearsal at Symphony Hall. I was assigned most of the triangles parts. First on the rehearsal list was Rosinni’s “William Tell Overture.” I owned Fiedler’s recording. I knew how the triangle part went and I knew which instrument to use. I would use my favorite triangle, the one Mom had given me for Christmas.

While setting up on stage at Boston’s Symphony Hall I knew how hometown boy Tony Conigliario must have felt when he stepped up to the plate at Fenway Park for the first time in his rookie year. He applied wood to horsehide and slammed a homer over the Green Monster. My first note for my favorite conductor at Symphony Hall in Boston would be a gem. Arthur Fiedler would smile his avuncular smile at me, wink, and then give me a “thumbs up.” He would come up to me after rehearsal, put his arm around me, and take me across the street to Amalfi’s and buy me a glass of chianti.

“We’ll start with the Rossini”, my soon-to-be friend Arthur announced. My part would come about two minutes into the piece. I stood at my music stand, triangle in hand, ready to apply metal to metal, ready to play the most important note of my career. Mr. Goucher beamed down at me from that great Pops Orchestra in the sky.

The “William Tell Overture” starts with a beautiful cello solo then gets into a big thunderstorm scene, complete with timpani, bass drum, and cymbals clashing loudly. No triangle. Not yet. That lovely instrument is saved for the softer passage after the thunderstorm and before the Lone Ranger music. The triangle provides a quiet, tinkly sheen, as the sun peaks out from behind the clouds. I knew the proper mood, I had the perfect triangle, I had listened to my RCA Victor Red Seal recording with Arthur Fiedler smiling on the cover. I was ready for a musical home run.

The strings laid down a soft musical bed for the woodwinds. A flute trilled. English horn, bassoon and oboe did their thing: “doo…dee-doo-doo-dee-doo-doo…dee doo-doo-doodoodle-doo…”

My triangle: “DING!”

Arthur Fiedler bellowed above the orchestra: “Triangle, you’re too loud!”

He then put his left hand on his hip while continuing to beat time with his right hand. He glared at me with an exasperated look on his face for about ten seconds. It felt like a week and a half.

The rest of the piece went okay. The Lone Ranger section requires a lot less finesse. I hammered away at my triangle during the loud parts and Arthur left me alone for the rest of the rehearsal. But there was no  “thumbs up” or wink or chianti at Amalfi’s. After rehearsal I went by myself to The Lobster Claw and had a couple of Narragansetts.

It’s been almost forty years since my triangle and I had our 15 seconds of fame at Symphony Hall that summer afternoon. We are still together and have performed in orchestras great and small, usually without attracting admonishing glares. The next time you attend a symphony concert and you hear good triangle playing, do me a favor: Go to the stage door afterwards and seek out the triangle player. Take him across the street, buy him a glass of chianti, and toast him and the fraternity of triangle players who do it right.

© 2011 William Emerson Wiley

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1 Comment

  1. Tim said,

    November 3, 2011 at 10:48 am

    Beautiful piece, Bill! You are never too loud, always just perfect. Thanks for the great story.


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