Horse whinny and whip cracks key parts in Christmas concert

Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND --  Baton Rouge Concert Band's Sharon Lambert, a bass clarinetist,  has become a legend for making the 'whip' sound effect in 'Sleigh Ride' during the band's annual Christmas concert, while trumpeter Mark Courter is known for creating the horse's 'whinny' at the end of the song.
Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- Baton Rouge Concert Band's Sharon Lambert, a bass clarinetist, has become a legend for making the 'whip' sound effect in 'Sleigh Ride' during the band's annual Christmas concert, while trumpeter Mark Courter is known for creating the horse's 'whinny' at the end of the song.

There might be a few half notes along the way, and let’s face it: If there’s anything more boring than downbeats, it’s half notes.

That is, if Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” could possibly be boring.

For a trumpeter, Anderson’s holiday classic is one of the most fun to play. Mark Courter can testify to that; he’s been playing the song’s trademark horse’s whinny since the fifth grade.

And he’ll continue the tradition when the Baton Rouge Concert Band performs its 2012 Christmas Concert at 3 p.m. Sunday in the St. Joseph Cathedral.

But the story is different for, say, a bass clarinetist such as Sharon Lambert.

Her “Sleigh Ride” part is made up of those aforementioned downbeats, along with a few half notes.

Which is why she is the band’s official whip crack sound effects person. OK, so this isn’t a real title in instrumental circles, but anyone who has listened to “Sleigh Ride” understands.

The music’s imaginary carriage driver’s whip cracks in several places during the song, and a percussionist usually plays the part on a wooden instrument called the clapper.

But a few years ago, the concert band couldn’t spare one of its percussionists for the part.

The band’s membership is made up of volunteers, and there are years where it has more members than others. And numbers fell short in the percussionist section one year.

“There weren’t enough people in the percussion section that year, so Sheily (Bell) asked if anyone in the band would be interested in playing the part,” Lambert said.

Sheily Bell is the band’s director and conductor Daniel Modenbach is the assistant conductor.

“Well, I have the most boring part in ‘Sleigh Ride,’” Lambert said. “Everyone else is playing fun stuff, but I sit there playing downbeats. So, I volunteered.”

Lambert has been playing the part since. It doesn’t matter if the percussion section is overflowing with players, the whip crack part belongs to Lambert.

She laughs. It’s just become a band tradition, just as it’s understood that Courter will be playing the whinny in the band’s finale.

That’s right, “Sleigh Ride” is last on a program filled that begins with another Anderson favorite, “A Christmas Festival.” And in between will be such selections as George Frederick Handel’s “Halleujah Chorus,” Jeff Simmons’ “Up On a Housetop” and Alfred Reed’s “Russian Christmas Music.”

“Oh we don’t play the same music every year,” Lambert said. “We have enough music in our repertoire that we can rotate from year to year.”

With at least one exception.

“We will play ‘Sleigh Ride’ every year,” Courter said.

By day, Courter is a mechanical engineer and owner of S.M. Courter Consulting. But on Tuesday nights, he’s the concert band’s principal trumpet. He’s also its vice president.

Lambert is its treasurer. She’s also the registrar at East Ascension High School, where she sits in with the band during its annual Christmas concert. East Ascension is Lambert’s alma mater; it’s where the concert band’s founder Vernon Taranto was the director.

“I was still in his high school band when he formed the Baton Rouge Concert Band, and he asked me to come play bass clarinet with them,” Lambert said. “I did, but I had to stop for a while when I went to Southeastern in Hammond, and then my first job was in New Iberia, so I couldn’t play in the band while I worked there. But I’ve been in the band ever since I came back. I’m one of the few charter members in the band.”

As for Courter, he joined the concert band in the 1990s. He was a member of Lee High School’s band, as well as the LSU Tiger Marching Band.

“Both my grandfather and father were trumpet players,” Courter said. “My grandfather taught my father how to play the whinny, and my father taught me.”

He lifts his trumpet for a demonstration, wiggling his index finger atop the first valve to create the sound effect.

It’s so cool that he does it again.

“It doesn’t really matter which note you start on, you just play it,” Courter said.

Almost everyone who has heard “Sleigh Ride” anticipates the whinny. The whip crack, too.

“This was made for us a few years ago,” Lambert said, opening what could be called a super-sized wood clapper. Two large pieces of wood have been cut, smoothed and connected by a hinge. Handles have been glued on either side.

“You just take the two handles in either hand, open it, then snap it shut,” Lambert said.

On the correct, beat, of course.

“I missed the beat one time,” Lambert said.

But she never misses a chance to play her horn.

Except when it comes to “Sleigh Ride.”