Tag: story

Suck-cess and Other Misnomers

The oboe has a certain timbre. It cuts through an orchestral texture. It’s penetratingly bright. It’s insistent. It’s Trey Makler’s instrument.

Trey just wrote a chamber opera. As if I needed another reason to feel grossly incompetent, a 22-year-old composition major preparing for his final year of college sits across from me in a coffee shop, picking on some glorious pastry that I wish I had in my mouth and telling me that he’s just had his work premiered by a university opera. I’ve set up our conversation by telling him that I’m not fond of titles, and he seems to ride in on the wave of his recent success, but not ridiculously so. He’s energetic, robust…and insistent. The bar is high, but I’ll quickly discover that our kinship lies in the shared belief that titles do not a successful musician make.

Hailing from a smallish eastern Missouri town, Trey is not from a musical family. In fact, he didn’t start private lessons until he entered college. A middle school band director started him off on that sexy icon, the saxophone, even though Trey had his sights set on the bassoon (an anomaly I can’t even begin to understand), an instrument his band director simply didn’t have the resources to support at the time. I might make the same excuse to avoid listening to a beginning basoonist, but then again, I’m partial to the lighter timbres.

He ended up on the oboe, which wasn’t exceptionally stimulating or earth-shattering, at least not right away. Lacking the adequate social skills to propagate friends (as many middle schoolers do), he traded up in the form of after-school practice sessions with various instruments, at one time giving up oboe altogether before realizing he wasn’t half-bad and that maybe he should pay attention to that.

All through high school, he had his heart set on a university in Indiana, where tuition was a gruesome forty grand a year. I could play the perspective game on this for a long while, but I’ll cage that animal. Upon visiting the program, Trey found the environment to be cold, rude, and uninviting. His parents decided to depart the tour before it was over; the college reps were oblivious to their absence (a huge marketing faux pas, methinks). The cherry on the cake: they required a level of preparation he simply didn’t have. It wasn’t a good fit, and he was devastated. His parents encouraged him to have a backup plan and suggested majoring in business, a tactic with mass appeal to the generation before ours, where loyalty and trust are accolades reserved for the company and not for the project-oriented self.

Trey started out as a music education major, dabbling in composition for fun. He applied for competitive composition scholarship and got it, set out with the gargantuan task of composing a piece for a major international performing ensemble…in one month. He was faced with major anxiety trying to prove his self-worth, so much so that during one of his lessons with a theory professor, ended up in complete tears. Barring the obvious societal problem that we would need to push a musician to the edge of sanity to elicit productivity, the trend of releasing the flood gates to the grand old faculty gods atop their pedestals seems to be a rite of passage for all the coolest musicians.

“How was that for you?”

He smiles over his coffee. “It sucked.”

On the event horizon of a complete breakdown, he threw his pride to the wind and ended up taking incompletes in three of his classes. Through some soul searching and with the support of his close faculty mentors, he came to terms with the fact that in five years, no one would really care about his final grade in basic conducting. No one class would make or break his career, and the projects before him were infinitely more important to the learning process and his individual success than final class percentages.

He’s right, of course, despite my misgivings for ridiculous cutoff gestures and inaccurately subdivided patterns. Too often during my training in the same program, I seriously contemplated what it would be like to just…not take 20 credit hours and live the life of so many other normal college students. Or, I don’t know…sing wrong notes on purpose and enjoy doing so. I wouldn’t experience either of these joys until my college career was well over and I was faced with a painstakingly normal musician’s life, somehow making a career out of allowing wrong notes to happen in favor of fun, companionship, and creativity. As it turns out, there aren’t really any wrong notes. 

He’s “endlessly angry” that schools insist on creating false expectations for musicians and training people like him for jobs that don’t exist,  but his personal validation comes from the fact that the better the projects get for him, the more support there is for what he does. Today, his parents have no problem with his chosen career path, and he certainly doesn’t.

“What’s the one thing to know about successful music-making?” I ask him.

He pauses for a long, long moment.

“Success is wholly intrinsic,” he insists. “You’re the only person who gets to decide if you’re successful or not.”

 

  • AMmaven

Theater People: The Best Audiences in the World

I meet David for coffee on a Saturday afternoon. The building is strangely shaped; there’s a pocket behind a wall where customers can surreptitiously sip their drinks. If you don’t walk around it, it’s easy to miss whoever’s behind it. Without thinking, I staked a spot at a corner table by a window and didn’t check to see if he had already arrived. A few minutes after the hour, I text him and he emerges laughing from around the secret coffee corner, his drink already half-consumed.

“Sorry about that,” I say. Usually I’m more careful with things like this.

Our paths have crossed a few times in recent years; we share a mutual network of musician friends, actors, and creatives, but have only interacted in person a handful of times. One of these was a voice lesson, in which I supposedly intimidated him, and the other was an awkward encounter at the local grocery store at 7 or 8 pm on a Saturday, and I’m pretty sure I was wearing sweat-soaked yoga pants, purchasing oranges and tampons, and he was with his mother. While we haven’t really come to know one another personally, there’s a familiarity to to our conversation, like we’re old friends who don’t really know much about each other other than that he likes to sing and I like to eat and menstrate.

David’s story fascinates me. He’s 49 years old and he just gave his first voice recital. It occurs to me that technically, he has given the same number of solo, formally prepared recitals as I have (maybe I should step up my game). The son of two musicians (one of them a professor of voice…no presure), David played trombone in college, but put music away for 20 years as he studied psychology, occupational therapy, and education. He’s works in the health field, but he took up voice four years ago so he could audition for musicals, and was cast in one role after another in the community theater scene. They’ve all been supporting parts, but he holds a certain reserved hope that his feature role will go down soon. After all, he’s male and can sing. Without undercutting the work he’s done, that’s pretty much the only requirement for guys in community theater, other than the ability to match pitch (even then, that’s negotiable, especially if they can buffalo or lift women in the air).

His program was impressive and varied, with regards to musical theater: Andrew Lloyd Webber, William Finn, Mel Brooks, Jason Robert Brown. Fifteen pieces in all. He shared with his audience the personal connection he felt with each piece. Trained musicians should really do this more. He brought in a guest vocalist to break up sets and give him rests. His voice teacher, also a pianist (and the subject of a later interview…most fascinating) accompanied him.

With musical theater, he says he’s found his tribe. “I feel totally in my element.” He calls theater people the “best audiences in the world.” They want to see others do well. They root for the people onstage. They came to his recital, where he passionately forgot the lyrics to a part of one song, but committed to the mistake and ran with it. Teaching this skill is like to teaching astrophysics to a sixth grader. How do you say to someone, “it’s okay, just rewire your neurons to fire in the face of adversity…oh, and by the way, if you mess up, just keep going. It’ll work, trust me.”

It doesn’t always work. I’ve witnessed pianists shut down during a performance. I once had a middle school gentledude really not do so well at a recital, and afterwards he told me he would never perform again. He did, and he’s cool now, but still…the only way to fix it is to do it, and it takes significant effort to convince a middle-schooler they should try again, because that could happen again. The task at hand was to basically unbraid his bodily chemistry, which you can barely do with a high-functioning adult, let alone a hormonal preteen, let alone a male hormonal preteen.

David and I have both forgotten lyrics; that is our common ground. We both have found a niche in musical theater, and we both get what it means to be vulnerable in front of an audience. We both have decided how music should function in our lives. David is a testament to the fact that you can have complete control over how to make art, and no voice professor, father, voice professor/father, or chosen career path can totally dictate that. Influence, yes. Control? No. If anything, David’s path is really more convincing of this fact than my own, because of course, a trained musician would power through mistakes. The only thing that separates us is a piece of paper, really. That, and coffee preference.

David is a community engager and a late bloomer. I haven’t interviewed many of his kind yet, but they’re everywhere. They are the unsung interactors. They carry communities with willing flair, but books aren’t written about them. Anju says these are the kind of people who will give up four hours of their Thursday night to rehearse motown (read that story here). They don’t have music degrees, but they’ll catch you at Hy-Vee on a Saturday and tell you what a good job you did in your latest leading role. They understand the plight of singing Jason Robert Brown, and the struggle of musical consistency (“my low notes sound like Dean Martin, but my high notes sound like Jerry Lewis.” His words.)

His breed does, indeed, like to lurk behind walls and curtains. They share secrets that trained musicians keep, for fear of embarrassment or compromised profile. They emerge when you least expect it, of their own accord, ready to take on the world.

And armed with caffeine.

Old Yeller: one music therapist’s path to normal decibles

Talking to Tammy is like talking to a therapist.

A music therapist.

That’s what she is. A gentle, nurturing, ukulele-playing psychotherapist in purple pajamas. I message her to tell her that I’m running a bit late to our appointment. I’ve just resurrected from a 4pm power nap and I fix a cinnamon toast and hot green tea. My bones aren’t totally exhausted, yet I’m tempted to reschedule our conversation, which I rarely do because cancelations are for the weak. It’s my first hour of downtime after a string of performances (three in as many days), and I’m tired. Tomorrow morning I can rest. For now, I power through.

…in my pajamas.

Luckily, she’s in hers, too. They’re purple, in fact. I take this as a quirky love offering from the universe. It’s like the cosmos made me a cross-stitch pillow with the words “it’s all right, we’re all people” right above a snuggly-looking kitty cat.

Tammy says she is a musician, but not a performer. She is a pianist and violinist, but doesn’t have a piano (which by proxy makes me a professional chef / lingerie model). During her undergrad, Tammy developed an incompatible and troubling relationship with a “super talented” piano teacher, which is kind of her to say. I’ve come up with a lot worse names for less than favorable teachers, like “soul sucker,” “Hanon Harlot,” and “crazy psychopath in need of a beach vacation” …. Not that I’ve thought these through, or anything.

Said teacher was a yeller.

“Old Yeller?” I laugh.

Tammy pauses, and things suddenly aren’t quite as funny. I shrivel a little into my teacup. Sometimes I wonder if I should come with a mouth zipper.

Teacher would yell about a lot of things: scales, practicing, memorization. Old Yeller, in an offhand comment, once mentioned how she had seen Tammy out and about on a weekend…not practicing. As if a musician’s sole identity hinges upon 24/7, unadulterated practice (if it is, I’m in trouble). It’s a shame this outdated mentality prevails among educators. Music makers do a lot more outside the practice room than they do inside it.

Eventually, a missed note was enough to bring on nightmares and panic attacks, so Tammy made the tough decision to take a step back from the instrument, which I find insanely wise. I was a lot more self-centered in my early years, and worried about things like keeping score and whether I was a soubrette or a coloratura (which still plagues me, until Strauss makes it abundantly clear to me that I am the latter). Tammy wouldn’t study again until grad school, and even then, wasn’t emotionally ready to do so.

Tammy is pretty much the opposite of a yeller. She speaks passionately, but at a reasonable decibel level (take note, singers). An average piano student (weren’t we all), she never made first chair in orchestra, and her intrinsic drive for theory and performing topped out at tepid. Lukewarm, at best. In between her degrees, she taught elementary music at a charter school, which she describes as the “worst job of her life.” It’s ironic that she almost, almost glossed over this little detail. We muse at length about the trials and tribulations of classroom teaching. Come Sunday, she would dread the week to come, and lived a serious Jekyll & Hyde dichomety; her constantly stressed weekly persona was totally different and unlike her weekend self.

Hearing this, I want so badly to cry tears of joy and reach through the Facetime vortex to give Tammy a borderline inappropriate hug. Hearing this, I feel more human. When I taught public schools, I could never settle in a way the other teachers did. Friends of mine would seem so at ease, while I could be found rocking back and forth in the corner, panicking over broken xylophones (each of which cost the same, if not more than my yearly allotted classroom budget). I would fret over the constant, unending planning, the miles of red tape to accomplish nothing, or at best, very minor chips in the fucked up granite monuments of public education. The regular “state of emergency” (read: jammed copy machines, triple high priority e-mails) was enough to bring a summa cum laude graduate to her knees. Nothing ever flowed, and my body constantly fought the instinctual need to take flight.

Like me, she got out of it early on. Majoring in “pretty much everything,” she received a music theory assistantship and scholarship at a conservatory in Kansas, where she felt out of place, a nerd amongst the natives (an emotion not lost on most of the people I’ve spoken with). She would fall into step with her tribe later. The tipping point came when Tammy wrote the music for an international project competition with Disney. As a finalist, she flew to California, which was full of people who “really loved their jobs.” Theory was not doing it for her (AS IT DOESN’T FOR MOST, I might say), so she quit the program and moved to another graduate school for music history, then music education. Then she moved into a music therapy program and hasn’t looked back.

Her mom passed away recently; other than an extended weekend, she didn’t take any time off. Like beasts do. Her tribe rallied around her; showered her with cards and assignment extensions. Her peers would stop her in the bathroom to let her know she was cared for (in any other circumstances, this would be profoundly weird). “In other programs, and in performance, there’s so little flexibility for trauma.” An army of musician therapists to shoulder the burden of loss. I would surround myself with these people any day.

Losing her mom has made her a better therapist and lent a new perspective to her work.

“Well, my mom died, so I can probably get up in front of people and play a song,” she laughs.

I wonder what Old Yeller would think about that (it doesn’t really matter).

Making Real Music: The Cuckoo Way

Anju’s interview is the shortest one yet (and yet produced the postiest of posts for my project). For 45 minutes (10 of which I may have monopolized with my own personal narrative…I’m the worst journalist ever), she talks about teaching 45 private viola, violin, piano, and drum students, but doesn’t really “believe” in private lessons. She muses on stress-induced hair loss, resulting from the demands of eccentric singers that expected her to sightread 20th-century vocal literature on short notice. She discusses her Pinnacle Pieces (Beethoven’s Moonlight and Pathetique Sonatas, respectively), one of which elicited one of the only compliments she ever received from a piano teacher. 

But I’ll get to all that.

Anju is a 26-year old musician in Bloomington, Indiana. She’s a private music teacher, a yoga instructor, and makes a considerable income with her band, The Vallures, a seven-piece soul ensemble that plays covers, originals, and is working on an album. She’s a chill cat (evident by her own cat, who took part in our conversation), so it makes sense that she would teach yoga. She’s remarkably at ease, and isn’t afraid to divulge exactly what I was looking for: her real story.

When Anju was little, she saw a flute solo at a church service and “wanted to get in on that.” Her mother thought piano was more practical (mothers know best, indeed) and set her on the wise old path. Anju claims to have had at least twelve piano teachers, and never practiced. “I was the nightmare child.” She distinctly remembers playing a piano piece called The Cuckoo (you’re welcome, Bastien Piano Basics) for about a year because her piano teacher had Alzheimer’s and couldn’t remember re-assigning it each week. “No one ever caught on because I could get away with stuff.”

This, my friends, is the truth. We all have a story like this, and anyone who says otherwise needs a fire extinguisher. For their pants.*

She was motivated to do well in college, but the challenge to be too many things to too many people caused her to lose her hair in multiple spots and gain weight excessively. She was broken by the classical system. She didn’t know how to say no, would take on too many projects, and felt sort of “universally hated” because people were always looking for a scapegoat. “Singers would give me 20th-century literature and expect me to be able to sightread it.” As a vocalist, I can say I’m guilty of last-minute expectations, but I wouldn’t do this to anyone I respected (or anyone, period), regardless of their ability to sightread Webern on a moment’s notice. Anju doesn’t put up with this anymore. She knows when she’s put in the work and won’t take the blame for anyone else’s lack of preparation.

Eventually, she meandered over to jazz, where she finally learned “real” piano skills, like how to effectively cope with the perfection complex (wine). “You gotta own the swagger,” she tells me. “I probably don’t have half the talent of other jazz musicians, but I sell it, and I bring my personality, and I own my performance.”

Her degree is in piano performance, not education, but knows how to reach her students. Her teaching philosophy? “To promote a life-long love of music.” She’ll spend a good portion of a typical 30-minute lesson honing in on technique; the other half is a combination of literature, improvisation, and jamming. Seems legit, except that she doesn’t fully buy into the idea that music is made in a private bubble. “I don’t really believe in private lessons.” Thus, she tries to get her students to jam and collaborate as much as possible. “Real kids want to make real music and don’t want to play the Cuckoo for a year.” Alternately, her college experiences taught her how to effectively squeeze in “pockets” of practice when her students are running late or don’t show up. There’s never a wasted moment (or sandwich) when there’s ten minutes to bang out some Hanon exercises, although she sits down at least twice a week for multiple hours to hammer things out on all her instruments.

Anju gigs at least once a week and travels often with the Vallures. Interestingly, she says she’s one of only two people in the group that have a degree in music. The rest are real people with day jobs who are completely willing to give up 3-4 hours of a Thursday night to rehearse. “I’ve never met any music majors that were willing to do that.”

The more musicians I speak with, the more often I butt heads with the “time efficiency” conundrum. As as musician, I was taught to hoard my time. 30 minutes in, out the door I go. Those were private lessons. It’s not that I’m stingy with my time; I’m generous when the payoff is beneficial. I’ll “scholarship” a promising private student, or join the ranks of a fantastic musical put on by a regional theater, if it means I get to work with a solid director and there’s significant evidence that everyone else is going have their life together (or, at the very least, show up to rehearsal with a pencil, a skill lost on many). Alternately, I’m a time nazi; begin and end when you say you will, otherwise you can bid your meeting and my respect a fond farwell. It’s not a coincidence that Anju’s is the shortest interview I’ve done. When it was time to end, we concluded naturally, like the end of a chill jazz solo.

The world of the “Community Engager” is proving to be my favorite. Anju’s personality seems to fit that mold, but I wouldn’t place her in that category. She’s a unique hybrid tiger, part community engager, part square peg in a round hole, part professional. It seems like an okay place to be.

 

  • AMmaven

*”liar, liar, pants on fire.” Get with the program. 

The Fiery Feeling in Your Belly: how one musician found hers

Hana is fierce and fiery, a word I reserve for the most intellectually sexy singers. In fact, “fiery” is a word that surfaced multiple times today as we skyped across oceans. She lives in Munich, Germany, where she makes her living freelancing as a professional ensemble singer. In the US, this job doesn’t really exist, unless you count “subsisting on food other than Ramen” as an indicator of choral success (which I do). It’s a whole different animal in Germany, where there’s a rife market for skilled singers who actually make a living in churches and “project” choirs: short-term, contracted and compensated ensembles that come together for a set number of rehearsals and concerts before parting ways. She made her way on the scene after meeting her significant other, Berthold, in grad school; he was a German exchange student and she studied choral conducting.

Hana is the tenth person I’ve “interviewed,” a term I use lightly because hell if I know what I’m doing (similar: “work,” “clean,” “dress myself”). My friend, Sintia, who’s another sexy intellectual, is a journalist / author / writer / globetrotter / all-around badass (new twitter description. You’re welcome, girl). Sintia said I should be careful interviewing friends and I’ve come to understand what she means. She also said that over time, I’ll develop an intuition for the right kinds of questions.

Hana answers my questions before I ask them. She’s articulate, and her words come easily, but there’s a certain passion and confidence to her story, which is partially why I’ve decided to write about her first. Upon learning that she was a “bottom tier” singer throughout high school and college, she quickly elevated to spirit-animal status in my book.

Hana didn’t make the top choir until her senior year of high school, when was a “horrible singer” (in fact, she says she didn’t really learn to sing well until graduate school…didn’t we all…). She played clarinet and was good at math, but wasn’t passionate about either. She knew she wanted to be a music major after playing a band adaptation of Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium (which is a choral piece; the irony of this is not lost on me). But she didn’t get into any of the schools she auditioned for. None. Not one. 

So she started off as a math major at another place and auditioned two more times for the music program before being accepted as a vocal performance major. Then she went to grad school for choral conducting. Again here, she didn’t blow too many minds with her conducting skills (“the other TAs were better”), but found the experience of group music-making and score study to feed her passion for singing, which she enjoyed more than anything. She calls it the “fiery feeling in the belly,” the animal that needs released into the wild and is something that a) is usually only one or two things, for most people (for her: singing and choir) and b) a feeling many never find, which saddens me.

While in grad school, Hana dabbled in the education program before deciding she was ready to leap continents. Like many of us, she had to be given permission. Her advisor pointed out that Hana’s “wear your heart on your sleeve” attitude (read: jaw-dropping boredom) in the K-5 methods courses weren’t really doing anyone any favors, and gently suggested that it was okay for her to quit the program. This brought her great relief, so she promptly skipped town. Munich or bust.

This is grit (and not the kind you eat…although, if you have any, I’d like some). I like the word grit. It’s concrete, both as a verb and an adjective. Hana possesses the gritty perseverance and hardiness needed to succeed at something you’re not entirely good at. It’s like waving your hand over plants to prepare them for the elements. Most people have to have that done for them; Hana does it herself, and none of her decisions, including becoming an expatriate musician in Germany, seem to have remotely fazed her (I may re-interview her and dig a little deeper here; time will tell).

  • AMmaven

Remembering the Tie

A few weeks ago, one of my students called the musical tie symbol a “unibrow.”

The prodigal student returns…

Me (pointing to tie): remember this? What’s this called again?
Him: I think I called it a unibrow.
Me: yes, but that’s not what it’s called. It’s a… :::starts pantomiming the tying of a bowtie:::
Him: String? Knot?….Chokehold?

…said the TWELVE YEAR OLD.

:::shakes head:::

Yes. The ever-prevelant musical chokehold, ladies and gents.

Music-tie.svg
choking notes since the dawn of music

 

Fifty Shades of Grey fans, unite (outside of this blog because I’m not one of them).

 

 

A Letter to Youtube: On Monetization

I recently uploaded some original compositions to youtube. Monetization (the non-soul-selling kind**) of my blog and youtube channel supports my Starbucks habit, albeit poorly, but any number is larger than zero (except the negative and imaginary kind, but let’s not go there….)

The little dollar sign on my video manager taunted me and sang siren songs, so I clicked it to enable monetization.  Youtube chose not to believe me, though, which was unfortunate, silly…and wildly inappropriate.

So I submitted an appeal. Here is what it looked like:

On 02/07/15 20:08:13 *******@gmail.com wrote:
full_name: Robin Anderson
email_prefill: ***************
artist: Robin Anderson
song: Songs on Teaching: Principal’s Perspective
composer: Robin Anderson
lyricist: Robin Anderson
publisher: Unpublished
music_label: independent
label_relationship: artistislabel
comm_use_rights_details: I allow myself commercial use rights for my
content.
static_subject_line: YouTube Partner Support – Monetization Claim
video_id: jqoORI_iQGk

Here is what I SHOULD have said:

Dear Youtube. Dear, foolish youtube. I wrote this music of my own accord, by myself, in the privacy of my home studio. The melodies and harmonies are a result of six years of higher education, seven years of teaching, and two degrees in music. The witty, ironic ideas in these songs emerged from the depths of my torrid soul after two traumatizing, tumultuous years in public education that left me scarred for life. I penned my thoughts, willingly committed myself to an exposed state of vulnerability so that I can perpetuate my art. I contribute to society by creating something completely original, by reaching out musically in whatever small yet crucial way I can so that I can satisfy our base, instinctual need to connect with other humans, and so that someone, somewhere will know they are not alone. It is apparent, based on the sheer number of monetized material available on your platform, that your intents are honorable. I’m sure you mean well by allowing “meme-o-holic1998” to run ads on a top-forty hit that clearly has not been ripped off the radio. Or by letting “amateurphotogal4eva” run a poorly-timed slideshow to God Bless America using images that have clearly NOT been plucked off of google. Not at all. In fact, I’m sure you don’t mean to crush the spirit of every well-meaning original artist out there when you prohibit them from cashing in on their 1.70 a month for work they willingly submit for free so that the world can be a better place.

However, do not be mistaken. Every time you restrict a composer from monetizing their original music, a music teacher dies. DIES. Don’t be a douche. Save the music.

 

…..There wasn’t a field for that, though.

Their response:

Hello Robin,
Thank you for confirming that you own the rights to commercially use all video material. Your video has been approved for monetization.

We look forward to the next video you submit for monetization.

Sincerely,

Thierry
The YouTube Team

 

Thanks, Youtube. Maybe my “next video for monetization” won’t involve the sacrifice of a music teacher’s life so that your neighborhood starving* artist can pay for half a cup of coffee. Oh, and you’re welcome for the original art.

Love,

A Disgruntled Music Maven, listening to a monetized Wicked playlist and chanting the personal mantra “Nothing’s Gonna Bring. Me. DOOWWWNNN!” (ah-hahahahaaaa)

 

** I’m wondering now if there is such a thing…
* I’m not really starving, but the sentiment still stands…