In my third season with the Hamilton Philharmonic, in Ontario, I was starting to get antsy about finishing my Bachelor’s Degree. I had left Northwestern at the end of my sophomore year to take that job, and had already been out of school for three years. I was concerned that I might never finish, so I applied for one of the first sabbaticals ever issued from the Hamilton Philharmonic, with the intention of finishing my degree. Well, it turned out that the saying is true, “life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans”.
After my sabbatical had been granted, an audition came up for a one-year position with the San Francisco Symphony. I took the audition, and came in second. John Kitzman from the Dallas Symphony won the job, and he started to go about finding a replacement for himself there. When he called to ask if I’d be interested in auditioning, I told him that my original plan was to go back to school, and I wanted to stick with that. In the end, Dallas couldn’t find anyone to replace him, so their conductor wouldn’t release John for the year. Guess who got a call to play Principal Trombone with the San Francisco Symphony for a season? What an amazing experience.
Over the years, I chipped away at my degree through summer school, night school, and any way that I could take a class towards my degree. After 8 years, I finally got my Bachelor of Music Degree from Northwestern University. It’s a piece of paper that I’m very proud to own, and one that has allowed me teach at many high-level college, and conservatory institutions. As it turned out, I had to put the instrument in the case mid-career, and my degree was the one thing I could fall back on as I started new work as an educator and administrator. We can never know where our career will lead us, so getting the best education possible is an excellent defense.
I’ll pass on this advice, given to me by an older percussion faculty member at a summer camp in 1985: “Finish your degree. You won’t regret it”.
Earlier in the year, I had the opportunity to work with a class at the University of Northern Georgia, Gainesville Campus. My friend, Dr. Adam Frey, is the low brass instructor there. It was fun to watch him teach, alternately playing trombone, euphonium and tuba in the lessons, and then showing his conducting chops in the low brass ensemble rehearsal. I was reminded of all the skill sets we truly need to work in this field.
During the class, I asked the students how they would define success - whatever their career path might be. Their plans were diverse - everything from music performance and teaching, to working in unrelated fields like sports management, gymnastics, and videography. Instead of the usual answers a performer might give about the need to practice hours and hours, (which is necessary, but not the only road to success), they suggested some really good ideas for success in any field. No matter what you want to do with your life, we discussed these basic skills you'll need to acquire to be successful:
Commitment: Dedication to the training plan. Simply doing something every day to move your career forward, be it practicing, going to concerts, performing, or networking.
Discipline: Understanding the purpose of the training session, staying focused on completing it, and modifying it if the goals of said session are not being met.
Organizational skills: Sorry, but this is really important. You need to be able to keep track of everything in your life – schedule, responsibilities, assignments and even the simple act of responding to email and texts in a timely fashion. If this is a challenge for you, read David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”. You won’t be the same after reading it.
Behavior and Attitude: It’s about the people, stupid. Nobody really cares if you are the best at what you do if you aren’t easy (or even fun!) to work with. Bring your best behavior and attitude to any opportunity that you are offered. Make sure to obey the codes of conduct for your field.
Punctuality: Yes, if you are repeatedly late with your projects, or your arrival times, people will stop calling you, no matter how talented you are. It’s that simple.
This list seems so basic, but look at your life, and compare yourself to this list. Do you hit all of these targets? What can you do to improve in the areas that challenge you?
What I can promise you is this – if you can master all of these skills, not just some of them, you will be a success in your field of choice!
It has become clear to me that musicians – like elite athletes – evolve. Just over 50 years ago, in 1954, Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile. Up until then it was thought to be an impossible barrier. Similarly, long distance runners are currently trying to break the 2-hour barrier for a marathon. At least 10 runners have already broken the 2:05 barrier, with one as quick as 2:02:57, but we aren’t there yet. Mark my words though, we’ll be there soon!
Even in my relatively short span on this earth, I have watched the level of musical ability and expression go through the roof. When I was a kid in the 1970s, orchestral pieces like the Rite of Spring, and the Mahler Symphonies (except for No. 1), were only performed by the highest level professional ensembles. Now, they are performed regularly by youth orchestras all over the world. For trombone players, the Creston Fantasy and Berio’s Sequenza V were only performed by the highest-level graduate students and professionals. Now, it’s not unusual for a freshman in college to play the Creston quite eloquently.
If we look back even further, it’s possible to see this evolution starting well over one hundred years ago. Tchaikovsky originally wrote his Violin Concerto for Leopold Auer, but Auer called it unplayable, and declined to give its premiere. It took another three years for the piece to reach the concert hall. A young violinist, Adolf Brodsky, learned the concerto, and persuaded Hans Richter and the Vienna Philharmonic to program it on a concert in December 1881. Auer later admitted that the concerto was merely difficult, not unplayable, and he taught it to his students, including Heifetz, Elman, Zimbalist, and Seidel. Today we’re used to prodigies, and mature superstars alike regularly performing the work, while thinking nothing of its technical challenges.
I wonder then, what musicians will achieve even in the next 20 years. I look forward to witnessing this evolution, and seeing what artistic and physical feats we humans are capable of attaining.
On a recent trip to New York City, I saw a wonderful exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the drawings and etchings entitled, “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer". I couldn't help but be reminded that artists, as a class, work in very similar ways to prepare to do their work. This includes all types of art - music, dance, visual art, architecture, performance art, and many others. One doesn't simply declare that they are “an artist”, and immediately crank out works that are mature, and meaningful. In this exhibit, you could see Michelangelo’s meticulous process, similar to what we do as musicians.
Young musicians, often collaborating with a master in the field, spend hour upon hour in the practice room perfecting our art, learning to shape the instrument into our vision. This can take years. No, really - years! Brass players, for example, often start around age 8, and it takes them 15-20 years to gain the proficiency required to work in the field. Sometimes we’ll work on a phrase over and over again until we get it just the way that we want it to sound. Maybe an articulation is elusive, or there is a pitch issue that we’ve been trying to sort out. Our focus could be tone quality, or dynamics - really anything could take our attention for hours.
Visual artists do this as well, often spending hours working out the details before they create the final work. For them, it can take years as well. I remember visiting the Museu Picasso in Barcelona – it displays art by Picasso from his formative years. Much of the work displayed was portraits, which is how he made his living early in his career. It took him years to establish the style that made him famous later in life. Below are some of his famous earlier works - Science and Charity (1897), Man in Beret (1895), and Self-Portrait (1896). They are definitely not a part of his cubist period, which began in 1909.
On an oddly related note, the Beatles had been preparing for years when they appeared live on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964. They had spent 2 years (August 1960 to December 1962) honing their craft in Hamburg, Germany, and continued to concertize in Europe before coming to the US.
But I digress. At the Met exhibit, they showed us Michelangelo's process as he worked it out. Below, for example, he is studying how to draw a torso and an arm for his, "Studies for The Last Judgement".
Or his study for Cleopatra (1533-1534)
All artists do this repetitive, painstaking work to attain mastery of their medium. I can only speak for myself, but those many hours in the practice room early in my career were some of the happiest, most joyful hours of my life – second only to the hours spent sharing the final artwork with an appreciative audience.
Tuesday, January 16, 2018
As a conductor, your worst fear is that you won't be able to move one or both of your arms. With my upper left arm currently broken in three places, there is definitely some concern about that. Granted, it could become a glorified page-turning device, but that doesn't seem like a very good use of a left arm.
Today, I met with a new surgeon and he was confident that without surgery, the arm would heal to 100%. The problem with surgery is that you could get scar tissue that would limit your range of motion, possibly permanently. We took X-Rays today for the third time and the fractures have not moved at all since the initial scans right after the trauma. I'll go back in in three weeks to make sure the fractures haven't moved. If there is no change, the sling comes off, PT begins, and full recovery is only a few months away. In the meantime, he says to leave the sling on most of the time. Its prime purpose is to warn others not to hit me in the arm.
My job is clear: don't fall on the ice, don't get bumped on the T, protect the shoulder while walking on Newbury St, don't pick fights with strangers, and skiing is out of the question until next season. I can do this.
The next three months hold some very exciting concerts that I'm pleased will go on as scheduled. Two concerts at school, one with the dance division and one with the brass ensemble, and the final gala performance of our 10th season with Symphony Nova. They will all happen now as planned.
Cue happy dance.
CT Scan view is from above, looking down on the left shoulder. All three fractures are still attached to the bone and therefore should heal on their own.
Saturday, January 6, 2018
They say bad things happen in threes. Well, I trashed my computer on January 1st when I spilled Diet Coke all over it it and then had a vacation delayed by four days due to the storm on January 4th. This is the third thing and hopefully the last, but it never should have happened.
Yes, the day was very cold at -7 degrees, but I was warm enough and skiing well. The runs are wide up at Okemo Mountain leaving plenty of room to carve turns and feel in control. And then I felt something odd. I looked down and one of my skis had come off and I was still upright! But not for long. I took a nosedive like I never have before. It happened so fast that I didn't even put my hands out in front of me. My shoulder took the entire fall. And it wasn't good. I rolled over onto my back, and lay there for a few moments to assess what had happened. Many people stopped quickly and ski patrol was on me within just a few minutes. I knew my shoulder was not good, but at the moment I just needed to get off the mountain. Remember it was freezing cold.
I could not have asked for a better ski patrol team. They stabilized me quickly, got me onto a sled, and one of them sat on top of me the whole way down to stabilize my arm. It was probably forty minutes from the time I fell until I was at the rescue lodge. They were able to quickly assess that I had dislocated my left shoulder, and possibly fractured the shoulder the as well. One of the ski patrol members was able to get my arm mostly back into the socket and stabilized me for the trip to the hospital.
Thirty minutes later, after a bumpy ambulance ride, we arrived at the Springfield Hospital in VT. I was quickly taken into the x-ray for some of the most painful pictures I have ever had taken, but they did get what they needed and could clearly see that I had a fracture in my left humerus and that it might still be slightly dislocated.
The plan going forward is to see my orthopedic surgeon soon to discuss options. I have never had a dislocated shoulder, or a broken bone in my body for that matter, so I am looking forward to learning more about the recovery process. And as a conductor, I'm curious what the short and long-term affects of this type of injury might be.
Hopefully it's the third and the last bit of excitement in my life for awhile! Stay tuned for updates.
Consider the following scenario - you've always wanted to experience a particular artist live in concert. You’ve been thinking about it for a long time, so long, in fact, that the artist is now past their prime, and they attract audiences primarily due to name recognition. You finally attend the concert, but it’s not the experience you had imagined. To make sure this doesn't happen, I try to see an artist NOW if they are hot. Classical artists include: Gustavo Dudamel, Augustine Hadelich, Gil Shaham, and yes, Andris Nelsons (don’t miss a chance to hear him live!). Popular artists include: Lady Gaga and Justin Collier (you’ve got to check this guy out!). When I was a kid, I got to see Chicago, and even Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons – both phenomenal.
Over the years, there were some artists that I saw late in their career, and regretted it a little. Barbara Streisand was one of those. I had always loved her voice, but hearing her live in her 70s just wasn't what I remembered. I should have gone to see her live sooner – although, to be fair, she rarely performs live. And then there were the artists I just missed out on completely, like Frank Sinatra, pianist Glenn Gould, and the very short career of cellist Jacqueline du Pré. Oh, to have heard any of them live!
I still remember the first time I saw Gustavo Dudamel. It was November 7, 2007, and he was touring the US with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra. He wasn't a household name yet, and it was before the job in LA, but I knew he was worth checking out. The energy in Boston’s Symphony Hall was palpable. There wasn't an empty seat in the house and the performance was electrifying. Luckily, we have many years of his talent still to come, but don't wait too long. What if he leaves LA, and goes to Berlin? Luckily, he’ll be in Boston this year on April 25th, and I’ll be there once again.
I met Mrs. Koussevitsky in 1976. Not the way most people did though – say at a party, or a donor event, or even a chance meeting at a concert.
When I was a high school student at Tanglewood in 1976, the staff was still telling the students it was perfectly fine to hitch a ride, especially if you were late for rehearsal. I would take them up on it once in a while, and put my thumb out instead of making the one mile walk from our dorms to the Tanglewood property.
One day, a woman in a Model A Ford stopped to pick me up. It's so funny to think back on it now - I thought she must’ve been at least 100 years old (she was actually about 76 at the time, but what does an 18-year old know?). She turned out to be Mrs. Koussevitsky. THE Mrs. Koussevitsky - the third wife of the former Boston Symphony conductor, and founder of Tanglewood, Serge Koussevitsky. He had passed away in 1951, but she would go on to live until early 1978. We had a lovely conversation about Tanglewood, music, and what little else we could squeeze into a five-minute car ride. I’ve never forgotten that chance meeting.
In what felt like a very meaningful event, that chance meeting connected me profoundly to the history of the Boston Symphony, an orchestra I was involved with for many years. No doubt that on some level, that connection was a factor in moving next door to Symphony Hall in Boston over 13 years ago.
If I knew in 2000 what I know now, I would have bought a piece of property in Aspen, CO. That summer I was a student. The program was nine weeks long in those days, and little did I know that the Aspen Music Festival and School was going to become the focus of my summers for the next 17 years (and counting!). In March 2001, I received a very odd email. Well, actually, all of the conducting students received an odd email from the then Artistic Director of the Aspen Music Festival. It was her negotiation with the previous summer’s Fourth of July conductor. I’m pretty sure it was an error to cc all of us on it, but it turned out to be very useful when I learned that the conductor turned down the opportunity, and soon after I received a similar email asking me to conduct that same concert!
I was sure that I was not one of the brightest stars from the previous summer, but years later I learned a few things about why I was asked to do this concert. First, during the previous summer, I had conducted on a children’s concert and had a chance to interact with the audience. I danced with the concertmaster to show the audience what a Waltz might look like and spoke easily with the audience. And secondly, it turned out that there was someone in the office who knew me from my Boston Pops days, and suggested that I might be comfortable in that genre. When I was invited to conduct the concert, I gave it all I had in terms of preparation, programming, and audience interaction. That was 2001. This past summer, 2017, was my 17th time conducting this concert. Since 2013, I have been moving my summer base of operations to Aspen. I have an entire circle of friends out there, great hiking and biking, rehearsals and concerts of several amazing orchestras to attend, and the chance to unwind after a busy (and usually somewhat stressful) year. This would never have come into my life had I continued performing as an instrumentalist. When life hands you lemons, make lemonade, right?
As we approach our 10th anniversary, it’s amazing to look back at what has been accomplished. Only 65% of arts non-profits last beyond a few years so it is surprising to all of us that we’ve made it this far. (https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/Research-Art-Works-Harvard.pdf) To get here, we achieved a lot; creating and marketing two different names, establishing ourselves in two home bases, and putting on a wide array of performances. By the numbers: 13 orchestral concerts, 20 chamber concerts (many of them repeated), 20 in-school presentations, 5 side-by-side opportunities with youth orchestra, 27 Fellows graduated or currently participating, 23 entrepreneurial classes presented to our Fellows, and well over $1,000,000 raised to pay our musicians and vendors. But how did it all start?In 2007, when I had some free time on my hands – which is always dangerous – I decided to start an orchestra in the Boston area. First, I bought a map, and circled every town that already had an orchestra. Next, I made a 20-mile radius circle around each. Then I looked at demographic data for the towns that were not served, and ended up picking an area with a level of education and median income that I felt could sustain an orchestra. Thus began our first iteration, the Neponset Valley Philharmonic, based in Foxboro, Massachusetts.
It seemed like such a good idea. A well-educated community in need, with the ability to support a semi-professional orchestra. As it turned out… when you pick an area because it has no arts organizations, there could be a reason why. I loved the people down in the Neponset Valley, but we had trouble getting the kind of support we needed to keep operating in that community. So, in 2012, we decided to make the move to Boston. We had numerous meetings about who and what we wanted to be, and ultimately changed our name to Symphony Nova.
Starting in 2014, we created a Fellowship program that fulfilled our original mission to support up-and-coming artists. Our goal is to help recent graduates from music programs around the country by giving them the opportunity to bridge the gap from school to their career. We offer high-level orchestral performances, chamber performances, educational classes, and the opportunity to create concerts from scratch (with the support of our staff).
As we enter our 10th season, we are looking to the future. We have a 5-year plan that will take us into 2022 which includes adding more Fellows, programming more orchestra concerts, growing the Board, and increasing staff support.
We look forward to impacting more lives – musicians, audience, Board, and staff – and are excited to see what the next 10 years hold for us. Starting a non-profit is one of the most difficult things I have ever taken on, but it is also one of the most rewarding. See you in 2027 for the next update!