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What Does It Mean to be a Musician?

At DePauw, we are deep into the process of redesigning a curriculum for 21st-century musicians. The unique opportunity is that we are small enough and have the right mix of faculty and administrative leadership and support to actually recreate a curriculum. In many larger institutions, the faculty/student population is so large, the systems are so set, the traditions are so engrained, the egos are so big, the individual focuses so narrow, that it just can’t be done. Or if it can be done, the process is going to take an immensely long time.

In my own little corner of the DePauw universe, I have the opportunity to coach improvisation ensembles (in which the students are focused on expressing themselves and connecting with others through sound) and a cello ensemble in which we use focused improvisations as warmup games to develop listening and awareness chamber-music skills in addition to learning composed music. This creates a laboratory to work on how to integrate improvisation into how classically-trained musicians learn, rehearse, and perform.

Is this exciting for me as a teacher you ask? Absolutely!

Another course I teach is currently called “Understanding Music.” It’s a class for first-year undergraduate music majors; it’s evolved over the years, but has always been intended support students as they make the transition into college life. Team taught, the course has three units, all three experiential, each giving the students an opportunity to experience making, learning, and learning about music in a way they (most likely) have not previous encountered.

Nicole Brockmann takes them through four weeks of Dalcroze Eurythmics; Randy Salman gets them doing some beginning jazz improvisation, and I teach them how to lead community drum circles and do “free” improvisation with instruments and voices.  For years I called my unit “Understanding Music Through the Creative Process.” This year as I finished the syllabus I found myself typing “Understanding Music: What Does It Mean to Be a Musicians?”

We are discussing all the activities we do in the context of this open, no right-or-wrong-answer question. As the students come up with partial answers to the question, we find ourselves focusing on the different roles musicians can play in the context of society in general and local communities in particular.

When I first asked the students to tell me what it means to be a musician, everyone gave be a variation of what is to the most obvious answer to classically-trained music students: to perform music. And by “music,” virtually all of them meant compositions that someone else had written and and yet another person had taught them.

Yet here we had just experienced playing together in a drum circle in which everyone was instructed to “make up your own” rhythm and had taken turns dancing as a group and individually to the music of the circle. That doesn’t fit the musician-as-performer-of-composition-by-someone-else model.

Over six sessions, we’ve had a variety of experiences and read quite a bit.  We’ve discussed the musician as member of an intentional learning/musicking community; musician as leader; musicians as supporters of each other; musicians as dancers; musicians as healers; and musicians as people who make a difference in their communities.

On that last point, the students have told me they take so many music classes all in one building that they feel isolated from the liberal arts students. “We need to find ways to bring the School of Music and the College of Liberal Arts together,” they told me. So I led them in brainstorming a bit and when many of great ideas they came up with didn’t seem practical within the time limits of this unit, I suggested what was (to me) the obvious:

You’ve spent a number of class sessions working on how to lead a community drum circle. The purpose of a community drum circle is to bring people together to experience being part of a community. Why not organize and host a community drum circle with the express intention of bringing liberal arts and music students together in a shared activity?

They loved it (thank God, or my work might have been for naught).

And so we have found yet another model: musicians as people who present participatory music events.

What does it mean to be a musician? The possibilities really are infinite. And for me, it is a joy to have my younger musician friends join with me in the process of articulating those possibilities.



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January 10: A Roomful of Teeth and Some Organized Chaos

This trip is going by so fast!

When I last checked in with you,  I’d taken us only as far as last week’s New York Philharmonic concert, and Friday afternoon’s  Midsummer Night’s Dream videotaping (see the previous two posts).

Friday night (January 10), we all headed down to Greenwich Village for the NYC Winter Jazzfest. There were seemingly countless performances at at least six venues that night. We began with Roomful of Teeth at Judson Church on the NYU campus.  A terrific vocal octet, whom I don’t know I would have put a “jazz” label on had I heard their performance in another context. As far as I could tell, everything was fully composed. Check out their website; they are part of the post-genre era, drawing on many western and non-western influences, commissioning works from composers like Caleb Burhans and Judd Greenstein. Composer Caroline Shaw, a member of the group, won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for her work Partita, movements of which were performed at that concert.

Most everyone else went off to explore other events. I was having a lot of (thankfully very temporary) leg pain, and having snared an actual front-row balcony chair–it was a mostly standing event–I decided to stay put. A good friend was with me. Neither one of us liked the Mary Halvorson Septet which followed, and my companion wanted to move on. It seemed much less coherent than Roomful. Oh, heck, it was much less coherent than Roomful. But that made me want to stay and listen. Sometimes I like incoherent music, and my improvisation students and I have found that listening closely to seemingly chaotic recordings, we often discover there is a lot more going on than we first hear. Part of it that night was the very casual and messy visual presentation of the group, and they were following a super-organized group. Once I closed my eyes and listened, I enjoyed the music making. So I stayed, and, humoring me, so did my friend.

Nate Chinen in the Times called the set “lean but expansive” and seemed to have liked it; my friend never did, and by the time it was done, my leg felt fine, and I walked her to the subway. I stopped in briefly at the overcrowded Groove, where Otis Brown III was playing, but I realized my ears needed a rest.

Now the question was whether I should go back to the hotel or wait for the 12:30 AM “Improvised Round Robin Duets” back at Judson Church. “Don’t be old tonight” my colleague texted me, and even though I knew I was already tired and I’d pay for it the next day if I was up really late, I decided to follow his advice. After all, I coach my own improvisation students in duets where one person starts, another joins in, a third person takes over from the first, and so on. When else in my life might I get to hear “legendary New York improvisers” (as the evening’s host said in promoting the show) do this kind of chained improvising?

It was amazing–much of the time. I have no idea who the performers were, because they weren’t listed in a program or announced from the stage. If I’d written this a week ago, I’d have a clearer memory of the details. So you’re spared them. What impressed me is that the 90-minute performance started with an extended piano solo before anyone joined the pianist on the stage. There were lots of tremolos, lots of crashes, lots of special effects and soundscape sorts of things. 90% of the time or more there was no steady pulse, so when there was one it was quite powerful. Lots of fragmentation; very little actual melody or melodic development.

Occasionally it was a mess, but a coordinated mess. As my colleague Chris observed, in situations like this you have the choice of listening to the other player and not playing; or matching what the other player is doing, or contrasting with what the other player is doing. He found it tiring after a while; I pretty much loved the entire thing–which is why I’m the improv guy, I suppose. What was interesting to me is areas the performance avoided: extended consonant harmonies, simple grooves, regular phrases, etc. It was mostly restless, dissonant, and often angular music.

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Glorious Mistakes

One of my Facebook friends is the double bassist and critic Chantal Incandela, who blogs at Mahler Owes Me Ten Bucks and writes for Nuvo in Indianapolis. It’s an interesting professional double life she leads, as an active freelance musician also reviewing performances in the same market.  I’d be uncomfortable writing reviews of my fellow musicians; on the other hand, the composer Virgil Thompson managed to do it quite well for years.

Friday,  Chantal posted a inspiringly-honest post about an audition gone wrong, and I wouldn’t have noticed it except for it coming up in my Facebook newsfeed.

I don’t think I would have had the courage to be so honest about this sort of experience.  I’ve certainly had those kinds of experiences; at auditions and in competitions, it was often as if boxcar of Eric Kryptonite had been opened, and all my powers and skills, whether inherent or learned, vanished.  Here I am, 55, well established as a musician and teacher, in a secure, named-professorship chair at a terrific university–I don’t think I’d audition for anything ever again, even though I’m playing better than I ever have. So I really have to hand it to Chantal, both for going for it, for putting herself out there, in front of colleagues she knows personally, and for writing such a beautifully authentic post about the experience.

Inspired by her openness, here’s a story about my own mini-disaster this morning.

I’ve been playing very little lately. I injured my right arm last spring lifting weights, and it has been slow to recover.  I finally took about five weeks off from playing, because it seemed to slightly aggravate the situation.  Just over a week ago I started playing again, because I was playing on a concert this past Wednesday.

This morning I played in church.

I chose a Marcello sonata in F major, one I first learned when I was is 14, I think, from the gloriously inspiring Nelson Cooke. It’s great to play when I’m out of shape or don’t have time to practice, and I still use the copy my mother bought for me back then, with Mr. Cooke’s fingerings and bowings still penciled in in his bold writing.  (I now ignore many of the markings, some of which don’t fit with my historically-informed-performance-practice influences.  I found myself wondering, though, if I might be defaulting to fingerings that came to me when I was in the eighth grade.)

I’d invited myself to play at this particular service because the three children of friends of mine, Mac and Anne, were being baptized and I wanted to be part of that in a special way.

Like so many middle-aged guys, I repeat myself a lot.  I’m always reminding my students that Christopher Small asserts in Musicking that there’s no inherent meaning in a musical work, or at least that there isn’t a fixed meaning that’s common to all performances, and that the most valid question we can ask is, “What does it mean when this performance [of this work] takes place at this time, in this place, and with these people present?” He also says that the real meaning is in the human relationships at the performance.

Well, there’s no more clear illustration of that than in a church service.

I got my cello back out so I could sit in the choir loft and make music with my friend John (the organist) and not only participate in the celebration of this rite of passage, but by so doing say to the parents, “I am here for you bringing the best gift I have to give.”

It’s amazing how you can love someone you don’t know all that well.  How is that?  I care about and have affection for and wanted to be sure I was there for a special occasion in the lives of people who I know only from brief conversations after concerts or at coffee hour after church.

They didn’t know I was going to play.  The bulletin didn’t list the prelude music.  John and I began, and I heard Anne give a slight gasp of surprise. From my perch was able to see her turn her head around, and look up to the loft to see that it was me.  I hadn’t realized it was going to be a surprise, but what a lovely moment it was.

(Geez, this is starting to feel a little narcissistic. But I’ll soldier on, telling you my experience.)

I thought I was playing pretty well, time off from the cello or not.  Meanwhile, though, I’d noticed the president of the university sitting in a pew, and for some reason that made me a touch self conscious.  Some part of me still fearing the disapproval of an authority figure, or wanting to impress one. (“The only difference between you and Yo-Yo Ma,” my beloved tells me, “is confidence.” I don’t think Yo-Yo spends much time worrying about being judged.)

This sonata is in the standard sonata da chiesa four-movement form, slow-fast-slow-fast.  The third movement is quite short, and serves more as a prelude to the fourth than as a stand-alone piece.  So I’d chosen to play the third and fourth movements as the prelude to the service, the first movement as the reflective offertory, and the second movement as the energetic postlude.

By the time we got to the offertory, there’d been a whole lot of scripture reading, psalm singing, sermonizing, and baptizing going on. I was no longer warmed up, and my inner nervous eighth grader, wanting to impress, or not screw up in front of, Mr. President, was annoying and distracting my confident wise-almost-old-guy self.  An first-position e slightly out of tune–oh fuck!  (Mr. Cooke, so long ago, told me that once you know all the positions, first is the hardest to play in tune, and he was right).  We channeled some really special energy, BUT IT WASN’T PERFECT, and I felt a bit frustrated.

As the service approached its end, I was a bit distracted by emailing a friend who was going to show up for the end of the service so she could be there for coffee hour to meet someone who she and I had decided would be perfect for her to press into volunteer service.  Then I decided to play along with the final hymn so I’d be warmed up and ready to dazzle with the postlude.

Well, I TOTALLY FORGOT that we were playing the second movement and not the last movement for the postlude.  So I gave a cue and started playing the fourth movement, while John played the assigned second movement, and, oops!, it didn’t work.  He realized what happened and started playing the fourth movement, after a noisy flip of pages, just as I realized the situation and turned back to the second movement.

A bit more cacophony as we got sorted out, and then we remembered differently as to whether we were repeating the first half of the movement. I did, he didn’t and so I played unaccompanied for a measure or two while he found me.  THIS IS SO EMBARRASSING! I WANT TO HIDE! said the eighth grader.  This is a blast! said another part of me. We played with a lot of energy–I felt I was overplaying, a touch mortified and greatly amused all at the same time.

There was great applause at the end of it all.  My friend and colleague sitting on the choir side of the loft gave us a big smile. “Glorious mistakes!” he proclaimed.

So there we were, so totally fallible and human, doing our best while screwing up, making it work even when there was confusion, and embraced and loved while we did it.

That’s why I volunteer to play in church, but I haven’t played an audition in years and years.



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The Festival, Part I

I’m in the midst of the ninth summer of organizing concerts in Greencastle, Indiana, the small town where I live.  For the last few summers, we’ve been calling it the Greencastle Summer Music Festival.  We have a concert every Wednesday night, staring after Memorial Day and running for twelve (this summer thirteen) weeks, until classes at DePauw University start up.

I say “we,” because it’s uncomfortable to say “I,” and, besides, nothing would get done were it not for all the people who perform, who let us use their church, who donate money so we can tune the piano and give small honoraria to the performers, and who come to the concerts.  True, I picked the name.  But the rest of us like it, at least for now, and so it is “our” name.

That may change; I think this is the third name “the series” (as I tend to refer to it) has had, as my understanding of what we do has evolved. We started as the “Greencastle Summer Chamber Music Series.” Then, realizing we were having voice recitals from time to time, I changed it to the “Greencastle Summer Classical Music Festival.” I don’t even remember now why I decided to use the word “festival,” just that it seemed like a good idea. One of my colleagues at DePauw, where I am honored to teach, pointed out somewhat sharply that festivals don’t usually last twelve or thirteen weeks with just one event a week. (Fine.  Go start your own concert series!) “Festival” sounded presumptuous to him.

No one else objected, though, and people seem to like it. It’s kind of nice: we have a festival in our little town!

Two years ago, I had become interested in including non-classical music, and, like many people, realized that “classical” is a term (along with many other genre labels)that may have outlived its usefulness.  So I cut out the “classical,” and now it’s just music.

“Festival” may have been slightly prophetic. This summer, we are having some additional events.  Two weeks ago, the pianist Taka Kigawa came in from New York for several days. He played at Starbucks. He played for the kids at the Summer Enrichment Program (a kind of day camp for at-risk children) at the church that hosts the concerts.  He played at the assisted-living facility where my mother lives, and he played for over two hours at the Indiana Women’s Prison, where I teach a Friday-morning Music Appreciation class.  This week, in addition to our regular Wednesday night concert, the folk-music group I play in is performing at a local restaurant.  Next week, we’ll do an additional event as well.  So maybe it’s turning into a festival after all.

Why am I telling you this? Good question.  I agreed to write an article on starting a concert series, for a print publication, and have been stuck.  I’ve interviewed a number of other performers, some quite well known, who started a series (so far I’m the only one to call his series a “festival”).  I wrote the first half or so of a first draft, and the editor, who I’d been a bit put off by to begin with, didn’t like it, rewrote what I’d written, missing the point I was trying to make, to show me the tone/style they want.  I basically quit–it pays only a token amount and I have no ambitions to be a published writer, at least in the style he’s wanting–but he hasn’t given in and we are still in communication.  The only thing I know to do is to just start writing, about what I’ve learned from starting and running my own series/festival and from talking with others, and this is what came out this afternoon.




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Janos Starker Radio Tribute (Streaming) 7:00 PM ET Tonight

I just confirmed with WIFU FM that their show Artworks will be devoted to Janos Starker (who passed away Sunday morning) this evening. Nothing’s up on the website about it as I write, but should be soon. It’s at 7:00 PM EDT, and can be listened to online at Just click on the “Listen Live” link.

Menahem Pressler, Emilio Colon, and Charles Webb will be guests.  Excerpts from Starker interviews and recordings will be included.

It may or may not be available for downloading later, because of copyright issues with recordings used. So listen if you can!

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What Difference Does Marriage Make?

What difference does “marriage” make to same-sex couples? Here’s the difference it makes for me.

I was probably 21 or so.  My parents were horrified at my attraction to men, and my defiant embrace of a gay identity. We were arguing after dinner, tensions coming to a head, tempers fueled by too much alcohol.

I forget what awful, angry thing my dad had said. He seemed to be convinced that I had decided to be attracted to men, that that I was doing this despite warnings that it wasn’t good for me, or the family, etc.

Something snapped inside me.

But instead of screaming at him, instead of attacking him, instead of denouncing him yet again for being a homophone, I burst into tears. “How do you think I feel? What do you think it’s like for me knowing I can’t get married, knowing I can’t have children, that I can’t have a family?”

That changed the conversation.  I wasn’t rebelling against their values.  I was, they finally saw, to some extent anyway, that I was trying to figure out how to get by in a world where I excluded from embracing them.

It was a turning point for all of us.  I was shocked–I hadn’t realized that was there for me.  Eventually, it led to me getting married to a woman, despite both of us knowing I was attracted to men, and having a family.  As wonderful as our marriage was in many ways, as great as our children are, as much as I love my family, aspects of it were a living hell for both my wife and I.  Sometimes our sex was great–no kidding.  Other times, too many times, I had to fantasize about a man, and she knew I was.  That sucked. It was horrible, and it lacked integrity, and eventually we realized it.

To keep it going I kept telling myself that I was actually straight and that my attraction to men was a symptom of something else.  (After being out, I became a non-religious ex-gay, you might say. I can expand on that another time.)

The point is that at the height of my angry gay young man telling off his parents phase, underneath it all I wanted to be married and have children and have a family.

It just never occurred to me that I could do that with another man.

Well, now it has.  And it’s occurred to a lot of people.  Our society is finally getting it.  We’re people. We love. So many of us are called to love and commit to a spouse.  So many of us are called to love and raise children.

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Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes when it doesn’t, it does.

What am I talking about, you ask?

It’s the magic of getting a discount hotel room, then slipping the desk clerk a $20 bill.  I’ve gotten some amazing upgrades that way.  To a suite, the last two times.  I was bragging about that to my friend Donna at lunch today.  My partner and I were on our way to a night in Cincinnati, and had stopped in Bloomington for lunch.

I’d scored a $130 room at hotel that would have been $199 otherwise. At the coolest place–it’s a contemporary art museum as well as a hotel.

We parked at a garage around the corner–I was being a bit of a cheapskate.  As we checked in, Dan (I’ll call him), the young desk clerk, told me we would receive a complimentary upgrade to a “deluxe” king room.  Hmm, I thought.  Maybe I don’t need to tip him.

Oh, what the heck.  Let’s see what happens.  I hand him my credit card with the $20 underneath.  Smile.  “Please pick out a nice room for us.”

“Sure, sir,” he replies.  He starts tapping at his keyboard, and I’m thinking this is going to be good.   He finally hands me the key cards.  407.

Fourth floor in a ten story place? Doesn’t sound that great.  Well, we’ll see.  He escorts us to the elevator, offering to carry my bag.  “This is a nice room?” “Yes, sir.”

We find it. Beautiful-stunningly beautiful.  But small.  Not a great view.  

Not a room that you give a tip to get.  And then I realize–maybe this kid doesn’t know how this game works.  He seemed a little nervous; probably new. Maybe he just thought I was a nice generous guy. I was a little pissed.  Oh, what the hell, I think.  You win some and you lose some. I can’t call the desk and bitch that he didn’t upgrade us to a something spectacular, can I?

We’ve got 90 minutes until our dinner reservation nearby, so I change into my workout clothes. In the elevator on the way down to the fitness center is a penguin sculpture.  Cool!  The place is amazing.

The workout room is beautiful, with the best array of cardio machines, free weights, and even complicated-looking machines with pulleys and stuff I’ve seen in a hotel.  Because I’m not familiar with these machines, and strained my right arm with dumbbells a couple of days before, I decide to get on the treadmill.  It asks me for all sorts on data–age, weight, etc., and then wants starts up.  It seems to want to measure my pulse continually, which would be holding the handles non-stop, and also keeps speeding up–like the assembly line in the famous I Love Lucy chocolate-factory episode.  I can’t find a way to slow it down, so I stop it and figure out how to do a manual program.

40 minutes later, I’m really sweaty.  Didn’t have much stamina, but, hey, I worked out.

As I enter our room, the phone rings.  It’s Jacob (as I’ll call him), from guest services.  Apologizing because there’s still no hot water and they don’t know when there will be any. There may not be enough water pressure for a shower.

I tipped the desk clerk $20 and he didn’t even tell me there’s no hot water????  While I was checking in, a guy passed by the desk and said, “The water running?” Someone at the desk replied, “Oh, yes.” 

“Water is good,” I said to Dan. “Yes, sir, it is.”

So now they tell me there’s no water.  When I’m soaked with sweat and it’s time to change for dinner.

“We’re not going to charge you for the room, sir,” Jacob says. “And if you’d like, we can moive you to the Westin, on us.” We decide to move to the Westin after dinner. 

Well, I say to my partner, I can just towel off. “When I washed my hands before, there was hot water,” he says. I turn on the shower.  It’s warm.  I get a nice shower.  The water starts out warm and gets gradually cooler, but it lasts long enough.  great towels, too.  Sorry I didn’t get to try the robe.

We check out.  Dan (at whom I want to scream, “Why didn’t you tell me about the water?” and “What do you think the fucking tip as for?” but am pleasant to) and his colleagues assure me that they’ll get me a refund through Hotwire, and after about 15 minutes produce a letter to the Westin (“Hey–is there letterhead in the printer back there?”).  

We get the car and drive to the restaurant. My partner inadvertently say something that hurts my feelings, and I snap at him.   Some relationship frustrations boil over. 

We get what should have been a wonderful Korean dinner, but, barely speaing to each other, it’s not much of a spring-break party for us.

When we get to the Westin, I don’t bother trying to tip the desk clerk.  Any room is fine.  And it is. It’s nice.   Ordinary, pretty big, better view, and “nice.”  Nothing spectaculer.  

He went right to bed.  I do some work on my iPad, and write this.

So the tipping magic didn’t work.  But we did end up with a free room.  That’s the magic that did work after the first magic didn’t.  And now we can use a little more magic.


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