Monthly Archives: March 2006

Two-Fingered Cello Playing

A great story: Brain Sanders is graduating from Eastman–a very prestigious music conservatory–and has only two left fingers. Hey! I’ve never really been happy with my fourth finger–maybe I should just stop using it. (Didn’t Jesus suggest cutting off a body part that offends you? Well, that sounds a bit expensive.)

Anyway, now all of us cello teachers will be able to use Brian as an example to our unfortunate students who don’t practice enough, are feeling sorry for themselves, making excuses, etc. “And Brian Sanders got into Eastman and graduated as a performance major with only TWO fingers!”

It’s an inspiring story and great way to start the day.


Quick correction: Brian has all his left fingers. It’s the right hand that has only two.

Reminds me of the oft-repeated story of Janos Starker telling a gifted but undisciplined student in a master class, “Too bad you can’t cut off your hands and give them to someone more deserving.”


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But I did get to watch more of

the 1937 classic Shall We Dance with Astaire and Rogers on TCM while writing that last post. Top of their form, with an incredible score by the Gershwins. I read once that Baryshnikov said that Astaire was the greatest American male dancer ever. This film shows why. Wow!

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Another reason to be out . . .

I’m gay, I’m a good dad, and I don’t molest anyone. Even grownups. Just in case you were wondering.

I mention this because an email message (shouldn’t check it just before bed!) alerts me that Tennessee state representative Debra Maggart says,

I am not convinced that just because our foster children desperately need loving homes that we should just place them in homes that are available when research also shows that most homosexual couples have numerous emotional dysfunctions and psychological issues that may not be healthy for children. Now, of course emotional dysfunction can be found in heterosexual couples homes . . .

Hmm. Now where are those heterosexual homes without emotional dysfunction? I don’t know any. (And if you are someone I know who is in a heterosexual relationship that is totally functional, no offense intended. Just let me know who you are!)

And, of course, much of the problem is that, as Sen. Maggart understands it,

homosexual couples prey on young males and have in some instances adopted them in order to have unfretted access to subject them to a life of molestation and sexual abuse

Really? I haven’t heard of any. We did have a story here in Indiana some years back where the adoptive parents of a young girl objected to her biological brother being adopted by a gay man, until it turned out that the adoptive heterosexual father was sexually abusing the little girl. Does that mean no heterosexuals should be allowed to adopt?


OK, I got that off my chest.

(Stories about Maggart here and here, and also Google will give you more than you can stand to read.)

Thing is, Sen. Maggart is probably a very good woman who means well. She’s not a bad person, she’s not out to victimize or demonize gays (on purpose). As Mel White of Soulforce has taught me, it isn’t that people like Sen. Maggart are malevolent. It’s that on these issues their views are colored by outdated understandings, both scientific and religious. And lots and lots of fear–much of it inflamed by right-wing politicians and religious opportunists.

Throwing stones at Sen. Maggart and making fun of her isn’t going to help. I would love her to meet the wonderful families I have met, including those at Jesus MCC church in Indianapolis. I’d love her to talk with all the wonderful children of gay parents out there, including mine.

When people are afraid of gay people, that’s what they are, afraid. And meeting real, loving, wonderful gay people and their kids–well, that’s what would help.

Because love dissolves fear.

Meanwhile, lets say that it’s true that there’s a higher percentage of screwed-up gay couples than straight ones. So what? That doesn’t mean that it’s better to leave a bunch of kids parentless than give them to the emotionally-stable, healthy same-sex couples willing to adopt. That’s why all couples go through background checks and home inspections and whatever else couples who want to adopt go through.

Well, now it’s going to take a while to calm down and get to sleep. Gotta remember, don’t check that email just before bed.

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Resuscitating Art Music

It’s spring break and I’m spending it “in the Matrix” exploring the blogosphere, adding to my blogs with mania-like intensity, and catching up on reading I’ve been wanting to do. In the hopes of getting some constructive criticism and interaction for my improvisation book blog, I emailed everyone listed in the International Society for Improvised Music online directory. (Now there’s a way to spend a Sunday afternoon!) And already it is starting to work–while no one has posted an online comment, I’ve received a number of interesting email messages.

In the midst of all this, I came across the article Resuscitating Art Music by John Steinmetz, a freelance bassonist in L.A. (at least when the article was written). It’s fascinating, offering a rather different take on a subject being extensively addressed by Greg Sandow in his online book in progress. Very worthwhile reading.


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Why Are There So Few Cello Blogs?

I’d like to know. Technorati lists only 14 with “cello” as a keyword, two of them mine. And only one other, Cellomania, blogs regularly about cello-specific issues.

What, are we cellists that traditional?


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Why Write About LGBTQ Issues? Why Not?

Just added a page of reviews to my website. Arrgh . . . I hate doing self-promotion. And I’m working on adding links to the sidebar here (look to the right). Is this my spring break project? Updating my website and blogs?

Actually, adding the LGBTQ links and beginning to write about some gay issues (for example, here, here, and here) is the result of a conscious decision to expand the scope of this blog.

It began as a place to write reviews of concerts attended during my sabbatical as well as musings on music and the cello. Some part of me was, initially, concerned that writing about LGBTQ issues, including how they affect me, might make some potential students and/or their parents uncomfortable.

But, I’ve concluded, to censor myself like that would be to project and/or reinforce homophobia (which probably isn’t there) onto those hypothetical students/parents; to act out of fear rather confidence, trust, and pride; to inhibit my self-expression; and to fail to fulfill what I believe is a social responsibility of LGBTQ people: to lead open and affirming lives.

While LGBTQ-rights organizations focus, naturally, on legal issues, like employment, marriage rights, and hate-crimes legislation, the most powerful force for social change is LGBTQ folks leading open, self-affirming lives. That’s what changes hearts and minds. People relate to people who happen to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered or otherwise queer as people, as part of us, when they have the opportunity to both know them and, especially, to know they know them.

A convoluted sentence, that lat one. Another way to put it: the question of “is the homosexual my neighbor” is a lot easier to answer in the affirmative when you have good neighbors whom you know to be, among other things, homosexual.

There are what are best described as, I suppose, editorial issues in having a mixed-subject blog. I have never minded, for example, Andrew Sullivan’s mixing of commentary on political issues, commentary on gay issues, and reflections on his personal life. What he is doing in his blog is commentary, analysis. It’s personal opinion, so writing from a personal perspective makes much sense. Same thing here.

A specific project, like writing a book via blogging, is best kept separate, and that’s what I’m doing with

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Well, maybe they all choked up . . .

Of course, it’s (remotely) possible that everyone at the Milwaukee audition choked up and didn’t play his or her best. That’s what happened to me those many years ago–I wouldn’t have hired me based on how I actually played in that audition. (Still Milwaukee’s loss!)

The problem with taking an orchestra audition is that you, well, want the job, and are hoping to get the job, and feel there is a lot riding on the audition. And that tension, which is different then the usual anxiety a concert provokes, seems to make just about everyone play less well than they are capable of.

Then there is the story of a great French clarinetist with whom I had the great good fortune to play a chamber music concert with about 20 years ago. He was, at least then, the “super-soloiste” clarinet of the major orchestras in Paris–meaning he was co-principal, but always played first chair when both principals were playing.

He had won the job at a ridiculously early age–something like 18 or 19. And here’s how it happened, as I remember him telling it to me.

Evidently everyone in Paris knew that a particiular well-established clarinetist was to win the audition. My friend, in his late teens, took the audition just for the experience of taking the audition. Certainly he was known as a hot, up-and-coming young player, which is probably how he was invited to the audition in the first place. But no one in Paris though anyone but the front-runner would win.

My friend, who had just had a birthday and reached the legal driving age in France, spent the entire week before the audition taking driving lessons, all day long. He did little if any practicing until a day or two before the auditions.

Imagine it, if you can. He was unconcerned. He knew he wouldn’t win, so there was no pressure. He had been consumed with a teenager’s excitement at learning to drive, which left no emotional energy for worrying and obsessing over the audition. Nevertheless, he was a marvelous, accomplished and deeply musical player. He arrived relaxed and unconcerned. And he played great–nothing to win, nothing to lose.

Even when, to his surprise, my friend was advanced to the finals, he didn’t think he had a chance. He still assumed the other guy would, as everyone thought they knew, win. My friend’s emotional focus remained on learning to drive. Since nerves didn’t get in his way, he played his best–the kind of playing that many of us can usually do only in private.

The annoited winner, on the other hand, felt the weight of the Paris musical world’s expectations very intensely. This was his big chance. What he’d been waiting for all his life. All eyes were on him.

This unfortunate front runner choked up and played subpar!

And who won? My friend. And he was as shocked as the rest of the Paris music world.

There’s no question that this was a true discovery of a major young artist. But my friend knew that something had happened that he could never intentionally recreate. Had he thought there was even a remote chance he might win, he told me, he would have been an emotional wreck, and doubted he could have played any where near as well as when he was focused on learning to drive.

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Milwaukee Symphony: No Principal Cellist

Well, the internet cello world is abuzz: no one won the Milwaukee Symphony principal cello audition.

Their problem is that they didn’t hire me for the job when I auditioned in 1988! That was the last orchestra audition I ever took. DePauw hired me as the cello professor here, and I decided to stick with college teaching and playing chamber music.

As for the recent Milwaukee audition, I don’t get it. I know a fantastic cellist who plays in the section of a major symphony, is an extraordinary artist, and who will someday make a great principal cellist. And I know at least one member of the Milwaukee cello section who would make a great principal cellist, too. What’s their problem?

I don’t know. Could it be . . . committees? The curse of academic life is being on committees which debate and argue endlessly and can never decide on anything. Audition committees can do the same thing. And music directors can get bizarrely picky.

The rest of us will never know what happened. But a lot of us know that there are great players out there who would make a great principal cellist, and some of them were at that audition.

And I’m glad I’m not taking orchestra auditions and applying for jobs any more!

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Upholding the Bible or the Constitution?

Jamie Raskin is a professor at American University running for the Maryland State Senate. He recently made a remark that’s been quoted all over the LGBTQ-friendly internet (this version is from a Baltimore Sun article reprinted on Raskin’s website:

Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Republican who represents Harford and Cecil counties, engaged in an impassioned debate with Jamie Raskin, a constitutional law professor from American University, over the influence of the Bible on modern law.

“As I read Biblical principles, marriage was intended, ordained and started by God – that is my belief,” she said. “For me, this is an issue solely based on religious principals.”

Raskin shot back that the Bible was also used to uphold now-outlawed statutes banning interracial marriage, and that the constitution should instead be lawmakers’ guiding principle.

“People place their hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution; they don’t put their hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible,” he said.

Maybe Josh can point this out to U.S. Senator George Allen when they next meet.

Meanwhile, I used to live in Maryland and I think I may send Raskin a contribution. And maybe something to Theocracy Watch, too.

By the way, I don’t begrudge religious conservatives their active participation in the political process. They set a great example for organizing and being involved. We religious and secular libertarians and liberals just need to get our act equally well together. As do all who want to do something about global warming, universal health insurance, and the horrifying, ever-expanding national debt.

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There’s the Grieg Sonata and then there’s the Grieg Sonata

One of the very advanced pianists at DePauw is fulfilling her chamber music requirement this semester by playing sonatas with me. She is such a wonderul pianist, and so musical and intelligent, that it is always one of the highlights of my week. (And, in general, I think it is a great way to learn and teach to have younger, less-experienced musicians rehearse and perform with older, more experienced players–it’s what they do at Marlboro.)

I’ve always held the Grieg A minor sonata in rather low regard. No one would argue it is his strongest piece, and many of the themes have long struck me as just, well, unimaginative. But my young colleague had heard the piece on the radio, and was quite taken with it (much to my surprise). She asked if we could read it, and of course I agreed. Not only because she wanted to do it, but also because I’ve never played it, and it is a part of the cello repertoire.

We read through it this afternoon, and she said, “Well, I don’t know why I liked it so much when I heard it on the radio. It seems dumb now.”

Maybe it was how well they played it, I said. I told her a story one of my teachers, Denis Brott, used to tell me. His teacher, Gregor Piatigorsky, used to say that the an artist’s job was to live up to the greatness of a great piece, and with a less-than-great piece, to play the music so well that it would seem great.

We played the first movement again, with all the imagnation, musicality, and sincerity of intention we were capable of. And what do you know? It was like a completely different piece. We liked it.

I realized I had never heard the Grieg played well. Some pieces can be played even poorly and they still are obviously great music. Just about any piece of Bach, for example. Other works have to be played with imagination and commitment to come alive.

There’s a life lesson in here somewhere, too.

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