Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Tale of Two Saxophones: A Litany of Horror and Woe

Day 13

Yesterday, in a blinding rainstorm, I found myself driving down a dark, undeveloped dirt road that wound ever more distant from civilization into the snarling New England woods. Orange pine needles littered the road as the Jeep splashed through deep, boggy puddles. All alone, I nervously tossed bagel crumbs out the window to mark my path as I dove deeper and deeper away from civilization. Suddenly to my right, the woods cleared and I saw what creature lurketh in the deep, dark forest.

Gasp! instrument repairman.

A neat, gray house emerged from the darkness. Its perfectly manicured, thick green grass was edged with sinister impatiens, dancing forebodingly in blood red, teeth-gritting white, and eye-burning pink. A lush rhododendron glistened a warning from the heart of the front lawn, its pointed leaves like fingers beckoning my reluctant heart into its evil lair.

Come, come, it whispered. Spend, spend.

The perfect garden belied the evils that lurked within. I hefted my hoard to the front door, and knocked. A great beast snarled from within, a sharp-toothed Sheltie who scratched and howled toward me as the door creaked open. Tethered to that beast was that most insidious of villians, that Cheshire-smiled scoundrel: a retired band director . . . Darker still, a clarinet player.

He lured me into his dungeon. He pointed a finger at a creaky chair. "Sit," he intoned. He then inspected my stash... the lithe and bouyant Yamaha alto sax, and the gnarled, lumbering Martin baritone, both quaking in his grasp. He turned them to and fro, and all at once, he dashed to a great cauldron in the darkest corner. In a great cloud of smoke and spray, he concocted a potion and grabbed the alto by its neck. He poured acid down its throat and plunged a drill into its gizzard! It sputtered and sprayed, quivered and shook ... and what emerged was the darkest grime from the dankest, slime-infested lagoon.

The torture had only begun, but I could take no more. I ran from the place, leaving my blessed horns behind. "These are saxophones, not your children!" he cried, laughing madly as I ran from the threshold. My fear burned a grey trail in the grass as I rushed to my mud-soaked wagon, desperate for escape.

Home! To home, I must again. As I drove back down the dusty road, his evil lair disappearing in my rear view mirror, my heart clenched. I made one solemn resolution, that it should follow me all the days of my musical life: Guinness is Guinness, and saxophone is saxophone, and if you value your musical life, my friends.... ne'er the twain shall meet.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

We Don't Need Another Rockstar

Day 12.

A parent wrote a kind letter to me a couple weeks ago, telling me just how much her little guy has been enjoying music class. He comes home at night singing the songs he learned in school, and now, she tells me, "He wants to be a rock star!" And then the inevitable question... "Where can I get him some music lessons?"

Great! I LOVE IT!


I started teaching music because I want more children to experience the joy of musicmaking, and to grow up into adults for whom music is a source of joy in their lives. But I don't want to farm rock stars. Don't you read the stuff some of those stars and starlets say on Twitter? 

The real problem is that striving for rock star status is exactly what gets in the way for so many aspiring musicians... and dare I say, for just about every artist and writer I know. My heart breaks every time I think of my many, many friends who have stopped performing, bands that have broken up, painters who have stopped painting, writers who stopped writing, because they had a broken dream. They came to a point where they didn't feel it was worth it anymore; they weren't getting any traction. Fame is elusive.

In all of these cases, they lost sight of the love of the doing. They became an artist because of how much they loved making their art, but somehow that got obscured by the pursuit of making a masterpiece. And when the masterpiece didn't come, they forgot about the "making art" part. We want to make a hit; we want our work to have enormously broad reach.... and sometimes this reach gets mistaken for self-worth, and when the reach doesn't come, depression descends. I have stories upon stories of artist-friends who have emerged from depression when they realized they weren't going to be famous. They all have stories of having reconciled themselves to it, and have found ways to live happily... but guess what? Most of them are no longer making their art, even locally. 

So, with this in mind, Mom: I have an idea! Lessons are great, but also expensive, and for kids who are 5 and 6 years old, they are usually not the same as having fun playing music. How about if, instead of ever mentioning "rock star" to your wee dude, just keep letting him make music at home. Take him to local concerts, where the guy on stage with the bright red electric guitar and white hair is the same guy that fills gas tanks out by the airport. Get tickets to the local Philharmonic, where some of the music teachers in the schools perform. Go see early shows at kid-friendly venues in town, where regular folks in regular clothes are jamming out and having fun, with no microphones at all. Go see the high school musicals every year. They're really good! 

There are so many ways to carry a love of music into a life, and there are so many ways that the people in your neighborhood are doing it. Be careful of unwittingly setting them up for a far-off and statistically unlikely end goal. Just take them out and around and see how regular people are bringing music into our daily lives. 

And who knows, maybe The Dude might turn out to be a rock star some day after all. But if not, he'll always have the music. That's the important part. 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Grave Misspelling of "Practice"

Day 10.

In my new life as teacher, I am surrounded by a cacaphony of motivational posters. And I mean cacaphony. Every room in the building is chock full of motivational one-liners, plastering the walls with cute little ditties about motivation, about behavior, about full-body listening, about being kind, about grit, about imagination. That stuff.

I like this one in the Band Room. It encapsulates this whole struggle we face getting to our ten minutes a day... and also outlines exactly the struggle of every musician who actually cares very deeply about perfecting their craft:

P. R. A. C. T. I. C. E. See?

The only problem is, there's a letter missing, and it will explain the silence of Day 9:


As in, "F*ck, I Forgot.

Also, Forgiveness.

It is the last F that allows you to return to T, which here may be tenacity, but also stands for "Try again."

Day 10. Hello. Let's try this again.

Ah, just look at the time! 10 minutes is up. Now let us go in peace.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Pause for a Moment of Joy

Day 8.

Have you heard of Iris Apfel, the style icon who rose to fame in 2005, at the age of 80? She had been fashionably New York–fabulous all of her life, it seems, but it wasn't until 2005 that the rest of the world knew it, thanks to a last-minute exhibit cancellation at her local museum (Oh that little joint? They call that the MET, you know... the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC), and some enterprising individual quickly assembling an exhibit devoted to her sense of style.

That's an inspiration, and a good reminder. It's very easy to think that it's too late to do the thing we wish we'd done, especially when all around us we see praises lavished upon the prodigies who have achieved remarkable mastery at a very young age, particularly in music. Anyone famous in mainstream music these days—and famous in this sense is not about the fame but about the reach—is generally very young. We're no longer young. When talking about our musical aspirations, Soul Papa and I have many, many times rationalized: "Well, that ship has sailed. Let's just play locally and have fun."

With that humble goal in mind, we started playing locally recently, but very quickly, we discovered that something is different this time around. A wonderful new bandmate has appeared in our lives, and he has brought a new energy to our music. We are no longer a duo with a hired bass player; we are now a trio. And that is lifting us up. Together we are making music better than we've ever done before, or at least more satisfying than ever before. We feel optimistic. We did a wonderfully satisfying 90-minute set and we didn't want it to end, and I can't wait til next week when we can do it again.

You know what? This is getting really good. Maybe we can do something with this. Maybe we can have a broader reach. Perhaps we can shoot higher than the 25-seat gastro pub two miles from our house.

Perhaps someone will devote an exhibit to us at the Pilgrim Hall Museum, and our fame will be assured.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Well, Hello Dalai.

Day 7.

Thank goodness I have so many close, dear friends on Facebook. Take my old chum the Dalai Lama, for example. His post this morning was a welcome voice of positivity in a feed that has gotten so bad and so terrifying that for the first time, I really just need to turn it off. And then, well, Hello Dalai!

Teaching has been an enormous lesson in compassion. I have two class periods that are entirely off the wall, and it's so challenging and difficult at times--these two classrooms get so chaotic--that it feels impossible to cultivate a culture of warm heartedness. These kids aren't paying attention; somehow I'm not holding their attention. It would seem that they are being intentionally disruptive, intent on destroying anyone else's opportunity to actually learn and have fun. In the height of the chaos, I get frustrated, but contain it as well as possible, hoping that a stern moment or two will scrae the bejaysus out of them and get them in line. So far, that hasn't worked. Then after they leave, I pack up and clean up feeling deflated. Bad kids, I say! You can see mischief in their eyes in class; you can see them thinking, how can I break the rules? What can I get away with?

But of course, it's not bad kids. You see these same children out in public with their parents and the devilish look is gone from their eyes, and they look innocent, vulnerable, full of love. You realize how lovable they are, and how much they want to love.

So how can we encourage an internal desire to "behave," an internal motivation to learn? How can we make them want to do the right thing? I'm sure the solution is to create a culture of compassion, a classroom in which they know that they are accepted, loved, and wanted.

If I ever figure out how to make that happen, I'll let you know. Every week, I'm trying something new and I'll keep going til I get these kids on target.

In the meantime, expect me to be making a bee line from school to the liquor cabinet every Friday at 3:45.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Navels and the Mobius Strip

Day 6.

Some days, it's perfectly inspiring to look at one's navel, to extrapolate and propound upon issues we believe are relevant to the Universal Navel. Other days, Aleppo, and the newly violent polarization that the presidential campaign has incited, win out. Held up against the unspeakable suffering of Aleppo, and the terrifying threat of a blind mob, that navel seems petty, vacuous, tedious, irrelevant. Yet these things whose gravity would seem to diminish the value of our daily struggles as artists may be the same things that make it so important that we persist.

Friday, October 14, 2016

How's the New Job?

Day 4 (ok, and 5).

Folks have been asking: How's the new job?

Well, teaching music to kindergarten and first grade is no easy task. The music part is relatively straightforward, but managing their behavior? Sometimes, but only to myself, I say: "It's hard. Real hard." To everyone else, I say: "I'm a beginner again. Eventually, I'll get it." I've vowed never to say "It's hard," just like I try not to say, "I'm so busy" ... because... yawn. Who cares? We're all busy. And life is hard for all of us.

Here's what I've been saying instead: It's a wild ride to be a beginner again. I left a career at the top of my game, when I felt like I was one of the very best at much of what I was doing. And then I started again, into a job where everyone else is pretty darn good at what they're doing, while I'm the trainee. New kid on the block at age 47.

Some class periods have been fabulous successes. Others have been abject failures. It's almost confidence-killing... that is, if you look at it that way. Here's another way to look at: We've done new things before, and we didn't die. We can do them again.

About five weeks into teaching, I've experienced some brief moments of reward, almost always overshadowed by "Oh sh$t, now what do I do with them?" Midway through my second month, the teeming mass of 72 arms and legs that is a classroom has slowly and loudly subsided into 18 individuals (times 7), and I know a lot of their names now.

Mind you, I'm nowhere near cruise speed, but I have faith that it's coming. Someday the captain will say I can now remove the seatbelt and recline. For now, I'm climbing to altitude speed and that's where the most fuel is burned. Seatbelt on, tray tables stowed safely in the seatback in front of me. Oh, I'm burning lots of fuel, and I can't wait 'til the flight attendant comes around with the drink cart. What sustains the flight for now: The ticket is bought and paid for. I know that I took a risk, made a massive change, and for the right reasons. Someday maybe the job will be rewarding too, but right now, perhaps rather than being on a climbing plane, it's more like I jumped off of it and am doing my best to enjoy the open air rushing by before the parachute opens ... not entirely knowing whether or not the parachute will open, but pretty damn sure it will.

It's hard, alright. And I'd highly recommend it. A good life is built on the faith that the parachute will open, and in the meantime, we will resolve to enjoy the freefall.