(To experience the full effect of this post, listen to the music posted above as you read the text)
The professional musician is cognizant of our business’ hardships. However, our job is unique because we are inherently praised and celebrated by our colleagues and by the general public. We have the respect of not only the most talented and accomplished members of our field but we are also admired by people who claim to “know nothing about music”. The personal rewards we receive from others is one of most satisfying aspects of practicing, performing, and teaching music.
In this week’s post, I would like to refocus our attention on another group of people who I would like to call the “unsung heroes” of our world. They are the men and women who never step on stage, who are never their to receive the wave of applause that follows the music, and who are often forgotten in shuffle. They are logisticians of the details and the real retainers of responsibilities. For this class of workers, there is no one else to ask to “get the job done”. They work behind the scenes and are rarely recognized. Maintenance staff who clean, fix, and run our buildings and concert halls. Administrative workers who organize the impossibly chaotic schedules so that everyone gets their own space at the right time. Young interns who receive little pay but are expected to simultaneously learn their job and execute it properly. The list goes on and on. There is no doubt in my mind that without these people, our music making would come to a screeching halt. Whether it’s a desk clerk who finds an extra room for you at the hotel or the volunteer that tears your ticket stub, no task is too small or insignificant.
This meditation is brought to life by Janos Starker, distinguished cello professor of the Jacobs School of Music. Mr. Starker, who passed away this year at the age of 88, was a magnificent performer of the highest caliber, a dedicated teacher to entire generations of cellists, and a unique character. When I graduated this spring, I stopped in one of the music school’s administrative offices. An assistants told me that for decades, every Friday afternoon, Mr. Starker would make his way down the hallway on his way out of the building, poke his head into their office, and say with his unforgettable smirk, “TGIF”. On one occasion, when he was out of town, he called the office to say “even though I’m not here, I still wanted to wish you a happy Friday”. Mr. Starker was a special individual, not just for his talents, but for a rare charm that was extended beyond his students and equals.
Appreciate is an art of its own. Give thanks to those who serve you in the smallest ways. Their collective efforts, like the stars of the night sky, illuminate our lives in the most spectacular ways day in and day out. If you happen to be one of these individuals, we salute you and the work you do.
This week’s theme is not cello, but multiple cellos, or celli. It is a pleasure to have more than one cellist playing at once, though, this is usually the case only in orchestra. In rare instances, you may get a string quintet with an extra cello or some cello ensemble going, but these opportunities are few and far between. (What do you call a group of cellists? A herd? A flock? A school? Are we beasts, birds, or fish).
Today, my friend and colleague Aimon Dwan joined me at Emmanuel Episcopal church of Petoseky, MI. Aimon is a native of Northern Michigan and has just completed a degree in music education from Wooster College of Ohio. The two of us became friends as members of the Bay View Music Festival in the summer of 2012. Having played not only the Mendelssohn Octet but a full musical (Titanic) and an opera (Don Giovanni) together, I would say that we make a good team.
Two of the pieces comes from the Sonata No. 10 in G Major by Jean-Baptiste Barrière. If Wikipedia in its infinite wisdom is not lying to me, Barrière was born in 1707 and lived to the age of 40. He was a predecessor to the better-known Jean-Pierre and Jean-Louis Duport brothers who lived in the second half of the 18th century. The Barrière Sonatas are written for two cellists in equal parts. Barrière’s writing is as fun to play as it is enjoyable to listen to due to its conversational nature and virtuosic quality.
I must thank Prof. Emilio Colon for recommending this musical selection to me. Not only is Prof. Colon a wealth of knowledge of the cello literature, but he also understands the value of the “cello fellowship” that is gained by playing together. As a member of his studio from 2009-2013 while studying at Indiana University, I looked forward to each year’s studio party to play cello quartets with our members.
The other two pieces come from the Germanic school of the cello. David Popper (1843-1913), infamous and potentially hated by many a modern cellist, wrote 40 of the most difficult etudes in the cello repertoire published in the “High School of Cello Playing”. He also wrote 15 etudes in first position for beginning students. These etudes feature an accompanying cello part, and surprisingly, are charming and fun to play.
I must also thank Cara Miller-Colon for introducing me to these etudes. I had the opportunity to work with four of Cara’s cello students this last year and, at her studio’s recital, accompanied two students on their Popper etudes.
In other news, I have come to possess a “fixer-upper” cello. I will hopefully have more to say about this later this summer as it becomes a playable cello.
In other news, today is David Popper's Birthday!
What is the difference between someone who takes themselves too seriously and someone who takes what he or she does seriously?
To begin this meditation, let me identify the three people I know to be at fault for the sin of self-importance. Me, myself, and I. Anyone who has had the pleasure of meeting me in person knows that I love to talk. A lot. And whether I am aware of my oratory-overkill, or I’ve missed the fact that I’ve turned a passing comment into a full-blown lecture, not on information that is useful, but a session on “look-how-smart-Chas-is”, I’ve made an ass of myself on many occasions.
When it comes down to it, the overly serious person (and let’s face it, we have all had to work with these individuals) is just not that much fun. Not only is their boastful attitude and need to impress upon people how great / how smart they are a somewhat nauseating experience, but they are also the first to criticize or demean others. The one-sided game of oneupsmanship that they are playing makes extended periods of time with them almost intolerable. In the end, “seriousness” is a displaced and projected form of “insecurity” as an individual attempts to construct an alternative version of their reality. Perhaps the most painful aspect of this scenario is that the “serious” person is blind to how ridiculous they look while their audience simultaneously groans and laughs at the tragic comedy as it unfolds.
In contrast, the person who takes their work seriously is humble. While an ego is easily deflated, true confidence is usually rooted in other virtues. After considering some individuals whom I admire, I have come up with a list of these characteristics.
No. 1: Fun
It’s hard to take yourself too seriously if you know how to have fun. Joviality and a generally gregarious manner makes “work” less labor and more play. Their dedication to productivity is tempered by laughter and positive outlook. They are people whose knowledge extends beyond their professional life since their wisdom is rooted in “living the good life”; friends, food, and a purpose dedicated to “making a difference”.
No. 2: A Sense of Proportion
In both their interactions with others and their understanding of themselves, a true professional tends to see things as they are rather than the way they want them to be. They don’t make their molehills into mountains nor do they have a taste for drama. If anything, they are good at helping others cut the “bullsh!t” and gain clear perspective.
No. 3: Altruism
My father once told me that the hallmark of a good leader is someone who helps to develop the people he or she serves. It is pretty difficult to let your ego expand if you are putting your efforts into building others. A deep sense of caring eliminates the need to impress the crowd.
(The photograph above is a picture that I saw in the Grand Hotel of Mackinac Island. Though all the musicians in the orchestra sitting on the porch of the hotel are not smiling, the cellist's expression reminds me of Tardar Sauce the grumpy cat.)
At Indiana University, we are privileged to have one of the most distinguished musicology departments in the country. Along with the two survey music history courses required for the degree program, I also took Professor Ayana Smith’s M410 “Women in Music” in which we examined the historical issues surrounding women’s musical careers such as education, social context, and representation. One of my favorite words that Prof. Smith was fond of, and one that I am now at fault at for overusing, is “mythology”. A myth is always grown from a kernel of truth but the narrative the unfolds is usually a distorted un-proportional account of the truth. Perhaps the greatest “myth” one finds is not so much an intellectual idea but an attitudinal outlook that many young musicians in conservatory hold. I’m not sure if this is something that others tell us, that we tell ourselves, or perhaps both. Maybe, the problematic nature of a “myth” is that we have a hard time defining its origin. In any case, here it is:
“The Undergraduate Myth”
1) You have to do just one thing
2) You have to do the best at this one thing
3) If you do not love it every day of your life there is something wrong with you.
4) If 1, 2, and 3, do not apply to you, you are the only one because every else is living the dream
While musicians are already trying to find success in a specialized field, believing this myth is the root of much unneeded anguish. Indeed, I spent the first half of my bachelors degree trying to eliminate my options until I could find “the one” and the second half of my degree broadening my horizons. Of the two halves, I was much happier during the second half. I learned that I, like many of my friends that I see being fulfilled in their respective fields, enjoy doing many things not just one thing. We piece together our interests and blend them into something that is our own. For me, it is the love of teaching and my interest in academic thought (musicology and philosophy) that continue to complete my puzzle.
I got the idea for this entry from a friend of mine, Liz Nowland, who is a harpist earning her Masters of Music at Roosevelt College in Chicago. She double-majored in harp performance and trumpet performance at Indiana University and since we share similar history, both academically and domestically (she hails from Petoskey where I am currently living), we make music together. While Liz is auditioning for professional orchestral jobs on harp, she is also playing jazz trumpet in frequented clubs in Chicago. I was really impressed by this and I thought to myself, “how unexpected but really cool!” She is also the one who articulated the four points of the “myth” and I thought it to be very insightful. Perhaps the “truth” of the “myth” is that no matter how much hard work and focus you put into one area of your life, balance and variety will ultimately enhance your productivity.
On another note, I will be playing with Joe Fortin at Emmanuel Episcopal Church of Petoskey tomorrow. He has programed Pablo Casals’ El cant des ocells, a Catalonian folk tune that Casals transcribed for cello and orchestra. The title, which translates to “Song of the Birds”, is actually a tune used during Christmas, though, popularized by Casals as an encore, has become a beloved piece of the repertoire.
(When Joe and I were rehearsing this at the church the other day, you could hear the rain as it fell on the roof of the sanctuary. It was quite pleasant.)
Read more about the piece’s history on the Kennedy Center’s website:
Listen to Casals talk about and play his El cant des ocells: