Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Remembering Julius Baker

I first met Julius Baker in 1975. When I arrived at his home in Brewster, New York and saw a poster on his wall that had the caption "Play Papa a Polka on your Piccolo," my first question for him was if he knew the song "Piccolo Pete." His response I will never forget. He said "I am Piccolo Pete." Julius Baker then told me that he had been a guest on a television show where he played the song as part of a rather outrageous act. This seemed at odds with the impression I had of Julius Baker from recordings, and I understood that there was far more to Julius Baker the person than a beautiful flute sound, tremendous musical sensitivity, and an impeccable technique.

When I entered Julius Baker’s class at Juilliard in 1976 I was in stellar company. Mr. Baker liked to think of his students as a small society, and many of us developed very strong friendships. Many of our lessons were taught like masterclasses, and we all got to know one another’s playing very well.

Mr. Baker was not afraid to favor one student over another or tout the talents of a younger student who had just entered the school. He did not give career advice (at least not to me) and he did not go out of his way to push any of his students into advantageous positions in the musical world. Any advancement that any his students made came from that student’s desire to excel and achieve.

He also rarely talked about technique. He was so natural a player that I do not think that he was even able to break down his way of playing into components. He never discussed methods of breathing or the position of the tongue. He never talked about the process of making vibrato, though he always encouraged the use of it. He talked about “changing the tone” but he never articulated exactly how to do it. Mr. Baker assumed that if he asked one of his students to make a conceptual change in the music, his student would figure out the technical means necessary to do it. His teaching method did not involve hand-holding or self-esteem building, but he made it very clear that he was pleased when his students worked hard. He expected of his students what he expected of himself. Nothing more, and certainly nothing less.

Julius Baker taught me to listen with my mind. He taught me to understand the sensation of a beautiful tone, and most of all, because of the public nature of our lessons, he taught me how to listen to students the way he listened to them. He also taught me how to pay special attention to detail. His years as a studio musician taught him how to get the most expression out of even the most mundane succession of notes. When he was faced with music that was interesting, and particularly music that interested him, he could make a passage really shine. He taught me how to see the possibilities in the music I was playing, and most of all, he taught me how to open myself up to the possibilities of expression that were inside of me.

Mr. Baker strove to expose us to greatness, and his primary example of greatness was Jascha Heifetz. He encouraged his students to listen to Heifetz recordings. I did this to an extreme and eventually gave up the flute in later adulthood and returned to the violin, my first instrument. Julius Baker also began as a violinist. I always thought he let me into his class because we both had similar musical beginnings. Julius Baker’s father played the flute and my mother played the flute. My mother studied with Julius Baker when he was in the Chicago Symphony, and he never forgot her because he liked her name: June Blume.

Julius Baker had a heart attack shortly before I met him, and during my first year at Juilliard he was serious about jogging and encouraged his students to jog as well. He transferred his concern for his own health onto his students, something that I found very endearing, especially since many of us were very young and were living away from home for the first time. He invited us often to his farm called “Baker’s Acres” where he kept bees and had a flock of geese and various assorted farm animals and house pets, including some of the gentlest Dobermans I have ever met. His wife Ruth was completely at home on their farm, and except for the beautiful flute music that wafted over the hills, his neighbors probably knew him more as a beekeeper than as a musician. I remember when he introduced me to his neighbor Shelly Secunda, son of Sholom Secunda who wrote “bei mir bist du shane,” he described Shelly’s major activity as “raising boys.”

A hopeless romantic, Mr. Baker would suddenly burst into song. I remember one day when it was about to rain, Mr. Baker had a collapsible umbrella that he held as if it were a normal umbrella, collapsed but not compressed. He began to sing “Let a Smile be your Umbrella,” and then nostalgically revealed something about the New York of his past. He loved to talk about his ham radio activities. He made friends with people all over the world. He made friends wherever he went. When he was in the hospital after his heart attack he shared a hospital room with a welder who taught him to weld after they both got out of the hospital.

He told me often about his father who used to write him letters in Yiddish. Though he was never a scholar or a linguist, he loved languages. He often referred to himself as Julio Panero (sort of like the god Pan) and used whatever words he knew in any language as often as he could to make people feel at home, except for French. He seemed to talk to each of his students in their own language too, and each of us had a unique experience.

He kidded around with his students. We took ourselves so very seriously, and he knew that we needed levity. I recall some of the names he gave to some of the flutists in his class: Sandy Synogogue, Mutt and Jeff, and General Patton. I was Fine and D’Indy.

I will never forget one morning when I woke up at Julius Baker’s house. It must have been around 6:00. Mr. Baker had just returned from jogging. He picked up his flute from the piano and he and Ruth, who was sitting at the piano, started playing “The Swan” by Saint-Saens. I thought that it was the most beautiful playing I had ever heard. I sat there with the dogs and cried.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned from Julius Baker is a lesson that he taught the way he taught everything else, by example. I learned from him that what was most important in life is who you are apart from what you do. He was always interested in what made each person unique, and never judged me for not following the path that I started on. We continued to be close after I gave up the flute in favor of the violin and the viola. I will always be grateful that I devoted so much of my early life to the flute because I had the opportunity to get to know Julius Baker so well.

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1 comment:

ML said...

Writing such as yours is invaluable in giving a sense of the private person, Julius Baker "off the record," so to speak. Thanks for sharing your memories.