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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Saturday, February 12, 2005

Rebuilding the Audience for Classical Music

The musical world as we see it today is a mass of contradictions. The level of technical musicianship among young people today is extraordinarily high because we have so many well-trained teachers. Thirty years ago students of popular instruments considering serious music study had between ten and twenty fine teachers to choose from who where teaching in prestigious colleges and conservatories (less popular instruments like the oboe, for example, had fewer teachers). Now students have hundreds of competent (and often excellent) teachers to choose from teaching at all kinds of colleges (including affordable state universities) who take extraordinary pride in their teaching, knowing that their own opportunities as soloists are severely limited by the lack of demand for soloists and orchestral musicians in the music market.

Many of these students, especially the string players, had the benefit of Suzuki training, which, when taught properly, can lead the way to the development of a fine technique at an early age. Music has enriched the lives of many of these students, and many choose to pursue music as a career because it is what they love most. Many believe that music provides a valid contribution to society. They are supported by their parents, their teachers, and their school community, but when they find themselves in the “real world” it becomes clear that during the years that they were developing as musicians their peers were becoming increasingly unaware of the value of music, especially live music.

The formal study of music education as a discipline is alive and well within colleges and universities. There are whole courses of study devoted to pedagogy—how to teach, and the school systems that still value instrumental and choral music programs as vital components of their plan for education benefit from band directors and choir directors with training far superior to band directors from previous generations.

For the informed music listener we live in a time of virtual paradise. Recordings are available of just about every piece by the composers we consider “major” composers, and recordings are available of the complete works of composers we might consider “minor” composers. Recordings are available by composers we have only read about in history books, and recordings are available by composers who only appear in footnotes in history books. If a recording is not available of a piece, it is quite easy to make a recording of exceptional quality, duplicate it professionally, and make it available to the whole world by way of the internet.

Many musicians who saw the difficulty of pursuing a performing career as the gates of musical opportunity were beginning to close in the 1970s and 1980s, devoted their passion for music to the study of musicology. These scholars have made extraordinary discoveries concerning performance practice of early music and connections between music and society. There are very few subjects concerning musicology that extremely smart scholars haven’t written something about, though the current musicological journals are far more limited in their scope these days because the agendas of academic musical scholarship have moved away (temporarily, I hope) from the substance of music itself. Virtually all published musical scholarship is available to anyone with a library card through the interlibrary loan system.

Other musicians found their true calling in instrument making. We now have exponentially more fine instrument makers than we had 30 years ago. It is now possible to special order an instrument made to exact specifications: a duplicate of a historical instrument, an instrument with a specific ergonomic shape to help ease stress on the body, an instrument made out of a specific material or made to play at a specific pitch. There are student string instruments being made that are extremely affordable, and bows made of synthetic material that play as well as bows made of rare rainforest woods. Many of the makers of these instruments are able to make a living because they can advertise their trade in widely-read music publications and on the internet. They are accessible from anywhere in the world so they can have their workshops in places that allow more space and require lower rents than they would have in major cities.

Music has made its way into the smaller cities of America. There are excellent community orchestras in smaller cities all over the country, and there are ample opportunities to hear concerts in places where parking is not a problem. Now children living more than 100 miles from a major city can get the same quality of musical training as children living in major cities. Many parents who have fled the city to raise their children in a more peaceful and less stressful environment support the teaching studios of thousands of private teachers living in smaller cities and towns because they believe that the study of music is beneficial for the overall development of their children.

What is wrong with this picture? In a way these developments represent an ideal situation for music to continue to grow and thrive in this country, but one major component of the musical ecosystem is missing. Somehow while we were teaching our musicians to play better, teach better, and think about music in new ways, we have lost our audience.

The thriving audience for music in America during the 19th century and first half of the 20th century didn’t just happen. It had to be built. A young America built squarely on industrialism had a generation of wealthy children who wanted to bring attributes of European culture to America. They imported musicians from France and Germany, built concert halls, and provided the necessary funding for professional symphony orchestras to begin giving concerts. When America started to “grow” its own soloists (like the violinists Albert Spaulding and Maud Powell) and its own composers (like George Gershwin) it was a major cultural accomplishment for the entire population, even those people who did not live in major cities. After the Homestead Act, high schools in the West made sure to include music in their courses of study. Appreciation of the arts went hand in glove with a well-rounded education when America was creating itself.

The piano industry also found its strongest market in America. Pianos could be delivered by train to any city with a train station. People played piano for recreation and entertainment, and people had an increased interest in hearing the instrument played well.
As political situations became more difficult for European musicians during the years of the two World Wars, more and more musicians from Europe immigrated to America, and America enjoyed its greatest musical times. Along with this gift of talent from Europe came the need to understand it, so many people put themselves to the task of educating the public through publications, lectures, concerts, and recordings. Maud Powell’s recordings were originally intended to introduce people in the remote American cities where she toured to the music that she was planning to play during her visits. Early recordings were never intended to replace live performances, but rather to remind and inform people about music.

Radio became a vibrant stage for music. Radio stations had their own orchestras, and a large body of first-rate musicians made their living playing on the radio. Many first performances of important musical works happened in live radio broadcasts. Radio brought music into every home in America. Because of the quality of the broadcasts and the importance of music to the people who ran the programs, the radio became vitally important in the musical education of America.

Early television was booming with musical talent. The original talk show host Jack Paar regularly had the pianist Oscar Levant as a guest on his show. Harpo Marx was seriously interested in music (though he never learned to read and played the harp backwards). Fred Rogers was a composer before he began his work on children’s television, and wrote many operas for children using the puppets in his neighborhood. The musical climate of Southern California was so lively that the violinist Jascha Heifetz chose to live there until the end of his life.

Early television put a great deal of effort into music education, and Leonard Bernstein’s educational television programs introduced thousands and thousands of people to music. His Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic became a model for many orchestras to follow. Bernstein, who received his musical education later in life than many professional musicians, understood the importance of early exposure and to music and also the importance of speaking to the intelligence of young people instead of pandering to their need for entertainment. His audience became the audience of music lovers that supported American orchestras and chamber music ensembles into the 1970s.

Suddenly the bottom dropped out of the education system, and by the end of the 1970s every state in American made drastic cuts to their music programs. It is possible that people assumed that the audience for live classical music would remain strong, or it is possible that at that time American society was so twisted and confused that these cuts were made without any thought at all about the cultural cost that the country would pay for reducing music programs.

It is sort of like exposing only the students who have a genuine interest in writing fiction to reading. Our music education programs have failed in educating a whole generation of people who have put what could have developed into a love for the music played by their peers into other things. Now this generation of people in their thirties and forties who have never been taught to listen to music with any depth fail to see the importance of music in our society, and these people are making financial decisions that end up destroying musical institutions simply because they don’t know what they are doing.

If we want to continue to have live art music (the word “classical” implies music from a limited range of styles) alive in our society we need to change the way it is presented to students in schools. We need to teach students to love listening to music as an activity in itself. We need to involve them in the ritual of concert-going and teach them the beauty of allowing the emotional “meaning” of the music that they hear touch them. They need to hear people play in concerts and they need to learn that their participation in a musical experience as a member of an audience is as vital as the participation of the people playing.

We need to sensitize young people to the emotional range of music making, and teach them to appreciate the fact that one musician’s interpretation of a composer’s work can be wildly different from another musician’s interpretation and still have validity and meaning. We need to teach all of our audiences to listen carefully to the musicians who live in their cities and towns and support the work they do. The quality of a musical performance has no relation to the price of a ticket, but it does depend on an intelligent audience.

The financial burden of supporting musical organizations has been carried by relatively few members of our society. If we succeed in developing a large and vital audience for music to balance our large and vital population of performing musicians, and those people each contribute a small share to the economy that supports live music we might find ourselves living in the best of all musical worlds.

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Monday, February 07, 2005

Reconsidering Perfection

Arnold Schoenberg in 1936:
…although the premier of this quartet was exceptionally well presented by Master Rosé and his wonderful string quartet, one knows that perfection cannot be expected at the very first performance. So it was this second string quartet about which a gentleman once asked me whether I had got it already in a perfect manner.
I had to answer, “Yes, during the composing.” Now, since the Kolish Quartet exists, and thanks to my friend Alfred Newman, who gave me the opportunity to record these compositions, everybody, and even myself are in the position to hear it in a perfect manner, in a perfect performance.
Arnold Schoenberg recorded this comment as part of a 1937 recording of his complete string quartets. This set of recordings, along with several other pieces, has recently been reissued on the Music & Arts label in a set called “In Honor of Rudolf Kolish.”

This comment bothered me a great deal when I first heard, and it continues to bother me. It bothers me because I believe that the word “perfection” is terribly restrictive, and that striving for it can get in the way of having satisfying musical experiences.

I would like to believe that Schoenberg would agree with me and react to his recorded statement as something that he simply said at the time, under the pressure of having to sound authoritative. Schoenberg, like the rest of us, was not perfect.

I have heard thousands of performances played by people who memorized every single note, dynamic marking, and articulation marking of a piece. Some of these people replicated the score exactly, but lacked the “room” to make a personal statement or allow a sense of joy to come into the music making.

Performing musicians so often imagine that the composer of the piece they are playing is an authoritarian Schoenberg-like figure that requires those who play his or her music to act only as the composer's “voice.” It is a shame that people think of music in that way, because most of the composers I know get very excited about hearing their music interpreted by other people who can illuminate it with humanity, experience, and perspective.

The relationship between the interpreter and the composer, whether the composer is alive or dead, should be a highly creative one, but any kind of creative relationship allows for lapses in what might be an objective sense of “perfection.”

In order to allow for more fulfilling musical experiences I have decided to limit my use of the word “perfection” to non artistic matters. I would also like to eradicate the terms perfect intonation, perfect rhythm, perfect technique, and perfect performance from my vocabulary.

Perfect intonation simply doesn’t exist. Even though people like Schoenberg tried to do away with the importance of tonality during the first part of the 20th century, most of the music we play, whether old or new, is grounded in some kind of tonality. Working within the tonal system, by its very nature, requires constant adjustment. When playing chamber music or solo music with a pianist, the temperament of the piano becomes the force by which we measure where to place our notes so that they sound in tune. When playing chamber music without a piano we must also adjust our intonation constantly, especially when the music we play modulates or where the distances between notes played by one or more of the players exceed the span of an octave. Because of the limitations created by its frets, playing with a guitar requires an even greater set of adjustments.

When playing chamber music with wind players, each musician must adjust to the natural places where notes fall on particular instruments and in particular registers. When playing wind music with non tertian harmonies, all the rules of “just intonation” regarding the relative position of thirds are useless.

One of the technological advances used in working on intonation is the electronic tuning device. Relying on this “authority” for where a pitch should “be” as determined by mathematical calculations is useful in only the most rudimentary musical situations (like establishing an initial “A” at the beginning of a rehearsal). During a chromatic modulation, a sensitive ear (or two) is far more useful as a guide than an electronic pitch that does not understand what is happening to the notes around it. Intonation is best worked out on a note-by-note and interval-by-interval basis, and it should be discussed among players in a friendly and “relative” manner. When we become angry or insecure about what we hear, we become tense, and it becomes difficult to listen properly. Intervals that are in tune resonate, and it is this resonance that makes music sound beautiful. Perhaps a more attainable goal for intonation would be to work for uniformity, beauty, balance, and resonance rather than “perfection.”

Perfect rhythm is also a term that bothers me. Accurate rhythm is what happens when music swings along at a natural and even pace, with subdivisions that happen to enhance the flow of the music. In all the music we play notes are either going somewhere, coming from somewhere, or staying somewhere for a while. In most of the music we play the notes are doing all three things at the same time. Although it is useful to practice with a metronome in order for our bodies to feel the even flow of the music, we need to internalize this rhythmic sense by feeling the rhythm rather than “beating” it. Perhaps a goal for a more satisfying sense of rhythmic motion in music would be to strive for a natural, internal, and organic rhythmic swing rather than for “perfection.”

The struggle for “perfect technique” very often cancels itself out by creating a technique that contains a great deal of tension. There is really no such thing as a single “perfect technique” for any instrument. We all have different body types and play instruments that require various fine adjustments in order to get them to produce the sounds we want them to produce. Perhaps we should strive to build our technique with the goals of strength, flexibility, comfort, and structure.

Once we remove the struggle for perfection from the various pre-requisites of performing (intonation, rhythm, technique) it seems out of context to imagine a “perfect performance.” In our search for resonance and beautiful intonation, natural rhythmic flow, with notes moving naturally, and a relaxed and flexible technique, all sorts of unexpected expressive surprises might happen in a performance that no musician could plan, explain, or even fully understand. That is the mystery and the beauty of music.

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