Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Remembering Leo Wright

I spent the autumn of 1981 in Vienna, Austria. I left a teaching job I had in a little mountain town, and found myself enrolled as a student at the Hochschule studying recorder. I also developed an interest in jazz, and thought that it would be interesting to learn how to improvise like a jazz musician. A friend of mine recommended that I go and hear a jazz pianist named Fritz Pauer, so I went to a jazz club where he was playing (Vienna was awash with Jazz clubs in the early 1980s). I found myself sitting at a table with an American, so I introduced myself. After establishing the "wheres" of our American-ness, I told him that I was a flutist. He beamed. He was one too. When I told him that I studied with Julius Baker he was in awe. Julius Baker was his favorite flutist.

This man was Leo Wright. He was at this particular jazz club because his wife Ellie Wright was singing there. She sang in a wonderful stylized English that completely masked the fact that she was from Vienna.

Leo was in his early 50s and was in the process of recovering from a stroke. He had difficulty moving his right hand, but he was determined to get his playing back. In his prime he was one of the most versatile saxophonists around, as well as an extremely agile flutist. He had a huge international career, playing with Dizzy Gillespie in the 1960s, and making wonderful recordings. By the end of the evening we agreed to trade lessons. I would try to teach him to play the flute like Julius Baker, and he would try to teach me to swing. In order to accomplish these tasks we spent a lot of time together.

He was kind of like a surrogate father to me in Vienna. He and Ellie taught me to be proud of my American-ness. Ellie encouraged me to read Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer which set me firmly on the path towards becoming a reader and loving literature.

I taught Leo to breathe by using his diaphragm. He never had adequate flute lessons (it seems that people didn't know much about the function of the diaphragm in playing the flute before the 1970s) and never learned to breathe properly. I believed that there would be a connection between this new (for him) type of breathing and his ability to relax and re-connect musically with his right hand. Somehow this connection worked. Eventually he was able to play again, and he made a big comeback several months after I left Vienna.

Leo used to bring me to jazz clubs all the time, and he used to encourage me to sit in with the musicians who were playing. Everyone respected Leo, so I guess they took a chance on me. I might have made a serious fool of myself, but Leo never let on that he thought so. I still learned a lot from Leo. As far as my learning to "swing" was concerned, I learned to appreciate good jazz playing, but I have never been able to play like a jazz musician myself.

I learned about dedication from Leo. Even when he was unable to use his right hand at all, Leo practiced long tones on the saxophone using only his left hand. I learned from Leo that the spirit of a musician is a very strong thing, and that a that the power of positive thinking is far stronger than I ever imagined it could be. I also learned about the particular strengths that I had myself.

Music is hanging around the air in Vienna. It always has been there, and it probably will always be there. Fritz Pauer told me that it has something to do with the water that flows in the underwater canals. Even in the silence of the night in Vienna, there is a certain musical rhythm in the air. Anyway, one day while I was walking in Vienna I started singing a tune. I figured it must have been something that I heard, but I couldn't place it. I sang it for Leo, and he had never heard it before either. He helped me harmonize it with jazz chords, and I let it rattle around in my brain for about 20 years until I turned it into a piece for string quartet that I called "Good-bye to Vienna." Of course I dedicated it to Leo, who is no longer alive in body, but will always be alive in spirit.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Starting Late

I have always been a late starter. I played the violin when I was a child and stopped within a few years for various reasons. When I needed to play an instrument as a teenager (needed meant that I needed to find a way to express myself), I started playing the flute. I was 13. Most of the flutists around me had been playing for several years, so I had to make up for lost time. I practiced every day for at least three hours. I listened to flute recordings, and I copied the attributes of the flutists I liked (there were only a handful in the 1970s). I practiced until midnight and woke up at 5:00 a.m. to practice so that I never had more than five hours between practice sessions. I practiced during school whenever I had free periods. I practiced scales and etudes all the time. I auditioned for Juilliard when I was 16, and I got accepted. I still felt like I was years behind everyone else--that I got in by a fluke, and that somehow I had fooled everyone.

When I started playing the recorder at the age of 22, it was easy to do. I just followed the pattern I used to learn to play the flute. When I started to play baroque flute at the age of 24, it came pretty quickly because I was used to starting things late. When I started playing violin for real at 32, it was a bit different. Things didn't go as quickly. It takes about five years to understand the left hand of the violin, and about ten to understand the right hand. It is a life-long process, but I'm happy that now, at 46 I have the same struggles with the violin and the viola that most string players have. I am beginning to understand the left hand and the right hand. Now that I have played violin and viola for thirteen years, I no longer feel like I am fooling anyone. I can play with confidence among my peers. I still practice every day.

I started writing music seriously at the age of 40. I had written music before I turned 40, but at 40 I decided to study composition, which meant that I had a person who I could show my pieces to. I wrote piece after piece. It was almost as if I had a backlog of pieces "under construction" floating around in the back of my mind that just needed to be written down.

I think that for me the pattern of starting late and making up for lost time has wonderful advantages. It helps you to understand the value of time spent building something. Starting late has made me a better teacher. When an adult beginner comes to me for lessons, I can distinctly remember how difficult it was to learn certain physical aspects of learning to play, and can also distinctly remember the process of transcending those difficulties.

Fourteen years ago I didn't play the violin, and I couldn't have imagined myself either playing the violin or daring to call myself a composer. Those fourteen years have passed at the same rate they would have if I didn't feel compelled to learn to play the instrument or compose; but since I have filled those years with doing what I love best, they have been the best years of my life.

Other late-starter-related posts here, here, and here (this one is about a string quartet project with adult quartet novices).

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Musical Soup

After eating some cabbage soup my husband made for dinner, I started thinking about a piece by Satie about cabbage soup, which led me to search and find this collection of songs about soup.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Nostalgia for the Boston Symphony in the 1960s

I just listened and watched a DVD recording of Berlioz's "L'Enfance du Christ" made from a concert given in 1966 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This recording made it clear to me just how wonderful an orchestra the Boston Symphony was in the 1960s. I was impressed by the individuality and character in the sounds of the winds, and the pure beauty in the sound of the string section. There is a striking difference between the no-nonsense conducting by Munch and the hyper-emotional conducting that is so often practiced by conductors today. It was both a refreshing and an enlightening experience to see this.

VAI has a clip from the DVD on their website.

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