Sunday, March 25, 2012

Advice for Musicians From Their Teachers

I put the following comment on Noa Kageyama's Bulletproof Musician Post (that he presents as a contest). I prefaced my comment with note that my comment is not an actual entry--just a comment.

It's about Julius Baker. I began this blog with a post about Julius Baker, and couldn't resist revisiting my memories of him when I saw Kageyama's question.

I studied flute with Julius Baker for four years (1976-1980) at the Juilliard School of Music. I met Julius Baker when he was in active recovery from a heart attack, and at a time when he was full of a kind of second wind (no pun intended) for living life to the fullest and embracing the idea of good health. He was, at that point, an example for a lot of people. He would get up at five in the morning and jog (he was in his early 60s at the time), and then drive from Brewster to Manhattan (about an hour, if the traffic wasn't bad) for a full day of rehearsing and teaching, and would have a performance at night with the New York Philharmonic. His teaching time was more "social time" than hands-on teaching. Lessons consisted mostly of meeting him for lunch in the faculty part of the cafeteria, and then going as a group to his studio and having masterclass-type lessons. From those classes I learned that it was important for a woman to dress well and look good, it was important to be extremely competent, and that if there were technical problems to be tackled, he was not the person to ask to solve them. He was an extraordinary player who taught by example (he advised his students to jog, for example). He showed us that social skills were of maximum importance, and that you should always be friendly to people, even if you didn't like them much. He always considered himself a "regular guy," and tended to relate to the "regular guy-ness" in people. He would talk to strangers with the intention of brightening their day.

It was very rare to have a private hour-long lesson with Julius Baker. In four years I may have had five or six. One moment in one lesson stands out in particular.

I was working on an etude by Marcel Bitsch. The Bitsch etudes are more like studies in writing for a solo line than they are technical etudes. There were a bunch of notes that made up a lyrical motive, and I suppose I just didn't "get" the sense of how they worked in relation to one another. Julius Baker played the passage for me, and it made a certain kind of sense. Then he likened the passage to playing a jingle (Prior to being the principal flutist for the New York Philharmonic, Baker had been a big freelance recording musician, and made a great living playing radio jingles), and told me that even if the jingle you are playing is not particularly interesting, it is your job to make those notes, those few seconds of music, as beautiful and as interesting as possible.

From that statement I understood that it was applicable to all music. That the job of a performing musician is to make every note and every phrase beautiful and interesting, regardless of the quality of the passage or even the piece. Now that I am older (much older), and know a great deal more about music than I did when I was a Juilliard student, I can apply Julius Baker's lesson in expanded ways. When the music is great--when a passage in question is a gem, your playing has to meet the expectations of the passage so that it can be as beautiful as it should be.

After I made the permanent switch from flute to viola (and violin), my family and I went to Brewster, New York to visit the Bakers, and Michael took this picture.

[Julius Baker, his wife Ruth, and the 39-year-old me on July 18, 1998]

No comments: