Friday, July 26, 2019

Musical Dynasties

I came across an interesting article by Jeffrey Arlo Brown in Friction concerning the barriers to success that not coming from a musical family poses. The title of the article, "On Being a First Generation Classical Musician," echoes the perceived stigma of being the first person in a family to go to college. My parents, grandchildren of immigrants from Eastern Europe, were the first generation in both of their families to go to college. It was part of the "American Dream," and college was available and affordable to people who worked hard in high school and lived at home. I don't recall an option for college when I was growing up other than "where."

My father looked at my SAT scores (results from a test I took without preparation in the beginning of my junior year of high school) and said it was a good thing I was going to music school. I really wanted to go to Oberlin where I hoped I could enter through the conservatory and make my way into the college. I got into the conservatory, but not the college. I spent the bulk of my teenage years practicing, which was not an unusual thing to do in my family.

I probably got into Juilliard because of my parents. They didn't do anything, but my father had a prominent position as a principal in one of the big five American orchestras, and my mother had studied flute with the teacher I wanted to study with. He always liked her name: June Blume. So I got in.

There were certainly "legacies" at Juilliard like the Rostropovich daughters, the Barere daughters, and the Greitzer daughters, but the majority of successful students at Juilliard had parents who were not connected with music. Their parents supported them by giving them good instruments, driving them to lessons, and making sure that they practiced. These are parents who instilled a work ethic in their children, applying the same "rules" that applied in the extra-musical world to a musical one.

When I was a teenage flutist I used to marvel at the way my great friend Liz Mann's parents used to support her musical activities. Liz's mother played a little piano, but she was a business person. Her father was too. Liz, who was extraordinarily talented and capable, grew up in an environment where "work ethic" was key. And that got translated into cultivating relationships. Her parents loved the fact that her daughter was friends with the child of a local musical celebrity. I was happy that Liz was my friend because she was a lovely person and a terrific musician. She was clearly from a higher economic class than I could ever imagine being in, so her possibilities for a future in music were not hampered by the usual practical things that get in the way, like having to get a job outside of music in order to pay the rent.

Jeffrey Arlo Brown asserts that people from musical families have an easier time with things like ear training. I don't think so. Everyone without absolute pitch struggles with the "training" part of ear training. But the struggle to know whether people like you because you are the child of someone "important" or whether you are a good person is real. And the constant questions about whether you measure up in musicianship and ability compared to your well-supported peers are real. And those struggles last for a lifetime.

I do have advantages. I know "from good." I heard it from infancy. My musical standards will always be high because they always have been high. And occasionally (though rarely) I live up to them. My official teachers haven't always been the best, but I have had the wherewithal to recognize people to learn from unofficially (i.e. friends). My business skills are terrible. Perhaps if I grew up with parents who taught me how to "network," I would have a commercially successful career. I have known people who are now in high places in the established hierarchies of the larger musical world, but I would never take advantage of those friendships and ask for favors. My built-in inferiority mechanism always takes precedence, because, like I mentioned above, I know from good.

So I would say to Jeffrey Arlo Brown that the advantages for me of growing up in a family of professional musicians were hanging out backstage at Tanglewood when I was a kid, thereby acquiring the skills of being able to enter any stage door and look like I belong (when I was a student I got into lots of concerts this way). The big advantage now of coming from a musical family is being able to talk with my father about the nuts and bolts of music, like the difficult passages in any given viola part. When I wrote CD reviews for the American Record Guide, I gave him a subscription to the magazine. He used to read the reviews I wrote, and he would call to discuss them with me. That was the best thing about writing reviews: it provided a way for me to communicate with my father. I love the fact that I can send him recordings of music I write with the score. Sometimes he has helpful and/or favorable things to say, and that means the world to me. And, thanks to his generosity, I have always had good instruments.

But, personalities aside, the advantages pretty much stop there. I have seen the ugly part of the professional classical music world for my whole life. I have never seen the classical music world as being safe from corruption, where dissonances resolve, and everyone is an "artist." It is a world filled with unfairness, pettiness, jealousy, lust, power, ego, ego, personal insecurity, more ego, disappointment, short-lived success, false hope, delusion, fakery, self promotion, rivalries, injuries, neuroses, and financial insecurity.

If you come from any other type of family, you can avoid expending the kind of extra emotional attention I do when new "creatures" from the underbelly of the musical world are exposed in the national news for their predatory behavior. I know people connected with almost all of them. And I know many more who haven't been exposed.

From Jeffrey Arlo Brown's perspective the grass over here looks greener, but I believe that the successful people he mentions in his article are outliers and exceptions.

Sometimes parents of students tell me that they have no idea where their child's interest in music comes from. I tell them that most children are musical, and I praise them for allowing that aspect of their child's life to flourish. I believe with all my heart that parents who support a child's interest in music contribute a great deal to the musical success of that child. And it doesn't matter whether the supporting parents are musicians or not. The guy in the article who was dancing the Hora around Jeffrey Kahane (Leonard Bernstein) was a first-generation musician who had to sneak behind his father's back to take piano lessons, but he had a mother who was proud of all her children, for whatever they did.

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