A Reminder: Push Yourself To Grow


“Here’s the thing: you don’t have much time. You’re alive now and not later, not before.”

Originally posted on Thought Catalog:

If left to my own devices, I love being comfortable. I love things that are easy. Who doesn’t? But sometimes, I love to be too comfortable. (Don’t you?) I want to expend minimum effort whilst receiving maximum return. I want to wear pajamas and stay inside all day but still fall in love. I want to take a month to reply to an email from my friend in another city, and then wish we were closer. I want to ace my exams without studying for them. I read articles telling me that I am enough, that I don’t ever need to change, that self-love is the best and only love — and then I do nothing to change this.

Let’s be clear. Being too comfortable is not self-love. How am I loving myself when I encourage stagnancy? How am I loving myself when I’m not forcing myself to grow? Growing is…

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It’s Okay to Teach Yourself a New Trick

ImageThis time of year is always stressful for students who are finishing their degrees and are trying to break in to the profession. It’s tough to get that first job, especially in music and academia. Be patient—Stick to your dreams and values. But, there is no shame in taking some other kind of employment to make ends meet. Same goes for students who need to find summer work.

I was no different. Here are jobs I had in the summers and while waiting for my break:
Funeral Home (yes, really); Construction; Security for the Denver Broncos; Walt Disney Company; Pizza Delivery; Musician for the Velvet Strings at the Broadmoor Hotel.
I learned something in every case. Plus these jobs paid the bills.

So go ahead and pay the bills, but still practice your art. BE READY. Your chance may be right around the corner.

Copyright, 2014. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat.

Picture credit: Worth1000.com.  http://www.worth1000.com/entries/215985/dog-orchestra

A Grand Pause: 35 years and 14 Strings later…

ImageIt has been often said that music is a “who you know” business.  Often these are long term relationships, but sometimes they are brief encounters that come and go. Some come to fruition much later.  Occasionally there are also surprises that leap out of the past.  I’ve had one of these unlikely reunions happen recently. To set the scene, let’s travel back in time…

ImageThe year was 1979. A happy intersection was about to occur. I and my fellow string overachievers were at a high school orchestra festival in Colorado Springs and were about to be introduced to something that would fascinate me for decades.  For the most part our guest conductor ran the normal type of rehearsal and concert. Dr. Gordon Childs was funny and witty and taught us quite a lot about the music we were playing (I distinctly remember Haydn’s Symphony no. 104). We learned new things, improved, and had a great time–a large measure of success for these types of events.

But there was something different about this event. Dr. Childs also played a concerto on an instrument unlike anything we had ever seen. Unbeknownst to us, besides being a conductor of youth groups he was also a respected performer on the viola d’amore. The instrument is a unique 14- stringed hybrid that had refused to die when the violin family took precedence in the late 1600s.  In fact, composers continue to write for it today.
ImageIt is an intriguingly beautiful instrument, one that stretches back across centuries and cultures, and  it is certainly  impressive to hear. I still remember the collective awe as the instrument first emerged from the case. This only intensified as we heard the sweet  tone of the 7 playing strings and the ringing overtones of the 7 sympathetic strings underneath.  It was an honor for us young musicians play alongside this unique instrument, and certainly made an impression.

It was a great experience, and like most, once finished it seemed that “that was that.” We went our separate ways, soon scattering to our apparently separate lives.  But the “bug with 14 legs” had bitten me, haunting me like some Tolkienesque legend:

Seven Strings to play on,
Seven more to ring,
D’amore–the sound eternal,
Your voice yet true to sing.

Ahem…sorry, I was also into to Tolkien in 1979.  Unlike Frodo or Bilbo though, I continued without leaving the Shire, dedicating (and humbling) myself with mastering the mere four strings of the viola.  Though I still fantasized that some day I might play the viola d’amore, I went off to college and life took its course–two degrees in viola, one in conducting, careers in both.  Although I recall a few instances of giddy excitement when seeing a viola d’amore in a museum, the chance of actually playing one seemed to recede with each passing year and decade.

“The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause” –Mark Twain

But life takes interesting turns. My latent interest was rekindled when an opportunity for obtaining new instruments surfaced at the university where I teach.  With that singular possibility, the fire was rekindled. I began to imagine once again, to yearn for the sound once more. Yet an unexpected surprise was right around the corner.

With grant in hand,  I chose a respected luthier, Alma Jay Young, who fortunately was located only 40 miles away. At that initial visit  I mentioned that my interest in the viola d’amore was fueled back in high school by Gordon Childs.  To my surprise, Mr. Young mentioned that Dr. Childs was not only his acquaintance, but a close friend. Apparently the VDA world was even smaller than the viola world. Then came the real shocker–he  lived only a half mile away–Dr. Childs had retired to Utah.

A few weeks later, I was excited and humbled that Dr. Childs was waiting at Jay’s shop to introduce me to the instrument once again. And I was particularly pleased to learn that he was still engaged with sharing his knowledge and wisdom. So now, at age 50, I find myself studying with the man who provided an inspiration some 35 years prior.  The idea that the teacher appears when the student is ready appears literally true in this case.

So now the journey continues, and in case you were wondering, I took to the instrument right away. I have discovered a renewed enthusiasm for playing that is as intuitive as it is fresh. I am more excited about holding an instrument under my chin than I have been for years.  Good thing, too. I have six  performances on the instrument in the next three months.  I’d love to write more, but Vivaldi and Telemann are waiting. And yes, I have to tune all 14 strings before I begin!

Postscript in memorium: The maker of my new viola d’amore, Alma Jay Young, passed away a few months after I obtained the instrument. I regret I did not get a chance to know him better.  I hope to keep his legacy as a maker alive through my performances.

Copyright, 2014, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Continuing the Dream with Music

I’m doing something outside of the box this weekend for an orchestra concert.  Allow me to ellaborate…


The holiday weekend looms with tributes and speeches celebrating one of the greatest and most influential speakers of the 20th century, Martin Luther King, Jr.  MLK weekend is a wonderful observation, one that encourages reflection on where we have been, where we are, and just how far we have yet to go as an American people.

But as we look ahead to a weekend of speeches, marches and remembrances, we should also remember that the March on Washington and other civil rights events were also filled with music: the music of hope, longing, suffering, and joy.  This music, along with the poetry and literature of African Americans may be the initial impetus for change, one that became an accessible influence for people at far greater numbers than all the speeches, laws or social theories.  Dr. King may have been at the head of this locomotive of change, but music and poetry were vital fuel for the engine.

Here is a link to a New Yorker story from last year (with videos) regarding the importance of music during the March on Washington:


In fact, I will posit that it was the music and poetry of African-Americans that began this train rolling along, decades before real social change occurred.  The poetry of the Harlem Renaissance and the music of gospel, ragtime, blues and jazz was extremely popular across racial boundaries, representing the first foray of a large number of white Americans towards diversity.  As migration moved up the Mississippi to the major urban centers, the backyard of Mark Twain’s America was populated with new voices for artistic expression.  The music and poetry spoke with universal truths to which all could relate

I, as a white American, can truly “feel” the heartache of the Blues, just as I can experience the fear of isolation expressed in a James Baldwin poem or the freedom and joy of an early jazz dance tune.  The syntax may be expressed through a culture not my own, but in the hands of a great artist, the meaning cuts through.  We can all find a deep personal meaning in an American Spiritual just as easily as from Beethoven’s 9th or the King James Bible, if we allow ourselves the permission to look.  And if we find meaning, then it also becomes ours, collectively

I was an infant when the March on Washington occurred, and although I don’t remember it, I nonetheless grew up with the legacy of the event.  Dr. King’s speech was taught in school along with the entire Civil Rights Movement.  But I also grew up with the legacy of music.  Much of the music we listened to in the 1960s and 70s was but a short putt from whence it came.  Not only R&B and Soul, but also Disco, which represented the upward mobility of a rapidly growing diverse middle class.  And while none of this excuses or ignores racism and the continuing struggle for equality, it does give hope that what is really important is much closer than we think.

So in this context, an orchestra concert may not be as out of the ordinary as it first appears.  Using poetry and music the evening will be an expression of humanity through poetry and music.  It has been an honor and joy to develop this hour-long program for the evening.

MLK Day Celebration Concert: Utah Philharmonia and Friends

Monday, January 20, 2014, 7:30 p.m.; Libby Gardner Concert Hall

Daniel Tuutau, guest speaker; Ubeeng Kueq, piano; U Ambassadors Jazz Combo

Adults $10 Students/Seniors/U Faculty & Staff $6/Arts Pass


He Had His Dream                                                    Paul Lawrence Dunbar

Three Black Kings: I. King of the Magi                     Duke Ellington

A Dream Deferred                                                     Langston Hughes

Maple Leaf Rag                                                        Scott Joplin

Three Black Kings: II. King Solomon                        Duke Ellington

Some Days                                                               James Baldwin

I Have a Dream                                                        Herbie Hancock, arr. R. Schmidt

Danzas de Panama: !V. Cumbia y Congo                William Grant Still

Equality                                                                     Maya Angelou

Three Black Kings: III. Dr. Martin Luther King          Duke Ellington


Copyright, 2014. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat.

Let’s Expand Our Holiday Horizons: A Top 10 List of Lesser-Known Classical Christmas Works

ImageI’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately on the “Christmas Channel” radio stations.  What starts out in early December as great traditional fare seems to devolve as the holiday approaches. Singers and arrangers with markedly less talent and imagination dominate the airwaves.  The classy arrangements and vocal stylings of Nat King Cole or the Harry Simeone Chorale are replaced by the latest pop singer with little concept of vocal support; nor have they been advised that certain songs simply don’t work when you belt them out.

So, I relegate myself to my classic CDs, and now to streaming of albums and artists that capture the season for me.  But as with everything, there is always more to discover.  What happens when we get tired of the popular stylings and even the usual classical fare (aka, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Handel’s Messiah)?  Where do we turn for some really interesting and quality Christmas fare?

That question was my inspiration for the following Top 10 List of lesser-known classical Christmas works.  I’ve weeded out things that are played every season (Handel, Tchaikovsky) and even those that deserve more concert play, but are generally well known (Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, for example). What follows are some composers we have heard of, and some that may be new.  I find all of the music engaging and appropriate for the season, and am happy to share it with you.  You Tube links are provided.  Feel free to add other suggestions in the comments. Happy Holiday Listening!

A Top 10 List of Lesser-Known Classical Christmas Works

1. Victor Hely-Hutchinson: A Carol Symphony http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCC-zjoiegE

2. Samuel Barber: Die Natali (Chorale Preludes for Christmas) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zrhw2tsC0eM

3. The “Other Christmas Concertos:

Pietro Locatelli, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TdhrBjyynZo

Francesco Manfredini: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c6Bq3m3Gy3c

Giuseppe Torelli: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WKvNoI2nvRk

4. Alessandro Scarlatti: Christmas Cantata http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gF5wQM5GIYA

5. Heinrich Schutz: Weinachtshistorie (A Christmas Story) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7IF4giGN-LQ

6. Nicolai Rimsky Korsakov: Christmas Eve Suite http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k0vFOax7ZeU

7. Arthur Honegger: Cantate de Noel http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shTDEWgHNgQ

8. Duke Ellington: Les Trois Roi Nois (Three Black Kings) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhr1ZQ7vPeY

9. Leopold Mozart: Musikalische Schlittenfahrt (Musical Sleighride) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4gWDMMWUYE

10. William Henry Fry: Santa Claus Symphony: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dz8UzYe6SRk

Musical Gratitude (Repost from last year)

It’s Thanksgiving weekend in the U.S., a tradition where Americans express gratitude for what we have in our lives.  For musicians, our “musical thanks” often lead to a specific instrument, talent or to the music of certain composers.  Some of us even express thanks for Music itself, something that has definitely shaped our lives, personalities and outlook.

I’d like to add one more that is often left off musician’s lists: Gratitude for our fellow musicians.  Music is essentially a community activity.  No one learns, creates, or performs in a vacuum.  We have all had teachers, peers, mentors and colleagues.  We interact and learn from each other.  It’s a great time to remember how closely we are all connected.

Think for a moment about a symphony orchestra.  I certainly do, as I am the only person on the stage that doesn’t make a sound (extraneous grunting aside).  I rely on each and every musician in the orchestra to play the notes.  Everyone has a job to do, and they are remarkably adept at it.  They are all great partners in a sonic adventure; one we ultimately undertake for an audience (oh, thanks to audiences, as well).

Within each of our musical offerings, we have so many connections. It is truly mind-boggling.  The viola player may not think often of a horn player, but that well-played solo line may set the mood for a memorable performance.  Similarly, the control and artistry of a timpani player can help the pulse and excitement of an entire ensemble.  By the way, that stand partner just turned your page for you, too.

When thinking deeper into the past, it goes far beyond our thanks to a particular composer who wrote a great piece.  What about the copyist who labored over the manuscript, the publisher who provided your copy, the musicologist who discovered new insights, the critic who keep the piece alive in the repertoire by extolling it’s virtues to the masses…And that’s just the beginning!

So this Thanksgiving weekend, I am feeling tremendous gratitude for my many musical partners, known and unknown, who help on the journey.  It is a great meditation on a musical career and life.

Copyright, 2012 Robert Baldwin