Musical Gratitude: Annual Thanksgiving Post

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A slightly edited version of a post I’ve been sharing on this day since 2012.

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 leads to a specific instrument, talent or to the music of certain composers. Some of us even express thanks for Music itself, as something that has shaped our lives, personalities and world-view.

I’d like to add one more that is often left off musician’s lists: Gratitude for our fellow musicians. Music is a community activity. No one learns, creates, or performs music in a vacuum. We have all relied on 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 a conductor, I am the only person on the stage not making a sound, yet I rely on each and every musician in the orchestra to play the notes, execute the phrasing and find the passion within themselves to express the music. I must trust their musicianship and willingness to share with the ensemble. Everyone has a job to do, and they are remarkably adept at it. It seemingly defies logic that this collection of diverse instruments and personalities could ever make a unified whole, yet it works. All are partners in a sonic adventure; one we ultimately undertake for the audience. And of course, thanks to our audiences, as well. We literally would not do this without you.

Within each of our musical offerings, we have many connections. It is truly mind-boggling. The viola player may not think of the oboe player much after the tuning note, but her well-played oboe solo 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. And let’s not forget the string section, where our stand partner just turned the page so the music could continue uninterrupted. Even the mundane matters!

When thinking deeper into the past, our gratitude can extend far beyond a particular composer who wrote a great piece. 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 me on a daily basis. My own musical journey would not be possible without you.

Thank you!

Photo credit: Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with Musical Instruments (1623). Wikimedia Commons

Copyright, 2012 Robert Baldwin/Before the Downbeat (edited, 2016)

 

Vital Vulnerability

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Opening ourselves to our environment is vital to life, and critical to those desiring a life in the arts. I was happy to discover this poem by Ellen Bass, which beautifully illustrates this concept. It is important task for musicians, artists, writers, etc., to open to the experience beyond ourselves. It is one of the reasons I sometimes take my conducting students hiking, and tell them strange things like, “Before studying the score, go study one square foot of nature.” We all must experience the world outside of the music we so vigorously study. If neglected, we perhaps risk losing both the forest and the trees. Only once our attention is widened and our vulnerability exposed do we have a chance of reaching others with our art.

Any Common Desolation

can be enough to make you look up
at the yellowed leaves of the apple tree, the few
that survived the rains and frost, shot
with late afternoon sun. They glow a deep
orange-gold against a blue so sheer, a single bird
would rip it like silk. You may have to break
your heart, but it isn’t nothing
to know even one moment alive. The sound
of an oar in an oarlock or a ruminant
animal tearing grass. The smell of grated ginger.
The ruby neon of the liquor store sign.
Warm socks. You remember your mother,
her precision a ceremony, as she gathered
the white cotton, slipped it over your toes,
drew up the heel, turned the cuff. A breath
can uncoil as you walk across your own muddy yard,
the big dipper pouring night down over you, and everything
you dread, all you can’t bear, dissolves
and, like a needle slipped into your vein—
that sudden rush of the world.

~ Ellen Bass, Copyright 2016

Thanks to Ms. Bass for permission to reprint her poem. For more information on Ellen Bass and her poetry: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9781556594649

Copyright 2016, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

No Apologies for Being an Educated Artist

The recent U.S. election has produced a number of thoughtful essays about America and the shared human experience. This represents my small contribution to the respectful dialogue.

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I recall a conversation from about 12 years ago with a relative about the divisions in America. This was during the height of the GOP/Tea Party fervor. As we munched on holiday snacks, I opinioned that the next big divide would not be along already established racial or economic lines, but rather along those of education level: The Educated vs. the Uneducated. The solution, I recall saying, was to make sure the electorate was educated, both by traditional and other means. The family member politely said that my idea was interesting. We returned to our card game and holiday snacks.

An idea. That’s all it was back then: patterns in the sand; shapes in the clouds. Now years later, it appears there was actually a sand castle lurking in those grains of thought—or was it Old Main? Perhaps it was prescient. Then again, maybe I was being an elitist, already speaking from privilege. Who knows? I’m no deep political thinker, merely an armchair philosopher. But, I am educated. Ideas have a way of taking root and helping formulate well-formed conclusions. This is a result of the education I received.

I wake today to find myself on a clear side of that imaginary line. In terms of philosophy, belief and voting record, I’m a clear progressive. Perhaps, I’m also a member or the so-called liberal elite, even though I do not officially affiliate with a party. I’m a white male who has an education, holding advanced degrees. I read—a lot. I value digging to learn what I do not yet know or understand. I work at a liberal bastion—a state university—and have a modestly successful career in the arts, both long-time congregations of progressive-minded citizens. I lean left, supported Bernie and accepted, with some reluctance, Hillary. More importantly, I rejected the fear-mongering hatred espoused by President-elect Trump and his supporters.

I’m somewhat in shock that I appear to have been correct all those years ago. According to the pundits, much of the election was indeed decided by level of education for the voters. I’ve no bone to pick with anyone, and don’t think I’m being elitist or egotistical here. This is a fact. Yet it is clear that the contents of our lives have a way of defining us. Having an education can be dangerous to those who prefer narrow, and sometimes baseless, definitions. A good education provides ways of seeing things that we have no idea are there until later, sometimes years later. It takes time to percolate: ideas; musical possibilities; poetry that is yet to be written. It takes energy, time and commitment to bring those out. That is exactly what an education should train us for. It is never easy or a knee-jerk reaction.

I make no apologies for my level of education. I make none for my life in the arts, either. I firmly believe we should never apologize for the searching for beauty and knowledge. And while there may be much wrong with both the arts’ business and educational system, the benefits of both are undeniable. Of course, we must remain open to debate and revision. Like all aspects of our country, it must be tweaked and improved when the need arises.

I do regret, however, if I’ve ever made anyone feel less-worthy because I have an education. I realize is an honor, and yes, a privilege. If there was perceived smugness towards others, the fault is entirely mine. But I will not apologize for the fact that I obtained an education. I will not apologize that I use my education daily. And certainly no apologies that I continue to make a variety of art, imperfect though it may be. I realize that will make some uncomfortable. The oyster needs the irritation to make a pearl. And it is never easy.

It is true that once you learn/see/hear something, it stays. It does make a difference in the lives of those it touches. This keeps me going in tough times , especially when the pendulum swings against my current. But when that happens, I can only follow the path of knowledge, beauty and passion that has enriched me throughout my life. It is my sincere hope that is also does so for the many others who have met my path. In the very least, it is a chance to heal both the individual and the collective soul of the people.

Copyright, 2016. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Photo Credit: http://www.tunecore.com/blog/2016/03/3-ways-to-expose-students-to-the-music-industry.html