Silver Linings

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Ah, yes, a life in the arts! There’s nothing quite like it.

Dealing with rejection is part of the gig. It is something I talk with about with my students quite often. All those involved in creative endeavors experience it, and it never completely goes away. Coming to grips with it is necessary for survival in the field.

I am certainly not immune. Yesterday I was thrilled to receive news of the recent publication of a poem. Exciting! Today, I received a rejection letter for a big prize in poetry (which was, admittedly, a real long shot, as those things always are). But though not a winner, the letter was embedded with some good news:

“We’d like you to know that your poems advanced to the second round of the contest.”

Hey, that’s good! Hmmmm. Or is it? What if they tell everyone that … wait a minute, just HOW Many rounds were there in this competition? What exactly does this MEAN?

So, yeah. A life in the arts also involves healthy doses of doubt, skepticism, sarcasm, and yes, glimpses of progress and hope. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. If they try, they’re not telling you the truth. I am eternally grateful for the many wise teachers and colleagues who helped me understand this over the years.

C’est la vie. Onward. Upwards. They’re the only directions worth traveling anyways. I’ve got scores to prepare and some great writing ideas percolating. Here’s what’s been going through my head:

“Once upon a midnight dreary…” oh, wait…

“The closest kin of the moon, the creeping cat…” arghhh

“Every Who down in Whoville…”

That’s the ticket! Oh, wait…

 

Copyright photo and text, 2019 Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

 

 

Post-Mahlerian Cutoff Blues

What follows is my post-season letter to the Salt Lake Symphony as well as a poem inspired by a recent performance. I’ve no idea why in one stanza the format is off, and since I cannot seem to correct it, let’s just call it poetic license!

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Dear SLS Colleagues;

It’s been a week since our epic concert featuring Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. It’s taken me at least this long to come down off that cloud we built together by performing this epic work. I thank you not only for that concert, but for a most satisfying 43rd season of the Salt Lake Symphony, my 14th year as your music director and conductor.

I never get the chance to thank each of you personally, but please allow this letter to serve as a substitute for doing so. Our performance last week was likely one of the best this orchestra has ever played. Of course, Mahler’s music helped to elevate the performance (pun intended). But your hard work on the concert, this season, and throughout your lives has paid great dividends, both for us and our audience. I have rarely been involved in a concert where patrons and musicians have been abuzz a week after the performance. Modern life rarely affords us that opportunity. The fact that it is still so present in our minds is a testament to our dedication and perseverance, and the art we created last Thursday.

Communities NEED ensembles like the Salt Lake Symphony. Together we make a difference in the cultural life of Salt Lake City. We sometimes forget this, being legitimately overshadowed by an outstanding orchestra that gets more publicity and public attention (you know, that big downtown orchestra, across the street from that big downtown choir and orchestra). But what we provide is equally vital to the community. In you, the community sees the intrinsic value of music, the love one puts into it, and the sacrifice required to make great art. To be an amateur musician requires no apology nor explanation. In fact we embody the root of the word “amateur” from the French, meaning “lover of.” Your love of music, music-making and for each other shines within the walls of Libby Gardner Hall and beyond. I have no doubt we will continue to do so.

Many of you also know that I am an amateur of sorts. Not in music, for that is my profession, but in poetry. Last night I sat down in an attempt to fend off the blues that often follows a great performance. It seemed the natural form in which to create a new poem, my gift to you. I hope you enjoy it. Have a great summer. I’ll see many of you in July for our Abravanel concerts!

Rob

Robert Baldwin Music Director, Salt Lake Symphony

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Post-Mahlerian Cutoff Blues
by Robert Baldwin

Last week we had a concert, a very grand affair;
Last week I gave a downbeat, a thousand notes went flying in the air;
The orchestra was hot, and the choir they sang with flair.

 

We played about Death, Life, and After, too;

The Reaper made a visit, but Baby, watcha gonna do?

Oh, children resurrect, that’s how you keep on staying true.

 

Mr. Mahler was a poet, a bard of words and sound;
Mr. Mahler, such a poet, in Vienna was the best around;
When he’s played in Salt Lake City, we done nearly gone and raised him from the ground.

Now the clapping it’s all over, and we’ve taken our final bow;
Mr. Mahler’s finished speaking, left the audience entranced in the Now;
We provided fertile ground, and he simply used us as the plough.

It might seem kinda strange, using Mahler and the blues;
A form not yet invented, but today it’s just last week’s news;
How else I’m gonna tell ya, that we rocked the roof, and stood ’em in the pews?

Now I’ve got a long, long summer, no Mahler in any week;
Not for next year either, but my season–it ain’t so bleak;
Thanks to Maestro Gustav, my paddle’s now finally got a creek.

You might think I’d be lonely, now that all is silent here;
It might be just that only a note or two is left for my ear;
But I got the Mahler memory, to carry me throughout the year.

5/22/19

Copyright, 2019, Robert Baldwin

 

Keep Going

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I had an interesting discussion with a group of students recently. The basic topic of discussion was this: “How long do you wait to ‘make it in the field’ before throwing in the towel? And similarly, how do you know when you’ve made it?”

To answer the question I relayed a true conversation I had with TV and film composer Mike Post in 1985 at a summer festival. When asked essentially the same question, he replied: “If it means that much to you, you must work hard, make contacts. and wait long as it takes. If you need to eat peanut butter sandwiches for years, you must do so if working in this field means that much to you.”
Sage advice. (I ate a lot of PBJ back in the day, BTW).
Another wise tidbit comes from the great cellist Janos Starker, who I had the privilege to hear speak in 2000: “Remember, there are many needs for musicians and teachers in every place in America. Do not delude yourself into thinking that you only are a success in this field if you work in New York, Boston, or Chicago.”
More sage advice. (I’ve worked in many places, none of which are the fabled places of success).
In truth, the students were shocked to learn that I’ve been rejected for most job applications I’ve submitted, (probably over a hundred, actually). Yet I’m still happily engaged in a career in the arts. In my relatively recent side-pursuit of writing, I’ve received more rejections than acceptances by a 3:1 margin. Yet I’ve still had a small number or works published, with increasing frequency. (If not in major literary journals, or “apex publications,”  at least they HAVE been published).

The importance of what we do is in the doing of it, or as the great writer Ursula Le Guin writes:

“Practice is an interesting word. We think of practicing as beginner’s stuff, playing scales, basic exercises. But the practice of an art is the doing of that art—it is the art.” – Ursula K. LeGuin

What we should learn from all our practice is that it is not about “perfection,” as the saying goes, but about perseverance. We must continue to do what we do, and we will likely learn and grow as much, if not more, from our mistakes, rejections, and less-than-perfect performances.

So, the lesson I’ve imparted, and learned myself, is basically this:

Keep Going.
If you build it, they will come…eventually
And,
We are all on a unique path that follows its own timeline. Don’t compare yourself to others.
Keep Going.
Hit the scores, practice the technique, dig deeper into your soul than ever before. Do your art every day you possibly can.
Network without the expectation of immediate return, say YES to opportunities; say NO to being used.
Keep Going

P.S. I also told the student who said he needed to make $200K per year right out of college in order to support his family that a career in the arts may not be the best choice for him, if that was truly his priority. Sorry, there are also deal breakers.

 

Copyright 2018, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Image source: https://weheartit.com/entry/231170553

 

Risk

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Risk. It’s not just a board game. It’s also illustrated in the persistence of a performing career–seen in every musician who walks onto a stage in front of a live audience, week after week, year after year. It can be seen in the way a piece of music is composed and presented, or even how concert program is designed. It exists every time musicians open themselves to others–with the audacity to share, move, create. Risk. It’s what makes art work.
Addendum: And we don’t need to conquer, we simply win everyone over to our side.
Copyright, 2017. Robert Baldwin: Before the Downbeat

Surrounded By Greatness

 

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Something I’ve noticed a lot over the years: The great performers, in any genre, who create new and exciting things, last across generations and put a stamp on the field do so by doing one thing—collaborating with other artists who are at least their equal or even sometimes better than themselves. From Arturo Toscanini to Frank Zappa, these musicians surrounded themselves with other great musicians, which allowed for them to realize an artistic vision. Toscanini wanted the best orchestra possible, so the NBC Symphony was an assemblage of some of the finest classical musicians of the era. This enabled him to further explore his own creative pursuits and provide performances at an unparalleled level. Frank Zappa did the same thing, as does Sting, Paul Simon, Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis, and so many others.

It doesn’t matter what the personality traits of the artist in question. They can be autocrats, like Toscanini and Zappa, or great humanists like Marsalis and Ma. It is the assemblage that matters–the act of collaboration. And collaborations can be long or brief; maybe it is just for one performance or album, perhaps it is for years or an entire career.

We tend to think of these artists as super egos (even the nice ones). Certainly a certain amount of ego is necessary to perform. But, among those in the “truly great category,” few to none are threatened by other musicians, even those that may surpass their depth, skill or knowledge. Rather, they grow and thrive because they surround themselves with great talents. Yo-Yo Ma is the prime example of this.

Not that this is without its problems. The Fab 4 and the Guarneri Quartet both had well documented issues of getting along with each other, and yes, Toscanini’s tantrums are the stuff of legends. But there is something to be said for their successes as well. But besides the personality issues, there is something about the group dynamic that makes it worthwhile. The sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

What does this mean for a college educator, community conductor or chamber musician? EVERYTHING. While we may not have the resources of a great maestro or rock star to add already developed artists to our ensembles, we still strive to engage with the best musicians possible. We hold auditions to add new members to established groups to enhance the quality of the ensemble; we engage in new collaborations to open new pathways, and we develop student musicians into the artists to reach higher levels of achievement. And part of that equation is the charge to continually develop our students into better musicians. From our engagement, new performers and teachers will enter the profession, new ensembles will emerge, new art will be created.

And that, is why I love my job.

Copyright 2017, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

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

Beethoven, Prince (with a nod to the Blues)

 

2015 and 2016 have been a rough years for some of the major names in the music business. I’ve written some tributes myself, here and here. As an orchestral conductor and trained classical musician, it’s been interesting to note that when I express admiration for an artist such as David Bowie or Prince, it elicits some to comment with surprise that I listen to this music:

“You have such eclectic tastes for a classical musician

I don’t mind the comment at all, in fact I find this type of comment interesting, as if we are supposed to only listen to a prescribed playlist once we begin a career. But it opens up an opportunity for new conversation and exploration.

It is true, I don’t only listen to the “three B’s.” Personally, I feel it is imperative to explore all musical styles, not just the ones that you are trained in. Does listening to the Blues help me shape phrases of Ravel? Absolutely. Does experiencing the music of Prince help me understand energy flow in Beethoven? How can it not? And, I truly feel that listening to rock, folk and alternative concept albums helps me to interpret programmatic symphonies and tone poems.

My philosophy is that when the range of experience is wider, the possibility for depth in a single experience increases exponentially. I refuse to pigeon-hole myself in to the box of what we “should” listen to. I’d rather listen to what fires my imagination, be it Bach, Brahms, Bowie or B.B. King. (Or even an occasional work by Buxtehude!)

So I, like millions of others, mourn for Prince, the artist formerly known as an influence during my college years. I also listen with renewed interest to the new musicians of the day, always managing to find one or two visionary artists whose music speaks and relates to that other music, centuries old–the music of my particular career.

Copyright, 2016 Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat