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
There comes a time when all the vitriol and social media scrums need to be backed up with action. And perhaps it is now time for those who really care step forward and do something about it. Kudos to Julie Andrews, megastar over 6 decades, for stepping up with Netflix to produce a new children’s show that celebrates the Arts.
For my entire life, this talented artist has represented the highest standards for all that is good in the Arts. She represents integrity, quality and talent at the highest levels. Thank you, Julie Andrews and Netflix for continuing the tradition of inspiring young people through exposure to music, dance and theater! This link includes a preview to the show which is sure to appeal across multiple generations of arts lovers, both seasoned and emerging.
According to Wikipedia:
The show will star Julie Andrews (best known as the star of The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins fame) who will be joined by her assistant Gus (Giullian Yao Gioiello) and “Greenies,” a cast of original puppets built by The Jim Henson Company.
The episodes will include elements of the performing arts such as an original song. Furthermore, every episode will feature a guest star who will engage the puppets in a specific area of the performing arts. Guest stars will include Alec Baldwin, Sara Bareilles, Joshua Bell, Tituss Burgess, Carol Burnett, Chris Colfer, Robert Fairchild, Josh Groban, Bill Erwin, Ellie Kemper, Idina Menzel, Tiler Peck, David Hyde Pierce, and Stomp. The thirteen 30-minute episodes will premiere simultaneously on Netflix in March 17, 2017.
I, for one, will be tuning in, and possibly binge-watching this new show at a critical time for arts support in this country.
Occasionally, a musician will ask a question during a rehearsal about a note possibly being wrong. Sometimes, they base their question on well–informed evidence; past passages, rules of harmony, even intuition gleaned through their training. Sometimes the musician is right–there is an error in the score or part, or perhaps even another part. Sometimes the musician is wrong, and I point out why based on clear evidence from the score. Occasionally, it is a judgement call, where we work together to find the closest match to the the truth of the score; a compromise. But one thing is for certain, the are no “alternative notes” just because someone isn’t comfortable with the reality of the music. Sorry, but it’s a B-flat, whether you like it or not.
Now of course there are variances and exceptions. Music that invites open improvisation (Jazz or Baroque music for example) allows one to make choices, based on the structure present. That is creativity performed over another type of fact—an existing written structure, and what makes one improvisation different from another. Yet each clearly still belongs to the composer’s original idea. Intonation is another matter, as the inflection of the B-flat can be different, depending on the function of the note (harmonic use, melodic direction, etc). This is a most worthy discussion to engage in as musical citizens, and has resulted in a continual and exciting evolution over time.
To apply this sketch to politics is an interesting, and perhaps fruitful exercise. In my opinion, this is what lacks in the current political climate:
1. Inflection. We are not taking the facts that are true and applying them to reality, or even using them to learn from and improve the situation. Listening to the people (We the People-All the People) would be a good start. Failure to do so marginalizes an important segment of the population as clearly as if that B-flat were not there at all. Its removal no longer brings major or minor into the debate, but may simply result in an incompleteness and hollowness. Include the B-flat and the world changes.
2. Creativity. Unlike good improvisers, we are afraid of engaging in creativity over a set structure (the U.S. Constitution). The structure is there to inspire, not constrict. Our founding documents were written to be open, living documents, much as a composer’s score is meant to be an inviting, thriving act of performance. We need to perform our democracy, not enshrine it in a mausoleum.
3. Engagement. Active engagement is required for making a more perfect union. The rehearsal can sometimes be quite difficult, and you are only as good as your last performance. But with diligent work, the process becomes easier and clear to the participants. Let’s all attend our county’s “rehearsals and performances” on time and with careful attention. Then let’s be willing to return to the work required to continue, knowing that it is a perpetual building process.
Obviously, I see direct parallels with my life in music. My life as a citizen should be no different. Our government should be no different. I will continue to expect and demand that the elected representatives of my country inflect, engage, and create based on clear facts and well-reasoned plans. My musical colleagues demand no less of me, and I strive to fulfill that trust. It is my expectation that the country’s leaders do the same.
But to reiterate, there are no “alternative notes” when dealing with the score. True, you can embellish, adjust, and yes, sometimes that B-flat sounds an awful lot like an A-sharp. But there is little room for spin with the root, third or fifth of a chord. Nor is there much point in ignoring the tonic–the foundation.
To paraphrase a famous musician joke: “If we don’t C#, we’ll likely B-flat.” But let’s also acknowledge the B-flat is a vital, useful note, all the same.
I hope we can “raise the bar-line.” All of us. See you in rehearsal.
Copyright, 2017. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat
Constantly redefining who we are and what we do is the secret to remaining engaged with life. And finding passion both within and outside of work is an important aspect to this. When I grow up, I want to be a writer. This may sound like a strange thing to say at my age (coughcough53). After all, I’m in the midst of a mildly successful and comfortable career as a college professor and musician. Isn’t that enough?
I’ve never thought of myself as a one-trick-pony, and writing is not a new idea for me. I have written before. There is a dissertation on a shelf, a chapter in a book, and an article in a journal, all published in the past 20 or so years (with real paper and ink!). I’ve also have this ongoing blog, Before the Downbeat, up and running now for about 5 years. These things have generated some modest attention. I’m also a nut for writing scripts and lyrics for the more entertainment and education-minded concerts I do as a conductor. But these things support my career as a musician. What has bitten me more than once is the urge to tackle writing from a more creative edge—to branch out and explore.
Actually that urge has always been there. I wrote several draft chapters of a planned Star Trek book in 1983 (yes, really. Return of the Gorn!). There’s also a moldering file of short stories from a summer course I took at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1988. Writing poetry has taken root for me at several times throughout my adult life, producing almost enough material to consider submitting a manuscript (almost…). Some of the works are serious, some just for fun. All of them represent my formative years as a writer—which is every single day up to this current one. It parallels my life as a musician. Arguably they are one in the same. All of which survives has a piece of myself embedded in it.
When studying to “be” or “do” something, we generally look for advice from those who are already successful, from writing or woodworking. We take courses, read books or find master teachers with which to study. Again, the parallel to what I do for a living—teaching and performing music—is starkly apparent. You’d never attempt to play music in public without taking lessons or at least deeply studying those you wish to emulate. And, to continue the music example, you regularly take trial runs (rehearsals) to smooth out the rough edges and find the core of your voice.
After reading several books and essays over the years by writers on writing (and from others on their art—actors, musicians, dancers, etc), one piece of advice always comes through. You must practice what you do, constantly, incessantly, always creating and trying new things. According to most writers, you must write something EVERY DAY. (Yes, musicians; you also must practice, every day, too, especially in those formative years). For writing, this is something I find difficult to do with my current life schedule, so I use my break times to deeply reengage with it. But even during the times of hectic concert schedules and collegiate deadlines, I’m often amazed at how I find time to work on my writing; if not pen-to-paper, then at least mentally. The muse is not to be ignored.
The piece of advice from the masters that sometimes gives us pause is that you should always share what you think might be good. Get feedback. Allow for edits. Ask an expert. That lays us bare, and risks exposing our failings. It is a risk we must take in order to advance.
Of course does not mean sharing everything all the time. Sometimes your prepared manuscript or your planned recital piece, poem, or essay ends up being returned to the stack of Unfinished Symphonies, not yet ready for prime time. Sometimes, it may also be cast away on the cutting room floor. Not everything we produce is worth sharing or keeping. Johannes Brahms brilliantly proved this—everything he wrote that survives is nearly flawless. His fireplace likely accumulated the ashes of his doubts.
I’ve no idea if I’m any good at this writing thing. All I know is that I’ve the itch to do it, and once I start, it demands my attention. If I’ve figured out one thing being a musician for the past 44 years it is this: you never stop learning and honing your craft. But as long as you are willing to do that, the artistry will peek through, sometimes rather gloriously. Thus, I continue to pursue it even as it sometimes eludes me.
Copyright, 2016, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat
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
Like for so many, 2016 has resulted in trips down my own personal memory lane; several event-inspired retrospectives of music. Truly, there is a lot of popular music (of any generation) that is not worth remembering, but the recent losses of iconic pop musicians reminds us that there is also a lot worth taking the effort to know. Most recently I’ve been revisiting music by Earth, Wind and Fire, after trips through the tracks of Bowie, Jefferson Starship, Tower of Power, and The Eagles. Losing great musicians has a way of causing reflection on their work, though some of it may be covered by the dust of time.
Of course, it is no more tragic to lose important musicians than any other human being. After all, save David Bowie, most we’ve lost in 2016 were already semi or completely retired. They, like all people, leave behind family members, friends and neighbors who defined their personal and private lives. But it is somewhat tragic to realize that we’ve also risked forgetting a generation of imaginative and hopeful MUSIC, from which their creators hoped to make a difference in the world.
Dust off the years and the slightly dated groove, and a whole generation emerges–humans inspired by recent moon landings, technological advances, and ends of (certain) wars. The music promised an upward trajectory for the human species, reaching past the lingering problems of racism, sexism and nuclear proliferation that haunted the times. The spirit of hope opened by two Kennedys and a King took root in the people and truly bloomed in the 70s and early 80s, most notably through the music of the time. The best popular music helped define a bright future unlike anything else could. It helped us see our brighter future, beyond a world still mired in the Watergates, Iran hostage situations, and oil embargo crises.
The music didn’t change the world, of course, but it hinted that we, the people, had the power to do so. That we again fell into the trap of greed and self-indulgence only reinforces it is indeed only us, and none other, who must make the changes to insure a better future. It also illustrates how difficult that is to actually achieve.
The music of Bowie, EWF, et al, is thankfully still there for any and all generations to explore. It also serves as a beacon and challenge to the musicians of today. And if we don’t express hope through the arts, there is a danger that the message may be forgotten. Then it will truly be too late to make a difference.
So at the risk of sounding too hippy-dippy, and to humbly add to the the great songwriter, Burt Bacharach,
What the world needs now is:
Love, Sweet Love…
But also music with: soaring string backgrounds, electrifying brass licks, more funk, and less junk.
And lyrics that: uplift without tearing down, invoke imagination, promote possibility, encourage equality.
And ideas that challenge us to hope, dream, create, and grow.
Copyright 2016. Robert Baldwin. Before the Downbeat.