On being a musician

It’s been a good many years since I’ve thought of myself as a musician, notwithstanding my brief stint last year in a performance-art Patsy Cline cover band. But until my sophomore year of college, my primary identities were, about equally, writer and musician.

size matters

I played string bass from the time I was 9 until I was 19. I also took piano lessons from pre-K through 12th grade and taught basic piano through high school to earn extra cash. I sang in church choirs. But what I really did, if you asked, was play the bass — the big old bad-ass bass.

I had the good fortune to live in a town — small and remote as it was — with a strong investment in music education. My family was a musical family. And I had a strings teacher who believed that music and musicianship were fundamental to a healthy human existence. On more than one occasion, Melvin K. DeWitt teared up while trying to convince his youthful orchestras that we had the potential to play — to really play — the music he put in front of us, from Beethoven to Bryan Ferry.

Mr. D was probably the most important teacher I had as a child. He once prophesied — wrongly, it turns out — that I would fund my college education with a bass performance scholarship, and for years I believed him. (In the end, carpal tunnel syndrome tipped me toward my English major and the rest is history.) Mr. D’s confidence in my ability drove me to regional and state competitions and ensembles as well as to summer music camps. Those experiences, which exposed me to a range of music and allowed me to play with musicians who far outstripped the majority of my classmates back home, were my first real glimpses of the world outside my rural Arizona valley. Being a musician ushered me into modernity.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Melvin DeWitt lately, ever since the New Yorker‘s “Education Issue” appeared in my mailbox late last month. In it, Alex Ross offers a compelling essay on the distressing decline of music education in recent years. (Ross’s article didn’t appear in the online edition or I’d link to it; he did, however, include some relevant links on his blog, The Rest Is Noise.)

Ross reports that the fraudulent No Child Left Behind Act, among its many other atrocities, has accelerated the end of arts education in America. The punitive treatment given to schools that underperform in subjects like reading and math guarantees a fundamentalist winnowing down of the curricula across the land; California’s music ed enrollments dropped fully by half between 1999 and 2004. “In the past few years,” Ross writes,

advocates have issued studies, pamphlets, and talking points that marshall alarming statistics on the diminishment of music programs and argue passionately for their preservation. But there is something maddeningly vague at the heart of the literature. Why must music be taught? … Anyone who has loved music from an early age feels certain that it has a unique and irreplaceable value, but it is difficult to translate that conviction into hard sociological data.

Moreover, as Ross goes on to argue, the answers to the “why” of music education are contradictory. Cultural elitists believe Brahms is just plain better for people than hiphop. Some economically depressed parents, hoping to get their kids into a better life, apparently believe the same thing: “Classical music is for people who have class,” one urban mother said, when explaining why she wanted her daughter to play the violin. Others believe (as Ross paraphrases the arts advocate Maxine Greene) that “children can gain deeper understanding of the surrounding world by looking at it from the peculiar vantage point of a work of art. … They also can experience a shock of perception that shows them alternative possibilities within their own lives, whether or not those possibilities or those lives have an obvious surface relationship with the art work in question.”

That description comports, for the most part, with my own experience, though as a kid, being a musician meant most of all the chance to demonstrate proficiency — to receive praise for technical mastery of an instrument or a difficult piece of music. But taking up a piece of someone else’s music and learning to play it well also meant opening a dialogue with the past, with past acts of creation. It’s an experience unique, I think, to this specific artistic discipline, though being an actor may bear certain resemblances. More than simply broadening my sense of the “alternative possibilties” in front of me, performing others’ works encouraged me to be creative myself.

I thought again about Ross’s essay and about my own musical past last week when I took a group of students — some who were performance or composition majors, but others who had never heard classical music peformed live — to the opening night of the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center. Chamber compositions are so entertaining, in part, because they allow audience members to isolate performances, to recognize which player is responsible for which specific sound. (Typically chamber pieces have only one performer per musical line.) I was also struck by how much drama performers brought to their pieces, making it plain that the interpretive dimensions of their performances were as creative as they were technical. But it was the fact that the program was arranged chronologically, from Vivaldi in the 18th century to three living composers at the turn of the twenty-first — Bright Sheng, Nicholas Maw, and Leon Kirchner (the last of whom was in the audience) — that made it virtually impossible not to think about each piece as a dialogue between performer and composer, to think about composition and performance alike as creative acts in which an artist wrestles with and transforms tradition, demands a new name and a blessing.

Sitting in that Lincoln Center audience I realized how much I’ve lost by letting go of that wrestling process myself, how much I need the intangibles of that childhood exposure to music back in my life somehow. Sure, to some extent I still get that rush as a writer, as a critic, as a literature professor (though the process of becoming an academic in some ways threatened to kill off my identity as a writer, too: material for another post another time).

I do my fair share of music listening, of course, though more rock and roll than anything else. But there’s a string bass-shaped hole in my heart that has to do with a different kind of connection to music — with thinking of myself as a musician, a performer. Nothing in my current life quite matches the thrill of working with a full orchestra to pull off a difficult piece. I can begin to fill that gap by spending more time at Lincoln Center, I suppose, which is something I’d certainly like to do, dragging my own kids in tow. But my life will improve dramatically when I somehow, someday, reclaim those old fundamental senses of identity, when I find the time and space to take up my instrument again and reopen conversations I had long ago with composers who showed me the way out of the provinces and into the modern world.

37 responses to “On being a musician”

  1. Lane says:

    very nice,

    and is that you or MOLLY in the photo.

    dead ringer – funny.

  2. Scott Godfrey says:

    This post has me close to tears. You bring the public (No Child Left Behind Act) to the private (there’s a string bass-shaped hole in my heart) so well.

    The No Child Left Behind Act is evidence that the dickheads who perpetually ask, “why do I need to learn this if I’m never gonna use it?” have ultimately won. Another piece of evidence to this phenomenon is the new, Florida requirement that high school freshmen choose a major. (Can you fuckin’ imagine?)

    The value of a fine arts and liberal arts education is invaluable if not incredibly quantifiable. Unfortunately congressional members on the state and federal level decide whether or not to fund programs based on there projections of what their constituents will think, and without sound-bite data to justify funding for bass lessons, the risk is too great.

    As far as, there’s a string bass-shaped hole in my heart, I’ve found that composing on my computer fills a lot of the void I felt when I (mostly) gave up playing live music. It’s a different kind of fulfillment for sure, but you may want to check it out. It can be incredibly fun if nothing else.

    The photo: so goddamn cute there are no words.

  3. farrell says:

    the discerning eye can’t miss a boner in those horsy shorts.

  4. Stella says:

    I love this and want to hear Bryan play. Aren’t there links between people with music skills and math skills…something about abstraction and logic that someone better informed than me can explain?

  5. Stella — My math skills are pretty dull, actually, though I did force myself to take all the hard classes in high school to keep my grade rank up. In college I took some artsy fartsy honors math class to fill my requirement. I think we were lectured to by people across the disciplines about why math mattered, for example, to psychiatrists. BO-ring. But it did the job. If I ever get a bass fiddle back in my life I’ll be happy to play you a song. At 8th grade graduation I performed a solo of Wagner’s (with an “n”) “Die Meistersinger,” but we were outdoors and the piano music for my mom, who was accompanying, blew away. She winged it.

    Farrell, dear Farrell. Perhaps you have forgotten the chorus to Wham’s wonderful song, “A Ray of Sunshine.” As far as instruments go, don’t forget that size matters.

    Scott — What a sweet comment. Especially the political rant. You’ve almost made up for publicly berating me for derailing your manlove comments thread, even though we all know your indignant stance was simply a ploy to keep the comments numbers rising.

    Lane — I asked Molly and she said no, but I certainly see it. Especially in those skinny, tan little legs.

  6. oh — and hey, farrell. did you notice my mom’s sacred grove wall mural in the background? remember when we saw it in LA — wasn’t it at the Standard downtown when we went swimming (you in your underwear)?

  7. Stephanie Wells says:

    I was wondering why no one had mentioned the wallpaper, easily the most compelling thing about the photo (sorry, Bryan, Molly, short shorts, and big bass, but the wallpaper wins). Yes, it’s the downtown Standard where they have it, up by the 2nd-floor elevator, but that is just forcing coolness whereas this is completely the real deal. It’seven more “period” than “The Squid and the Whale” (different era, I know, but you know they too had that wallpaper 10 years before the movie starts).

    As for your post, it saddened me too. I sometimes feel like it’s even hard o justify teaching poetry in a world so practical and buttheaded, so it’s even harder with something like music. If only it were as easy as pointing out how much better it makes us as people, as A People. It’s just so obvious! And so elusive.

  8. Scott Godfrey says:

    Sorry Steph, the best thing about the photo is that Bryan looks EXACTLY the same at seven as he does at thirty seven. Because of this photo, Bryan, you almost pierce my top five (not as a child you perv!)

  9. bryan says:

    thanks for the compliment, scott, but i’ll remind you that i only just turned 36. take it easy. and i think i would have been 9 in that photo. 4th grade.

  10. Scott Godfrey says:

    Okay, so you’re not as hot as I thought.

  11. farrell fawcett says:

    that picture made you even more hot in my book. that 9 yr old kid is so darn cute and cool all at the same time. and yes, the wallpaper is so awsome. do your parents still have it? it makes me want to have a room with wallpaper like that. doesn’t everyone want a sacred grove in their music parlor? and a darling 9 year old playing a gynormous bass while trying to conceal his woody? who doesn’t dream that big?

  12. bryan says:

    you’re starting to creep me out, fawcett.

    ever since i dug out the photo (actually, ever since we were at the standard) i’ve been itching to find me one of those murals. they do not still have it. i would really love to install one in my apartment, though.

  13. Lisa Tremain says:

    Bryan, I tend to think that those are just some really rockin’ short shorts you’ve got on there. You know, 70s style. Everybody was showing thier “package” back then. And you can get the wall paper at Home Depot, believe it or not.

    I have so much to say about this post, being a public educator and all. It’s obvious that taking music and arts out of the public schools– especially elementary– is a ploy to keep those who don’t have, still not having.

    Let’s start a school. The Great Whatsit School for Musicians and Writers and the People Who Love Them. Free to all kids, of course. Funded (somehow, magically) through appropriations of federal defense funding.

  14. bryan says:

    thanks, lisa t, for covering my ass. er, or, my you know. i knew i could count on you. 1970 is so much more my vibe than 1969 (ahem, mr fawcett, just because you happened to be born in the anee erotique).

    it could have been the camera angle. or the original short shorts (which put american apparel to shame, btw). or maybe it was just the VI-BRAAAY-SSHUUNS [think Molly Shannon in Talladega Nights, my favorite movie of 2006].

  15. of course, i could just fess up that the photo was part of my mission as an ambassador of the society for the preservation of the american male thigh.

  16. Scott says:

    Steph and I are having a debate. Bryan, are those shorts or underpants?

  17. bryan says:

    oh no, baby. those are pure and simple shorts. the kind you wore outside the house, back when the world was a safe place to live.

    thanks for asking, though.

  18. Lisa Tremain says:

    yes. 1970 forever.

  19. Scott says:

    Dude, I’m sorry to tell ya; your parrents had you runnin’ around in underpants. No wonder you’re so fucked up.

  20. pardon me, but MODESTY ruled the day in my mother’s household. so if i was in those shorts in a photo, it was not only with the sanction of american society at large, but with the special brand of fashion fundamentalism that reigned supreme in the house i grew up in.

    you are having brain farts, scott, if you can’t remember a day when shorts that short were the norm, even in the remote villages of the southwest.

  21. celia says:

    I do remember that wall paper. Do they still have the matching tree-mural wall clock thing that never worked in my lifetime? That may be hidden away somewhere upstairs…probably not though. And is that a keyboard? I’ve never in my life known that house to be devoid of the upright-grand…

    And I heartily agree with Lane. I’ve always thought Anna was your little replica, though it is Molly I see in this picture.

    I felt much the same with music. It was practically my life, my identity growing up. 14 years of piano lessons, 4 years of school band, 6 years of school choir, 14 years of church choir, 4 years of voice lessons, piano competitions, All-State performances, and 5 years of piano teaching–all before I graduated high school. And then I went to college where everyone was a musician (or so it seemed). There were so many talented people that I felt had nothing to contribute. It was fairly devastating at first, and then I had to pick up the pieces of my shattered reality and learn to move on with a fairly music-less life that barely resembled my first 18 years on this earth.

    After 7 years with a piano shaped hole in my heart, we finally bought an antique upright grand about a month ago (just like the one I grew up on). I don’t play as much as I once did, though it is still entirely satisfying to sit down and pour myself into a piece. Pound out the day. I just need some good new music so I’m not trying to recapture and relive what I long since lost in the songs I’d once mastered. Start new and fresh.

    Thanks for the post and the pic.

  22. Scott says:

    Cultishly-creepy realy, you actually believe those were normal shorts. Let me ask you this, were you wearing underpants under those underpants…I mean shorts?

  23. bryan says:

    the only thing creepy about it is your insistence on this line of questioning. i think you should seek some professional help, mr.

  24. S says:

    Still waithing on Farrell to pass the exam.

  25. PB says:

    OK the shorts conversation is creepier than Gene Wilder, really now, didn’t we all have those knit/ terry short shorts in blue with white trim? I did, with a matching tank top.

    But I digress.

    There were a million nice points to this post, poignant both personally and as a comment on the state of our educational system. What struck me in particular was the last paragraph. The longing for the performance piece that was part of a childhood sparked with recitals or concerts. I did not have formal musical training, but I remember singing in public, there was such a thrill in interpreting memorized content. It was as if you were translating art rather than creating it, layering on your voice or sound to something so much bigger than you. It is dorky to say, but performing music was one of the most spiritual things I ever did in my otherwise spotty religious experience. It really did make you feel connected to the music, to your audience, to your own talent. Growing up and finding you are just plunking or warbling or ordinary is a loss. I miss it as well. It is hard in a respectable life to break out and own the music rather than just playing it passively..

    BTW, My kid plays the tuba AND is good at math! Coincidence? I think not!
    Take that Bush, you idiot.

  26. Aha! Another camping memory: Pandora singing old folk ballads so bawdy that we worry the kids can hear them in their tents!

    The thing is, we both perform in other ways in our jobs, right? But somehow it’s just not the same thrill — it’s not as communal, for one.

  27. Missy says:

    Speaking of Molly, it’s her birthday today, right? Happy birthday, Molly Smith-Waterman! Last night I dreamt you and Anna had spaghetti for hair. It was cute and ringlet-y, but the sauce was kind of gross.

  28. Scott Godfrey says:

    Off topic, I know, but I think many Whatsiters will be interested:

    I want to announce that I was walking through the student-union dining area at my school yesterday, and I looked up at the video monitors so see a psychedelically animated Nikki, rockin’ just as hard as she can on MTV-U. The sound was turned down, and none of the kids seemed to take notice. Besides adding to the surreal aspect of seeing someone I know on TV, these elements of the experience seemed indicative of the SSPUs quiet, rock infiltration.

    Anyway, it was a cool experience, and congrats to Nikki and gang.

    The fact

  29. i somehow missed these last two comments. i must have been drowning in tim’s wedding thread. missy — what a great dream! i will pass it on to molly, who turned 10 on the 23rd. double digits! and scott — what happened? did you die in mid-sentence there? if so, steph, can i have the suit he wore to tim and jen’s wedding?

  30. Scott says:

    Naw, that’s just how I’m signin’ all my shit now.

    The fact

  31. Scott says:

    I waiter once gave me a slip of paper to put in the pocket of that very suit, which was directions that if I should die, it would go to him. So I guess you’re next in line.

  32. Lisa Parrish says:

    Once I was in an elevator with a guy in a really snazzy purple suit. He was holding a giant mug. I said to him, “Wow, nice suit.” He reached into the mug, pulled out a can of Campbell’s Soup (I guess he was on his way to microwave it on another floor), and said, “Yeah, Cream of Mushoom. It’s my favorite.” My favorite mis-heard moment. I swear this actually happened.

  33. Pigpie Jones says:

    My favorite mis-heard moment acutally involved my dad. He was recently divorced, in his early thirties, and living at the Jersey shore; the year was about 1978. Anyway, he met a woman on the beach who asked him if he wanted to do loods (as in qualoods). He thought she said nudes. Looking for some swingin’ good times, he want back to her place. When he was presented with some pills, he realized he was with the wrong sort. He just wanted illicit sex not illicit drugs. He got the heck outa there.

    As a teen when he told me the story, the message was that the sex would’ve been okay, it’s the drugs that are wrong.

  34. Ruben Mancillas says:

    Um, Pigpie, I don’t want to be the one to break it to you but your dad did get the heck out of there…eventually. After he did the ludes, and the girl.

    I’m going to bat for Team Waterman on this shorts thing. I got mine from the Sears catalog (hey, I’m not too proud to note that my great grandmother called it The Wish Book, are you?) in color coordinated groups, white with the red piping, red with the white piping and so on, and that rough cotton twill material.

    As for The Fact, what happens when you come across a guy who goes by The Truth?

  35. the fact says:

    I ask him why he wants everyone to quit smoking.

  36. bryan says:

    The Fact sounds kind of like a superhero. Does he wear short shorts? Do they come from the Sears Wish Book TM?

  37. Scott says:

    So many synonyms…can’t …keep……..track.