By Robin Anderson

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Suck-cess and Other Misnomers

The oboe has a certain timbre. It cuts through an orchestral texture. It’s penetratingly bright. It’s insistent. It’s Trey Makler’s instrument.

Trey just wrote a chamber opera. As if I needed another reason to feel grossly incompetent, a 22-year-old composition major preparing for his final year of college sits across from me in a coffee shop, picking on some glorious pastry that I wish I had in my mouth and telling me that he’s just had his work premiered by a university opera. I’ve set up our conversation by telling him that I’m not fond of titles, and he seems to ride in on the wave of his recent success, but not ridiculously so. He’s energetic, robust…and insistent. The bar is high, but I’ll quickly discover that our kinship lies in the shared belief that titles do not a successful musician make.

Hailing from a smallish eastern Missouri town, Trey is not from a musical family. In fact, he didn’t start private lessons until he entered college. A middle school band director started him off on that sexy icon, the saxophone, even though Trey had his sights set on the bassoon (an anomaly I can’t even begin to understand), an instrument his band director simply didn’t have the resources to support at the time. I might make the same excuse to avoid listening to a beginning basoonist, but then again, I’m partial to the lighter timbres.

He ended up on the oboe, which wasn’t exceptionally stimulating or earth-shattering, at least not right away. Lacking the adequate social skills to propagate friends (as many middle schoolers do), he traded up in the form of after-school practice sessions with various instruments, at one time giving up oboe altogether before realizing he wasn’t half-bad and that maybe he should pay attention to that.

All through high school, he had his heart set on a university in Indiana, where tuition was a gruesome forty grand a year. I could play the perspective game on this for a long while, but I’ll cage that animal. Upon visiting the program, Trey found the environment to be cold, rude, and uninviting. His parents decided to depart the tour before it was over; the college reps were oblivious to their absence (a huge marketing faux pas, methinks). The cherry on the cake: they required a level of preparation he simply didn’t have. It wasn’t a good fit, and he was devastated. His parents encouraged him to have a backup plan and suggested majoring in business, a tactic with mass appeal to the generation before ours, where loyalty and trust are accolades reserved for the company and not for the project-oriented self.

Trey started out as a music education major, dabbling in composition for fun. He applied for competitive composition scholarship and got it, set out with the gargantuan task of composing a piece for a major international performing ensemble…in one month. He was faced with major anxiety trying to prove his self-worth, so much so that during one of his lessons with a theory professor, ended up in complete tears. Barring the obvious societal problem that we would need to push a musician to the edge of sanity to elicit productivity, the trend of releasing the flood gates to the grand old faculty gods atop their pedestals seems to be a rite of passage for all the coolest musicians.

“How was that for you?”

He smiles over his coffee. “It sucked.”

On the event horizon of a complete breakdown, he threw his pride to the wind and ended up taking incompletes in three of his classes. Through some soul searching and with the support of his close faculty mentors, he came to terms with the fact that in five years, no one would really care about his final grade in basic conducting. No one class would make or break his career, and the projects before him were infinitely more important to the learning process and his individual success than final class percentages.

He’s right, of course, despite my misgivings for ridiculous cutoff gestures and inaccurately subdivided patterns. Too often during my training in the same program, I seriously contemplated what it would be like to just…not take 20 credit hours and live the life of so many other normal college students. Or, I don’t know…sing wrong notes on purpose and enjoy doing so. I wouldn’t experience either of these joys until my college career was well over and I was faced with a painstakingly normal musician’s life, somehow making a career out of allowing wrong notes to happen in favor of fun, companionship, and creativity. As it turns out, there aren’t really any wrong notes. 

He’s “endlessly angry” that schools insist on creating false expectations for musicians and training people like him for jobs that don’t exist,  but his personal validation comes from the fact that the better the projects get for him, the more support there is for what he does. Today, his parents have no problem with his chosen career path, and he certainly doesn’t.

“What’s the one thing to know about successful music-making?” I ask him.

He pauses for a long, long moment.

“Success is wholly intrinsic,” he insists. “You’re the only person who gets to decide if you’re successful or not.”

 

  • AMmaven
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Falling from Grace: The Story of a Music Professor

Confession: my last post was supposed to be this one.

The cliffs notes version:

  • I’m interviewing my friends, but even close friends are afraid to be real.
  • The advantage to speaking with people I know is there’s already a trust in place. There’s less beating around the bush, more unabashed sharing of truths.

When I interviewed Melissa, I knew she would tell it like it is.

“I got some good shit,” she says, “but it has sort of a sad ending.”

The ensuing conversation was easily punctuated with upwards of 30 curse words, which was refreshing and not at all gratuitous. Melissa has four college degrees: an undergrad in music education, a master’s in education and classroom technology, or powerpoint, in her words. She has another master’s in vocal performance, and a PhD, all in music – related fields. As I write this, I realize I’ve failed in the note-taking department. Somehow, I managed to note that she once made me a funfetti cupcake when she hosted a sectional rehearsal, but did I write down the name of her degrees? No. Priorities…

I start to message her to confirm these things, and I stop myself. It doesn’t really matter. She’s educated, and she’s real. She’s real educated. She dons a pink shirt and sits in her kitchen on a Thursday night. She has just put her toddler son to bed and it’s like I’m there with her, sharing a robust red wine, even though we are a state away.

Melissa was always interested in attention (her name was Lola…). From a young age, she liked making people laugh and was convinced she would be on broadway. She met her first husband at 14, and they were engaged by the end of her undergraduate degree (she was 21). The decisions she made then, including her choice to teach music in a tiny area school for six years, were all motivated by that relationship, which she would discover years later was actually poisonous and abusive. She wouldn’t look for jobs outside of the area, and never auditioned to be in the top choir because the commitment would take too much time away from her relationship. All of this sounds like a perfectly legitimate decision-making process until she describes the time that she didn’t get a lead in a musical, and her husband shoved her down onto the bed and berated her for being overly self-absorbed and thinking she deserved more. Gaslighting at its best (if you don’t know what this is, look this up).

Melissa was cast in oodles of other leads in community theater. Maria in West Side Story, Cinderella in Into the Woods, Marion in The Music Man, among others. I first met her after this chapter of her life, in the foul trenches of our respective graduate studies. I had just accepted a music directing gig on the side for Annie at a regional theater; at the time, Melissa and I were in choir together.

I distinctly recall walking down the street beside her on the way class, humming a few sections of the overzealous “I Think You’re Gonna Like It Here,” sung by the charming character Grace, a young, nurturing secretary, opposite of the icy Daddy Warbucks. Melissa promptly rambled off ten of Grace’s lines. I felt like the mother ship was calling me home. As it turns out, Melissa played Grace during her years in community theater. While it wasn’t her favorite role, that didn’t stop us from batting back and forth in an impromptu exchange, like two hikers who meet joyously on some distant plateau and leave with the distinct impression of having known someone else a little better. I remember feeling a little more at home, because in our classically-charged world of Mozart arias, APA style, and trying not to be the problem soprano, so few people knew musical theater, and even fewer actually liked it.

Until this conversation, that syrupy little moment was lost in the archives, and we both reveled a little in the rediscovery.

Melissa spent close to ten years with her first husband, performing community theater roles because she “was allowed to,” and he could control the sense of esteem that came with being a big fish in a small pond. Somewhere along the way, she got out, though it would take her two years to realize the toxicity of that relationship.

She met her second husband in grad school, and they ended up in school together in Missouri. Going back for graduate training was rough, though. She hadn’t sung “for real” in years, could barely manage a scale, and would lose her voice after a day of practice and rehearsals.

Today, she’s a university professor of vocal music education, where she teaches choral conducting (something she never thought she would teach). Her husband is also a professor at the university. Together, they spent a year working for a small school near Nashville, where he was a band director, but found himself schlepping way more than the agreed-upon work, and the promise of adjunct teaching for her was yanked away with less than a week’s notice (#welcometotheadjungle). Her current title is deceptive. Technically, she’s a visiting assistant professor, which means that while her position is annually renewable, none of the work she’s doing (research, publications, teaching, etc) will count toward any sort of tenure. She’s maxed out her earning potential, to a certain degree (no pun intended). She admits she is lucky to have a full-time job with benefits, a rarity for the modern musician/academic, and she can care for her kid, who she considers a much more sound, long-term investment than a performance with an opera company or some other short-lived glory in the spotlight. She’s proud of the conversations she facilitates on how teachers also need to be fantastic performers, arguably more so than performance majors.

The lure of academia is disillusioning, and she still misses theater some. “I feel like one day I might say, ‘remember that time I was a college professor? That was fun…’” She trails off with a lackadaisical uncertainty, as if everything golden could disappear tomorrow, and she wouldn’t quite care. “I guess I wouldn’t have this job if I hadn’t gotten my PhD. I do like it, but was it worth me getting four degrees? I don’t know…”

“What is your future?” I ask.

She wants to be her own boss, enjoy music, and enjoy her kid and husband. “Honestly, I just want to run a bed and breakfast and do pinterest crafts.”

That sounds like the most appealing, greatest possible fall from Grace, that elusive entity. If only we could all fall so gracefully.

 

  • AMmaven
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We’re All Imperfect Gems (& Other Cliches)

This project overwhelms me sometimes. What has started out as an innocent idea and drive to share musicians’ stories has opened up multiple proverbial cans of worms that I’m not sure I was ready to clean up. I’ve sort of been catapulted headfirst into a full-blown existential crisis. I don’t necessarily regret how I’ve started; my friends and acquaintances are like the perfect diving board for me to jump into this idea – the low, less riskier one. The one that provides a certain level of confidence that I’ll be able to breathe again, not that insurmountable beast that plunges you so deep that you find yourself gasping for air on your way back to the surface. While it’s fitting and comfortable to have started with the people I know, or sort of know, or souls with which I share a loose connection, this bastard of a process is teaching me a few things. One, that Sintia (my friend / editor / life model / sharer of wine) is a wise old owl (we’re the same age, which I keep having to repeat to myself).

She told me I should be careful interviewing friends. She was right, and usually is (damn you, Sintia. Damn all the Romanians).

The thing about interviewing friends is the trust is already there. I have no set of interview questions because I just want people to talk, and there’s a profundity to what people choose to discuss of their own accord. With people I know, I can put a general time limit on a discussion (usually 90 minutes, give or take a half hour), and the beating around the bush is minimal. Because like attracts like, the type of people I’m interviewing, for the most part, will lay it all out before me and tell it like it is, no holds barred, and that’s the type of connection I crave (don’t we all?). I think everyone should interact this way. Small talk bores me. Get to the point. I’ve been faulted for this in the past; I guess this quality scares people sometimes. I got slammed by a few anonymous students in one of my last course evaluations because I was “too honest, too fast, and too hard.”

Well, the truth hurts, people. Confrontation used to be my nemesis. Now it’s my dear aunt. I can thank my father, a retail manager, for my unflinching ability to just face people and talk to them (juxtapose this with a mortally crippling stage anxiety, and when you’re done laughing, maybe I’ll write an entirely different book on this).

The problem arises when deciding what to share. Each interview is like a mini therapy session, for some more so than others. I hit “record” and tell them to smile, they’re on candid camera. We muse and cry, remember and yearn, pontificate and surmise, and when it’s all over, I sift through the rubble for the gems, but they aren’t always pretty, nor are they what people necessarily want shared, despite the fact that they “defaulted” to the very things that make them them.

Yes, the gems are what they are. They don’t have glorious titles, or ideal upbringings, or fame, or fortune, and they are always imperfect. We are all chipped in some way, so why hide it?

Why hide it?

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Theater People: The Best Audiences in the World

I meet David for coffee on a Saturday afternoon. The building is strangely shaped; there’s a pocket behind a wall where customers can surreptitiously sip their drinks. If you don’t walk around it, it’s easy to miss whoever’s behind it. Without thinking, I staked a spot at a corner table by a window and didn’t check to see if he had already arrived. A few minutes after the hour, I text him and he emerges laughing from around the secret coffee corner, his drink already half-consumed.

“Sorry about that,” I say. Usually I’m more careful with things like this.

Our paths have crossed a few times in recent years; we share a mutual network of musician friends, actors, and creatives, but have only interacted in person a handful of times. One of these was a voice lesson, in which I supposedly intimidated him, and the other was an awkward encounter at the local grocery store at 7 or 8 pm on a Saturday, and I’m pretty sure I was wearing sweat-soaked yoga pants, purchasing oranges and tampons, and he was with his mother. While we haven’t really come to know one another personally, there’s a familiarity to to our conversation, like we’re old friends who don’t really know much about each other other than that he likes to sing and I like to eat and menstrate.

David’s story fascinates me. He’s 49 years old and he just gave his first voice recital. It occurs to me that technically, he has given the same number of solo, formally prepared recitals as I have (maybe I should step up my game). The son of two musicians (one of them a professor of voice…no presure), David played trombone in college, but put music away for 20 years as he studied psychology, occupational therapy, and education. He’s works in the health field, but he took up voice four years ago so he could audition for musicals, and was cast in one role after another in the community theater scene. They’ve all been supporting parts, but he holds a certain reserved hope that his feature role will go down soon. After all, he’s male and can sing. Without undercutting the work he’s done, that’s pretty much the only requirement for guys in community theater, other than the ability to match pitch (even then, that’s negotiable, especially if they can buffalo or lift women in the air).

His program was impressive and varied, with regards to musical theater: Andrew Lloyd Webber, William Finn, Mel Brooks, Jason Robert Brown. Fifteen pieces in all. He shared with his audience the personal connection he felt with each piece. Trained musicians should really do this more. He brought in a guest vocalist to break up sets and give him rests. His voice teacher, also a pianist (and the subject of a later interview…most fascinating) accompanied him.

With musical theater, he says he’s found his tribe. “I feel totally in my element.” He calls theater people the “best audiences in the world.” They want to see others do well. They root for the people onstage. They came to his recital, where he passionately forgot the lyrics to a part of one song, but committed to the mistake and ran with it. Teaching this skill is like to teaching astrophysics to a sixth grader. How do you say to someone, “it’s okay, just rewire your neurons to fire in the face of adversity…oh, and by the way, if you mess up, just keep going. It’ll work, trust me.”

It doesn’t always work. I’ve witnessed pianists shut down during a performance. I once had a middle school gentledude really not do so well at a recital, and afterwards he told me he would never perform again. He did, and he’s cool now, but still…the only way to fix it is to do it, and it takes significant effort to convince a middle-schooler they should try again, because that could happen again. The task at hand was to basically unbraid his bodily chemistry, which you can barely do with a high-functioning adult, let alone a hormonal preteen, let alone a male hormonal preteen.

David and I have both forgotten lyrics; that is our common ground. We both have found a niche in musical theater, and we both get what it means to be vulnerable in front of an audience. We both have decided how music should function in our lives. David is a testament to the fact that you can have complete control over how to make art, and no voice professor, father, voice professor/father, or chosen career path can totally dictate that. Influence, yes. Control? No. If anything, David’s path is really more convincing of this fact than my own, because of course, a trained musician would power through mistakes. The only thing that separates us is a piece of paper, really. That, and coffee preference.

David is a community engager and a late bloomer. I haven’t interviewed many of his kind yet, but they’re everywhere. They are the unsung interactors. They carry communities with willing flair, but books aren’t written about them. Anju says these are the kind of people who will give up four hours of their Thursday night to rehearse motown (read that story here). They don’t have music degrees, but they’ll catch you at Hy-Vee on a Saturday and tell you what a good job you did in your latest leading role. They understand the plight of singing Jason Robert Brown, and the struggle of musical consistency (“my low notes sound like Dean Martin, but my high notes sound like Jerry Lewis.” His words.)

His breed does, indeed, like to lurk behind walls and curtains. They share secrets that trained musicians keep, for fear of embarrassment or compromised profile. They emerge when you least expect it, of their own accord, ready to take on the world.

And armed with caffeine.

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Every Good Boy Does Fail: A Project Update

As of today, I’ve interviewed fifteen music makers. For posterity’s sake and to gather my bearings a bit, here are some updates:

  • My standard M.O: reach out to musicians, schedule interviews 1-2 weeks out, interview once a day or every other day, break for weekends to write and reflect, lather, rinse, repeat. Rely on bread and butter revenue to sustain my new project.
  • Things I need to do more:
    • Write shorter posts. I can’t help it. I try. I really do. I dare myself to keep a post at 750 words, but the story just starts spewing like a kindergartner’s explanation of how to make a sandwich and every part is important. Every tidbit is essential.
    • Reach out to musicians I don’t know. This is hard, but I think I just have to ask for help to move beyond the initial cold call.
    • Take sustained chunks of time to write about every encounter (like, more than two days, and closer to a week…in fact, this next go around, I’m aiming for a 1week:1week ratio of interviewing and writing).
  • Things I need to do less
    • Worry about style
    • Worry about voice (for some reason, I thought this was especially important, but maybe I just thought this because I’m a voice teacher…)
    • Try to be perfect
    • Try to flow (because unless it’s my menses or a keg, things shouldn’t flow just yet, amiright??!!)

That’s all, folks.

  • AMmaven
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