It’s About Excellence
But Kurtz’s Practicing is quickly becoming an important way-station in journey that has caused me to question my earlier life-choice to bail on music. Discovering the tárogató was another as was the long-awaited acknowledgement from the music establishment in the form of a BC Arts Council grant, but Practicing condensed all these little positive experiences into a sense that I wasn’t the problem, and certainly music wasn’t the problem—in fact, there really is no problem that a little practising can’t solve. What I’d forgotten was just as music is a reward in itself (music has no goal other than to be music), my greatest satisfaction in being a musician was in the pursuit of excellence. Somehow that was skewed into the pursuit of perfection, but they’re utterly dissimilar. Where perfectionism is an unrelenting yet unattainable goal, pursuing excellence itself is the goal.
How do you return?
I was wrestling with the idea of playing music and (just like Kurtz) had the realisation that my playing back in the glory days hadn’t been especially great. The story I’d been telling myself was basically a victim one. I’d done everything I could and was cheated out of what I had deserved (there is a real story of deceit at an audition to prove it too)! But sitting there on the couch wrestling with the problem, I had a sudden dreadful thought. “What if I’m just mediocre?” I asked myself.
But as I listened, my heart sank. Rather than great potential lost to circumstance, I heard a harsh justice. The performance was not as good as I’d remembered. There were mistakes, of course. These were not what bothered me. Recordings accentuate finger slips. Few listners who aren’t also guitarists would hear them during the performance. The mistakes that bothered me now were botched prases, garbled lines that interfered with the music. There performance was full of musical ideas. But no piece was good from start finish.
Naturally, this deeply disturbed me although it was a fresh new thought. The next day, I took a look at that terrible question again and then asked myself “Now, do you still want to play music?” And like a rushing wind the answer “you bet I do” rushed through me. It turned out that the perfection I’d always aspired to was nothing but a chimera—the real goal was simply to play. In fact, to arrive is to die. It turns out that excellence is not a place (like a position in an orchestra), but it’s a feeling, it’s a way of being.
Everyone who gives up a serious childhood dream—lives the rest of their life with a sense of loss, with nagging what ifs. Is that time and effort, that talent and ambition, truly wasted?
When music breaks your heart
But now, I’ve read this book and realise that perhaps I’m not done. Or rather, I realise what it was that I was done with—and what it was was not music.
Concealed in all the careful tutelage of the conservatory system is an almost heartless contempt for the many who can never sustain such standards once they’ve graduated. This system is all about super stars and even more toxically, it’s about perfectionism and conformity. What isn’t destroyed by the conservatory system is put to the torch by the marketplace, which in my case was what I like to call the “Orchestral-Industrial Complex”.
In Kurtz’s Practicing, he once again reflects my journey back to music from the well-intentioned but highly destructive schooling that most musicians undergo. Like mine, his return isn’t a return to the audiences and certainly not the “music industry”, but to the soul of music itself. Practicing is about the musician’s journey back to his first love of music—the quasi-erotic sense of connection that is the essence of music.
As I play the theme of ‘Weeping Willow’ one last time, all my fantasies of success and all the flaws in my character rise again to the surface, my ambition and despair, concentrated in my fingertips. Each impulse, each need and doubt, clamours for expression, a little tyrant demanding its own way. And with each note these urgent demands collide with the limitations of my hands, my instrument, and my imagination. It is the same thing every day, the same as it always was. Yet everything has changed.
Practicing reminds me of other times when I reconnected with that original love of music. Several years ago, I spent the summer playing only the recorder. The recorder has a primordial charm about it—it was the first instrument I played and the instrument on which I learn to read music. It’s also the instrument on which I first learned about Renaissance and other ancient music, and that’s what I spent the summer playing.
For a time, my road back to the clarinet only consisted of music that made me feel good. Instead of great works from the clarinet repertoire or, God forbid, scales, I play Danny Boy.
More recently, a fusion has taken place as I have learned Danny Boy in all twelve major keys. Playing music and practising music are intimately connected.
The pursuit of perfection
I have just finished reading Glenn Kurtz’s Practicing—A Musician’s Return to Music, a book I think should be added to the list of required reading for anyone seriously considering a career in music, or any vocation in which you give your ultimate all in the pursuit of perfection.
Practicing is striving; practicing is a romance. But practicing is also a risk, a test of character, a threat of deeply personal failure. I warm up my hands and awaken my ears and imagination, developing skill to equal my experience. I listen and concentrate in an effort to make myself better.
Kurtz describes a process parallel to my own (it even includes the classical musician’s obligatory pilgrimage to Vienna—were we there within a year of each other?). He recounts the familiar stories of early promise, that music school optimism, the successes, the failures, and then the final and seemingly inevitable descent into musical oblivion. For Kurtz, a classical guitarist, graduation from music school meant a quick nosedive from the Elysian Fields of pure music into the sordid streets of making a living.
I was one of those orchestral players he mentions in his book (the ones who could look forward to a steady paycheque playing with an orchestra). And his take on it is partially true—I certaily held it that the only viable way to be a successful musician was to land an orchestral job. And I seemed off to a good start as after graduation, I landed a job as Principal Clarinet with the Prince George Symphony (a community orchestra with aspirations enough to hire several principal players). Two years later, I quit to follow five years of free-lancing with the Vancouver Symphony (the real deal except of course that I was but an extra).
I lasted only a little longer than Mr. Kurtz before I too lost heart. In my last truly professional year, I auditioned for the Edmonton Symphony, the Hamilton Philharmonic, the Toronto Symphony, the Victoria Symphony, the Portland (Oregon) Symphony, and the Vancouver Symphony managing to come in as semi-finalist with the Toronto Symphony and runner-up finalist with both the Edmonton Symphony and the Hamilton Philharmonic (in back-to-back auditions no less).
The following years were exceedingly dry for clarinet vacancies across Canada with nothing but a Windsor Symphony audition (it actually paid less than the Prince George Symphony) to keep hope alive. After crashing and burning on that one (spectacularly), I was done.
In fact, I would go on being done for several decades to come.
If the Tárogató Project hadn’t wrapped up with the concert (30 April 2017), then it certainly did when I submitted the final report to BC Arts Council. Doing so reminded me of all the people and events that came together (and that never would have otherwise).
About the Tárogató Project
The Tárogató Project (aka “Building a uniquely British Columbian Repertoire for the Tárogató”) was intended to commission two BC composers to each write a seven-minute piece of music for tárogató, which would build on its contemporary concert repertoire while not losing sight of its traditional folk roots.
By tying the commissions with an historical event, the project achieved far wider interest than would have been possible with only the commissions. The historical event was the 60th Anniversary of the arrival of Hungarian refugees to Vancouver, in particular about 200 faculty and students from the University of Sopron’s Faculty of Forestry. The alumni went on to have a significant impact on UBC, and forestry practices in British Columbia and the final concert was attended by several families descended from the original group.
The Project includes some notable artifacts
Listen to Arbutus by Jeffrey Ryan
Listen to I Will Stay Here by Adam Hills
Testimonials and letters: I received some importants letters of congratulations before and after the concert.
Also, I built a very cool new fingering chart for the tárogató, which is superior to anything I’ve been able to get my hands on. I offer it freely below.
Big thanks to UBC’s Department of Forestry for helping to promote the concert and for coming on as a sponsor. Also, thanks to Vancity for providing some support with the concert itself. Their financial support helped St. Philip’s Church continue to offer such concerts without expending its music fund.
What I Learned
The entire process took a year and it carried with it its own joys and heartaches. I learned how hard it can be to work with musicians, many of whom function in some sort of off-the-grid pre-internet world, so arranging rehearsals was an extreme challenge. My 91-year-old mother is more reliable when it comes to responding to emails. On a brighter note, this project gave me something of great value to work at in music. It’s definitely whetted my appetite for excellence although time has worn of some of the downsides striving for excellence can bring. I understand my own perfectionist traits better and also my laziness. I’m learning on the one hand to chill out more, while on the other to quit wallowing and accept that some things require hard work to achieve.
It was an early morning yesterday;
I was up before the dawn.
I’d made a farewell to my father in the night,
and our farewell had the feel
that we’d not meet again.
I could have embarked with him,
but I chose to remain and let him go.
I was done
and instead I’d just come down to the ferry
to see him off.
I gave him a hug,
(but even that landed as a little perfunctory).
He seemed younger (he was a young man again),
but maybe it was I who was older.
The boatman was dressed as an Edwardian-era quartermaster.
The era was wrong. The error was mine.
And there was also a woman, my mother.
She had learned to fly
and was therefore suspected of witchcraft.
I knew the real story however.
After all those years chained to a wheelchair,
witchcraft was the last thing on her mind—
she just wanted to get away and be free.
Three men were tracking her as she made
her first attempts to fly.
I don’t know what they thought they’d accomplish following her—
perhaps they’d turn her into the authorities.
They waited too long though,
because all at once she gained full mastery of her powers
and flew up high into the night sky
and out over the sea illuminated
by the light of the moon,
she danced by the light of the moon…
Somewhere a muffled orchestra tuned up,
but my ear was preoccupied with a different earworm.
Like a ship without an anchor;
like a slave without a chain…
It’s funny how a thing can loop back on itself,
because I saw
an outcropping of rocks in the sea
and as I descended,
a dock on which
my father boarded the last boat going somewhere.
Again I hugged him
for the last time;
Again it felt awkward.
For the last time.
As my father’s boat departed for its unknown destination,
my mother slipped along the top of the sky.
The moon hung limp in the darkness a moment
and then it too vanished.
I walked away from the dock.
“Now what?” I thought,
“They’re gone and I’m here”.
There’s a orchestra nearby
and I know
if I go there
I’ll be immersed in people,
and music of course,
and all the things of life.
And they danced by the light of the moon,
and they danced,
will we ever,
by the light of the moon,
One of the most time consuming parts of producing a concert is getting the word out. When disbursing posters, the locally owned shops are better (because they get what local means); whereas, the megacorp emporia along the Cambie retail strip leave me negotiating with store greeters and those vacant McJob stares.
Also despite their large footprint, most megastores have no place for posting community and local events (although to their credit, Buy-Low Foods did offer to put a poster up in their employee lunchroom — so if I see a row of Philipino ladies at the concert, I’ll know my efforts were not in vain).
That’s why I have a special shoutout for Solly’s Bagelry for taking our concert poster after store hours and the great conversation we had about the tárogató and how Vancouver and the Hungarian Revolution overlapped and its importance to today’s refugees in Canada.
I have a habit of staring at Facebook just a little too long. I enjoy the jokes,and the concert updates, sometimes the politics, but eventually the full weight of the world’s woes overwhelms me. Take for example the story of how the Saint John City Council greenlighted the destruction of several historic wooden row houses, known locally as the “jellybean houses”.
Even Vancouver developers in their naked lust for property development opportunities would blanch at thought of knocking down such buildings (of course Vancouver’s historic stock barely pre-dates the 1940’s, where Saint John’s jellybean houses survived the Great Fire of 1877). So I’m mourning the loss of heritage and the passage of time.
That’s what I found so compelling about Mark Haney’s Omnis Temporalis performed last night at the Richmond Art Gallery. Omnis Temporalis mulls over the transitory nature of life—everything passes—but in a very curious way.
By collaborating with graphic novelist, Seth (aka Gregory Gallant), Haney has set to music George Sprott 1894-1975, a graphic novella that follows the quasi-fictional life of television personality George Sprott.
Set in a mid-sized mid-century Canadian city (here fictionalized as “Dominion City”) at a time when the bloom of post-war optimism was beginning to fade, the story maps out the last two weeks of George Sprott’s life, a descent into ignominy parallelling the decline of the city itself.
When I asked Haney how he sourced the music while walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain, he painted a vivid picture of the tiny medieval church along the route where he composed at sunset in the darkening church. What I was really looking for was “How do you conceive of such projects…and execute them?” Or put more crudely, “How did you get off of facebook and make art worthy of a packed hall?”
Haney is a thoughtful composer, but even with first-rate singers and musicians, it’s not the music that drives the show. I think about Orpheus’ journey and remember that—in a world so skilled at forgetting—the role of the artist is to make that descent and to come back with something. By drawing together a community and then sustaining the artistic vision over its long gestation period, Haney, Seth (and many others) takes us into our collective memories and then returns us a little richer than had we simply opted to forget.