Sunday, January 23, 2005

Musical Milestone; or...

...What the Hell Was I Thinking? Part 2/A. The Fame Years: An Inauspicious Beginning.

The summer I graduated from highschool my mother took me and my brother to visit relatives in Africa. It was an incredible trip, full of new experiences and sights. Unfortunately it was also full of people asking me what I was going to do with my life now that I'd graduated.

My mother was keen that I go to University, my brother didn't look to be headed that way and as Mom had two degrees she thought it was important. I did too, sort of. Truth is, I was burned out. I barely made it through my last year of highschool. I wasn't a very happy student. Indeed, I wasn't a very happy person all round.

To say I was depressed, in a clinical sense, would be true. The doctors thought so anyway. I felt I needed a break, some time to catch my breath before moving on. That didn't appear to be an option. I was under pressure to decide what I was going to do. Add to this a parade of people asking me this in front of my mother, I had to say something.

I remember saying "The only thing I enjoyed in highschool was music. I think I'll look into that when we get back." Why I said this boggles my mind. As addressed in the previous post, music wasn't exactly a pleasant experience for me. For what ever reason, that became my rote response. I didn't really mean it, I expected that by the time I got back to Canada it would be too late to register.

The day we arrived home coincided with the delivery of the weekly free newspaper. I hadn't even unpacked when my mom handed me the paper. There, buried in a middle section was an ad from the local community college. They were looking for students for the Bachelor of Music transfer program in guitar performance. Yikes! It was a two year program with a transfer to a major university for the second two years. I didn't panic, I still thought it would be too late.

I called and they were still accepting students. Damn! But what's that? You need me to do an audition and theory exam? Hooyah, year off here I come! My audition was awful. Classic guitar is played with the instrument propped on the left knee. I played in typical rock fashion with it on the right. The one classical tune I knew was very basic and I didn't play it well. Karl (the mad Pole) said "Well, I can see you don't play Classical." This implied something I didn't realize until years later. He thought that although I didn't play Classical guitar, I could in fact play guitar. He was wrong.

The theory exam didn't go any better. I'd been taught minimal theory in highschool music class. The school's emphasis had been on winning competitions and the players don't need theory for that. The exam was three pages, I completed one of them. The rest of the questions stumped me, what on earth is a "third"?* To be fair, the questions I did answer I got right.

Karl checked my exam and grunted "Well, you know the real basics." and then left the room. Just like that, no explanation, just walked out. I thought, year off here I come! When he came back he had a text book. He opened it, circled three chapters and as he handed it to me said "Learn those chapters over the weekend and I'll see you in harmony class on Tuesday." Fuck.

I was literally stunned. I was so sure I'd fail that I had no response to this. I walked out to the front office. The secretary gave me my schedule. I managed a weak protest, "Choir? But I don't sing." "That's ok" she said, "It's marked on attendance. You don't play an orchestra instrument and you have to have an ensemble credit. Choir it is." Oh. Of course I was too confused to notice that choir was on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 8:20 am. A good mark turned out to be trickery than anticipated.

At the time I just accepted my fate and did my best. I never really questioned what had happened. In retrospect it was obvious. That year was the first time the offered a Classical guitar program. They were desperate for students. It didn't hurt that Karl was mad. Really.

The harmony class he taught that first semester was Baroque counterpoint.** In the first week he didn't teach so much as reminisce about his time in Russia. Our first assignment was to write four melodies in the Baroque style. When he handed them back he was looking a little odd. His nose was red and he said, "I couldn't pass any of them. I feel I'm a failure as a teacher..." and started to cry. How does one respond to that? I remember wondering if all upper education was going to be like this. Fortunately it wasn't.

Thus began the Fame years. So called because on good days it felt something like an episode of the 80's tv show about a highschool for gifted artistic kids. There were people practicing in the halls and jamming the class rooms. There were regular recitals and of course just about everyone had a band on the side that we all had to go see gig.

To make it even more interesting at the same time I had met some people who changed my life. A group of friends, all a little older than me, who accepted who I was and made me welcome. Quite a change from highschool. I can't call any of us punk exactly but we went to one punk club a great deal and because of that and them my musical horizons broadened. By day I was studying opera and all the great classical composers, by night I was going to gigs. Gigs where three chords might just be one too many and dancing involved physical contact but had nothing to do with sex. I loved it all. (Indeed right now I'm listening to Richard Hell and the Voidoids and next week the LUC and I are going to a Puccini opera)

So, what the hell was I thinking? Initially I was thinking that I didn't want a conflict with my mother. After that I mostly just went along with what was happening. Don't get me wrong I don't regret any of it, despite how it all turned out...

*a third is the basic construction block of western harmony. It's the distance between one note and another of 3 or 4 semitones, 3 being called a minor third and 4 a major third. Or, on sheet music, any note and the one above or below it one line and one space away. This notation is why it's called a third. Counting the first note as one, the next line or space would be two and the next after three. It took me a while to wrap my head around this, maybe as much as a year. Shows what state of mind I was in at the time.

**The Baroque is a time period in history. The time of J. S. Bach and Handel, from around 1600 to 1750. Counterpoint is a style of composition where two or more melodies are being played at once.


Esther Kustanowitz said...

I'm sure it will not shock you to know that I often dreamed of being on Fame. I watched the show religiously, but only caught the movie for the first time a few years ago.

I realized, of course, that not being a dancer, I could never have been on that show. Besides, leotards make me giggle. On other people that is. On me, leotards make me cry.

Coelecanth said...

Just how comfortable I am in tights would suprise anyone who doesn't know me in the real world. Living the car-free, bikey lifestyle gives one an unhealthy tolerance for things lycra. Mind you, despite having the the legs for it, I'm sure there's lots of giggling at my expense. :)

Fame rulz!

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