Monday, January 24, 2005

Musical Milestones; or...

...What the Hell Was I Thinking; Part 2/B The "Fame" Years: Out With a Fizzle.

You can either be a good musician or a good student, that's the essential paradox of music school. It's all about time. Unless you're a prodigy or a genius you can spend as much time as you have becoming a musician. Everyone at the college who was a good musician was already one when they started. Sure they got better, but it was incremental.

I wasn't a musician when I arrived. I spent most of my time learning my instrument. The rest of my school work suffered. Of course it didn't help that I got mono from my girlfriend in the first semester. It wasn't the flat-on-your-back-for-months type of mono, but it left me without much energy. Add to that the depression I was battling and, well, I really wasn't an exceptional student.

I failed bunch of courses in that first semester. The second went better, indeed, I kicked ass in the few courses I had. My load was much lightened because I couldn't take the continuations of the ones I'd failed. Third semester I tried to take the regular load plus the stuff I'd failed. Bad idea. It was really down hill from there.

I hung on for a year and a half before surrendering to the inevitable. In that time I got great marks in guitar. I think those marks were influenced by the need to make the fledgling program successful. Be that as it may, I worked really hard and possibly deserved them for that reason. Despite my guitar marks the performance aspect of it was no better than it had been in highschool band.

In fact, recitals were much, much worse than highschool concerts. I was no longer one of a crowd. If I simply didn't play my flute no one, other than the conductor and possibly the people sitting next me, would know. This by the way was the technique I used in choir at college.

The first choir class I hung out with Bobby. He was another classical guitar student and unfortunately a tenor. I'm a bass.* A true bass as it turns out. We did a few exercises and scales at the start of the class. Karl (yup, him again) came over and listened to us. He put me over in the basses.

After that we developed a pattern, a system really, that made choir go smoothly. I would open my mouth to sing and he'd cut us off. "Just the basses." he'd say, looking at me. I'd look back, shrug or smile and stop singing. The class would continue. It was efficient, and eventually I made it more efficient by not singing at all. Of course you can't take choir for years without learning a little something, eventually I would be able to sing little bits here and there.

Back to recitals. You had to do one recital a semester. They were attended by your classmates and maybe a couple of bored students from other faculties. If I was nervous in a band of 30 odd, imagine how bad it was sitting on stage, in a spotlight, all by myself. Hell. I was seeing psychiatrist by this time. At the suggestion of my guitar instructor I asked him for some beta-blockers. They're a drug that inhibits the production of adrenaline. They work. You still get nervous and can make mistakes because of it but your hands don't shake, your heart doesn't race and you don't get the flop sweats.

The only time I remember taking them was for a master class I attended. Master classes are where you do a lesson in front of an audience. Yah, it's fun. Nothing like playing in front of an audience made up of other guitar students then being criticized for it by a professional who you've paid a lot of money. Bah. I think I didn't use them again because on leaving I found I could barely walk up the stairs. No adrenaline to help with the extra effort. Unpleasantly like having a heart attack.

To be fair it wasn't the total misery-fest this account portrays, there were great times too. It's just that they don't stick in my memory the way the bad stuff did. The musical one that stands out came in my last semester. I had just done my last recital ever. I knew it, my money was running out and my girlfriend (not the mono-giver) was moving to E dmonton and I was planning to go with her. I decided to pull out all the stops, really ham it up. The piece I played was a Romantic* one by a Spanish composer. It was very melodramatic and I decided to milk it. I played it very broad and what I though of as over the top. The adjudicator tracked me down at my private guitar lesson to tell my instructor how well I'd done. She said that it was the first time she saw that I might have what it takes to be a musician. So her phrasing could have been better, but by that time I was used to the faint praise that everyone on the faculty there damned me with.

So what the hell was I thinking? I can't remember. As I sit here I can't think why I continued on. I never gave up. I never dropped a course before the deadline, I always thought I could pull it off. There must be something perverse in my nature to go through with it all and not bail. I really did feel pretty hopeless much of time. But I never gave up. It's a conundrum.

Part of the answer was my friends. None of them were in the music program with me, but most were at the college. I think their acceptance sustained me. I certainly didn't know it at the time, but looking back I find I owe them a lot.

Next up, Part 4: The Electric Years

*Bass is the lowest male singing range. Typically the bass section is the weakest in the choir because voice students tend to be tenors. We won't talk about sopranos, the whole soprano section were voice majors. Mind you, it was the sopranos who gave Karl his stroke. Seriously. We were rehearsing and Karl cut us off. When he stood to go to the piano he fell over. 35 or so people stood there and gaped. He rolled over, sat up. Hung his head for a moment or two and then went to the piano. Hung over it for a while, then banged a key "Sopranos, there's your note, from the top." He finished the class, went to the hospital where they found he'd had a mild stroke. The guy really was wound too tight for his own good.


Esther Kustanowitz said...

I will admit that I didn't read the whole thing yet. I will. But I wanted to say that often, I think of myself as a bass. Actually, I'm certainly NOT a soprano, and everything else is up to interpretation. But when you find yourself singing in low keys when all the other women are trilling all over the place, you start to wonder what your musical role is...

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