My Life In Music – Part Four

In Parts One, Two, and Three, we looked at my beginnings in music through my numerous years in higher education. For the next installment of “My Life In Music,” we explore my years in the “real world,” sans academia.

BOSTON

In May 1991, with Janet Jackson blaring from the radio and Stinker (my cat) drugged up in the back seat, I arrived in Boston in the middle of the night. In the pre-Internet days, research took more effort so I didn’t bother to read up on Boston before I got there and, as such, I had no clue where I was going. I drove around for two hours and ended up out in Natick, 20 minutes west of the city before I pulled into a hotel along the Mass Pike. Immediate necessities included finding an apartment (in Jamaica Plain) and a job (temping, at least for awhile).

My last clarinet recital took place in October 1991 in the lobby of the MIT Media Lab, where I was working at the time. My playing was not stellar, probably due to a combination of apathy and the distraction of the circular whooshing every time someone came into the building and clopped by. After that I packed up the clarinets and never played another concert again. Years later I had to sell them to pay some back rent. Nine years of college and 17 years of the clarinet equaled $1,600 at a Times Square pawn shop. It’s a move I regret, but I had no choice at the time. It’s still a sore subject with me.

If I wasn’t going to perform anymore, I was certainly going to do my best to surround myself with music at work and at play.

Following my short stint at MIT, I got a job working in the Tanglewood Development Office at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The early 90’s was a good time to be at the BSO. Seiji Ozawa was in his 450th year as musical director of the orchestra (okay, not so good if you ask the musicians) and John Williams was the conductor of the Boston Pops.

Yes, my days were spent writing thank you letters and taking care of pledges, but I was surrounded by the sound of this magnificent orchestra. I got to walk into Symphony Hall every day. I even got to spend three months at Tanglewood every summer.

Now before you write in telling me how lucky I was, Tanglewood was a 60-hour-plus workweek, especially at the beginning. After awhile you just want to be home in Boston and not renting a house from some stranger out in the middle of nowhere. Still, the history was there, the lovely Berkshire grounds were there, and the music.

Through my year and a half at the BSO, I was able to meet some of my idols, especially Jessye Norman. But my fondest memory comes from a Pops concert in which Williams demonstrated the power of film music by showing a scene from JAWS without the music, then performing the music live to the scene. That demonstration should be mandatory in all music classes, and if I can ever figure out how to replicate it online, I’ll devote a post to it.

But no matter how much I appreciated Boston’s beauty and history, my heart was in New York. Since the train ride is only a few short hours away, I was able to visit a few times on whirlwind theater weekends. Five shows in less than three days. GRAND HOTEL, THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES, CITY OF ANGELS, THE SECRET GARDEN, and ONCE ON THIS ISLAND one trip. CRAZY FOR YOU, FALSETTOS, GUYS AND DOLLS, JELLY’S LAST JAM, and ANNA KARENINA (blech!) the next. Exhausting and exhilarating.

I knew it was only a matter of time before I made the move to New York, and after two summers of Tanglewood, it was time.

BROADWAY

The New York I moved to in 1993 is a far cry from the New York of today. Porn shops still lined 42nd Street and you never went west of 9th Avenue. But it was alive and not the mid-American/tourist mall that it has become. I miss the hawkers and the hookers. But the theatre district has essentially remained the same.

My main reason for moving to New York was to write for musical theatre. All those years playing in pit orchestras had given me at least some knowledge of how to construct a show (or so I thought) and now it was time to learn write one.

I enrolled in the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop as a lyricist and got to work. With all that musical training, why a lyricist? Because I’d never composed a note in my life (or a lyric for that matter) and didn’t have a piano (or anything else) to compose with. That first year focusing on words gave me a good foundation the next year when I started writing music on my own. Plus, the process of stringing thoughts together creatively foreshadowed further writing in the Internet age.

As I progressed into writing my own music, I composed an hour-long one-act musical based on THE POLAR EXPRESS (before the movie was released). My vision of Christmas tends to be a bit darker than Hollywood’s (a sex-starved Mrs. Claus, Communist elves, etc.), so I doubt it would have gone anywhere. And after writing a song for a TADA! children’s production, I closed the lid on this chapter of my life.

The TADA! song received good notices in The New York Times (though they neglected to mention my name as the writer), but I realized this was not a journey I wanted to continue. I did not (and still don’t) think I had much talent for it. Plus, I didn’t like actors messing up my words and music. After all these years of working with editors, I might be a bit more flexible about that now.

After 5-1/2 years of temping, I took a brief stint in the development office at Manhattan School of Music. But when Broadway came calling with a job at The League of American Theatres and Producers (now The Broadway League), I leapt at the chance. The League (along with the American Theatre Wing) co-produces the Tony Awards. And that fact alone was enough for me to take a massive pay cut to work in the theatrical industry.

Seven and a half years in marketing at the League provided me with numerous opportunities. Forget for the moment that I saw nearly every major Broadway show…for free! I could attend the Tony Awards every year. (Though I only went the first three years. It’s a long, exhausting night, and actually more exciting at home on TV.)

More than anything, my job at the League afforded me the opportunity to flex my writing skills that have helped propel me into my writing business and blogging:

  • Writing scripts for major Broadway concerts in Times Square and Shubert Alley for anywhere from 3,000 to 50,000 people
  • Writing web copy for the League’s seven websites
  • Ad copy and proofreading

Working in nearly every industry exposes you to a side of that business that is often better left unseen. Since I left the League, I’ve only seen a handful of shows. I enjoy it when I go, but I don’t feel the drive or the desire to see much theatre anymore. Perhaps that will change as I get further and further away from working in the industry.

I sure hope so.

Next time: The last in the series. Writing, in print and online. Film music and more.

2 comments

  1. Wow, Jim. The mystery keeps deepening!

    I can’t say I envy your exact position there, but my recent dream has been to work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I wonder if you’d advise against it…

    Looking forward to the thrilling conclusion!

    1. I’m not sure there will be a solved puzzle at the end of this series. LOL As for thrilling, well…

      I’d recommend Boston AND the Symphony. I just wanted to be somewhere else. Boston was a way-station, nothing more.

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