My Life in Music – Part Three

In Parts One and Two, I described my beginnings in music, from teaching myself to read music through learning the clarinet, from high school marching band drama to the beginning of a lifelong love of film music. In this installment, we continue with college–all nine years of it!

TOGA! TOGA!

Having survived high school with a minimum of visible scars (they’re all firmly repressed now), it was time for higher education. Little did I know when I set foot in the Music Department at The University of Texas at Arlington that it was the start of nearly a decade of academia.

UTA was not, nor will it probably ever be, particularly well known for its music program. The appeal was its proximity to my home, so that I could save on rent, and because it took too long for The University of Houston to respond.

Upon entering the university, my stated major was Composition. I was hellbent on learning to compose in the hopes of making a living as a film composer in Hollywood. By the end of the first semester, that dream was gone. And for the life of me I can’t remember why.

The second semester was sent as an Education major, a following I quickly deduced was not my cup of tea. By my sophomore year I was firmly settled as Clarinet Performance major. I was sure I could make a living performing as a Hollywood studio musician or a pit musician on Broadway.

Thankfully, one of the big plusses in the department was Carol Jessup, my clarinet teacher. Though I had desperately wanted to leave home and move to Houston, if for no other reason than to be on my own, if I had to stay in the area then my disappointment was assuaged by Jessup’s kind yet firm tutelage. By continually challenging me over the next five years, I broke out of my shell and was offered numerous opportunities in various ensembles along the way.

Film music became my music of choice at home and in the car and I seldom listened to anything else. But while film music fans of a certain age seem to go ga-ga today over scores for films like BACK TO THE FUTURE, GREMLINS, and THE GOONIES, I missed out. Sure, I saw the movies but I was still in my “Oscar nominated scores only” phase. Today, hearing the synthesized sound of much of the 80’s scores leaves me cold.

Film music and college criss-crossed on one memorable occasion. I played in the pit orchestra for our production of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. The bottle dance during the wedding scene contains a major clarinet solo which is part of the action onstage. The part as written is very straight-forward with no embellishments. I haven’t a Jewish bone in my body and trying to make those square notes sound Hebraic was next to impossible. To solve that problem, I transcribed John Williams’ arrangement of the solo from the movie soundtrack. I may not have played the solo very well but I had a blast onstage every night for that one number, even if these Anatevka Jews were decked out in polyester.

Grad school loomed. And rather than facing the big, bad world of steady employment, I continued on and on and on…

RUNNING ON EMPTY

I started grad school at Michigan State in East Lansing. Why MSU? Because of Elsa Verdehr, arguably the finest clarinet teacher in the country. Being accepted into her studio was a huge honor and I took it. Six months later I ran out of money and had to return to Texas with my tail between my legs. For some reason, the idea of getting a job while I was up there never entered my mind. Idiot.

There’s something so true about the phrase: “You can’t go home again.” After four months of living at home (hell for both me and my parents), I transferred to the University of Texas in Austin. Unfortunately, none of my credits from Michigan State transferred with me and I had to start my Masters all over again.

My three years at UT (including one year of the PhD) were exhausting. In addition to my full load of classes, I taught private lessons 20 hours a week, taught a beginning clarinet course for undergraduate Education majors as part of my teaching assistantship, AND worked 40 hours a week at night. But grad school gave me some cherished musical memories. Stravinsky’s L’histoire du Soldat with Austin Ballet and me with a fever of 103. The solo in the second movement of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto (you know, the one that forms the basis for “All By Myself”). Being asked by the legendary Robert Shaw to come audition for the Atlanta Symphony after performing under him in the Berlioz Requiem.

Film music crossed over into my classical studies when I discovered clarinet pieces by the likes of Miklos Rozsa, Alex North, and Bernard Herrmann. But that kind of music was discouraged. They were “merely” film composers.

Performing eventually became a chore and I gave it up shortly after grad school. Yet my ears are still attuned to the clarinet sound. I can hear a certain passage and my fingers know exactly where to go, a certain note and my tongue knows just how far to arch.

Do I miss it? Yes, sometimes I do.

THE BEST OF TIMES IS NOW?

My last paid gig was in the pit for a truly awful regional production of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES in Austin. Every night we begged our Albin, “Pick a key, any key!” Things weren’t much better behind the beaded scrim. An electic pit orchestra consisting of piano, electric bass, clarinet (me), saxophone/flute, and trombone probably did not do much justice to Jerry Herman’s second-rate score either. The upside? It paid me enough money to finally get the hell outta Texas.

I left the Lone Star State on May 1, 1991, with my Mazda packed to the gills. My cat, Stinker, lay drugged (to keep her from puking) with kitty Dramamine on top of a box in the back seat. I got to Texarkana and thought, “Where do you want to go?” I had narrowed my choices down to four cities, none of which I had ever been to.

Atlanta was still too far south. The only reason I wanted to move to Chicago was to see Seraut’s painting of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the inspiration for the Stephen Sondheim musical, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. The more I thought about it, not a particularly good idea to move somewhere. So it was Boston or New York. I figured I’d decide once I got up there.

After a brief stop in Washington, D.C. to see a friend, up the eastern seaboard I drove. I got to the exit at the George Washington Bridge and thought, “There’s no way I can do this! I have a car packed full of stuff, a drugged cat in the back, and no idea where to go. I’d be car-jacked or killed within 10 minutes of getting there.” So I kept driving.

At the final tollbooth on the Mass Pike outside of Boston, over an infectious groove the familiar voice of Janet Jackson begged, “Let me take you on an escapade.”

So I went.

Next Time: My careers in music–Boston, Broadway, and blogging.

6 comments

  1. “Today, hearing the synthesized sound of much of the 80’s scores leaves me cold.”

    YES!

    “There’s something so true about the phrase: ‘You can’t go home again.'”

    I hear you. I’ve never been able to live in the same place twice. Make your mark and move on. Going back just feels like so much regression.

    “Being asked by the legendary Robert Shaw to come audition for the Atlanta Symphony after performing under him in the Berlioz Requiem.”

    Wow, brother! That’s impressive!

    1. It would have been more impressive if I’d followed up more after sending in my audition tape. But when I didn’t hear back, I just sulked. Sucker. But everything happens for a reason, even the idiotic moves like that one.

      1. Life is short. Regret is pointless. You’ve got your health, your good friends, and your talent. And a corgi!

        Peace.

        1. No regrets necessarily. Just a sort of “what if…” But yes to the health (knock on wood, friends, some modicum of talent, and most definitely Watson!

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