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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Musical Mentors

Earlier this fall, I had an assignment to write a musical autobiography since childhood for a class I am taking at Columbia. The hardest part of the assignment was keeping it to five pages, but I managed. Thinking about some of my earliest musical memories brought up a few tears, and I was really blown away by how a song that I remember from age 4 still sticks with me today. When I looked it up on YouTube, it was like I had just heard it yesterday... The following is my musical autobiography since childhood, and I would love to hear from anyone who has some early musical memories!



          My family lived in Florida for one year when I was four, and it was the first time my parents lived away from their families. My father worked a lot, and my mother and I met new friends and spent a lot of time with each other. Most of my early memories are of my mother, and include music. She loved singing and dancing, and she knew that it was important. It made her happy and playful, and when we spent our first Christmas season away from our family in Ohio, it made her cry when we listened to “I’ll be home for Christmas” on repeat. Even after the years of expert teachers and mentors, I still consider my mother the biggest influence on my musical career because she showed me the impact a simple tune could have.
            I am sure that my first musical memory came from the idea that music held some deeper meaning that I could not understand. I sat in the corner with my record player listening to Disney’s “The Small One” and practicing to remember the words and pitches. After what felt like hours to my four-year-old brain, I was prepared to perform it for my mother for critique. I remember vividly that she told me that I did well, but that hadn’t quite hit all of the pitches. Without knowing it, I’m sure my mother set me up for a life of practicing and wondering if I was getting it right.
            Years of singing in the car, around the house, and learning to waltz went by until I had any formal musical instruction. I must have been seven or eight when we got a piano in our home. My mother was my instructor, and we worked out of her mother’s piano instruction books that looked like ancient artifacts to me. After a short period of time, I was enrolled in a piano class at a local music school. I loved piano, until the teacher introduced transposition. With no explanation, we were told to transpose the piece we were playing on the spot, and it was that lesson that ended my piano career. I figured I was not smart enough to play the piano because I had no idea what transposition was. I still played at home, but took a new interest in the recorder that was handed out in general music. Sitting on the porch during the summer, I would pick out tunes I knew and read out of a book that came with the instrument.
            It was the next year that I went to fifth grade and joined the school band. I wanted to play percussion, but was told that only boys played percussion. The director told me to choose from the clarinet and flute, so I chose the clarinet.
            I liked playing clarinet a lot, and excelled very quickly. At the end of my second year of playing, I performed a difficult Concertino by Carl Maria von Weber for a school assembly. I came to my scheduled band period one day to find that everyone was gathering in the gymnasium for assembly, and my band director came to me to tell me I would be performing. I don’t remember being nervous, but I remember being confused and wondering if I was in trouble.
            The next school year, my mother took me to auditions for a youth band and orchestra in the area. These were great opportunities, and I was so happy to be accepted to both. I loved being in the groups, and I stayed in the orchestra until I graduated from high school.
            The youth band that I was involved in was called the Warren Junior Military Band. During the school year we would rehearse and learn a full program of music that we later took “on the road” to competitions around the United States and Canada. I made a lot of friends, and had a lot of independence. I’m still surprised my parents let me do this.
            The Youngstown Youth Orchestra is where I really flourished and grew as a young musician. The conductor was captivating, and encouraged everyone to do better and play from the heart. Without his guidance, I don’t think that I would have even had the idea to become a musician. Many opportunities came from my time in that orchestra, and many life-long friends were made there as well.
            My senior year of high school was full of solo engagements with youth orchestras in Ohio, a position as principal clarinetist in the All-State orchestra, and decisions about where I would go to school. I decided to stay home and studied at the small Dana School of Music with the second biggest influence in my musical life, Robert Fitzer. Bob was an amazing musician and person, and his impact was huge. I had never met someone like him before, and he seemed totally crazy in many ways. What I learned from him was a dedication to truth, in my music making and in my living. Letting small issues go by with tricks to cover them up was not an option. I left many of those first lessons crying as I tried to figure out the finer points of the staccato articulation. Giving only part of my self to an in-lesson performance was not acceptable. I learned how to be a musician with him, and I learned to be a better person through his teachings.
            Going to a smaller school was an amazing experience for me. I was able to explore many different kinds of music, and because of the fine faculty that I was able to interact with, I learned so much. I also spent a couple summers playing with touring festival orchestras. One summer I was a clarinetist and soloist with the American Wind Symphony Orchestra. The job was very demanding because the music was new and difficult. There would be times we would learn a program in just a couple days. That trip made me tougher and more realistic about what a career as a performing musician was all about.
            After my years in Ohio, I moved to Chicago to study with the legendary principal clarinetist of the Chicago Symphony, Larry Combs. The experience was exhilarating, and the year I was there was a blur of practicing and exploring my new surroundings. Mr. Combs suggested I take auditions at the end of my first year. I applied to two positions open for audition at the time, and I ended up winning one of them.
            Now as a clarinetist with The West Point Band, I have the opportunity to share music with people in ways that I never thought I would be able to. So much of what I do now involves reaching out to people of many ages. The moments that make the job incredible are when we play songs from all of the Armed Services and see the tears welling up in the eyes of old Veterans in the audience, or also when we play a children’s concert and the students can’t wait to get close enough to you to touch the clarinet and ask questions. Being able to reach people in this way is incredibly rewarding, and I am so proud that I am able to do it.
            My desire to play music for people and reach them at an emotional level came from watching the way my mother was affected by music. Being able to work with a great teacher like Robert Fitzer gave me the tools necessary to deliver music in an effective way. Without these two great mentors, I don’t know that I would have ever thought to become a musician.