My Life as a (Surprise! Musical) Dog . . . and Unseen
on a recent tour playing and teaching around America, I happened
to hear the following on a general-interest,
national call-in show:
Middle-aged woman from Pennsylvania: “We have lost the middle of this country.
We, of course, don’t want to be like sclerotic old-Europe, but we are going
towards Brazil and we don’t want that either! With the equity and fixed-income
markets not paying anything, at least we can make money on real estate!”
Having lived in “sclerotic old-Europe” now for almost fifteen years,
and having been to South America five times, I felt compelled to answer this
statement in a fashion which might be of interest to our music/percussion community.
Plenty of folks have asked me what it is like to be a musician on this side of
the pond, and it seems to be true that where one lives and the experiences one
makes do have an influence on life and the reflection of life––Music
While growing up in southern Illinois near the Mississippi River and St.
Louis, we were absolutely normal, stereotypical folks living in a farm village
seven hundred. Cornfields and cow pastures. Can you hear Beethoven’s Pastorale
Symphony in your imagination? The only thing to spoil the bucolic, country imagery
would have been the proximity of the huge Scott Air force Base––and
the sonic booms which went off like regular clockwork.
At the oldest Methodist church in the eastern part of the country, my aunt
played the piano and organ, and about my best piece of luck was that she
became my piano
teacher. Much more important, of course, was playing outside with the other
kids. It was absolutely predictable that we would find Indian arrowheads
in the plowed
fields, and throw them at each other. You took your turn going over to O’Fallon
to a doctor for a little sewing up after our creativity had ended up in a screaming
In the fall of 1963, we moved to the larger,
neighboring town of Belleville. I was almost ten and hated that I had to
start over, but there was good luck
involved again. The new school had a band program and that meant I could
beat on a drum like the other guys. It was the loudest and best noise you
make, but being the smallest, youngest one, I did not have the strength to
fellow percussionists away from the drums––as they could do to
me. And so lots of times I would wind up standing at the stupid glockenspiel
with mallets in my hands, crying.
Can you remember the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s classic, 2001,
where the pre-human beings are jumping around, making ugly noises, and fighting
with each other? Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathrustra” is
blasting away and one hominid is hammering on the ground with a bone––inventing
working with a tool and fighting with weapons, and playing percussion, I guess–––about
as the super-emotional music gets to the subdominant––that bone is
thrown up into the air, rotating in slow motion, and as it comes down to earth
it becomes a space station.
“Go East young man!” and here I am in sclerotic old-Europe, asking
myself how did this all happen? How did I become such a pointy-headed, northeastern
communist, reality-community, liberal musician? All I did was keep on making
music the best that I could. Over and over again. The only thing I did differently
from my best buddies back then was that I kept practicing and playing and writing
music over a long, long time.
If you are still with me, you can understand what I am saying. “Perseverance
Alone Furthers.” “Continue On.” Keep on working away at what
you love to do, no matter what:
Whenever you can.
Wherever you can.
With whomever you can.
As much as you can.
As smart as you can.
For as long as you can.
Over the weekend and this entire week, The New York Times has run a series
of articles, a year in the making, about class in America. I was horrified
to see that a musician is only considered to be at the forty-five percent
level of estimation and acceptance in the eyes of the survey group in the
research results. This means that more than half of all other jobs and occupations
are more desirable. College professors are only a little bit better off in the
judgment of those responding to this exhaustive survey.
Over here in Nürnberg Lebkuchen/Bratwurst-land there is no comparison! Are
you kidding me? Are you crazy? A professional musician in an orchestra, at the
theatre, teaching at a college-level music program, or at a city music school,
still has a great deal: pay, vacation-time, health insurance, retirement pension,
responsibility, security, mass transit, community conciousness––folks,
forget it! And the respect of the society goes along with it for an artist and
teacher. This coming fall will be the first time in the history of our school
that our students will have to pay any tuition at all. Did that register? This
year will be the first time that our school is not tuition-free. And over all
these years, literally all of the graduates from our percussion and Jazz programs
could, and still can, go out and get a job and make their start and find their
way in a musical life, if they have prepared themselves correctly.
When I moved over here in November 1990, I read in the paper––and
heard on the radio news––and also overheard the following in America:
The budget for music for the city of Munich in 1990 was more than the entire
budget for all the arts throughout America in the National Endowment for
the Arts program. One town in Central Europe spent more money on music than
of the Federal Cultural Budget spending in the United States?
Is that sclerotic? Can you pass me the cream
and butter, please?