My Life as a (Surprise! Musical) Dog . . . and Unseen Liberal Creep

by Bill Molenhof

     While 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 and Art.

     While growing up in southern Illinois near the Mississippi River and St. Louis, we were absolutely normal, stereotypical folks living in a farm village of 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 bloody mess.
     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 could make, but being the smallest, youngest one, I did not have the strength to push my 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 or xylophone 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 and astounded 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 writer’s 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 all of the Federal Cultural Budget spending in the United States?

     Is that sclerotic? Can you pass me the cream and butter, please?


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