Music and the Profession

These quotations all have to do with some aspect of making music, or being part of the profession.

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My own definition of a conservatory runs as follows: an institution designed explicitly for the care and feeding of musicians. It's a hothouse of sorts, one that tries as best it can to provide a nurturing environment for musicians of all stripes and degrees of experience, whether tribal elder, revered master, or bumbling neophyte. So really the distinction between 'college' and 'training school' turns out to be moot. A conservatory is not so much a school as it is an enclave, an environment, a monastery.

It's not just a place where you go to become a professional musician.

For a musician, it's somewhere you go.


Throughout my twenties and well into my thirties I worked as a busy freelance pianist in the SF Bay Area, always ready to take on whatever (paid) opportunity came my way. At one point I played in an amateur ragtime band, a gig I took on because I had several friends in the group, not out of any particular enthusiasm for ragtime or playing in an amateur group. I had played in the Peabody Ragtime Ensemble back in the early 1970s in the wake of the Scott Joplin fad kicked off by the movie The Sting, and that was about as much ragtime as I wanted. But I did it anyway for some years and had a good time in the process.

During a rehearsal, one of the group members mentioned something about the group's being "in the entertainment business." I was downright offended by the remark. Entertainment?? I thought. ENTERTAINMENT???

What the hell was I doing in entertainment, I thought. I don't belong here. I'm not in music to entertain people. Oh, we have to keep the monkeys in the zoo ENTERTAINED, you know, otherwise they become restless and fretful and start throwing their feces at the visitors.

The fact that I had made it so far along -- after having begun piano at the age of four, suffered all of the usual trials and tribulations of becoming a professional-caliber pianist, and having established myself as a successful working musician -- without ever once thinking of myself as an entertainer speaks volumes to the oddity of so-called "classical" music as entertainment.

Glenn Gould

I was part of a small group orbiting our teacher Laurette Goldberg, absorbing whatever goodies the nascient HIP movement could offer us. (Laurette's pet project, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, was still some years in the future.) We were young, committed, and dreadfully opinionated. Snobs one and all, to the last man- (and woman-) jack of us.

Like insufferable snobs the world over, we had absolutely nothing to be sniffy about, but of course there was no way we were going to discover that on our own.

Glenn Gould was our Antichrist, the target of our most barbed, carefully-saved-up snide zingers. (On the other hand, instant ostracism awaited the one who might even whisper that, maybe just perhaps, Gustav Leonhardt's playing was ever so, a teeny-tiny bit, well, you know, like...dull.)

We played the Gould/Bernstein recording of the Beethoven Fourth Concerto. After the opening piano solo (in which Gould "breaks" the opening chords, very lightly), one of our members arose, unceremoniously flicked the tone arm off the record, took up a steak knife, and proceeded pull a Norman Bates on the offending LP. (While we sillly asses sat there applauding.)

Thus I return to Gould after this long hiatus — middle aged now, while our Lady of the Steak Knife is a very successful lawyer in upper New York State — with a lot of music-making, teaching, and commenting under the belt. Snobbery is much less an issue nowadays, humility having been acquired through the usual series of setbacks, embarrassments, and short sharp shocks.


I have nightmarish memories of a Bechstein that used to skulk around in Hellman Hall, at the SF Conservatory's former building out on Ortega Street. The piano looked great on paper — a new Bechstein concert grand — so a lot of pianists chose it for their concerts sight unseen. Choosing that Bechstein turned out to about as wise as Hitler choosing to invade Russia: the thing was the spawn of Satan; clanking, clattering, creaking, sullen, heavy, uneven, and just downright nasty. It could chop off a pianist's legs in about two seconds flat, sucking up every attempt at musicality and spitting it back with pitiless rancor.

Julio [Elizalde] was able to match my Bechstein From Hell by telling me of a vile Bösendorfer that, having been maladroitly transgendered into a faux-Steinway, was reversed-engineered back into a tragically disfigured Bösendorfer. A severe identity crisis was the result and the instrument, caged at Bösendorfer Hall in New York, has been declared a man eater by the pianistic villagers. Apparently it is painted blue (!!), possibly as a public safety precaution.

The Power of Music

I don't know precisely why music can affect us as powerfully as it can. Certainly it affects me, and has done so viscerally for as long as I can remember. I cheerfully confess to being one of those instrumentally-oriented musicians who pays no attention to verbal elements -- i.e., the libretto of operas or the text of lieder, or even popular songs for that matter. I never can remember any of the words, mostly because I tend to ignore them. Music does not elicit visual images for me; I have no urge to dance to the rhythm. It doesn't make me think of Shakespeare or Milton or Harry Potter or mountain streams or roast turkey.

Reading About Music

Dishing out advice is a quotidian culinary activity for folks such as myself, we who are charged with molding the minds of a steady stream of hopeful (or at least dutiful) college students.

We all collect tidbits of advice, each a favored bouquet garni to be sprinkled onto a lesson as the occasion demands. One of mine is to admonish my students to keep a book about music on the burner, as it were, at all times.

(If any of my students are reading this, now y'all remember: keep a book about music on the burner, as it were, at all times.)

Any book: composer bios are great given that we all have our favorites; performer bios have their place as well. Something historical about an era you find interesting, or about the history of your instrument or its notable performers, or a genre that is engaging your interest. A bit of peachy arch puffery from some twee aesthete, perhaps. Trifles of sweet boosterish nothing that preach rabidly to the choir. Something monstrous and nastily opinionated that makes hamburger of your sacred cows or downright repudiates your whole shebang.

Go for it. Read anything at first. Just keep 'em coming; you'll become more discerning in time.


Now here’s the thing about these kinds of recitals. They require a tremendous amount of time and effort to put together. Recitals don’t usually pay anything; they’re for the soul, not for the pocketbook. If you measured all of that prep time as a series of services for which you expected to be paid, you’d never play recitals.

You may well refuse to so much as leave the house for a lousy $75-per-service gig. But you’ll spend hours upon hours putting together a recital for which your take will most likely be zilch, and which might actually wind up costing you money to pay some of your performers or whatnot.

But you do it anyway, because it’s all about making music, growing and developing, following that bliss that got you into the whole shebang in the first place. That’s what being a musician is all about. You play your gigs, some of which are cool and some of which are strictly for the paycheck. You teach your students, some of whom are gratifying and some of whom are...well.

And then you take a deep, happy (maybe a bit nervous) breath and launch into your recital program. Making music: no union scale, no services, nothing but you and your instrument and the music. It’s a little slice of heaven, even if the experience can get a bit nerve-wracking at times.

Traditional Musical Virtues

The title has an edgy tone, I know; it's a bit reminiscent of traditional family values, that charming catchphrase so beloved of the Morality Nannies, uttered, like a benediction, immediately before kicking the stuffings out of some poor schmuck who prays, lives, or loves otherwise.

But I didn't choose those words just for the pleasure of taking a cheap shot at the Nannies, really I didn't.

What I have in mind are those beautiful, wonderful traditional musical virtues of practice, hard work, talent, intelligence, and musicianship. The virtues that arise from a life spent in the service of making music (as opposed to aggrandizing the self), the virtues that inform those performers who make music come alive with grace, substance, and compelling artistry.

Now, one might think: but aren't they really ALL like that?

Well, no.

Viennese Classicism

Once in a while you discover that you know absolutely nada about somebody close. You thought you understood every gesture, every thought, every reaction. You thought the relationship was solid, everlasting, maybe a little predictable but a cherished safe harbor nonetheless.

Then he/she ups and leaves you dumbfounded by running off to Abu Dhabi with the pizza delivery boy.

The vast bulk of the music-loving public is rather like that in regards to the Viennese Classical, a period from roughly 1750 to 1820 (estimates vary) in which the Baroque idiom gave way to compositional practices still very much with us to this day. The Enlightenment, as it is known, is a musical period very near and dear to our hearts.

The Classical is, after all, the time of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven (at least in his earlier years.) Talk about a cherished safe harbor; are there any compositions more sacred than the last three Mozart symphonies, Haydn's Creation, string quartets from all three composers, The Marriage of Figaro, etc.?

But here's the big surprise, that running-off-to-Abu-Dhabi blow to the sense of security: most of us don't know jack you-know-what about this era. In a lot of ways, it's the largest single terra incognito in modern music.