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A Salute to (My) Teachers - 1. Introduction

I have learned something from everyone in my life; it is really that simple-by observation and examples, role models, and then, my own experience(s); I've tried to learn what to do, or what not to do. My wonderful parents were my first example of both, and principally the former. 'Make a note--treat people the way they did,' --I learned from that and by far the positive model was the best, but the negative also allowed me to delineate, 'I will never do that/say that to one of my children (or students).' Accepting all forms of media, we musicians have certainly learned, and continue to learn in what is basically folkloric style. It is passed down, and about, and we continue to add to and refine --not merely copying, but with the best examples, standing on the proverbial shoulders of others, to reach new heights.


Every chapter of my book is simply a person I've met. So, clearly my book will never be finished, and I will constantly be adding 'chapters,' hopefully, to this website.


I have always been interested in writing; I used to write occasional articles for the Saxophone Journal, a bit of scholarly research into the music of Villa-Lobos, Stravinsky's Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo (were they inspired by Sidney Bechet?). I interviewed Joe Allard and Rene Longy in the later part of their lives, to get their thoughts down, always wrote my own program notes, researched the life of Elise Hall (America's First Classical Saxophonist), and believe that our elders have much to pass on, and to respect. They have something important to say. My thoughts on articulation and other essays will also be appearing soon on this site.


Over the years, I've also developed little sayings for my students (I know my style is simple, but my students smile, and remember it).

One is called '6 Measures a Day...' or 'Unlimited Potential':

'If, first, we learn 6 measures a day of a piece we do not wish to play, or think we can play,

then, soon,

we find that we wish to play everything and may play anything.'

I also offer to you:

'Limitless Possibilities' for Self-Expression:

'To play all notes the same, we must first learn to play all the notes differently,

and

To play all the notes differently, we must first learn to play all the notes the same.'


In related simplicity, I remember David Schiff, (who years ago while working on his teacher Elliott Carter's biography), telling me he was struck most by Carter's statement (who wrote some of the most complicated (or hard for many to understand) music in history), saying, 'basically every note we play/write is either happy or sad.' Well, Ok, then; on we go, finding the gradations and sensitizing ourselves, trying to understand, unlock the mysteries, and satisfying our need to offer our emotions (both happy and sad), creations (and recreations) in communicating with others, creating a more beautiful civilization and expressing ourselves, sharing and caring all the while.


I've spent the greater part of my life commissioning new works for saxophone, and other instruments. Benny Goodman and Elise Hall were my elders in the inspiration for commissioning music. That has allowed me to grow as a musician, and to hopefully contribute something to the Art, and I've begun or helped develop saxophone programs in Venezuela, China, the United States and Taiwan.

Thus begins my story of what I've learned in my travel(s) and 'travailler (to study, model, practice and learn),' with the saxophone as my life's vehicle, something possibly akin to Herrigel's 'Zen in the Art of Archery,' which is one of my favorite all-time books, immensely quotable, and one for which all find their own meanings, with archery the metaphor for life.


I was born in a log cabin. No. I was born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. My earliest memories are of music in the Temple that my parents built both physically and spiritually. My earliest memories are all musical ones--my mother playing the organ and my father as the volunteer cantor at Temple Shalom. My mother played well, my father, gave it his best effort, and what he lacked in pitch discrimination he made up in feeling! My Dad was a textile engineer who was recruited into the Space program (NASA) at its inception--we moved to Langley, Virginia and then on to the Houston area. I used to tell people we moved from Philadelphia to Seabrook, Texas so that I could get the best music education. Bands were big in Texas. I repeated beginner band for literally 3 years--I changed school districts one year and couldn't remember f-sharp, so was kept back! By 7th grade I had caught up, of sorts, and was fifth out of six saxophones (we all remained the same section for the next five years). I was allowed to 'challenge' to move up, and constantly tried, beating Darryl Malone (now a successful Houston attorney), who told my lawyer sister many years later, 'I let him win.' 2 weeks after that audition I moved back down to 5th, where I remained throughout high school. But, my joy was playing, and trying to improve, rather than 'winning.' I enjoyed competing with myself much more than against others, and found fulfillment in that, sooner than most, and which some musicians, and others, never realize. I remember how much I enjoyed 'summer band' as we practiced writing down rhythmic dictation, melodies, and the like. That m.o. has not changed a bit, with the added need to share gradually being added as I entered college.


I had a very able, demanding teacher in my last years of high school and then college, as I perceived it then and now; Jeff Lerner, who is/was a terrific teacher, but didn't say 'good job' (to my memory) after my many recitals in college. And I played many recitals, rather than a single one, as many students do/did; I realized the more I played, the better I would play and rather than make it all my 'magnum'-recital, it was important to practice performing, and communicating. And, if I was nervous (and I was VERY nervous); I had another friend who told me I would stop being nervous after the first 50 recitals, and I wanted to get those 50 out of the way as soon as possible. And after every recital, Jeff said 'congratulations, we'll talk about it at your next lesson.' Well, my ego took a bruising. In my own mind (and I thought, in his) I was never 'good enough,' and I always had to try harder. Teachers are so important; what they say and think is so important to us in the moment, in lifting us up, or causing us to persevere (or otherwise). And, while I've always felt that Jeff's approach wasn't exactly the way I could do it as a teacher; I am clearly guilty of speaking with great praise to and of, my students in excess (and in their presence), as a sort of 'proud parent,' just as my Dad proudly did. But, I respected Jeff, and still do. We are all different.


I want to grow students, and want to teach all of them; and have none ever quit. That is my philosophy. Their best is quite good enough. Other teachers may be more 'demanding' than me, and many produce successful students, with some students quitting along the way, who did not have the developed seriousness of purpose, confidence or self-image to continue. But we all bloom in different seasons. And, I bloomed late. After all, I was in beginner band for 3 years. So, I have always opted for the least amount of attrition in my teaching; I have only a few college students who have left before completing their degrees in over 35 years of teaching. And to me, it means I failed because I didn't reach them fully. I was always one of the weaker players when I was young, and-like many--in fact most!-- of my successful friends-- tell the story of a teacher who told them (or me) that they should look into some other work because they weren't 'good enough to be ...'. For instance, in 1978-during one of my first dates with the Boston Symphony, the tubist Chester Schmitz related the story of how he was told by Arnold Jacobs (Chicago Symphony tubist) to look into some other profession, when he was a student at the Univ. of Iowa. That was before Chester auditioned for the Boston Symphony, where he remained for over 30 years! So, my answer to this is, if we have parents or others that instill confidence and good self-image, it can't hurt to have someone else (me) who does the same thing we hope for in our parents. And, better the student have an embarrassment of riches in those categories, so that he/she pursues whatever dreams he/she might have. Trying and failing is BETTER than not trying or letting fear of failure stop a student from giving it a 'go.' In 'Boys of Fall' on ESPN2, country star Kenney Chesney narrates and chronicles Bill Curry coach Georgia State University, who says, 'every successful football player can tell you the story of some coach (or teacher) who told them they couldn't do that. That those students had things wrong with them that would cause them not to succeed. But those successful ones found a way to keep driving and not stop until they achieved success. Something inside them said keep going. That other coach ruined alot of other players as he tried to recruit them into his negative way of thinking. I don't want to be that other coach.'


As I considered college, my choices were University of Houston or Sam Houston State University, one in Houston and one in Huntsville, Texas. I am very glad I chose the University of Houston, which was a cosmopolitan place, and affordable school for our family (I have 3 siblings). In my mind, the Texas public university system has no peer. Though I knew little about music per se, I liked it, and as an average player at best, I was smart enough as I entered school to realize, that in the larger scheme, I knew NOTHING. So, I went about remediating that. I was, and remain, curious. That is how I believe I have continued to improve. Perhaps I will peak at 85. I hope, later. There is always so much to learn. So, in 1970 I began buying tickets to Houston Grand Opera, Houston Symphony, Arthur Rubinstein, Israel Phil., everything that passed through, summer symphony series, etc. A big moment came in the summer of 1971 as I heard Dvorak's New World Symphony live, for the second time. Now, I thought, I know a piece of music well enough to recognize it, and have listened to enough live music to have heard it twice. That naive thought, for me, was quite a milestone. I was also exposed to great teachers--Clyde Roller, Moreland Kortkamp Roller, Albert Hirsh, Jeffrey Lerner and many of the principals in the Houston Symphony, of whom Ray Weaver (oboe) and Byron Hester (flute) stood out as wonderful players. Weaver was also a fine person, a transcendental oboist (and deaf in one ear, as I am told, from a WW2 experience), who took an interest in my playing. Incidentally, I have had more than several musician friends who have risen to the highest level of performing, with significant hearing loss in one or both ears. Weaver, however was that first model for overcoming a significant physical obstacle directly related to music performance.

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