'Chapter One' Duncan Hale
The First Lesson Can Be The Most Important One
I had taken a music test in school, with all of the fourth graders in my school. Miraculously, we all passed and went to the school auditorium to choose an instrument. I wanted to play the oboe but it was determined that I didn't have the 'ears' to play it, based on the test results. I remember the music store person (someone reminding of Prof. Harold Hill of the Music Man) tugging on his ear, shaking his head and advising my parents otherwise. Next I saw the trumpet, and loved the golden color. Again I was advised no, as I had 'buck' teeth, and the trumpet didn't fit my mouth. The tester felt it would be too difficult to play. Finally, I chose the saxophone, and it was allowed; it had lots of buttons/keys and I would be able to play more notes. It also fit my mouth. A relatively unimportant decision at the time led me on my current path. Had I chosen one of the other instruments, I have no doubt the outcome would have been the same, as it doesn't matter the vehicle, but simply that we find some instrument or way to express ourselves. Soon it was time to go to the music store.
I won't forget that day. Duncan Hale sold my parents a 'DeVillier' Alto-Saxophone. He gave me a memorable first lesson, in which he showed me how to wet the reed and put it on the mouthpiece and produce a tone on the saxophone. It was a very, very good lesson. He brought great joy to my life. We stayed in touch for many years, and after I graduated from New England Conservatory, and began teaching there, Duncan, who was then with the Selmer Company, arranged for me to become a national clinician, and as I travelled the country doing clinics for the Selmer, Duncan would occasionally be in the audience. At Cypress Fairbanks High School in Texas, many years later, I spotted him in the back, introduced him to the crowd, and said, 'That is the person who gave me my very first lesson, the best lesson and the most important one'. And Duncan chimed back 'And I don't even play the saxophone, I played horn.' I was really shocked. But Duncan had been a music educator in Texas, he knew how to play and teach (and sell) all the instruments. I still think of him fondly, and when I received a request for my 'dream' performance as soloist with the New York Philharmonic in 1995, I added Duncan's name to my biography, where it has and will always remain. Thank-you Duncan.
Fourth grade was relatively uneventful, as Band Director Jimmy Foster started us playing in a beginner band, but we moved to Seabrook, Texas, where NASA was located, at the beginning of its permanent location for the Space Program, of which my Dad was an integral part, as head of Crew Systems Division. Gordon Richardson was the band director and group lessons teacher at Seabrook Elementary School. I remember him as very very patient. I think we wore him out, but he never showed it. But just to give an idea of my ability, I repeated beginner band in sixth grade, because I forgot how to play F# during the summer! I did see him 20 years later; he looked the same, and he said we DID wear him out, but it was with a smile on his face. To me that is an example of the selfless giving of all the Texas Music Educators I have known. I am so glad we moved from Philadelphia, to Seabrook, so I could receive the best possible music education!
Terry was my Junior High Band Director in the NASA area, my private teacher for the first couple of years of high school (Clear Creek High School), and he was later one of the first to ask me to play a Concerto with a large group (Clear Lake High School). And unlike Duncan, he really did play the saxophone. Terry had a deep Texas accent, always gregarious and positive, and gave us all a chance to become better. He believed in all of us. That is the essence of the American public school education and music education philosophy. And we could 'challenge' to move up every week. 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 constantly 'challenged,' once 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 and playing tenor saxophone, 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.
The most valuable musical lesson he gave was a simple one, that of learning the basics of musical vocabulary and putting them into practice. We practiced rhythmic and melodic dictation as a group, we ran to the blackboard to be the first to document a rhythm, we practiced saying articulation as a group, we attached a number to every beat, and had a great sense of time. And, Terry made it fun. We did this as summer band camp. We went to school in the summer, as volunteers, because we knew there was much to learn, and we wanted to be better. Just as students first learn and memorize the alphabet and multiplication tables, Terry Anderson gave us music as a language, and it was as much fun as baseball or football, which we all played, too.
The Clear Creek High School Band Director, Joe was always well dressed, every day teaching in a white shirt and black tie, never loosened, and ran a tight ship, in almost military fashion. When Mr. McMullen said to be quiet, we were quiet, and he never raised his voice. But he did have a whistle, although rarely used inside. He was regimented, and later led the band at Texas A&M, which was known as the Corps. And Joe was stoic, to be sure, but at the same time, he loved music, and a very nice person. His son was in the band, also a very nice person and became a minister, if I am not mistaken. Joe brought us these wonderful old transcriptions (the paper was in a state of degradation as I recall) of Tchaikovsky-I'll never forget learning the tenor part to the Finale of Symphony no. 4, Poet and Peasant Overture, and the like. We also played newer work by Francis MacBeth and Vaclav Nelybel (good composers), and Joe brought in Rosario Mazzeo (from the Boston Symphony) and legendary trumpeter Rafael Mendez to give master classes for us. He made us feel that we were worth it, and that if we worked hard, we might be able to do something like them. And though my memory of Mazzeo is, a bit faded, I remember what great enthusiasm Mazzeo had for playing, and brought to us. Joe McMullen first suggested that I begin studying saxophone with Jeff Lerner.
Jeff Lerner, is the former clarinet/bass clarinet w/Houston Symphony and longtime, Univ. of Houston clarinet and saxophone professor. Jeff has a great spirit and strength, which allows him to go on. He is a survivor on many levels. From a musical point of view, having just a few years ago played a favorite work of mine, Viktor Ullmann's 'Emperor of Atlantis,' in Houston, for which Jeff asked me to return to play, one of the big thrills was sitting next to my former teacher, who clearly must be the BEST 80+ year old clarinet player in the world! Jeff played the most interesting recitals at the University of Houston. Many were thematic; all-English, French, new music etc., and I have taken that cue from him in my own recitals. My first lesson in high school was a bit scary though. Jeff identified everything that was wrong with my playing within minutes, and by the end of the lesson I was in tears. But he said to work hard and come back the next week (and so did my parents), so I did, and I kept on improving, modestly. As Jeff said, according to my mother, who only in later years told me, 'he's (ken is) no great shakes as a saxophonist.' Jeff, also began teaching me clarinet, because, though I had a dream to be a musician and a saxophonist, he felt clarinet (which was his major instrument), would offer me more musical and performance career possibilities, and he was right (in part). I entered the University of Houston as an average high school saxophonist, still playing 5th chair in the band (tenor saxophone), and splitting my lessons with the graduate assistant teachers and Jeff Lerner over the next few years. Steve Hoyle, David Salge, Delmer Simpson-- Were these guys really role models, or a version of 'The Intern,' in which like all doctors, they promise with the Hypocratic Oath, to do no harm. They all had personality, enthusiasm, (in varying degrees), and were pretty good models for having a sense of humor (Hoyle had just been drafted in 1970-not a good time, and wrote, 'Propty. of US Army' on all his belongings, Delmer was concerned with sound and mechanics, and David was a great musician, philosophical and with a lot of style--he and I have stayed in touch over the years. His performance of Alec Templeton's 'Pocket Size Sonata,' was the model for my recording for my Boston Records 'Fascinatin' Rhythms’ some years ago. Jeff was their teacher, and my teacher. He encouraged me, to listen to recordings of saxophonists, and to study with others. And Harvey Pittel played concerts in Texas that year.
Harvey Pittel was the first really professional saxophone solo artist I had heard live. I heard Harvey play the Ingolf Dahl Concerto with the North Texas State University Band, under Maurice McAdoo, and said to myself. I want to do that, and I can do that. Harvey was always very encouraging. I followed him around Texas, where he was touring all year, and remember driving to Waco, where he played Ibert Concertino with the Waco Symphony Pops, conducted by Daniel Sternberg. The concert also included 'The Arkansas Traveler,' as one of the Pops pieces! The combination of characters, music and location was almost surreal but I was having the time of my life. I later studied with Harvey at West Texas State University Band Camp (summer of 1971), visited California and considered transferring to USC or Cal. State Fullerton, where Harvey taught at the time, but I was not yet ready to leave home. We tried to get Harvey to come to the Univ. of Houston as sax professor, but it was not to to be. Later he joined the faculty at Univ. of Texas, where he remains, and I see him as we occasionally judge together at Texas State Solo and Ensemble Contest.
Joe Allard was the teacher who had taught my teachers, Jeff Lerner (although a clarinetist who studied with Bonade, he took a few lessons from Allard), and Harvey Pittel (who also studied with Fred Hemke, Franlkin Stokes, as I recall). But Joe was consistent with both of them and I knew Joe taught at New England Conservatory, where all my relatives, save for my parents lived. Aunts and uncles, cousins and grandmother were all there, and I still wasn't ready to study in NY or Los Angeles. So I applied to just one school for graduate school, was on the wait-list until May 1, and then accepted. (thank-you to whomever turned the school down, allowing a place for me). I arrived at school with a hernia (I tried to pick up a desk with everything in it in Houston, and had to have an operation the day after I landed in Boston). So, for the first 3 weeks, I couldn't play the sax, and was in a lot of pain, the recovery being worse than the injury in those days. All of my new friends told me jokes--to see me both laugh and cry at the same time. But Joe Allard visited me in the Dorm--and he said 'Don't worry, everything will be okay.' And I believed him. Actually, Joe was so wise, with a Yoda ('Star-Wars movie wise man) zen like quality, that I had to believe, and ultimately, after many months, did. Joe was an empath. He felt what I (and all of his students) felt on both a musical and a personal level, as he brought out the best in us. For instance, if I was playing on a reed that was a little too soft, Joe would literally start to choke, as if the reed were closing on him. And of course, if something was wrong, personally, I didn't have to tell him; he already knew!(at least we all felt he knew), and was able to reassure and guide us through it. This was a TEACHER. All of his students (just as his contemporary Marcel Mule (who was 10 years older) played differently from each other; we played like ourselves. And, I believe we all appreciated our teacher.