A Musical Autobiography
When I was young, I had quite a few years of piano lessons, and it surprises me now how little I actually learned from them, but the music bug had not yet bitten me. Still, I had the good fortune to grow up being exposed to a wide variety of quality music from the classical radio that my mother favored; to the abundance of Bach and other Baroque and Renaissance masters featured at our church; to the frequent guest chamber music performances at the Waldorf school I went to along with the live piano music that accompanied Eurythmy classes and all the singing we did through the school day; to the various concerts, Broadway shows and Hollywood musicals that my parents periodically took me to; and the Beatles and other classic 60s rock and roll that formed an exciting soundtrack to the first decade of my life.
So, I was immersed in marvelous music, but I did not as yet give it much thought or conscious attention. That had to wait until my mid-teens when the happy confluence of my father’s comprehensive collection of opera recordings, his annual front row center subscription to the Metropolitan Opera and our living only a few blocks from Lincoln Center led to my being swept up in a passionate love affair with opera. Adding more fuel to this fire was the fact that my best friend, Adam LeGrant, whom I’d gone to school with since kindergarten, was also smitten with opera and much more innately musical than I (his mother is the incomparable Broadway diva, Barbara Cook). Through the rest of high school we seized every opportunity to attend performances at the Met (and New York City Opera) either using tickets my father didn’t want or buying cheap seats and then sneaking down into the orchestra section. We had so much fun joking around discussing the music, dissecting the performances, and reveling in the drama and frequent absurdity of opera.
Of course, my father had taken me to opera performances when I was younger and I’m very grateful to him for having invested the time to prepare me by reading me the librettos in advance but back then I was mostly caught up in the scenery and spectacle and not particularly enamored of all the long-winded singing. The watershed moment came for me when I discovered that if I listened beforehand repeatedly to the music, easily done with all my Dad’s many sets of LPs, then, by means of familiarity with the complex combination of voices and orchestra, an incredible wealth of beauty and emotion was revealed to me. That was my great discovery: while I was not sufficiently musically receptive to enjoy compositions very much at a first hearing, if I would just take the time to listen to them over and over, I could find my way into their secrets and power. Soon I extended this discovery not just to opera but to symphonic music and eventually the whole range of the classical repertoire. My appetite was seemingly insatiable. I am struck with wonder thinking back at all the time and intensity I devoted as a teenager to systematically devouring the various composers and genres I encountered. At the same time, I also became very taken with Broadway musicals and American popular music in general, especially from early in the 20th century. Film scores and the great composers for the screen also became an abiding fascination. In 1978, when I left New York City to attend Skidmore College, I majored in art history and studio art, seemingly a logical focus given my precocious talent for drawing and painting. The world of visual art came easily to me while music, despite my being so swept up in it, was much more challenging and elusive. Nonetheless, I spent a lot of time over at the music department taking every course that was available to me as a non-music major. I have fond memories of an introduction to the symphony, a detailed survey of the life and music of Franz Schubert, a January term intensive on Beethoven’s nine symphonies, a course on the history of opera, and a general history of Western music that I got permission to audit. I am especially grateful to Professor Isabel Williams for the warm and inspired enthusiasm of her teaching. These courses were a huge revelation to me and particularly they sparked my life-long interest in the study of musical form.
Also at college, I started the practice of following scores while listening to recordings and thus letting my eyes aid my ears in following and comprehending the diversity of musical events. At first this was quite a challenge, but with lots of practice I eventually got skilled enough that I could even follow orchestral scores of Mahler symphonies or Strauss tone-poems with all their bewildering variety of instrumental parts and not get lost. Given my considerable proficiency at processing visual information, written music became a great boost to my so-so ear, and I soon started building a library of scores to complement my ever-growing collection of recordings.
After dropping out of college during my junior year because of health problems, I moved back to New York City and for a while shared an apartment with my younger sister, Barbarina, who was intensively studying the piano with an eye to a possible career as a professional musician. During this time, her love of chamber music (she had been to Kinhaven for several summers) and of choral music prompted me to devote greater attention to those areas than I had previously. I also started studying ear training and theory with her music teacher Linda Ferri and later with Linda’s composer and jazz pianist husband, Rom. Even though my mediocre ear was a serious limitation, I found this experience extremely enriching. My sister was also taking voice lessons. At her prompting, I, too, began studying with her teacher, Julia Speratore, and gained a lot more confidence at actually making music, singing not just opera arias for bass, but also Irving Berlin and Cole Porter songs as well Neopolitan favorites.
While giving credit to my sister I should perhaps go back in time and also thank my brother John who exposed me to a great deal of very different but equally wonderful music when we shared a room together before he went off to college three years ahead of me. By his fiat, the radio in our room was continuously tuned to the R’n B and Motown sounds of Harlem station WWRL. I was pleasantly saturated with this funky, soulful music and, for a sheltered and privileged white boy, gained an instructive window into a very different aspect of the New York City experience.
Returning to my early twenties, one particular highlight of those years in the city, aside from regular outings to the opera, was a marathon cycle of all of Beethoven’s symphonies, concertos and overtures with Klaus Tennstedt leading the New York Philharmonic. Though I had traveled all over the world with my parents as a child, this is the time when I made my first few trips to Europe as an adult and had the pleasure of attending opera and ballet with Adam in Italy and Germany. In future years, I would see a good deal of additional opera, both memorably good and bad, elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Austria and France. Strangely, there came a point when I felt like I needed a break from classical music. I devoted my attention instead to a rewarding new study of the rich world of folk music with attention to such luminaries as Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, Paul Robeson, the Carter Family, Doc Watson etc.
In 1985 at the age of 25, I had had my fill of city life and decided to move with a group of friends to Downeast Maine for a short-lived attempt at back to the land homesteading. I soon realized that I was no farmer but was delighted with the Blue Hill Peninsula and within a few years was married and devoting myself to land conservation work with the Blue Hill Heritage Trust. When the local community radio station, WERU, launched in 1988, I ended up doing a program for a year entitled Arcane Chicanery. The focus was on popular music from the first half of the 20th century and it featured genres such as Ragtime, Jazz, Tin-Pan Alley, Broadway, Hollywood musicals, British dance bands, etc. My two-hour show was every Saturday afternoon. Scouring through myriad recordings, I meticulously planned each episode with a theme requiring extensive research and careful scripting.
When I was invited to join the board of the Bagaduce Music Lending Library, I worked on the education committee and helped to plan several lecture series. This led to my own first teaching experience with me mustering the courage to give lectures on Verdi; Beethoven; and the popular song-writing team of DeSylva, Brown and Henderson.
An outstanding musical feature of my early days in Blue Hill was the Left Bank Café with its amazing series of concerts offering the chance to experience live
such talents as Gene Redpath, Tom Paxton, Mike Seeger, Michael Cooney, Odeta, John
Roberts and Tony Barrand; the list goes on and on. What a treat to hear them sing and play in such an intimate setting just a few minute’s drive from my home.
My sister had moved to Maine ahead of me, and at her prompting I had my only two experiences of singing in a chorus, participating in concerts of Mozart’s Mass in C Minor and Brahms’s German Requiem. Well as I already knew these pieces, it was a revelation to discover them actively from the inside and with such a focus on the vocal bass lines.
Each summer, as it still does, the Kneisel Hall Music Festival offered many weeks of world class chamber music. With faithful attendance, supplemented by the winter series of the Blue Hill Concert Association, I had the enviable opportunity to gain a pretty thorough knowledge of the standard chamber music repertoire. At the same time, my subscription to the Bangor Symphony prevented me from neglecting the orchestral masterpieces I had long cherished. For any concert, it was my conscientious practice to prepare thoroughly by listening to recordings, reading whatever information I could find on the pieces, and, if time permitted, studying the scores.
When my son Quinn became old enough for me to begin taking him along to the occasional concert, I started to develop my MusicMap system as a fun way of teaching him about the works in advance and keeping him engaged through the actual performance. Over time I also found my way into giving some private music appreciation lessons – these, too, mostly geared to upcoming concerts. In addition to refining the MusicMaps, I started my practice of carefully annotating and marking up scores so that I could remember all the points I wanted to make and all the insights I had uncovered. I always loved to read about music and had an extensive library of reference books on different composers, genres, and musical eras. I would consolidate all my gleanings from researching through these as well as program notes and recording booklets, by writing them at the appropriate points in the scores. For several years I served as a member of the Blue Hill Concert Association board and helped out by writing some program notes of my own.
A particular love of mine was listening to music appreciation talks and lectures by the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Gerard Schwarz, Peter Schikele, Karl Haas, Geffrey Lependorf, Bill Messenger, and Richard Freedman. However, my greatest enthusiasm was reserved for Robert Greenberg and the large number of his courses produced by The Teaching Company (now The Great Courses). Professor Greenberg’s clear, animated teaching and whacky sense of humor had an enormous influence on my understanding of musical form as well as many other fine points of musical expression. Eventually, I expanded my teaching to a three-week main lesson block of Mozart for my son’s class at the local Waldorf school and also gave a variety of public lectures on opera and chamber music. After years of practice and application, I had taught myself to sit through a concert in a state of intense involvement and concentration – anticipating almost every theme and phrase, conscious of every movement’s architecture and feeling a deep communion with the performers and the composer. My growing desire to teach arose from a wish to share some of what I had gained and discovered with anyone who might be curious and receptive.
More recently, throughout the first decade of the new century I started to roam further afield for musical experiences, enjoying many performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra both at Symphony Hall and at Tanglewood, and making frequent forays back to New York City for opera at the Met and revivals of classic Broadway shows. A particularly noteworthy milestone was experiencing my first Ring Cycle in the spring of ’09 – and with Adam to boot.
Of late, I have been suffering from a mysterious, chronic eyestrain condition that now prevents me from studying scores directly. Frustrating as this is, it has prompted me to learn to listen with greater care and attention. I can now hear, unaided, many of the things that I used to rely on the printed text for. Also, I have had in Patrick Harris the good fortune to find a gifted and patient music secretary with whose assistance I unravel and analyze the pieces I am studying. Thanks to Patrick’s help, I have been able to resume teaching and start offering courses using a classroom in my home in downtown Blue Hill. Patrick has even mastered the art of drawing MusicMaps and with his studying the score and my dictation, we have evolved the new refinement of MusicMap notes to supercede my old score annotations.
A bright beacon illuminating my current musical life is weekly music lessons with my dear friend, Paul Sullivan a superb pianist and composer plus a delightful human being. With his help, I am continually pushing the frontiers of my harmonic understanding while adding to my grasp of other musical subtleties. Paul often contributes insights and explanations that find their way into my teaching materials and he has specially recorded a variety of clever musical illustrations. Finally, thanks to local voice teacher, Sarah Schneider, I find myself happily singing again. After two divorces and a host of chronic health problems, “my head is bloody, but unbowed” and I still face the endlessly fascinating world of music with undiminished excitement.