“It is the whole of your experience that will give your art its dimension.”
When I was in kindergarten, my family moved from a small town outside of Rochester, NY to another small town in the northern most region of the Poconos, a tiny Pennsylvania borough of about 5000 people. There are, to this day, more deer than people in that county. Exposure to anything other than small town life required mobility- NYC was 2.5 hours away, so yes, I knew what an elevator was, heard live orchestras in performance, saw Broadway shows, etc. But on a smaller scale, seeing a movie meant a 50 minute drive to Scranton. I was lucky to have mobility and a family devoted to exposing me to the world outside a 10 mile radius. I will never forget overhearing an elderly couple in the waiting room of the doctor’s office- they had just learned that they had to go to Scranton for some tests. The prospect of that journey clearly frightened them and their speculation about what a difficult day it would be amused me, until my mother patiently explained that there were people all around who had never travelled more than 30 miles from home in an entire lifetime, and remembered a time, decades earlier, when leaving home required a great deal of planning and could be quite challenging.
This little town had two stoplights- one at each end of town. I did not realize it at the time, but these became highly symbolic in my young life. They were gateways to a wider world- getting past them, even a short distance, meant an escape from the goldfish bowl life of a preacher’s kid in a small town, and new experiences. Leaving town was exhilarating, coming back and seeing the symbolic gateways was always a mixed set of emotions at best- sure, the world of family and home was of great comfort, but as I grew into a teenager, a deep rooted case of wanderlust and rebellion emerged and the sooner I could blow those lights and get out of town, the better.
Flash forward to adult me. When I finally decided to settle and buy a home, start a family, and all of that, I landed in a small town of about 5000 people, with, you guessed it, stoplights at each end of town. I’ve lived here for over eight years now, and only recently did I start to think about what the stoplights mean. After long days of work, they are a comfort to see when I return. Moreover, after long trips and all they entail- airports, lack of sleep, missing creature comforts, missing family, the light at the edge of my town has become a beacon of hope for a weary traveller running low on wanderlust. Sometimes, as I am about to depart for a day or more, I am tempted to turn around at the light and head home. The big bad real world can go on without me, I’m going to go take a nap with my cats. What was once a feeling of being penned in is now a feeling of idyllic comfort.
What does this have to do with making a record? Well, recently I ventured out of my little world to guest masterclasses and recitals at Alma and Albion Colleges. As a “teaching artist” (still not sure what to think of that over-hyped term, but that’s another essay) I care deeply about performing as much as possible. It’s one thing to sit in a windowless room all day long telling people how to do this, it’s quite another to get out and do it on a high level as much as possible. No, I don’t keep the unbelievable pace of some of my friends in the business – the ones who live on airplanes, play concertos and recitals here, there and beyond- but I do what I can to keep my chops in working order so that the “artist” part of that title does not atrophy. I get better as a teacher every time I set foot on a stage, no matter how big or small.
Live performances are also the best way to prepare for recording. Think of it as a play workshop, off- and sometimes way, way, off Broadway. It’s a chance to learn from your mistakes, find all the holes in your preparation, and above all, learn what it feels like to perform pieces when all elements of control are taken away. In this case, it was a chance to try out some musical ideas and test my limits to see just how prepared I will be to record a couple more pieces in early January.
So on the recent venture, the mundane challenges of travel- blinding whiteout snow, anxiety about finding the hotel in the pitch dark of a small town, finding something to eat (another essay right there), remembering to stop enough times so my legs do not cramp in painful and awful ways, oh, and did I pack my allergy medication? I checked my bag for my music at least 10 times, but maybe I still missed something- should I stop and check? In the midst of all that and more, I also had to keep my intense level of musical thoughts running and organized- did I practice enough? Am I really, truly ready to nail those technical measures in the Rorem? (I was not) Have I really given myself enough time to make that color change in the Gaubert sink in so it will simply fall out of the flute without effort? Doubt, of course, creeps in- no, I did not stick to my technical routines according to plan, my practice was sporadic on some days, and so on. Did I mention that we discovered that hall #1 of the trip was barely 60 degrees, a wind player’s nightmare? Show must go on. Get out there, dude, and do your best.
So I learned a lot, all very useful for the next phase of preparation. Boring stuff, in truth. But I also had a soul-crushing epiphany that I’m still wrestling with, trying to decide if it’s ultimately useful to the finished product or not.
The first day out, in our first rehearsal, my wonderful piano collaborator and I were chatting between pieces, and as musicians do, we were talking about people we knew in common. The name of a younger high school classmate popped up, and with it, the image of a yellow post it note that suddenly loomed large in my memory- it read “Thank you for being ______’s friend” and was attached to a small bag of home made cookies that appeared in my dorm mailbox, a touching gift from his parents. Yes, this was an extremely brilliant but socially challenged young man, and yes, I suppose I tried to be kind to him- on some level we were kindred spirits- but what made the bottom drop out was the next memory- me, showing that note to my other friends, mocking the poor soul- and what’s worse, I know that I stuck it up over my dorm room desk not out of pride, but out of some sort of twisted teen irony.
Wow, I’m a shitty person. All thoughts of playing E-flat 4 perfectly in tune with a soaring sound and other mundane musical ideas suddenly fell away, and I was left with the raw meat on the floor, as it were. And this singular thought stayed in my head and twisted and compounded as I thought about raising two sons to be good people, and how do I teach them to navigate the cruelty that I believe exists in each one of us and survive to be strong adults. The lump in my chest grew bigger and heavier by the minute.
Flash forward to later in the day- sitting quietly in my hotel room, it dawned on me that now I know why I picked Ned Rorem’s Four Prayers for performance and recording. I need a way to channel that overwhelming feeling that often sits deep in my heart, an outlet that may give me a tiny little bit of peace or else I will drive myself to unhealthy levels of despair- and yes, give up so much on the world that I never leave my little bubble of comfort between two traffic lights.