It’s Not Like Riding A Bike

When I began to study music, it was much like other baby boomers—piano lessons during grade school years. Eventually, I chose clarinet, then saxophone, and finally flute as my principal instruments. During the course of studies that I embarked upon, I always worked privately with a variety of excellent teachers. Some of these mentors were associated with the schools that I attended, but most were individuals whose playing I admired and sought out to study with on a private basis. These studies occurred not only while I was a student, but also after I had finished my formal schooling and was working as a full-time player; while I was a professor at a university; and continue presently. In other words, I have never stopped studying. I have always found the help of an accomplished teacher to be inspiring while elevating my performance abilities and understanding of different musical genres. Throughout my years of study, the singular motivation was to improve, to learn more. I never picked a teacher because I thought he or she might “connect” me in the industry. Perhaps I was naïve, but that was the approach that felt right for me. It was verified for me during my college years when one of my woodwind heroes—Phil Woods—told me backstage after one of his performances, “If you’re good enough, they’ll (industry people) find you.”

I bring this topic up because I’ve noticed with increasing alarm how few of the young woodwind players and doublers are actually studying any of their instruments these days on a regular basis after graduation. By studying, I mean taking regular lessons every week or every other week, adhering to some kind of a schedule, for an extended period. That type of study requires one to prepare carefully for a performance in front of an expert within a specific time frame—that of the next lesson. It forces the individual to focus in a very specific way that cannot be duplicated in any other way. When one stops this type of approach to musical study for any long length of time, something is lost. It’s not like riding a bike.

The prevailing attitude that I’ve noticed in New York, and that colleagues of mine throughout the country have corroborated as well, is that a majority of young woodwind players, and particularly woodwind doublers, now feel ready to work once they’ve completed their degrees and that continuing private studies is not essential. When they do seek help or advice from a teacher, it is often a single lesson once or twice a year. That type of scenario is known as a “checkup” and not the type of concentrated work that I’m referring to. Those “one and done” lessons are the kind that accomplished, experienced professionals benefit the most from when they’re looking to tweak a performance or remedy some technical or mechanical aspect of their playing. Therefore, it is even harder to comprehend why young woodwind multi-instrumentalists would discontinue private studies at such a crucial point in their prospective careers. The majority of jobs that are typically available for all woodwind doublers these days center around musical theater work, and young doublers out of college may be capable of handling that work. That does not negate the fact that there are other genres of music in which to perform, and there is a great deal more to learn about music, performance, and our instruments after college. Having a job does not mean that one has finished studying. A terminal degree in a discipline such as music is irrelevant as an indication of one’s musical voice and sophistication once the downbeat is given.

Today’s musical theater jobs no longer require one to be a great sight-reader since the music is generally available prior to the first rehearsal. This also allows one to figure out the styles and appropriate equipment necessary to be successful on any given show. Even subbing on musical theater productions has been made more accessible today. A sub is required to attend at least one performance while viewing the music in the pit; study the “book” (music) and the show’s audio at home; and even practice with a video of the conductor leading a performance on one’s computer. In other words, one needs to be a capable player with a good work ethic and able to regurgitate the performance of the regular player to be a successful sub for show work. This stands in total contrast to the demands that doublers encountered throughout much of the last century and that any professional musician should be able to execute.

The most prestigious and often best paying jobs for doublers in the 20th century were in the Hollywood studios, staff work for the major network media outlets, playing with name bands, and freelance recordings. For those jobs, one needed to be an excellent sight-reader; have a great understanding of musical styles and be able to demonstrate them convincingly; play with excellent pitch; display an excellent sense of rhythmic feel; and be able to handle the pressure of frequently playing with the tape rolling—all without the existence of Pro Tools software. The job requirements often changed daily and from session to session. You either had the ability or you did not.

Theater work at that time was considered roughly on a par with hotel band and club date jobs—ones that provided steady incomes but did not necessarily attract the highest-level players. (There were always exceptions to this and I have met a number of players in these areas of the industry throughout my career who were fine improvisers, knew thousands of tunes, and could create any harmony part to the melodies of these tunes in a millisecond.) Typically, these jobs were considered entry-level work for young players or for those at the end of their careers. Woodwind doublers could gain experience doing these jobs while continuing to study, all with the hope of elevating their abilities in order to be considered for the more prestigious work. However, by the millennium, most of the best work had disappeared as a steady source of income for all musicians while musical theater orchestras survived.

So then why is it still necessary for a woodwind doubler to continue to study one’s instruments beyond the university if the majority of the work available to them nowadays is within their capabilities? Perhaps the answer can be gleaned by looking back at the doublers of the 1950s/1960s/1970s. The woodwind doublers who were most successful during that period always seemed to be studying one or more instruments with a renowned teacher. Some even studied composition, arranging and/or piano. While it is true that many did not attend universities or conservatories, their desire to improve was never in question. (Perhaps because they did not have as much formal schooling as today’s doublers, they were more driven to study.) Studying with a master of a particular instrument was considered a normal occurrence for the most successful 30/40/50-year-old doubler during those years. It added to the sense of pride that they had in their abilities and that they exhibited in all facets of life. My observation as a young player was that being an excellent doubling musician was an enviable profession, one that was manifested by the players themselves.

Even though the musical industry circumstances have changed dramatically as stated above, there is another reason for studying one’s instrument(s)—the single most important reason for playing music as well as the reason for this article. And that speaks to the feeling, the excitement that discovering more about music can offer.

Yes, one must continue to practice and explore music independently. Discovering musical nuance and information by oneself is very satisfying and essential. Attending concerts, industry conferences, listening to recordings, creating projects, and learning on the job are extremely necessary. But there is a different feeling and satisfaction that comes while working with another individual while uncovering musical knowledge and growing instrumentally that is equally important. Learning occurs in many forms and all must be maintained.

The beauty of music is that it is an endless field of study. When I was in my senior year during undergraduate studies, 88-year-old pianist Eubie Blake gave a two-hour solo recital at my school that was astounding for its technical and musical brilliance. I remember seeing 85-year-old alto saxophonist Benny Carter perform at an outdoors Charlie Parker Festival in lower Manhattan. It was in the heat of August and he was dressed in a suit and tie while playing with tremendous beauty and sounding as fresh as someone half his age. In 2011, 81-year-old Stanley Drucker gave a sensational 90-minute recital on a concert series that I produced at the university where I was teaching. His concert included some of the most demanding contemporary repertoire for the clarinet, executed effortlessly and without an intermission! All of these masters continued to explore and grow musically throughout their careers while remaining perpetual students of their craft, proving that one is never too old to learn. Then why is it today that so few continue to do so once they start working steadily? If one truly loves music, that’s not possible. I understand the need to be desirous of work and the need to have a job. But when does one attempt to reclaim that special feeling that is felt when you are first beginning to play and study music? When one loves living the role of a Gigmeister at the exclusion of really having fun by learning more and improving one’s musical expression, then they have lost something unique that music can provide—a part of their artistic sensibility. And that’s too valuable to lose. It’s not like riding a bike!

One thought on “It’s Not Like Riding A Bike

  1. Pingback: Favorite blog posts, July 2017 | Bret Pimentel, woodwinds

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