Tag Archives: Editorial

Two Roads Diverged…

Robert Frost’s famous poem The Road Not Taken begins with the line: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” In the Fall of 2017 I interviewed multi-reed virtuoso Eddie Daniels as part of my Woodwind Legacy Series and that line occurred to me as we were conducting the interview. During the course of our conversation, Eddie said that he initially began studying flute so that he could play the flute parts on a Broadway show (Mame) and on studio recordings. However, as he got more involved with the flute, he realized that “I want more on this instrument.” The more proficient he became on the flute, the greater was his desire to sound like a flutist and not just a competent doubler. He then proceeded to study with great flute artists such as Harold Bennett and Tom Nyfenger. (His achievements on the flute can best be heard on his album, A Flower For All Seasons.)

Eddie’s “I want more” statement touched a nerve within me because it brought into perspective something that I have observed throughout my career—the difference between “part players” and those with loftier artistic goals—the two roads in Frost’s poem. While these two different approaches to music-making might seem worlds apart, I believe most players have moved back and forth between these two paths in their musical lives. Instrumentalists who become very serious about studying their instrument(s) usually begin with high artistic models in mind—to become the Heifetz or Casals of string playing; the Rampal or Galway of flute; the Parker or Coltrane of saxophone; or the Marcellus or DeFranco of clarinet (for Ron Odrich). However, when gigs start to accumulate such as a tenured job, a long-running musical theater show or a tour; health issues arise; or family obligations begin to demand more time, one’s practicing often centers on maintaining the ability to execute the music at hand in order to keep a gig. These situations often stymie an individual’s ability to achieve his/her highest level of musicality and play the music that one most covets. But when one accepts this role on a permanent basis and leaves the artistic ambitions behind or at a standstill, that’s when the “artist player” becomes the “part player.”

Very few individuals have ever lived a life where they didn’t have to become part players for at least a brief time. (Glenn Gould, Jascha Heifetz, Sonny Rollins, Charles McPherson and Chris Potter come to mind as possible exceptions to the rule.) Therefore, it seems to me that the key is to learn how to balance these two approaches during a music career. The woodwind doubler has a particularly difficult journey to navigate because one is constantly in motion between instrumental families and musical styles, even when performing on a regular job. This is no mean task to navigate. I’m still trying to find that path after 45 years in the music business!

Existing as a “part player” is a rather straightforward procedure when the steady job has stabilized. It requires maintaining a daily practice regiment that emphasizes ergonomically sound fundamentals along with instrument maintenance. The “artistic road” requires that same regiment plus a passion for music beyond the “gigmeister” mentality. It may involve ongoing study with inspiring performers/teachers; playing solo recitals; booking gigs with your own band; writing original music; making recordings to document your abilities and progress; attending music concerts and conferences; or simply finding new musical materials and/or approaches that challenge you on a daily basis. It’s a continuing search. I have observed too many fine talents become comfortable with their gig and note-getting approach in lieu of continuing to explore their musical growth.

There have been great artists in various parts of the industry who have floated back and forth between these two varying approaches. Benny Goodman was a hugely successful studio recording artist who even did a Broadway show (Girl Crazy) before embarking on a career as a bandleader and jazz soloist. At the zenith of his career when he dominated the jazz and pop worlds in the 1930s, he began performing “classical” music again on his clarinet. Over the next several decades, he studied with renowned clarinetists Reginald Kell, Augustin Duques, and Daniel Bonade. His desire to achieve the same level of excellence that he did in jazz led Benny to record and perform many of the staples of the clarinet solo & chamber repertoire while inspiring composers like Bela Bartok (Contrasts), Aaron Copland (Concerto), and Morton Gould (Derivations) to write important works for the clarinet. Michael Brecker, the most influential voice on the tenor saxophone over the past 40 years, began the formal study of composition in the 1980s with Edgar Grana while still an enormously successful studio session player and a member of the Brecker Bros. Band. This additional studying resulted in numerous original compositions reflecting many different musical influences on all of Mike’s solo albums for the next 20 years. Michael also continued studying with Joe Allard during this time in order to find the means to a more efficient embouchure and improved resonance in his performance. David Spinozza, one of the most in-demand session guitarists for 40 years who helped define the contemporary sound of the guitar in R&B and Rock, found time in the midst of his career to study classical guitar with Leonid Bolotine and orchestration with Ariadna Mikeshina. He ultimately recorded a solo album of mostly original works (Spinozza) while composing, arranging and/or producing for a multitude of pop artists including James Taylor, Yoko Ono, Melissa Manchester, David Sanborn, Garland Jeffreys, etc. Eddie Daniels, himself, put the saxophone and flute on the back burner and made the courageous and ultimately successful leap from studio musician to become a solo artist focusing on clarinet in both jazz and classical environments in the early 1980s. Frank Wess established himself as a major jazz artist during his years with the Count Basie Orchestra—both as a saxophonist, flutist and arranger. When Frank ultimately settled in New York after coming off the road, he played all types of gigs including Broadway shows and studio work while still working with the top jazz improvisers in the industry. There were never any musical barriers for him and he was beloved by musicians in all facets of the music industry. And he never stopped studying the flute and seeking to improve.(He often carried the complete version of Taffanel/Gaubert with him.) Toward the end of his life Frank played a recital at my university when he was virtually blind. He was so proud and enamored of his new gold Powell flute and allowed me to try it. He defined what an artist for life is. All of these major players found it necessary to expand their musical horizons and individual voices during their very busy careers, which included being “part players” and sidemen.

Now, I’m aware that many players are perfectly happy maintaining the requisite musical ability to succeed at gigs and do not feel that they need to push beyond that level. That’s fine for them—not everyone is driven in the same way. However, I’ve always felt that we (the musicians) have an obligation to advance our art form. For those who feel similarly, continued development of one’s musical soul requires passion, desire, discipline and an awareness of our progress on a daily basis. The end result is well worth it for it produces a better part player AND a more advanced artistic self. Two roads can converge.

Subbing: The Hardest Job in the Music Industry

During the course of a music-performing career, one encounters a variety of jobs that vary in their musical orientation and degree of difficulty. The expectation of performing at a high level on any gig is often enough to cause stress in any musician’s life. However, nothing compares to the stress, anxiety, and nervousness that a concerned, sensitive musician experiences when subbing for a colleague on a job. Whether in a musical theater show, orchestral concert, chamber ensemble performance, cover band gig, recording date, rehearsal, or any other type of musical engagement, the position of the sub is unenviable. I consider it the hardest job in the music industry. Continue reading 

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.” Continue reading 

Larry Abel—A Musical Mensch!

On December 27, 2016, the music industry lost one its great artists and most ardent supporters, Larry Abel. Larry was 83 when he passed and is survived by his wife Shelley, sons Curtis & Steven, grandchildren Hudson and Chloe-Kate, and sister Sally. Larry was more than just my friend: he was a symbol of what was good about the music industry and humanity. From the first moment that I met him, I felt that I had met a friend and found someone who cared about music as much as anyone I had ever encountered and demanded that every job be treated with great respect and dignity.

I met Larry Abel in 1995 during the early stages of the Broadway production of Victor Victoria. I had been hired by a well-known Broadway contractor for the first time and was to play the lead reed book. Since this was the first time in many years that big Hollywood money was being invested in a Broadway show and because Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews were directly involved in the production, everyone was quite nervous. There were several additional important industry people involved with the production including Henry Mancini, Leslie Bricusse, Frank Wildhorn, Ian Fraser, Rob Marshall and the great Billy Byers. Continue reading 

Instrumental Performing Careers

I recently retired as a professor of music from a NJ state university after 24 years. This ended a 30-year career of institutional teaching that spanned 4th grade through graduate school. Having also been a full-time musician for the past 40 years while completing two Masters degrees and a DMA in music, I have a somewhat unique perspective of having lived inside the music industry as a performer, student and teacher simultaneously. While this blog post might be considered by some as biting the hand that once fed me and a means to vent frustration at a failing and out-of-touch educational system, I hope it will be taken as an honest look at the state of today’s music industry and a prescription for music programs to change in order to help aspiring instrumental music students prepare for the real world.Continue reading 

Al Block—One of the Good Guys

On August 15, 2015 we lost Al Block, one of the wonderful woodwind doublers of the twentieth century who was 89 years old when he succumbed to pneumonia. Al had a distinguished career having played with the Sauter-Finegan Band, Benny Goodman, Boyd Raeburn, Artie Shaw, Raymond Scott, among many other big bands. He also participated in several legendary recordings including the Miles Davis/Gil Evans Sketches of Spain and Charlie Parker and Voices; played in numerous Broadway shows including the original productions of West Side Story, Gypsy, Cabaret, Sweet Charity, La Cage Aux Folles, etc; and was regarded as one of the better flute doublers of his generation. Al’s career was a successful one but not radically different from many of his New York colleagues who came along during the last great heyday of the music and recording industry in the 1950s/1960s.Continue reading 

Repairmen—Past & Present

Every professional musician owes part of their success to the talents of their repair technicians. The need to have one’s instrument in top performing shape for any job is self-evident but finding the right repairman is akin to finding the right medical doctor. It is more than just their abilities we seek; it’s also their understanding, creativity, flexibility and support that we need. One never knows when a pad or spring will break down at the 11th hour, a support post gets bent, reeds stop sealing on the mouthpiece, or the instrument has been jostled in the carrying case and suddenly doesn’t work as well. THAT’S WHEN WE REALLY NEED OUR REPAIRMEN!

There have always been many capable technicians available but in my career, I’ve experienced a few who went beyond that category who were also ARTISTS and enjoyed sharing their time, knowledge and experience with their customers. They were always there in case of a last minute emergency in addition to their regular appointments. Here are a few who made my life better, in alphabetical order.Continue reading