August 10, 2014

Things about my doctoral years that now make me chuckle

Ironically, for my Doctor of Music studies I returned to my hometown of Evanston Illinois and the School of Music at Northwestern University. It didn't really feel like a "homecoming" since during my boyhood years I seldom went to the part of town where the campus is. It was pure coincidence, born of my wishing to study with a particular piano instructor who had been recommended.

I was in residence at Northwestern from 1977-1979, finally earning the degree in the mid-80's. As I write this post, I've just returned from a few days in Chicago, my first visit in some two dozen years. Being in my old stomping grounds has stirred up a wealth of memries, including some that strike me so odd/amusing that I think you might enjoy them as well. Here are the moments that have stayed etched in my mind as the decades have rolled on.
Famous keyboard composer?

The chairman of my doctoral committee was a young pianist named Robert Weirich, who specialized in playing contemporary music. That is to say, extremely contemporary, preferably written in the last 20 minutes if possible. One day he and I were walking together towards the library; Bob was carrying an armful of shiny new avant-garde piano scores. I noticed that the one on top bore the title "Woof". I don't know who the composer was.

"You know, Bob," I said speculatively, "here's what you could do. I think you should master this piece and become famous for it. Make it your signature piano work. Then at your concerts, the crowds would ask for it as an encore. You know how at Horowitz concerts everyone would shout "STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER" hoping he'd play his transcription of it? At your concerts hundreds of adults would go "WOOF! WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF!!!"  I've lost touch with him, but can't help but suspect he didn't follow through on this...

As a newlywed, I not only had to practice and study, I had to bring home the rent money. So I toiled at a Burger King across the street from the music building. One day a celebrity came in to eat, none other than the comic actor Paul Lynde, famous for being the center square on the "Hollywood Squares" game show plus a recurring role on the sitcom "Bewitched" and a role in the film version of "Bye Bye Birdie". He was all smiles and quips as he sauntered up to the counter to order his fish sandwich. (He was in town as an NU alum to be Grand Marshall of the homecoming parade.)

I happened to notice a tall, lanky African-American man leaning against the wall near the entrance with an expression like a thundercloud. He was not a happy man. "Whassamatter, man," I wondered, "did we forget to hold the onions?" The next day there were headlines in the Tribune and Sun-Times. The unhappy man was a distinguished faculty member and Paul Lynde, undoubtedly not 100% sober, had loudly hurled a racial slur at him, an incident I'd missed. Whoops....

I took a class in 18th-century performance practices with a renowned harpsichordist named Dorothy Lane. If you don't know, this is a class in which the accumulated global knowledge of how Baroque music should sound is revealed; proper execution of ornaments and the like. For reasons never clear to me, all we did - all we were held responsible for - was to memorize the line of succession to the English throne through the centures. Word. NOTE: at no point in my life have I been capable of reciting this information, even if a gun were at my head. When it came to Baroque style, Ms. Lane said, "Trust your ears. If it sounds right to you, it probably is."  ....................gee thanks.

My piano instructor was an urbane, fussy, slightly eccentric man named Donald Isaak. I loved working with Mr. Isaak, but he had some definite quirks. He was perpetually concerned to the point of obsession with one's health. Any time our paths crossed around the Music Department, he would stop and approach me as one might approach a grieving mourner. With concern in his eyes and his brow creased, he would ask me in hushed tones. "How ARE you???? Are you okay? Do you feel all right?" I was a pretty healthy specimen in those days, so I never knew why the hell he was asking. "Uh........... yeah, I'm fine, thanks", I would mumble in reply, thinking "WHAT? Am I BLEEDING FROM THE EARS??? Is my skin GREEN??? WHAT, for God's sake???"

Mr. Isaak could be so odd. He had four doctoral students in his studio: myself, Mary Stubbs, Jamie Hagedorn and James Martin. We would all meet weekly to play for one another in his studio. At one such group performance class Isaak was planning a dinner at his home for us, and he went around the room polling us as to our beverage choices. "Jame: do you like red wine, white wine or beer? Uh-huh, good, good. James, how about you?", and so on. When we'd all voiced our preferences, I began to play the material I was working on: a very strenuous and virtuosic set of the Etudes-tableaux by Rachmaninoff. These took probably 25 minutes to perform. As I played the final, elephantine, crashing sonorities of Op. 39, No. 9 in D major, I was perspiring heavily, breathing hard, red in the face. And TWO SECONDS after I'd finished; no really, literally TWO SECONDS LATER, I hear Mr. Isaak's calm, conversational voice saying "And your wife, Glenn? Does she like red, white, or beer? Or maybe a soda for her?" It was as though there had been no musical interruption at all....

Bach: HE'S dead, not so much his music...
I also had the opportunity to play in several master classes with the great American pianist John Browning, a part-time faculty member who came three times a year to work with piano students but only in master class formats. My first term at Northwestern Mr. Isaak said he wanted me to play in the upcoming Browning class. Since I'd not had time to work up new repertoire, we agreed I'd just play one of my audition pieces, the Partita in C Minor by Bach. I had a couple of brush-up lessons on it with Isaak prior to the master class with the Famous Virtuoso.

Now, the opening "Sinfonia" of the partita features a lengthy and expressive section with lovely flowing lines. I originally studied this work with the pianist Jorge Bolet, who had played it for Rudolf Serkin at the Curtis Institute. Bolet had given me Serkin's highly detailed phrasings for this section, markings which lent it a graceful, dancelike affect. When I played it for Mr. Isaak, he didn't like it. "Oh, you're playing that New York style of Bach", he opined, "I think we should do something different. Try playing it completely legato, with no dynamics or phrasing whatsoever. It should sound like you're sleep-walking." "What the HELL?" I thought, but said nothing. I played it as he asked, which made me sound like I was on Valium or possibly total anesthesia. "Like that?" I asked uncertainly. "YES!" he crowed, "I LOVE it!!" Well, I didn't, but I was going into financial debt to learn from him, so at the Browning class I played the Valium-Bach on those two pages, reverting to my accustomed styled for the rest of the partitia.

When I'd finished, Mr. Browning slowly climbed up onto the stage. He had a puzzled expression and paced around for a few moments before speaking, as if collecting his thoughts. Finally, he approached me and said something like this: "Look, you're very talented, and technically it's excellent, and I like a lot of it, but ....I didn't get the Sinfonia at all. It sounded......... dead. Look," he went on, "I'm going to put you on the spot. I want you to play the Sinfonia again, and just play it differently. I don't care what you do or how it sounds, just come up with a completely new interpretation right now. Make it up as you go along, okay? And.... GO!"  Well, kiddies, I'm not sure what he was expecting, but Your Humble Blogger launched into a delightful and authoritative interpretation courtesy of the immortal pianist Rudolf Serkin. Browning was ASTONISHED, I tell  you, at my "improvisatory genius". Heh heh heh.....

7. When practicing the piano turns very very very awkward.
The old Music Building at NU was a converted women's dormitory and the practice rooms were suites; that is to say, there was one entrance for a pair of rooms. To get to the room at the back you had to traipse through the front room, meaning that whoever was practicing in that room had to put up with a constant parade of students going in and out to see if the back room was available. There was one piano grad student named Jane something. I often found myself in the adjoining room of whichever suite she was practicing in.

Jane had a bad habit: as she played, she would moan with the music in a constant sound that rose and fell along with the dynamics and shapes of the music. "ooooooOOOOOOOOooooooooOOOOOOOOO" and so on. It sounded distinctly erotic, not to say openly sexual. It was like listening to a woman experiencing perpetual orgasm, I'm not kidding. I don't know if Jane was aware of her vocalizing and it's not exactly the kind of thing you up and ask a stranger about, if you know what I mean. A gentleman doesn't. To say it was a.w.k.w.a.r.d is a great understatement. I mean, how was I supposed to work on Prokofiev with THAT going on??! Prokofiev requires mental clarity and focus; that went out the window when ol' Jane started her groans of passion. I only hope she eventually acquired a partner who could provide an appropriate.....................   outlet...................

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