(From a letter to two bassoonists on the challenges of the artistic path.)
Well, first off I am surprised to find myself here and asked to discuss music and life though I am not sure that my commentary would be relevant to your worlds and/or experiences.
Let me start by saying how utterly impressed I am with both of your careers and playing -- how you both in your individual ways have advanced the all-important world of bassoon playing. Truly, in such company I understand the phrase "I am not worthy" . Also, I need to immediately fess up with an outright confession. I am an ex-bassoonist at best. Haven't played my Heckel since 1976 (don't worry, I did sell it to a student - lest it dried out from lack of playing.). Nor did I ever intend to be a professional player. Nor have I been a professional musician (meaning not even trying to make a living at such endeavors for the past twenty years or so). Plus my tales and trials of my professional life in music are so different and offbeat from the ordinary course that I wonder if my contribution to this dialogue might be equally spurious. Add to that a tendency to overwrite (as sampled here) plus the urge for platitudinous soliloquies and one may get the idea.
Still, the very notion of bassoonists meditating on their music and careers in search of that elusive ecstatic experience of pure music is captivating. For if pushed deeply enough, I discover that indeed I am still a bassoonist first - an identity forged in junior high school, when I was eleven years old and handed this ungainly bundle of wood - and like all newly minted double reed players finding oneself in an orchestra the very next week, a conductor looking askance commanding the wide-eyed neophyte to "play". Thus, my entry into music, into the realm of ecstatic experience, was as a bassoonist. So no matter how far I travel afield I always must come back to that initial and formative identity.
So it seems that one of the questions on the table is balancing our love of music with the exigencies of life, money, family, etc and yet still feeling the satisfaction of our artistic expression at its best. If I may add anything to this discussion is the pluses and minuses of stepping off - or at least partly off - the professional music track - what are the freedoms, what are the losses, the surprising discoveries. It's not that I would counsel any musician to leave their precious musical world. But perhaps my experience may help widen how one looks at what is possible - how greater options might be available than we imagine.
I realize this runs counter to the popular position (from “The Secret” to Oprah) “to follow one's dream” and achieve your goals. It's a topic I have thought – and even lectured – about: How at times our dreams and goals can actually block us from discovering who we truly are or could become.
But before I get too meta-philosophical - let me specific about what your next step thoughts. I am on the Board of Trustees at a college in California. It is a very unique and hands on place, so I have some ideas of what is going on in college hiring. Full-time jobs on college faculties are scarce. The good news though is that your skill set, I think, actually improves your chances. Not as a bassoon teacher per se, but as an all-around utility player, especially if you have some keyboard chops as well. The problem is that unless you have an MFA, there is little chance to land a position, except as a part-time adjunct. (Why a degree is relevant to teaching music is off-putting to me, but it is part of today's reality.) And even with a full-fledged Ph.D., schools are laying off in droves right now. The other issue is where you may end up. The good jobs near urban centers are very competitive. The opportunities that do exist are out there – somewhere – meaning far, far away. The challenge is once far away from a densely populated area - where do you play, where do you find the musical colleagues and audiences who will get your unique gifts? It may become harder to satisfy the cravings for the best musical experiences.
So how can to you expand what is possible? Expand the ideas of who you are. A bassoonist and wind player? Yes - but when I watched your videos I saw/heard an extremely cool musician with a wild set of experiences and skills. That is a far more interesting identity. I would start selling that. I might think about approaching a private high school. Private schools are far more flexible in credentialing and hiring practices. And a high school age group could be really interesting to work with and honestly you would offer them a great deal of value. The other thing is that private schools might let you fill in and teach other courses and activities. Also, a lot more flexibility in where you may end up geographically. And salaries at these schools can end up being competitive.
And while thinking of teaching – why not organize your own school – a school of really cool music. A place dedicated to where music is going. Much like Berkeley in Boston once was. Responding to the reality that a great jazz education meets a real need. But today those needs have changed again. I mean where can you learn circular breathing – I'd kill to figure out how to pull off that trick effectively. Imagine being exposed to standard classical and jazz, electro-acoustic techniques, world-music techniques and mindsets all in one place- or from one very cool cat teacher. In New York, I meet kids off the street who are virtuoso keyboard players. They have never heard a lick of classical music. Have no clue about Chopin or Beethoven and thus their techniques have nothing to do with classical – but it's very real and impressive in a completely different way. I've even begun to hear stories about the next generation performers on the scene who are playing live concerts by typing and manipulating software code in real-time. I mean that's off the charts. Even my partner and I are now working with the newest technology that closes the latency times so that we can practice and perform in real-time over the Internet. (Nice trick – but not the impact, vibe and spirit of real live performance and audience. I thought so too, until I was approached by grad students of artificial intelligence at Carnegie Mellon who are studying the neural activities of us humans – both performers and audience – to create the effect of true live performance through the Net.)
I mean, it's all mind blowing. And the Net Gen musicians need the wise mentors to lead them there.
And while we are dreaming... You are clearly a great communicator – well beyond just music - written, verbal and text. If you came back to a major urban scene, what about a commercial music house specializing in the really offbeat. The commercial audience ear is ready for any sounds. Perhaps you help organize friends to create a niche commercial music house. And the Net makes the world your market and audience. Of course, that takes learning as much about the business of music as it does performance. But once you have checked out the commercial music scene, why not move on to producing the entire commercials. That is what I did. After a while I realized trying to succeed at writing music to fit someone else's agenda was not my thing, but I did realize that in multimedia the real creativity and money was higher up the food chain – writing and producing. And when it comes to commercial text writing ad producing, none of it chafes against my personal musical integrity or tastes. It's still part of what I do today.
Next... what about your English skills in Tokyo. Yes, Cirque is a mega corporate entity. But I bet there are opportunities there – not in the performance aspect directly. But it might be interesting to see the Cirque corporation not as an employer but as your next collaborator, partner, or even sub-contractor. OK, it means hanging out with the “suits” and occasionally even becoming one. The times I played with a Broadway bound pit orchestra, I took as the opportunity to meet, consort and collaborate with the producers, writers and directors of the project. Recently I met a famous superstar of the early electronica music scene of the 70s and 80s. Today he is a super professional businessman, sophisticated and savvy in money and budgets – and at this point in his growth, it would be hard to peg or identify him as a musician.
And I guess that is what I am getting at. The limits of how we identify ourselves. Breaking down the self-imposed identity as a musician has been at times very difficult and even painful. But more realistically I also see how much those very dreams limited me – blocked me from so many other experiences.
Yet I do have time to practice – these days I spend hours every week on my EWI learning the Bach solo wind repertoire – imposing and perfecting the subtlety of classic performance and expression on the sterile digital circuitry. (My earliest identity emerges in my ongoing “goal” to replicate a completely convincing bassoon – with all its reedy overtones, awkward intonations, and artifacts with the “goal” to perform the Mozart B-flat concerto.) And though I perform a lot less these days, it is always as a solo recital – playing everything from Bach to Marcello (those old bassoon sonatas), to free-form improvisations, improvs on medieval music, all the way up to Pictures at an Exhibition – talk about ecstatic experiences. And when I compose (my chief musical identity) it's solely to my taste and inspiration. (The Konzerto for Karen is a case in point.)
And yes, I still occasionally look back – especially when my other worlds get stressful – that maybe I simply “failed” as a musician and wonder how nice it would be to be “just a musician” again. But the upside of this journey is this: Whenever a new acquaintance asks, “Are you a scientist, physician, journalist, producer, lawyer, professor, security expert, banker..." I get to say... “No, I am 'just a musician.'”
So I don't know if this is of any help or what. But it was fun to think about and consider. Thanks for the opportunity. Let's see what transpires next.