Nadia Boulanger, on the importance of music

March 24, 2011

(Juliette) Nadia Boulanger (16 September 1887 – 22 October 1979) was a French composer, conductor and teacher who taught many composers and performers of the 20th century.Boulanger taught in the U.S. and in England, working with music academies including the Juilliard School, the Yehudi Menuhin School, the Royal College of Music and theRoyal Academy of Music, but her principal base for most of her life was her family’s flat in Paris, where she taught for most of the seven decades from the start of her career until her death at the age of 92.

Many years ago, while a student at The New England Conservatory of music n Boston, I receiveed a phone call from Daniel Pinkham, who was a professsor teaching Music Literature at the Conservatory.

(Daniel Pinkham(1923-2006), He asked me to come to tea at the home of Winifred Johnstone, who lived in Back Bay, in Boston.

(Winifred later became a friend for many years) She asked me if I had ever heard of Fonainebleau, in France, where there was a summer academy for Art, Architecture and Music. Fontaineblea was a small town near Paris, where the school was located. It was housed in the Chateau de Fontainebleau, dating from the Reign of Francis the first. It was a beautiful castle spread over several acres, richly flowered ad gardened, with mazes, peacocks, a great tourist attraction, and home of the Ecoles d’art Americaines .

So much for the tea. Several days following I received a letter offering me a full scholarship at theMusic School in Fontanebleau, the Dean of which was Nadia Boulanger.

Several days following that letter, I received a call from the Treasurers of at the Conservatory informing me of a secret donor who would provide travel expenses , covering airfare.

I learned later, that Rosario Mazzeo, inventor of the Mazzeo System Clarinet, had provided this secret donation. He later informd me that it would be a good idea to enter the Geneva Compettion, which included clarinet in that year. Of course, the reason being that if I won the competition, it would provide needed publicity for his clarinet, my instrument.

This was to be my first trip to Europe. and my first meeting with Nadia Boulanger,  Her most famous student was Aaron Copland, but she was also a mentor to many composers of note. While there were some who called her, “the Hitler of the American Amateurs”, there were a great majority of those who revered her, I being one of many.

I did enter and participate i the Genva Concours. I played th most difficult Concerto, by Eugene Bozza, ( a kind of cheap Jacques Ibert).played it very well, and was eleminated in the first round.

But the most valuable prize of that summer was and remains Fontainebleau: concerts played, relationships formed, the rich history of France and Europe , Paris, Van Doren , Selmer, and Nadia Boulanger.(in reverse order)

She took a liking to me and we remained frineds andcolleagues until her death. She wrote letters of recommendation for me and corresponded with me about my marriage, my children for several years. Truly a great lady.(it is said that she could hear and write nine(9)  separate voices at he same time). That is certainly true. A famous story, originating in her classes in Paris, concerns one of her well known exercises in doing several musical chores simultaneously. One of the students, incredulous, said, “it can not be done” She answered by doing what she had asked immediately, and answered the student:“young man, when you have achieved your discipline, you may question mine.”

There were frequent concerts in the Jeu de Paume, and indoor tennis court within the Palace that was the concert hall. It was said that the reverberation was so  that you could hear an entire concert after it was played ….from the echo..

I played in every concert I could. After each concert there was usually a social event taking place in Boulanger’s apartment for the participants of the concert and othes. There was wine and cheese, the usual party .

And now we come to the subject for this posting. Following one of the chamber music concerts, I asked Mlle Boulanger,”how one could justify teaching clarinet students at this time?”She loooked at me and responded, “one must choose music, or wish to die without music.”

These words may sound harsh, however the desire to do music, to be in music, must be the main impetus. If you want it enough, you will find success and achievement.

But you must always keep practicing. You will find your place.

Stay well, sherman


Get an MA, a PHD, an Artist Diploma. What about employment?

March 9, 2011

Currently the outlook for the aspiring musician and clarinetist is only somewhat similar to than 60 years ago, when I was starting in the business  of playing the clarinet. The changes have been keenly felt because there are many fewer symphony orchestras, the aspiration of all of my colleagues at the New England Conservatory so many years past.

Symphony Orchestras are diminishing , almost weekly. Last week, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra cancelled the rest of its season, the Baltimore Orchestra is asking for pay cuts and a shorter season,and even the Philadelphia orchestra is suffering from lack of attendance,and the Board is not happy with the situation. And of course, the rumors are all over the place, spreading like a virus.

Adding to the above is the tremendous increase in the numbers of clarinetists who are desirous of a life in music,  to play Principal in a large symphony Orchestra. I can tell you that,not only are there many more, but they play better to a large extent. They are not terribly interested in playing chamber music, perhaps the most musically interesting aspect of playing. Ones complete ability to play and to understand music is enriched and enhanced by performance of Chamber Music. But all orchestral parts are learned and can be played to dazzling effect by most. Fast, Faster, and fastest seem to be in vogue,as is loud, louder and loudest. Circular breathing is commonplace, staccato is faster than anyone can play, especially in the rehearsal room or in the practice room. What warmups we hear! Incredible!

But where are the positions? They are diminishing rapidly, as is mentioned above, and vicious competition is widespread. The creation of the Graduate School for the further achievement of the clarinetist has been added. They were always present, but now, there are more aspirants  for admittance and fewer teachers of note, (those who have held Principal positions in Large Orchestras), to teach them.
As  the numbers of clarinetists multiply , filling the Graduate Schools, the number of noted performers to teach them is diminishing.

One has to ask the question?Does attendance at a Graduate School for further clarinet achievement, get you anything more than a diminishing bank account, several expensive mouthpieces, that “better”set of clarinets, and that superb teacher of whom few have heard? Not really.

But of course, you have been told that it will bring you to the horn of clarinet plenty. Graduate School will not get you an audition, nor will it have you succeed at that audition, nor will it get you the job, the contract for which you have given a part of your life, that part which is so vital and important o us all!?

Will you be a better orchestral performer? No. So, what are you to do?How are you to proceed if the wonderful desire to be a clarinetists still burns within you?

So, you finally asked.

In 60 plus years of playing, having done it all: elementary school, University, Administration, Conductor of the University Symphony for 17 years, and Principal Clarinet of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Each one of the peviously mentioned positions has widened my breadth as a clarinetists, as a teacher, as a coach and administrator.

Was this career out of necessity? No, it was not, Not at all. I found enjoyrment in everything . And I must say,I kept my eyes open at all times.This is the most important recommendation I make humbly to all readers. Keep practicing and llstening to everybody. Find out how you play in comparison. And more than anything else, keep your eye on the ball, the business, market and all possibilities. Apply to every audition you can, as many as is possible. All will teach you many things. And you need them all.

Still, keep practicing.


Church in Greenpoint is enriching artistic life in Brooklyn

March 7, 2011

From the pre-Rennaissance, the Church has assisted in the very existence of the arts. The so-called Dark Ages was the supreme example of this patronage. The music from this period serves as a model and building blocks upon which the whole history of arts is based.In these times, difficult for clarinetists as well as most other artists,here is yet another example of the Patronage of the Church in times of peril:

from: The New York Times, by Tim Sohn

“Around 200 parishioners were gathered on a recent Sunday for the 10 a.m. Mass at St. Cecilia’s Roman Catholic Church in Greenpoint, a grand limestone pile a block from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.  “The bare minimum is for others to do, not for us,” the pastor, the Rev. James Krische, 52, preached from the pulpit. “Jesus calls us to leap beyond the minimum.”

St. Cecilia’s has more than heeded its pastor’s call. Since 2009, the parish has bridged the cultures of old and new Greenpoint by hosting an arts program in buildings that once served as the hub of a booming Irish community but had lately had little reason to turn on their lights.

That Sunday, while the pastor was delivering his sermon, there were artists at work in the former school building; an art show in a convent building turned gallery; a photo shoot in the former residence for the Christian Brothers, members of the religious order who, with nuns, staffed the school; and two film crews setting up in the school’s basement.

The arrangement is keeping St. Cecilia’s vibrant at a time when the city is littered with underused or empty church buildings, and there have been few original ideas to put them to good use. Instead of falling victim to vandalism and decay, St. Cecilia’s buildings have been emerging as a haven for space-starved artists, in a part of Brooklyn that is increasingly young and creative.

When “Father Jim” arrived in early 2008, he found the parish in a condition that has become all too familiar in New York: in debt, the school facing declining enrollment and little money to spend on maintenance of the empty convent and the brothers’ residence. The church itself, built in 1891 for a mostly Irish congregation, was still drawing 300 parishioners every weekend, far from its 800-seat capacity.

All over the city, other churches and parishes have faced similar challenges: high upkeep costs, a declining number of parishioners and a shortage of the priests and nuns who minister to them. Late last year, the Brooklyn Diocese began considering closing down or merging some of its 198 parishes. The Archdiocese of New York has already closed 10 churches and merged 11 others with neighboring parishes.

“The demographics of many of these neighborhoods have shifted,” said David Noonan, with the real estate company Newmark Knight Frank, who has assisted the Brooklyn Diocese and other religious groups in evaluating their property options.

“They have to think about how do they support their mission and do what’s consistent with their principles and right for their community.”

At St. Cecilia’s, the decision had been made by spring 2008 to close its school. At the time, condominium buildings were springing up like glassy weeds all over Greenpoint and Williamsburg, and the diocese began marketing the school, schoolyard and other empty buildings to developers. But then the real estate market crashed, and that slice of the St. Cecilia property was no longer attractive. The pastor began thinking about a Plan B, and about the artists flooding into the neighborhood.

“Father Jim wanted art to be part of the raw space,” said Daniel Navetta, a location scout and founder of ApK Media, who has shot more than 50 projects at St. Cecilia’s. “And he wanted musicians around because St. Cecilia is the patron saint of music and because he wanted people who could infuse energy into the spaces.”

The arts program evolved almost accidentally. People who worked on film shoots there in late 2008 began telling friends about the Greenpoint parish with the amazing buildings.

Then a parishioner who works in real estate told band members looking for rehearsal space that they should talk to her priest; another parishioner told one of her tenants, an artist looking for a site for a show, to do the same.

The pastor said yes in both cases, and soon more people showed up with ideas and requests. After putting some ground rules into effect — all art shows must end by 11 p.m., the thermostat would be set at 50, the artists would give donations for use of the space — the pastor kept saying yes.

“It’s like a weird commune or something that nobody ever intended to exist,” said Nathan Spondike, the artist whose landlady referred him to her priest.

Over Labor Day weekend in 2009, Mr. Spondike organized the first large exhibit at the convent-turned-gallery, a group show with 30 artists, 2 bands playing and throngs of the young and the hip descending on St. Cecilia’s.

Shortly after, Mr. Spondike and some of the other artists from that show asked if they could look around the empty school, five floors of classrooms with 16-foot high ceilings, some with views of the Manhattan skyline.

Within weeks, all of the 36 classrooms that the pastor made available for studios were claimed by painters, sculptors, a dressmaker and a choreographer. (There are now 93 artists on a waiting list.)

Three bands use the school’s basement for rehearsal space. And out back, the former schoolyard is home to the Tenth Acre Farm, a dozen above-ground planters full of organic eggplants, tomatoes and other vegetables. That is all in addition to the 10 or so film or video shoots each week.

The parish property’s various buildings have been host to feature films like “Brooklyn’s Finest,” television shows like “30 Rock” and “Rescue Me,” and hundreds of smaller productions. The pastor charges on a sliding scale, but even for the bigger budget commercial productions, it ends up being less expensive than elsewhere, with the added benefit of less red tape and a multitude of options.

Not only the filmmakers benefit. While the artists give donations for their studio spaces and shows, the commercial film and video shoots are what pay for the upkeep and maintenance of the buildings.

All this activity has led to occasional complaints, particularly about production crews’ taking up too much on-street parking space, but they have been few.

“Some people didn’t understand it,” said Rosalie Washack, a lifelong parishioner and neighborhood resident. But, she added, “It’s being Christian: You extend the hand and bring the church into the community.”

Though the school’s closing still stings, parishioners view the arts program as a way to keep their church relevant and open.

“What Father Jim has done here is open up the doors to the new people who have moved into the community,” said Francis Brancato, another lifelong parishioner and second-generation product of St. Cecilia’s school. “And they’re not all going to come to church, but maybe a few of them will. And in the meantime, it’s brought life back to those buildings and to this block.”

As the moving parts have multiplied, the pastor, who is the sole clergyman, has absorbed the additional work, keeping track of everything in a collection of bulging binders and overflowing calendars in his office in the rectory. Not that there are not occasional hiccups. That Sunday morning, a film crew had mistakenly set up in a room the pastor had reserved for a Sunday school class. He straightened it out before Mass.

The artists seem to take some pleasure in their chapter of the church’s long history of artistic patronage. And though that relationship has historically been a complicated one, at St. Cecilia the pastor has remained hands off.

“His attitude is that he’s providing the platform and the space for the work to happen,” said Celia Rowlson-Hall, a dancer, choreographer and filmmaker who occupies a cavernous studio on the school’s fifth floor, “and he’s never said ‘This certain kind of work’ needs to happen.”

Ms. Washack, who attends many of the gallery shows, said the parishioners sometimes “stick out like a sore thumb.”

“I’ve seen some art shows in there that I’ve cringed a little at,” she added, “but they’ve been so nice and so grateful, and the energy in there has been so positive.”

The future of the arts program, and the parish itself, is unclear. Though the program could most likely continue even if the pastor moved on to another posting, a real estate deal could end it.

Ms. Rowlson-Hall said, “I do wonder, are we sitting on something that could be possibly the next PS1?” referring to the MoMA-affiliated art space that occupies a former school in Queens. She added, “I would just hope that all this creative energy that’s in this place continues.”