(Before I get started — couple of music jokes:
Q. Which famous composer carried the least amount of debt in his lifetime?
Q. Which famous composer was only barely able to pay his bills every month?
Right, onward and upward.)
I got back from California a couple of weeks ago only to be plunged into some last-minute efforts for Bp. MARK’s pastoral visit to All Saints the very next weekend, and I’m only now really coming back up for air. I tell you, a blog is a lot harder to maintain when one actually has things going on in their life that are important to them!
Over the last five years or so, the narrative I’ve had in my head and that I’ve propagated is, more or less, “I failed as a musician because I wasn’t good enough, and the upside of this is that it enabled me to discover what I was actually good at doing.” This is part of why it was a huge shock to me to have John invite me out to California, even if he was desperate; my working assumption is that, as formally trained musicians go, everybody else is about a million times better than I am, and that the people who have me sing for them here and there do so mostly as a favor to me and because they’re short other options.
At some point while I was in California, John asked over a beer, “So, what other singing do you do besides All Saints?”
I kind of blinked, and explained that I didn’t really, save for the occasional recording studio gig in Indianapolis, and my godson Matthew‘s pickup choir that has done all of two Christmas concerts thus far (and that will be the end of its short happy life, as it works out).
“I’m surprised you’re not more involved in the scene,” he said. “A singer like you, you really should be.”
Well, there were two problems with this. First off is, frankly, what scene? There is no scene in Bloomington that isn’t strictly a product of the Jacobs School of Music, save for a large community choir that, meaning no disrespect to said community choir or its members, is not really what I would find fulfilling at this stage of the game. Some of the bigger churches do things, but I obviously don’t go to those churches, and despite efforts of mine to the contrary, All Saints just is not equipped in any way, shape, or form to be making its own contribution to “the scene,” nor are we likely to in the near future. There really isn’t anything in Indianapolis, either, at least nothing that would inspire me to want to commute on a regular basis, save for the random studio thing and miscellaneous choral performance my friend Max Murphy occasionally organizes. I suppose I could go to the choral folks at the School of Music and say, hey, I’m an alumnus, and I’m a registered fulltime grad student in the College of Arts and Sciences, any chance I might be able to have a spot in one of the chamber choirs? Realistically, however, there aren’t enough choral spots for the singers they have. So, what scene is it of which I should be part, again?
Secondly, as I explained, I quit five years ago because it was clear to me I wasn’t all that good in the first place. In context, this seemed like such a painfully obvious thing to say as to make me almost embarrassed to have to say it; John is somebody who has been making music at a very high level since he was a little kid, has had a rather rarefied musical education as a result of those — and many other — experiences, and who has been, not just a specialist, but an expert in his field from a very young age, to the extent that formal, piece-of-paper education has almost been more of a hindrance than a help. I’m, well, working class by comparison, at best.
Still, he said, “Well, you’re doing just fine with us,” and went on to say that if geography were no object, there would be a number of excellent opportunities of which I would have no problem taking advantage, in his view.
This jogged a memory for me.
Bryon Grohman is a guy I got to know a bit the two years we overlapped at IU. He was a doctoral student but we were close to the same age, and I first met him taking vocal pedagogy from him. At his encouragement, I was able to publish the paper I wrote for him in the Journal of Singing, and after the class was over, we got to be friendly, at least enough to have a beer together here and there when we had the chance. When he passed his quals, I was supposed to buy him a drink before he left town; we weren’t able to quite make the connection, but we were at least able to chat briefly. It was right when I was deciding to hang it up; I told him that, and I said that while I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next, it was just clear to me that downstage center at the Met wasn’t in my future.
“That may be,” he said. “But whatever you do, you need to not forget that you are a very well-trained musician, and that’s not something that can be taken away from you.”
I hadn’t remembered that conversation in five years before what John and I were talking about brought it to mind, and it made me think a bit.
Anyway, the concerts on the whole were a lot of fun. Ian, my cellist friend, was able to come to the Friday night performance at the Oakland cathedral, I finally got to meet his mom after years of hearing about him talking about his parents, and it looks like he may have been recruited to play in BACH’s presentation of Mozart’s Requiem this fall.
One of the good things about not really having done any performing in the last few years, and to have that downtime come on the heels of the experiences that convinced me to quit, is that my expectations regarding anything were virtually nonexistent. Any performance I can walk away from is a good one. What this means is that crashing and burning doesn’t bother me all that much; at the very least, it doesn’t raise existential dilemmas for me. It just makes me say, “Well, that can go better next time,” and that’s that. So, I can say that I enjoyed singing in all three concerts; the second two were a lot more consistent than the first for everybody, I think, but whatever wasn’t right the first night, it was still light-years ahead from some of the things I’ve done to which I might compare it. This means that I may not be the best person to ask, but it also means that if you do ask me, I’ll tell you that I had a ball with all three of them, and that it was wonderful getting to sing beautiful music with a group of good musicians in three good venues.
One interesting thing about the experience: in the last few years, outside of church, whenever I’ve been in a situation where I’ve had to sing a solo, it’s really been something I’ve hated doing. In one of Matthew’s concerts, for example, I had a little Gregorian chant incipit before a motet, and even that was horribly traumatic. I felt awful singing it in rehearsal, I dreaded the moment when I would have to sing it in the concert, and then it felt awful singing it in performance.
Well, John gave me a solo verse in the ninth ode of the Paschal canon for these concerts. I hadn’t expected or wanted him to do that, I had avoided volunteering for other solos, and I almost told him no, but it really didn’t seem to be up for discussion, so I just let it go. The first rehearsal where I sang it, it felt awkward vocally and I was self-conscious and it really was not enjoyable to do. The dress rehearsal wasn’t much different.
But then the concerts came, and much to my surprise, it felt fine, I wasn’t terrified out of my wits, and I was still alive at the end of it. It was actually, dare I say it, an enjoyable thing to do. I’m still not sure what changed.
On a totally different note (as it were)… the one thing that I told John I really wanted to make sure I did while I was in the Bay area was go to St. John Maximovitch’s cathedral. He’s one of the only saints in the United States where one has that kind of opportunity, and it was very important to me to have a chance to visit him. Absolutely, John said.
Well, as it worked out, it seemed to be a never-ending struggle finding the time to make it out that way. John’s car getting vandalized ate up one of the days that was discussed as a possibility, and that put us very much at a deficit in terms of available time. It was a lot like trying to go to the Hagia Sophia cathedral in London the first time I visited there; the ordeal in terms of just figuring out how and when to go the location reached a level where it could plausibly have been a spiritual struggle masquerading as a series of unrelated annoyances. To John’s credit, no matter how difficult as it got, he refused my offers to let him off the hook. What it amounted to nonetheless was that we got to Geary Avenue at 5:40pm on the Saturday of the last concert, needing to be in Daly City by 6:15pm — literally the last possible five minutes I would have, since I was flying out of Sacramento the next afternoon. John dropped me off, told me to put on my cassock before going in and to text him when I was done.
The cassock had an interesting effect; as I walked up to the cathedral, a woman started talking to me in Russian. “Sorry, I don’t speak Russian,” I said.
“Oh,” replied the woman in accent-free American English. “Can you tell me how to get to the freeway from here?”
Inside the cathedral, another woman came up to me, her palms cupped over each other. I again had to say I didn’t speak Russian. “Oh, sorry, Father,” she said. “Will you give me a blessing?”
Well, I thought. That’s never happened to me before. “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m not a priest,” I said. “I’m a, er, psalomchik.” (“You should have replied in Greek,” John chuckled when I told him the story.)
I had just enough time to be amazed by the cathedral, venerate St. John the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco, and be told at the book counter that they couldn’t sell me anything because they weren’t the regular person and didn’t know if they could take a check or not, before John texted me — We gotta go.
Yes, it would have been nice to have had an hour or two so that my experience there could have been a bit more, shall we say, meditative. It was decidedly not the same half-day of contemplating the holiness of the saint that I had at St. Nektarios’ monastery last summer. I didn’t even have time to get a picture of anything. But nonetheless, I got to go, and I got to see St. John’s incorrupt relics with my own eyes. That’s something, most definitely.
“Why did you tell me to put on the cassock?” I asked John as we drove away.
“You’re wearing jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, and they tend to be a bit persnickety about that,” he said. “They also tend to get a bit weird about making sure you’re actually Orthodox and not a tourist. You wearing the rasso was a quick way to bypass all of those issues.” Word to the wise, I suppose.
We got back to Sacramento quite late that night, and Matins was at 8am the next morning. I stumbled through Matins, Divine Liturgy and Kneeling Vespers a bit given how tired I was, but then it was immediately off to the airport for both us — I to fly back to Indiana and John to fly to Portland for a Cappella Romana fundraiser and a mini-tour on the Oregon coast. My brief couple of weeks pretending to be a singer again was in the books; time to go home.
A couple days after I got home, Ian the cellist was coming through Bloomington again, and we talked about my time out there a bit. He really enjoyed the concert, and he had some interesting thoughts about what it really meant to be a good musician. “Thing is, being around a school like IU can distort what being a musician really is,” he said. “Here, it’s just all about being super-competitive all the time. But when you go to a gig, what it’s about is showing up and being able to do what you’re asked to do. That transcription you did, not just anybody could have done that, but you got off the plane and did it, and you were able to do it because you were trained to do it, even if it seemed like just a party trick at the time with no application. People like you and me really do come out of a place like this being able to perform at a particular level, and even if it maybe takes you a few days to shake off the rust when you haven’t done it in awhile, you’re still going to be able to do it.”
I really don’t know if this trip will wind up leading to any other musical opportunities; it might, it might not. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. I came back wanting to discuss with Matthew how we might make his pickup group more of a going concern, but as I alluded to, that’s not going to be a possibility moving forward, for reasons I’ll explain later.
If nothing else, however, maybe the experience of my couple of weeks in California allows me to change the narrative a bit. Maybe I didn’t fail as a musician. Maybe it really was just that I chose otherwise, not that I didn’t have a choice by virtue of not being good enough. Maybe I can take the line of my CV that says “failed singer” and have it just say “singer.”
Two weeks well-spent, one way or the other. Many thanks to John for the opportunity, the hospitality, the friendship and encouragement (to say nothing of the helpful jabs to the ribs), Dušan Radosavljevic for being a fantastic help at several points and a great person to get to know in general, St. John Maximovitch for not smacking me down despite having to be in and out, and Andrew Chung and the rest of the Josquin Singers/Bay Area Classical Harmonies for letting me play with them in their sandbox for a bit. Hope we get to do it again at some point, guys.