Monthly Archives: December 2013

The Teachers: A Bit of Musical Personal History

In other cultures and other times, the path to learning music is well-structured. For example, in Europe, everyone gets the basics, like solfege, certain method books are standard fare for beginners, and so on. My own path was not traditional or carefully conceived. In fact it was pretty random, and it brought me into contact with an assortment of teachers. I sought out anyone I though could help me get further down the trail. In what I guess is a year-end ruminative mood, I put together a short history of the people with whom I put in any serious time, and my best recollection of that experience.

Harry Collegian: Clarinet teacher, Wellesley junior high. ("Middle school" was not a thing yet.) He was probably in his mid- to late twenties. He'd studied with the great Mazzeo at New England Conservatory, had dark, shaggy good looks, and was a hell of a player, with an extraordinarliy reliable altissimo register. Also, he had this cool Mazzeo System clarinet. He was quite amused by the fact that I spent my first week practicing with the mouthpiece upside-down, the reed on top. He was kind enough, once he stopped laughing, to say "Well, there *were* some early instruments that were played like that." I'm not so sure that's true. The only thing I remember him telling me about playing the horn was "*Feed* the air. *Feed* the air." (What on earth does that mean? I still have no clue.) Years later, during a summer off from Berklee, I took some lessons with him at his house. It was kinda Tennesse Williams: total disarray, an angry Southern belle wife, a toddler running free, diapers and reeds everywhere. A bit of a shocker to young me, who figured that an artist’s home life must be absolutely transcendent.

Bob Rose early 1970s: Bob's now a senior administrator at Berklee, but when I studied with him, he'd just graduated and was teaching out of Devine's Music in Framingham MA.

Devine's was the classic large, sole proprietor suburban music store, probably totally vanished from the commercial scene by now but not unusual in those days. They sold everything under one roof, though I suspect their bread and butter was the Lowery organ. Paul Bacon was their demo guy and he could really play, but the selling point of these devices was an assotment of features that automated accompaniment, so you could sound pretty good playing with two fingers and a foot on the expression pedal.

I idolized Bob. He was the real deal, a jazz player, a doubler, an arranger. Within a few months I was talking like a combination of Bob Rose and Gnossos Pappidopolous (hero of Rischard Farina's book "Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me.") In fact, my speech became rather impenetrable to civilians: I told my girlfriend's parents that "Some of my people might fall by," intending to convey that my friends would be coming to pick me up. Blank looks.

Bob used to insist that, after he dropped his Bundy flute, it played better than ever. He said this more than once. The Bundy clarinet too. That probably says all that needs to be said about the Bundy line of student instruments. He taught me bop heads and voicings, interesting to an incipient theory head and nascent jazzer. One moment stands out for me:  In a lesson, I tell him "There's something else I'm hearing, but I don't know what it is or where to find it." He says "Check this out" and hits the Play button on his cassette recorder. I hear Bird for the first time, and I'm gone. One of the best things anyone ever did for me, and I'm still grateful.

A couple of years ago I was back in Boston and met up with Bob. He showed around the much-expanded Berklee, which is amazing, especially given how funky it was when I started in 1972. We agreed that we still get chills from listening to Bird.

Joe Viola: Berklee, mid 1970s. Terrifying. A perfect player and, I understand, for an accomplished student he was the ideal guy to finish with. He could teach you the secrets and fine points you needed to become a pro. For me as a beginning sax player, a star too far. For him, accustomed to teaching advanced students, I must've been a drag. The main thing I got from him was a a picture of just how well it's possible to play. I never heard him make a mistake or produce anything less than a beautiful, perfectly in-tune sound. Hearing him with his sax quartet was stunning – he could transform the timbre of the soprano sax to that of a flute or oboe, an incredible range of color that I think must be unusual for players in any genre.

Bob Mover, early 1980s : A transcendent jazz player, deserving of more attention. He got me into learning boatloads of standards. The thing I loved about lessons with Bob was that he taught in large swathes: "You need to learn to use substitue chords" was all I needed to hear – I could work out the details for myself, but I needed someone to open the right door. He played like an angel (still does) and had great war stories about his friendships with other greats like Sonny Rollins (who said to an young, obsessive Bob "Bob, it's only music") and Ira Sullivan.

Gerry Bergonzi, early 1980s: A systematic thinker, a thorough explorer. He has a wonderfully structured, generative approach and he demystified a lot of the advanced stuff that was in the air at the time. Also made it clear, by example and never by admonition, that you had to do the spadework in order to have reliable access to the material. Plus, he's a nice normal cat, and projects every confidence that you can learn to do this too.

Lee Coleman, late 1970s: Lee was a NewYork-trained lead alto and clarinet player in the classic swing mode. Great reader, big tone on his gold-plated Selmer, beautiful vibrato, and the ability to play eight-bar phrases in a single breath and to nail the high A at the end of Harlem Nocture. Nothing to do with music, but in one lesson, he stops and looks at me and asks “Are you a Jew?” I think “Oh boy, here we go,” and answer “Yes.” He blinks and says “That’s okay: I’m a Finn.” Still cracks me up.

Wayne Crebo, classical flute teacher, early 1980s: Former Army Ranger, a big guy, deeply into the "thread of sound." French-trained flutists are a bit mystical about this. It has to do with, on the one hand, playing with ease and, on the other, projecting the sound to the back of the concert hall. He'd say "Check this out" and play a phrase up close to me, then run up two flights of stairs and yell down "Now listen" and play the same phrase. I'm not so sure, in retrospect, it was about projection. He had this gorgeous French wife, and it's not out of the question that there was some second-story frottage going on. It's just a theory, but he was up and down those stairs several times in the course of a lesson.

Vic Morosco, 1990s: The Fountain of Truth. I studied with Vic for about ten years and treasure the experience. I didn't succeed in fully implementing what he taught, but that's entirely down to my own deficiencies and makeup. I was much the better musician for the experience. One of richest, warmest timbral experiences I know is Vic's low C on a concert flute. It's plush beyond belief. In fact, that one note inspired my tune "Sparks" (Triceratops 1997). He clarified the fundamentals and he's my kind of thinker, one who tends to reduce matters to the essentials, the provable fundamentals, the emmis.

Quite a cast of characters, and I’m grateful to them all. I’ve done a bit of teaching but never had a strong desire to teach. I mean, good lord, what if someone wrote about me?!

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