Friday, July 23, 2010

the multi-purpose musician

I am nearing the end of 5 weeks at the Killington Music Festival, where I spend a good portion of each summer - in no small part because my wife, Allison Eldredge, is Artistic Director.  It is more clear to me here than anywhere else that having a successful musical career, at least in my case, depends on having a wide range of skills.  I have had to play a number of solo piano works (presumably the area in which I am most qualified, and certainly the most experienced); several chamber works; give a lecture on Schumann; teach private piano lessons; coach chamber music groups; help organize things "behind the scenes" (like setting rehearsal schedules for the various faculty concerts, putting together student chamber music groups - I do a little of this in support of my wife, who is the one actually in charge of these things); and conduct the orchestra. 

That last one - conduct an orchestra made up of students at the festival (last week I conducted a group mostly made up of faculty) - is the area where I am in some sense least experienced (I have been conducting here for the last couple of years - I've been playing and teaching for much longer), but I've noticed that many of the other things I have been doing have helped prepare me for the task of conducting.  Of course the most important ingredient in being a great conductor is being a great musician, and I have been working to become a great pianist for several decades, with the aid and inspiration of wonderful teachers and colleagues.  But I've noticed that teaching also has helped me to be a better conductor - in both cases, you are doing what you can to take what you hear and improve or refine it.  There are some differences, of course - as a conductor you start by showing what you want, before they have even played a note, and only afterwards, if that doesn't work, do you have a discussion of what you are trying to achieve.

I am glad that I have had the experience also of *playing* in orchestra, though it was a long time ago.  Growing up, I was both a pianist and cellist, and as a cellist had great teachers (Eleonore Schoenfeld and Gabor Rejto among them), and played principal cello in a few orchestras (mostly orchestra at my school, Crossroads School in Santa Monica, CA).  When I finished high school I didn't feel I could be successful playing two instruments, so I ended up focusing on the piano, which had always been more my instrument in any case.  But the experience of playing cello in orchestras and in many chamber music groups has really helped me now that I am involved with orchestras (and chamber groups) but in a different capacity.

But while this decision to "specialize" when I went to college seemed right at the time, I am seeing how clearly my life has actually required me, after all, to do a multitude of things.  (And this is only in my professional life - I also take my responsibilities as a husband and father very seriously, and these things require time and effort as well).  I don't know if I would be happy if, for example, I had the chance to earn a living solely on the basis of playing solo piano recitals, or solely as a faculty member at a conservatory.  I haven't had the chance to do this - my career has always been a patchwork of many activities, though the different activities do help and in some ways complement each other. 

The relative novelty of conducting (for me) makes it seem like I could be happy doing *only* that.  But I think it also can be a happily "diverse" career because it does require so many different kinds of activities - combining the skills of a performer, coach, lecturer (but not too much - I don't think orchestras like it!), organizer, and perhaps more.  We'll see how it goes. 

One more note about the parallels between conducting and teaching: all we can do, in either case, is improve what we are starting with.  I'm sure I'd seem like a great conductor no matter what, if I were standing in front of the Boston Symphony, just as when my most gifted students win competitions I look like a great teacher.  But in fact my hardest tasks are often unrecognized: getting an average student to sound very good is harder than making a great student sound a little greater. 


Katie said...

Mr. Levinson,

It's funny that I read this post when I did, because I have actually been thinking a great deal recently about a career in music, specifically a multi-faceted one. What you said about a "patchwork" of activities sounds like such a dream career; I also thrive on a diverse array of different types of music-making.

(Btw, I was quite impressed with the orchestra concert and your conducting; it was a perfect program and I thought you did a really beautiful job leading the group)

As an added note, as a string player I've also thought a bit about the addition of different genres of music than solely instrumental classical into a future career of mine. To name a few, jazz, popular, Celtic/fiddle, broadway musicals, opera, etc...
What are your experiences playing and performing different genres of music?

All the best! I've really enjoyed reading your blog so far :)
- Katie vB

Max Levinson said...

Hi Katie -

Thanks for commenting, and for your kind words about the concert. I think everyone really did their best.

I don't personally have much experience playing other types of music (jazz, pop, etc). I have played a number of pieces by Gershwin, where it helps to have a feeling for jazz, but of course there is no real improvisation (at least not with the actual notes). My friend Stephen Prutsman arranged some Broadway tunes for cello and piano, which I have played with Allison (she recorded them for the Denon label, with pianist Phillip Bush) but again while a familiarity with the style of the music is helpful, we basically approach them as classical musicians.

There are others who are much more knowledgeable than I am about playing other types of music. From a career point of view, I know next to nothing about "breaking in" to the music business in other genres. From an artistic point of view, I can say that different kinds of music can and should "learn" from each other - for example, I feel like Martha Argerich is great in part because she takes the rock musician's abandon and energy and adds that to the more typically classical refinement, technique, intelligence, etc; and what makes Led Zeppelin a great band is in part that they take the classical musician's sophistication, virtuosity, and discipline and add that to their more intrinsically "rock" qualities. I don't know if that makes sense - I think I blogged about it some months ago (scroll down and you should find it).

Jordan said...

Have you ever heard Keith Jarrett's recording of the Shostakovich preludes and fugues? I would be curious to hear your impression of his interpretation.