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Saturday, November 23, 2013

David and Goliath

Malcolm Gladwell has written another good book.

Not a great book, like "Blink" or "Outliers", but a very solid and compelling book that looks at "underdog" stories (i.e. the biblical David of the title) and gives an extremely concise and well-argued thesis that our ideas about disadvantages (physical size, education, disabilities like dyslexia, or family traumas) can be wrong. To choose, for instance, the best school (say Harvard) can, for some, be a smart idea. Yet for those not at the top of Harvard's classes, it may lead to less success in a chosen field than someone who might choose a second-tier university.

Gladwell writes of the Big Fish in a Small Pond vs the Small Fish in a Big Pond syndrome (Smart kid in a small Midwestern liberal arts college vs same kid at Brown University, for instance.) Some think the Big Pond creates the best environment for competition and for honing the best minds. He tries to debunk that at length, sometimes poignantly.

It got me thinking.

I read this book last week on my trip to and from Virginia Opera where I was a guest "Master Teacher" for their remarkably talented Emerging Artists. These artists were all very adept singers -- many from either the Merola program in San Francisco, Santa Fe or Glimmerglass apprentice programs, or other exceptional programs. A dozen of them had their Masters degrees and were well on their way to starting their careers. I was treated to coaching them one-on-one, and then we had two group classes. It all finished with a public performance in Richmond. Terrific four days, that's for sure!

What makes me worthy of being called a "master teacher"? It is, of course, a combination of factors: training, initial curiosity about music, talent, and experience. I think about my great teachers and the mountain of a teacher who gave me so much:
Dr. Robert L. Larsen.

The "L" stands for Leroy, btw.

It really should stand for Le Roy, 'cause that's what he was for me, and for many others.

Dr. Larsen was my piano teacher, my conducting teacher, my choir director, my madrigal director, the professor for Med/Ren and Romanticism classes, our stage director for all of our operas (and we did at least two a year), and our conductor. He was also the vocal coach, the faculty's accompanist when they presented in recital (and he played my wife's Senior recital after I dropped out of college), and ran the Simpson College music department. He was the Artistic Director of Des Moines Metro Opera and was the editor of G. Schirmer's Opera Anthology series for which I was one of the assistant editors. A true Renaissance man.

For five years (actually just 4.5 but that's getting picky) Dr. Larsen was the sun around which I orbited. During the summers I worked at DMMO on the house staff. Picking up artists at the airport (one of the first people I met was Steward Robertson who used to run the DMMO apprentice program before moving onto Glimmerglass and FGO), moving pianos and xerox machines, handing out brochures in costume in downtown Des Moines in 100 degree heat, making coffee at 8am, closing down the theatre after rehearsals and shows around midnight, making development calls asking for donations, and tending bar during intermissions. I didn't actually work at DMMO as an artist until after I graduated from Simpson. By that time, I had done everything imaginable in opera. I was given a very complete education.

But even more so, my actual education at Simpson College was extraordinary. I was allowed to do everything. Sing in operas - roles and chorus. Sing in the madrigal, in the choir. Accompany dozens and dozens of hour-long song recitals. I performed ALL THE TIME. I even danced the dream ballet in Carousel -- which is why I was asked to a dance by my future wife.

My actual degree was in piano performance, so there were those requisite recitals and competitions as well.

If I had gone to my number one school choice, Northwestern University, I would not be typing these words because I would not be able to do what I do today. Maybe I might be out and about concertizing, but I highly doubt it. My parents both wanted me to go to Evanston and study there. I didn't. There was something that just didn't connect with me. Plus, in my interview with Dr. Larsen, we discussed the play "Cyrano" and I was in 7th heaven. Who knew the head of a music department could elucidate about Cyrano's character choices?!

But more to the point, I don't think I'd be where I am now because I actually did drop out of college in my sophomore year. I think if I'd been at Northwestern I might have jumped in the Chicago River instead of dropping out, packing my things, and driving home to Council Bluffs, Iowa to my parent's house.

Why did I drop out? Mostly 'cause I thought I'd wasted my talent and I was 19 and a failure -- as a pianist. There were other factors; a misdiagnosis of a skin disease when I was very young leading me to think I might die by the time I was 18, not having any other pianists of my caliber around to push me to be better, thinking I should just toss in my musical towel and move onto something much more exciting: Marine Biologist!

But the small pond ended up saving me in so many ways. First off, I had a job at DMMO to return that summer and I loved opera by then. I also had a girlfriend who was an exceptional singer. I also had tons of singer friends who I liked playing lessons for. The list goes on. I also joined the madrigal the next year and started singing more seriously. A larger school might have just swallowed me up, leaving me with just a few outlets for artistic expression. Instead, I got it ALL and was able to pursue a Renaissance-style education: apprenticing yourself to a master and learn as much as possible.

I also suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia (which was more aural than visual) and from probably what would now be a diagnosis of ADHD (on good days) or mild depression (on bad days). Luckily for me, there were no drugs for either of those things readily prescribed like they are now. I worked through my ups and downs, figured out how to embrace my inability to pick ONE thing and focus on it (the secret to my success is that I've never focused on one thing - ever - except the one thing literally at hand), and sat up late at night reading my college texts.

Gladwell goes on about dyslexics; giving examples of just how many successful people are dyslexic. (The list is amazing: Spielberg, Schwab, Patton, Warhol just to name a few.) That the disorder actually may have caused them to work on other skills to compensate - namely listening and, um, breaking rules. 

That's me.

My listening skills, I humbly submit, are extraordinary. I hear what people are saying, the emotion behind their expressions and verbiage. I hear lies. I'm a bit of a truthsayer. I watch people's eyes when they speak, I watch their body language. I can recall many important conversations pretty much verbatim. (Of course, that's only when I'm actually paying attention.)

I also think my talent for playing the piano lies in my dyslexic brain. Instead of reading lots (really, I didn't. I only really read the Hobbit, LOTR, Dune, the life of Buddha, and Dracula before I entered high school), I read music. Music was my language.

I don't remember even learning to read music. I went from those early three note songs to playing Bach. Then I leaped into Beethoven sonatas (Op. 2 No. 2 when I was 12 I think).  When I was sent to a summer music camp (the spectacular Rocky Ridge Music Center in Estes Park) when I was still in Jr. High, I picked up the 2nd Chopin Ballade and the Ravel Sonatine. I also learned everything I would need for theory classes through my bachelors degree. That camp lasted 10 days. When I went back for the full 7 weeks, I was in a camp populated mostly by college students. That's when I realized I was a bit different from others my age.

And yet, all that initial energy and talent discombobulated itself during my sophomore year. I played harpsichord in a student production of Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, shaved my head and drove home to the folks. To say they were kind of shocked was putting it mildly. Their golden son with all that talent; dropping out of college?

We never really talked about it much afterwards. They tried to get me to see a psychologist, and I did one session. He was crazy, I thought. What helped more was listening to Sweet98 radio station in Omaha, Nebraska, and getting to know the popular music of 1985: Tears for Fears was big then, so was Sting and U2. That music helped a lot. Got my groove back.

I returned to my little pond with a renewed sense of what mattered to me. I wanted to make music with others, whatever and however that would happen.

I also wanted to be with my girlfriend, Elizabeth. I'm still with her these 30 years.

If I'd gone to that big pond, I wouldn't have met her for sure. My sons wouldn't be here. I might not either. 

So here I am, teaching at one of THE biggest ponds (actually one might say a big lake) in Canada. What's my advice for students thinking they should come to a big pond to study music? Come! We have lots and lots of programs here, tons of music (over 600 concerts in our school alone), and an exceptional faculty. But I think the success stories at these big ponds happen because the students break the rules of what is expected of them, and what their programs offer. They go out of their way to push the barriers. They aren't passive receivers of a proscribed curriculum.

So -- Big Ponds: they can be an exceptional place to learn, but make sure you have a great support system and make sure you take advantage of all the "advantages". However, if you're not at a big pond, THAT'S OKAY TOO!

According to Gladwell, the disadvantages that life brings you - including not getting into Harvard and then deciding that U of X is the school for you - may be one of the keys to success.

So those of you who might feel disadvantaged, for whatever reason, need to rethink the ramifications of said disadvantage.

Us "trickster" dyslexics became adept at using other skills, manipulating others for example, in order to survive an academic environment toxic to our eyes. David was assured of beating Goliath (read the book and see why), it wasn't a miracle -- far from it. The miracle would've been if Goliath had beaten David. And people who've had some terrible childhood trauma (like losing a parent) can also survive, and end up helping cure childhood leukaemia (a very moving chapter in Gladwell's book.)

I'm so thankful to my teachers - Berniel Hanson and Robert L. Larson, plus Joanne Baker (who is no longer living) from whom I learned to really listen to myself. I'm also very thankful for the opportunities that teaching in my big pond presents - namely talented and eager students.

I guess this makes this blog post a THANKSGIVING blog.

Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends and family, and to all of my readers around the globe!