Last week I was trying to tell kids the value of a classical education, but on Tuesday I heard an eloquent explanation, by a 2007 Lifetime Achievement GRAMMY Award recipient and soul great Booker T. Jones.
"I had not yet met my own standards," Booker T says of his decision to pursue a Bachelor of Music Education at Indiana University, even though he'd already had much success as a musician. "I wasn't yet writing the music I was hearing in my mind; I had a classical background and a curiosity for all the European greats..."
At Indiana, "I spent many hours listening to the old masters: everything from Bach, to Stravinsky, to Chopin; learning that music and learning how it was put together -- and studying."
Check the interview; Booker T offers a lot of musical wisdom.
So this life I cobbled together is a career?
I pondered this question as I walked toward the library at my children's school. I was asked to participate in a "career fair," and they'd set me up at a table with a white sign with the bold black letters, "MUSICIAN." My husband sat next to me, "JOURNALIST."
We sat for several hours as classes of 8th-, then 7th, then 6th, then 5th graders visited our table, armed with sheets of questions fashioned by their teachers.
While Robert was interviewed by a number of kids who sat down, looked him in the eye and patiently listened and scribbled notes like good little journalists would, my side of the table seemed to attract mostly confusion.
Q: "What do you do?"
Make my kids breakfast and comb my daughter's tangly hair, push a large class of first-graders through very basic violin exercises disguised as games, drink coffee, practice, teach more first graders, pick up the kids from school, try to explain long division to my daughter while spelling words for my son's essay on rainbows, teach a cadre of private students. Some days drive long miles to a gig, play for several hours, collapse.
A: "I'm a violinist."
Q: "How did you get started with your career?"
Someone visited my class when I was eight and played for us. I fell completely in love with the violin.
A: "I started playing the violin when I was nine and just really liked it."
Q: "What is your annual salary?"
Annual salary! As if there is such thing for a musician. I have like 12 W2 forms. Annual salary from what? Orchestra gigs? Teaching at school? Teaching privately? Running a website? Teaching Suzuki group? Playing at weddings? Judging competitions?
A: "I don't really have a salary. Orchestra musicians sometimes have a salary. A few big stars make a lot of money. It really varies."
Q. "Did you have little jobs that led to this job?"
They are all little jobs! I guess I played in dozens of orchestras, gig quartets, taught lots of students, fried fries at McDonald's, did telemarketing, was a birthday hostess at Showbiz Pizza Place, worked at Disney World, worked as a newspaper reporter for six years, founded a website.
A. "Yes, I've had a lot of little jobs."
Q. "What kinds of skills and personality do you need for your job?"
You need serious chops for playing at sight reading, and you need incredible resilience in the face of rejection and disappointment and being broke. Patience, if you teach. If you don't passionately love music, do not even consider this work.
A. "You need to be really good at what you do, and really confident at what you do. Part of being confident is building those skills through practice and education. You need to be able to read music, and you can't be a quitter. You need to be professional and reliable: to always show up to jobs on time and be prepared."
Q: "What education to you need to be a musician?"
None at all, or better yet, the best on the planet. You can go with either, but if you don't go to a top music school, or have the kind of personality that wants to, it does say something to the world about your level of dedication. Your garage band has very slim chances if no one in it is thirsty to know more than a few chord progressions, and your voice is eventually going to sound like the croak of a cheerleader who smokes a pack a day unless you train it properly.
A: "I have a bachelor's degree from Northwestern University and a master's degree from Indiana University. Whatever kind of musician you want to be, you need to be really good at it and know music theory. Get a private teacher and learn to read music. Learn as much about your instrument as you can. The best pop musicians usually had some classical training, and the best songwriters know poetry and how to tell a story."
Q: "What keeps you going in your job, when things get tough?"
A: "The idea that music makes people's lives better. It's one of the few things humans do together that's all good. I really believe it makes the world a better place."
How helpful is that!
Life is busy, but I wanted to report on one happy day, a few Sundays ago.
For those of you who remember a blog I wrote a few years back, this picture says it all:
The first year I ran in the LA County Komen Race for the Cure for breast cancer, I did so because I like running, and I thought a 5K for a good cause would be pleasant: a nice run around the Rose Bowl.
The next year it meant more: I was running in memory of my Aunt Beth, who had died very rapidly that year from the disease.
A year later, my friend Susan and another aunt were diagnosed with breast cancer at the same time, right before the annual race. Because Susan is a friend whose life as a mother is much like mine, I felt very aware of her daily struggles. Not only did she have to juggle the parental duties that are difficult enough in perfect health, but she also had to deal with chemotherapy, losing her hair, being too weak to work or drive her children anywhere, being in great pain, looking death in the eye.
Suddenly I saw this 5K differently, as a huge support network for women facing this difficult disease. I knew she had to see it: 10,000 people who came in support of her struggles. This year I sent her an e-mail about the race, and she decided not only to do it, but to sign on as a team. So we all ran as "Team Boo"!
Before the race, Susan and two friends from her support group attended a "Survivors Ceremony," in which many people were able to say they had survived 10 years, and a number had survived 25 years past their initial diagnosis! Inspiring, indeed.
All of us on Team Boo, including the guys, wore pink hats -- yes, Susan gave US hats this year! We happily walked the entire way. We took the whole family, and the kids chased after each other on scooters. At the end, we waited so we could take a big picture.
We all crossed the finish line fashionably late, and we crossed it together.
Hear more from the world's top violinists in The Violinist.com Interviews: Volume 1, which includes our exclusive conversations with Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang, and David Garrett, and others, as well as a foreword by Hilary Hahn.
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Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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