Monday, June 11, 2012

LU Profs who made an impact

Students and young alumni from Lehigh may be confused by the title of this post. It's the not many faculty colleagues who inspire and motivate my daily work, this post is about the people who kicked me in the butt when I needed it most when I was your age...

Yes, I also walked to classes barefoot in the snow, 2 miles, uphill, both directions. Lawrence University is in Wisconsin, donchya-know.

Bob Levy
The king of breathing. He was our esteemed Wind Ensemble dictator, ahem, director who demanded we do more listening to ourselves as an ensemble than try to out perform each other as individuals. If we weren't blending, we were ruining the music. He let us know that, no matter what the consequences of pride or ego. He required we listen to recordings of the Eastman Wind Ensemble. One piece that I remember with great fondness is Joseph Schwantner's "...and the mountains rising nowhere." The percussion parts on this were a bitch, as were the rhythms in all of the sections. Oboe players got to play tuned crystal glasses. At some point we all had to sing. If you want to hear a recording of it, here's a link. Make sure you give yourself a quiet space for 12 minutes to hear the whole piece. And make sure you don't have the volume up too high in the beginning. Trust me, it gets fantastically loud. Playing this piece was one of the best memories of Lawrence. Taking it on tour was pretty cool, too. Ending up at Eastman was an achievement I never, ever dreamed of when I was an undergrad. Each time I played in the Eastman Wind Ensemble, I remembered Bob's mantra to breath and listen to each other. I would pinch myself when I'd look at the ceiling of the Eastman Theatre; a picture of the chandelier was on one of the albums we were assigned.

One thing to note about my Lawrence experience. I switched instruments from flute to bassoon in my freshman year. I had good reasons. Not really knowing at the time, the unusual decision turned out to be the best thing I could have done, despite the ridiculous amount of frustration it brought.

I had never seen a bassoon up close until freshman year, so when I was given the chance to try it over Thanksgiving break, I took it as a novelty. By my sophomore year, I took the plunge, dropped the flute and focused on the beast. Bob let me play it in ensembles, even though I didn't have complete control over the sound. On one occasion in rehearsal he yelled at me in front of everybody, "Silagh, if you can't restrain that thing, don't play. Just sit out."

I was devastated. He knew it. After rehearsal, he took me to the student union for coffee to encourage me to keep trying (and to apologize, I think). It was a combination of his demand and my stubborn determination that I buckled down even harder - spending as much time in the practice room as I could on long tones, scales, and trying to teach myself how to adjust reeds. The bassoon teacher was only available on campus one day a week. Looking back, I should have transfered. But I'm so glad I stuck it out - for so many other reasons.

My senior year, I auditioned for the concerto competition. Of course, I was competing against some amazing performers: Mary Leavall (flute), Rob Hudson (trombone) - the classmates who were top of their game in high school. Add another 4 years to their already incredible talent, while I had only 3.5 years on the bassoon, there's no way I could even compete. But I did anyway because I'm that delusional. After the competition, Bob came up to me to tell me that although I didn't win, he was impressed with the hard work I put into it, and he was pleased that I was going to continue studying in a masters program. He was being very fatherly, telling me that what I did wasn't normal and not to give up.

Fred Sturm
At the time I was a student, Fred was director of LUJE - Lawrence University Jazz Ensemble; the coolest ensemble in the entire conservatory - according to me. Since the bassoon shouldn't swing (except from a rope - there, I plugged in one of the most popular orchestra instrument jokes), I wasn't able to join the group. I was a wannabe jazzer. All the kids in the LUJE just had it so together. I could only admire them. Before the conservatory renovation, LUJE had their own rehearsal space in the International House, second floor. There was a bathroom on that floor where Fred allowed me to keep my bassoon reed stuff in the bathtub so I wouldn't have to move it all the time.

Fred is a kind soul. And the only other person I know who switched instruments in college. He didn't take me under his wing, but just knowing he understood what I was putting myself through meant a lot. It was so cool to see him in the faculty at Eastman when I got there as a doctoral candidate. I was so glad I finally got a chance to play in his program there in a couple of studio jazz concerts, and film score writing projects. Just him knowing where I came from, and that I was finally in the ensembles meant so much to have him see me there.

It's good to know that Fred is back in Appleton. LUJE just means so much more with him there.

Dane Richeson
Dane joined the Lawrence conservatory faculty my sophomore year. He made a huge impact on the conservatory, especially with the ladies. Yes, he's still pretty gosh darned handsome. But it was his mysterious and intentionally deep musicality that drew us in. He brought so much music to campus, not only in his jazz drumming, but in his starting the Sambistas (which grew into the LU Percussion Ensemble). Man, those were some great concerts.

I have one favorite memory of Dane. While he was performing a ton off campus, he also had to teach the percussion methods course for one term; 8-10am, four days a week. It was brutal for all of us. The day we had to study crash cymbals, I was really..... sick. (a little excessive fun the night before in Pat's Tap). Dane delighted at seeing my green face, and demonstrated the proper technique three inches from my ears. I totally deserved it.

Dane inspired me to try new things later in my graduate studies. In a somewhat tangential way, Dane pushed me into exploring the Balinese Gamelan at Bowling Green State University. This is where I met my future husband. Thanks, Dane!

Marjory Irvin
Any connie from the class of '87 knew Ma Irvin. She was the tough as nails music theory teacher we all feared as freshmen, and revered as seniors. For some strange reason, I was put in the A level theory class with the other more brilliant musicians my freshman year. It was intimidating enough being paired with the top flutist in Wisconsin for a room mate. Music theory is the practice in which you "train your eyes to hear, and your ears to see." (Ms. Irvin, 1983). As an example, we had daily aural skills exercises where we were given the first note, then after a string of intervals, had to know that last note. Thus, by hearing, we could see what note ended the phrase by noting each in turn on the manuscript. We also had to know the quality of sound (major or minor) of a chord just by seeing it in the score. We also had to learn how to analyze and write 4-part harmonic chord progressions in order to learn the rules of western music construction. We were pulling apart music bit by bit so we could understand the structure. In way, it's like pulling apart an engine to understand how the parts fit together. We were to eventually know how to hear a score of music just by reading it.

Ms. Irvin was tough, but fair. I was doing a lot of whining about music theory, not really wanting to apply myself. I turned passive agressive and didn't turn in some of the assignments at all. She did the best thing any teacher could do to a student who has potential, but doesn't apply it toward the work: she failed me my freshman year. I was put on academic probation, and nearly lost my scholarship.

She didn't give up on me. There were a few times when she pulled me into her studio to make me explain to her the process of secondary dominant chord progression, or the differences between the three augmented sixth chords and how the inner voices should resolve to the transitional key change. She knew that if I could explain it, I would get it.

She taught me one of the best lessons as a mentor; if the student doesn't understand a concept the first three times you repeated the explanation, the teacher (you) are the one not listening. It was the first time I was introduced to the theory of multiple intelligences - even before Howard Gardner's theory became international renowned.

More than being an excellent teacher, she was my friend. When students were kicked out of the dorms in between terms, she invited me to stay at her home instead of go back home. My reasons for not wanting to go back to Kenosha were stupid, but she didn't judge. I'm sure my mom was as grateful as I was for a place to stay. Marge was an excellent cook, and an incredibly interesting person outside of class. She introduced me to Pouilly-Fuisse; not a particularly expensive wine, but a fancy name. She even named her cat after the wine. Every time I see this label, I think of her:
I hope I get a chance to see these folks next weekend. I have to thank each and every one of them for giving me the tools I use in almost every aspect of life, both in and out of performing music.


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