Sunday, December 19, 2010

Rise Decline and Growth

Rise, Decline and Growth

A few days ago I got a big surprise when I visited and unexpectedly heard the opening movement of the Galliard Sonata #5 that I recorded on my first album 40 years ago! My Webmaster, manager, and longtime friend, Emily Harris put the sound file on my site and frankly, hearing it wasn’t a bad experience. How I would like to have this 28-year-old young man as a student; he plays beautifully! He is slightly rhythmically pushy, far too obedient to the printed articulations, a little conservative in his use of dynamics; but he’s musical and he has one of the loveliest vibratos I’ve heard. The kid definitely is a natural musician, and in the right environment should develop into a wonderful player. I think I could help him, but alas; this is all fantasy.

The fact is, that was about as good as I ever got! I got musically smarter and more experienced, I became a cleverer player and learned how to play music that was much more difficult, but the fact is that as a tubist, I didn’t get much better than that period between my first New York recital in 1961 and the first recording in 1966. The rest of the playing years were spent growing musically and trying to keep my tuba playing at the level it was in the 60s.

It’s inevitable; every athlete will begin to perform less well as the aging process takes place, and for athletes that’s usually in the late 20s or early 30s. The reality is that brass playing is quite an athletic function; the positive aspect of this is that the age of decline for brass players seems to come much later than that of ice hockey players, basketball players or swimmers. But this is the mystery; what makes some brass players decline earlier and others play well into their 60s? I’m sure to some degree it’s genetic, some people just age slower than others but from my personal view I believe that the decline curve of a brass player is largely due to the circumstances of the individual and there are no two players with the same circumstances.

I was lucky, I had a job playing the tuba; so many times I’ve had students who played spectacular senior recitals and never played that well again, I’ve always thought that this was very sad, but to stay at that high level they reached at their time of graduation requires that playing continues on very frequent basis.

I’m tempted to share how I view my own decline and the decision to stop playing and I most certainly will share that sometime, but not today, not here. I will just say that our personal lives, our artistic growth and our pure “brass player stubbornness” have a lot to do with it. Further, I will only say now that in my case my tuba playing simply could not keep up with my musical awareness and the frustration became painful and increasingly audible. I felt I had to leave the orchestra; I hoped that leaving it would help.

It did; I was a much happier man without the burden of symphonic responsibilities, still I wasn’t playing any better and at the same time I was no longer making enough money. It’s strange really; I was forced to fulfill my lifetime dream of becoming a soloist; I needed the money---that was not the best reason! If only I still had had the tuba playing facility of that kid I heard on the 1966 recording.

My only big regret is that I never had the opportunity to record the Vaughan Williams Concerto; that was my piece. The first copy I had of it was a gift from Dr. Vaughan Williams himself, whom I met when I was 15. I’ve lost count now, but I think I’ve performed that piece well over seventy times. A recording date with an Italian band of the Vaughan Williams and the Aratiunian Concerti is what made me realize I should stop; I couldn’t get to that level of that kid from the 60s and I didn’t want to be remembered as anything less, so I canceled the recording session and made the decision to stop playing.

Was it a sad day? No! Without being encumbered trying to create beauty through the big heavy brass tube, my musical growth accelerated and made me a better musician, a better teacher and conductor and a much happier man.

I try not to get too personal in these articles, musical or narrative, but I hope the information in these more personal essays may be useful.

For now I’m happy the tuba still holds an important part in my musical life, and I hope and expect it to stay that way.

Tokyo, September 1, 2006