Category Archives: clarinet

My Short, Tragic Career as an Independent Scholar

 

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Several months ago, I had what seemed like a fantastic idea: now that I was retired from teaching English at a community college, I could engage in critical research, something I’d missed during those years when I taught five or more classes a semester. I had managed to write a couple of critical articles in the last few years of my tenure at a small, rural two-year college in Northern Michigan, but it was difficult, not only because of the heavy demands of teaching, but also because I had very limited access to scholarly resources. Indeed, it is largely due to very generous former students who had moved on to major research institutions that I was able to engage in any kind of scholarly research, a situation which may seem ironic to some readers, but which is really just closing the loop of teacher and student in a fitting and natural way.

And so last fall, on the suggestion of a former student, I decided to throw my hat in the ring and apply to  a scholarly conference on Dickens, and my proposal was chosen. In time, I wrote my paper (on Dickens and Music– specifically on two downtrodden characters who play the flute and clarinet in David Copperfield and Little Dorrit, respectively) and prepared for my part in the conference.

It had been close to 25 years since I had read a paper at a conference, and so I was understandably nervous. Back then, there was no internet to search for information about conference presentations, but now I was able to do my homework, and thus I found a piece of advice that made a lot of sense: remember, the article emphasized, that a conference paper is an opportunity to test out ideas, to play with them in the presence of others, and to learn how other scholars respond to them, rather than a place to read a paper, an article, or a section of a book out loud before a bored audience. Having taught public speaking for over a decade, I could see that this made a lot of sense: scholarly articles and papers are not adapted to oral presentations, since they are composed of complex ideas buttressed by a great many references to support their assertions. To read such a work to an audience seemed to me, once I reflected on it, a ridiculous proposition, and would surely bore not only the audience, but any self-respecting speaker as well.

I wrote my paper accordingly. I kept it under the fifteen-minute limit that the moderator practically begged the panelists to adhere to in a pre-conference email. I made sure I had amusing anecdotes and witty bon mots. I concocted a clever PowerPoint presentation to go with the paper, just in case my audience got bored with the ideas I was trying out. I triple-spaced my copy of the essay, and I–the queen of eye contact, as my former speech students can attest–I practiced it just enough to become familiar with my own words, but not so much that I would become complacent with them and confuse myself by ad-libbing too freely. In short, I arrived at the conference with a bit of nervousness, but with the feeling that I had prepared myself for the ordeal, and that my paper would meet with amused interest and perhaps even some admiration.

It was not exactly a disaster, but it was certainly not a success.

To be honest, I consider it a failure.

It wasn’t that the paper was bad. In fact, I was satisfied with the way I presented it. But my audience didn’t know what to do with presentation. This might be because it was very short compared to all the other presentations (silly me, to think that academics would actually follow explicit directions!). Or it could be because it wasn’t quite as scholarly as the other papers. After all, my presentation hadn’t been published in a journal; it was, as C.S. Lewis might have called it, much more of a “supposal” than a fully-fledged argument. Perhaps as well there was something ironic in my stance, as if I somehow communicated my feeling that research in the humanities is a kind of glorified rabbit hunt that is fun while it lasts but that rarely leads to any tangible, life-changing moment of revelation.

Yet this is not to say that humanities research is useless. It isn’t. It develops and hones all sorts of wonderful talents that enrich the lives of those who engage in it and those who merely dip into it from time to time. I believe in the value of interpreting books and arguing about those interpretations; in fact, I believe that engaging in such discussions can draw human beings together as nothing else can, even at the very moments when we argue most fiercely about competing and contrasting interpretations. This is something, as Mark Slouka points out in his magnificent essay “Dehumanized,” that STEM fields cannot do, no matter how much adminstrators and government officials laud them, pandering to them with ever-increasing budgets at the expense of the humanities.

And this is, ultimately, why I left the conference depressed and disappointed. I had created, in the years since I’d left academia, an idealized image of it that was inclusive, one that recognized its own innate absurdity. In other words, sometime in the last two decades, I had recognized that research in the humanities was valuable not because it produced any particular thing, but because it produced a way of looking at the world we inhabit with a critical acuity that makes us better thinkers and ultimately better citizens. The world of research, for me, is simply a playground in which we all can exercise our critical and creative faculties. Yet the conference I attended seemed to be focused on research as object: indeed, as an object of exchange, a widget to be documented, tallied, and added to a spreadsheet that measures worth.

Perhaps its unfair of me to characterize it in this way. After all, most of the people attending the conference were, unlike me, still very much a part of an academic marketplace, one in which important decisions like tenure, admission to graduate programs, promotions, and departmental budgets are decided, at least in part, by things like conference attendance and presentations. It is unfair of me to judge them when I am no longer engaged in that particular game.

But the very fact that I am not in the game allows me to see it with some degree of clarity, and what I see is depressing. One cannot fight the dehumanization of academia, with its insistent mirroring of capitalism, by replicating that capitalism inside the ivy tower; one cannot expect the humanities to maintain any kind of serious effect on our culture when those charged with propagating the study of humanities are complicit in reducing humanities research to mere line items on a curriculum vitae or research-laden objects of exchange.

I can theorize no solution to this problem beyond inculcating a revolution of ideas within the academy in an effort to fight the now ubiquitous goal of bankrupting the study of arts and humanities, a sordid goal which now seems to characterize the age we live in. And I have no idea how to bring about such a revolution. But I do know this: I will return to my own study with the knowledge that even my small, inconsequential, and isolated critical inquiries are minute revolutions in and of themselves. As we say in English studies, it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination. And in the end, I feel confident that it will take far more than one awkward presentation at a conference to stop me from pursuing my own idiosyncratic path of research and inquiry into the literature I love.

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Filed under Careers, clarinet, Criticism, Education, Literary theory, Literature, Music, Reading, Retirement, Teaching, The Arts, Writing

Confessions of an Amateur Musician

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A rare portrait of the author in a preposterous band uniform, ca. 1977

 

At 53, I am ridiculously—to be honest, pathetically—devoted to learning the clarinet. While most people my age are discovering the joys of gardening, genealogy, or golf, I spend too much time and money on a hobby that makes no sense. I haven’t always been this enthusiastic about music, either. Years ago, like many other high school students, I played in my school band–I even have a nice white sweater with a gold “S” (for Spring Woods High School) affixed to the pocket to prove it, a sweater which I’ve saved throughout the years, despite many cross-country moves. Please note, however, that I make no claim to have actually played in the Marching Band. I was a miserable failure at marching, and, consequently, I sat in the stands every Friday night during football season throughout my senior year, an alternate marcher, to be used only in case of dire emergency. Thankfully, it was never necessary for me to go on the field, and so I was allowed to sit there, alone, munching on cookies I had stowed in my tall busby helmet, watching the show. Although I was a horrible marcher, I was an average clarinet player (despite my inability to count), which was why I was allowed to stay in the band and why, ultimately, I scored that lonely varsity letter.

Years passed, and in my mid-forties, I took up the clarinet again. Since then, I’ve been on a quest to be able to play without making people around me cringe. I am improving, but every now and then I stop and ask myself why I’m doing all this–spending an hour or so a day about five days a week (on good weeks) practicing scales, pushing my poor, age-befuddled brain to learn about intervals and minor chords, perfect fourths and blue notes, and playing in a variety of community bands. The $64 question is, why do all this when the return on my investment will be, in practical terms, so small?

I have faced the following facts: I will never be a great, or even a pretty good, clarinet player. I will never zip up and down scales, double-tonguing effortlessly and gliding with ease through cadenzas, pulling emotions out of world-weary listeners. I will never be able to improvise freely with other musicians, transposing on the spot so I can play my clarinet with guitarists and piano players. I know that at this stage in my life, I will never attain more than “decent” amateur status–and I am not being falsely modest when I say that. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few years, it’s what good music actually sounds like, which in turn means that I know what my own limits are.

Yet I continue to push against these limits, worrying at them like a dog chewing on a nylabone.

I’ve been pondering this question the last few months. The closest answer I can come to is this: Music adds beauty to my life. Even if I can’t be the musician I would like to be, the study of music is, for me, a celebration of art, and that is in many ways a celebration of life. It’s a way to stop the busy swirl of work and social obligations, to bask in the glory of one single note at a time, and to concentrate not only on the here and now (the moment of playing), but also on the there and then (the moment of composing). Playing the clarinet allows me to interpret music—limited though my understanding of it may be—and to put my thoughts, emotions, and what skill I have into my playing. It’s also a way for me to devote myself to a discipline I have neglected throughout most of my adult life. Think of it this way: most of us give up music right after high school, selling our dented and scuffed horns and concentrating on our college majors and professions. This means that at the very time when we understand what it means to be disciplined, when we have finally learned how to devote long hours of effort to attain a degree of mastery, we have already given up on an art form that might just afford us exquisite pleasure. In a way, that’s a real shame.

So that’s why I keep at it. I no longer expect to be that good, and I try not to compare myself to the people who have studied music professionally. I work hard not to wince when I hit wrong notes or get lost in difficult (or even not-so-difficult) phrasings. And I realize that while there are many people who play much better than I do, that is no reason to give up on the clarinet. I love the sound it makes, even when I play it myself, and I love the fact that slowly and surely, I am improving. If practicing scales and occasionally playing obligato with YouTube recordings of Coleman Hawkins are my way of paying homage to the art that is music, and if doing so makes me feel alive and appreciative of those who play better—and of those who play worse—than I do, then what other excuse do I need? Music is for everyone, even for those of us who play imperfectly, who squeak when we mean to dance our way through the highest notes, who get lost amid sixteenth note runs, who are tripped up by our own desire to make beautiful sounds.

And this is why I continue to play. It makes me feel alive; it gives me something to work towards; and, once in a rare while, I hit that one beautiful note, which, whether it is an accident or not, is so fitting, so right, that it brings tears to my own eyes. With that kind of allure, even my own nagging fear of failure isn’t enough to make me give it up.

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Filed under clarinet, Music, Teaching, Uncategorized