November, 2004

Robert Weirich

I've had a block about this column for nearly three weeks. It should have been a simple matter, since it's my last as CMS president. There are many people to thank, completed projects to cite, and best wishes to tender incoming President Tayloe Harding. It's been an exciting two years and I'm deeply grateful to the membership for the opportunity to serve the Society and to the members of the Board of Directors for their energy and tremendous creativity.

But these are Last Words, after all; surely there's more. As a sometimes composer, I should have known better than to wait for inspiration. Yet sometimes you get lucky.

Last night I heard a jazz pianist named Eldar Djangirov play on a little church concert series in a suburb of Kansas City. lf you haven't heard of him yet, I predict you will. Simply put, he is astounding. His technique stands comparison with Art Tatum's. He also composes; his tunes are full of melodic grace and harmonic whimsy. He plays with an assurance and freedom that carries all before it. His rendition of "Caravan," which ended the first half, surpassed that of Oscar Peterson, whose Ravinia Festival pedormance of the same piece has remained in my memory of pianistic miracles for more than twenty years. Eldar Djangirov wasn't even born then-he's seventeen! What's more, he was born in Kyrgyzstan.

This torrent of music-making was like an intravenous caffeine hookup. At intermission I paced around the church sanctuary, unable to sit still. Thoughts coursed through me spontaneously, suggesting connections, prompting action. His playing communicated vitality and zest—an impetuous radiance—to all who heard, and happily my ears were ready. As music lovers we have all had this experience of hearing a performance that literally takes us to another level. Alas, as music professionals, we know how seldom it happens in relation to the amount of music we actually hear.

In the swirl of Eldar-induced cogitation, I thought of the CMS question: given three wishes, what would you change about your role as a musician/teacher in academe, in your community, and in American society? What better time to answer that question personally than in a last President's Page?

As l've wrestled in the past with an answer, I realize there is one word that kept tripping me up: role. Consulting Webster's I find "a character assigned or assumed," or "a socially expected behavior pattern usually determined by an individual's status in a particular society." Given only one wish, what I'd like to change is my self! I can't change others' expectations. In fact, those very expectations may be why it's so difficult to change personally—by accepting a particular role as a musician/teacher in academe or in the community, we limit ourselves.

So, if I could wish a change upon my self as opposed to my role, I would become fearless. I would no longer fear what others thought of me, nor would I be afraid of failing. I would take more chances, learn to improvise (literally—listening to Djangirov gave me a jolt that far exceeded classical virtuosity). I would pursue the classical equivalent of working without a net. This would go against everything I learned during my own years of study, which taught subservience to the score, moderation in all things, and emotional objectivity in music-making. As a musician/teacher in higher education, I would get out of the disco business (where in lessons one spends the day saying, "'dis go like 'dis, and 'dat go Iike 'dat"), and instead encourage creativity. I would work to stop the boring, dull specialization we seem to be fostering in the name of performance practice. In my school, as a fearless lover of music and creativity, I would reach out to my colleagues to open their doors to reintegrate the study of music from its present discipline-specific dissection.

I would stop assuming that my role as an academic musician/teacher limited me to the campus. While I have always taken part in the musical activity of my community, as a fearless creativity enthusiast, I would not present myself as the keeper of a sacred flame (classical musicians accept the priestly role all too easily). Instead, I would aspire to a Dionysian energy by making and presenting the music that matters to me as alive and contemporary even if it was written 300 years ago. I would also stop assuming that my duties as a teacher are limited to college-age music students. Indeed, I may have more teaching success outside of academe than within—there are fewer expectations.

Aldous Huxley said, "There's only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that's your own self." Change begins one person at a time, and always from within.