This morning I read the following NYT article which strummed some familiar heart strings. The life of a musician comes in many forms.
And the Band Honked On
By DANIEL J. WAKIN
Published: June 22, 2008
THE classroom filled with the sounds of a band struggling to be born, a cacophony of squealing and buzzing. Middle school students in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood were trying to produce the note F.
It was early in the school year. A young professional French horn player named Alana Vegter, a thoroughbred musician trained by elite teachers, took a handful of trumpet and trombone players into an equipment supply room. Speaking in the flat tones of the Chicago suburb where she grew up, Ms. Vegter tried to coax notes out of each player. A tall sixth-grade trumpeter named Kenny Ocean, his pants sagging around his hips, played too high, then too low. A smile spread across his face when he hit it right.
“You see, every time you do it, it gets easier,” Ms. Vegter said. On her cue they all bleated together. “I’m starting to hear everybody making nice, healthy sounds,” she said, half in praise, half in hope.
So began Ms. Vegter’s year in Ditmas Junior High School, Intermediate School 62, in the Kensington section of Brooklyn. It was a year that would teach her the satisfaction of tiny victories in a place where homelessness means that some kids cannot take their instruments home to practice, where chronic asthma forces some to switch from wind instruments to percussion, where the roar of a lunchroom leaves a newcomer stunned.
Ms. Vegter, 25, was there as part of a well-financed experiment by some of the nation’s most powerful musical institutions. The experiment is called, clumsily, the Academy — a Program of Carnegie Hall, the Juilliard School and the Weill Music Institute (the institute being an arm of Carnegie).
In its second season, which ended this month, the academy extended fellowships to 34 graduates of leading music schools to receive high-level coaching and lessons in a two-year program. They play concerts on Carnegie’s stages and participate in master classes. Part of the deal is a commitment to teach one and a half days a week at a New York public school, which pays the academy $13,200 for the service.
The idea is ambitious: Mold a new kind of musician in a time of declining audiences and — seemingly — dwindling relevance for classical music. Performers focused intently on artistic development are being asked to step outside themselves and spend time away from their instruments.
“We are working to equip musicians who will continue to grow,” said Clive Gillinson, the executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall. “We’re looking at the life of the musician of the future, what it could be and what it will be. If we can enable musicians to become utterly fulfilled, they will end up contributing far more to society and to music.”
It is a noble goal, and maybe a tall order, given the glut of musicians who continue to pour out of music schools to face a life that has always been tough psychically and economically — whether for a Mozart groveling before royalty or a modern-day conservatory grad struggling through orchestra auditions in the provinces.
The academy is also intended to give a concrete boost to music education, which is held to be in serious decline: both a cause and an effect of the diminishing stature of classical music.
The program had its growing pains. One fellow was asked to leave for blowing off his teaching commitment. Others scoffed at the mushiness of teacher-training sessions. And a year spent following Ms. Vegter at Ditmas showed how high-minded concepts can run smack into reality.
At the same time the year demonstrated how one talented musician could be made wiser as a player and person, and how a little personal attention from an emissary of high culture could improve the lives of children.
MS. VEGTER, WITH HER AUBURN HAIR pulled back in a ponytail, has the carriage of a jock and the looks of a prom queen, which she once was. But her jock world was band, and her town of 13,000 people, Lemont, Ill., is band country. It is a community where music education works.
The majority of middle schoolers are in band. Competitions begin in the sixth grade. Band boosters pay for travel, instruments and uniforms. Band alumni come back for homecoming. The Lemont High School band won the state championship in its division from 1998 to 2005, including three of Ms. Vegter’s years there. Four of her classmates are professional musicians. “People respected it,” she said.
She was held in awe by fellow students in high school. “She was probably one of our top one or two or three all-time that we’ve had,” said David Nommensen, her band director.
Ms. Vegter’s father owns a carpet-cleaning company. Her mother died when she was 16. Inspired by a French horn-playing baby sitter, she began the instrument at 10 and showed immediate talent.
At DePaul University in Chicago she studied with Jon Boen, the principal of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She played in the school band and orchestra and in the respected Civic Orchestra of Chicago, a training ground of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She went off to Juilliard for her master’s degree, one of two horn players admitted as graduate students that year, and studied with the exacting Julie Landsman, a co-principal of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.
On the cusp of a career Ms. Vegter displays the idealism of the young. “I am a musician simply because music is what makes me most happy in life,” she wrote this spring in an e-mail message distilling her feelings. “Nothing else measures up. Not a steady paycheck, not social status.”
Her instrument is fickle. Yet “when everything lines up and playing the horn feels easy,” she said, “I feel so incredibly alive.”
Ms. Vegter is realistic about her prospects. She wants to play in a major orchestra but knows how hard it is to win a spot. Yet she remains sunny. “People who work hard and mean well tend to have things work out,” she said. Whatever happens, music will remain a large part of her life, she said.
Read the rest of And the Band Honked On.