Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Mentors (Part 2)....

This post is about a very remarkable man named Dr. Jack Jarrett.

When I wrote earlier about the insidious side of what mentors can bring (using Simon Cowell as an example of how mentors can be wrongheaded, abusive and debilitating to your creative spark), I strongly cautioned you in that post to be careful about who you let into your life - or let stay in your life, and what you let them tell you.

Point taken, but there is another side, and that is what serendipity can bring you:

In the spring of '77 I was finishing my first year at Virginia Commonwealth University music school.  Having barely squeaked by in my audition by playing the jazz chord solo version of "Misty" - on a guitar more suited for heavy metal - to people who only knew classical music -- I was in the thick of my redemption from my non-triumphant admission to the program.

I was soaking up the boot camp of music theory in my first intensive class - 10 hours a week!  One day the professor, the wonderful and woefully under-remembered Dr. Loran Carrier, assigned us each to write a short atonal piece, and he saw something special in the one I did.  We went over the pieces in a very early (8 AM) morning session.  When he came to my piece, Dr. Carrier played it over and over again - while praising it strongly - to a class of sleepy, clearly non-plussed students.  Afterwards he took me aside and told me he thought I had a real talent for composing, and that I should pursue it.

"Go to Dr. Jarrett and request he give you private composition lessons this summer", he said.

You see, Dr. Jarrett directed the chorus I had been singing in throughout all of the preceding year.  The chorus in which people - who weren't singing majors, or who weren't orchestral players - went to fulfill their requirement for an ensemble credit.  This basically meant that people who had virtually no business  singing were up against the serious choral literature of music history.  We began the semester with the Poulenc 'Gloria' in G Major.  Great piece - not that hard for me now, but no picnic at the time…

Jarrett was a force, and a flaming genius -  albeit with a down to earth quality.  Yet he seemed to not understand - or maybe not care about - how HARD this was for us.  "THE RHYTHM IS DOTTED!!", he would shout.  "THAT'S A BAR OF 5/4!!!  GET YOUR PITCH FROM THE TENORS IN THE PREVIOUS BAR!!!!!  YOU'RE IN G MINOR HERE!!!!!!"  He was yelling.  Not friendly.  Hard assed.

I'll always remember that trial by fire.  In the room where we rehearsed for example, they kept the piano keyboard locked (so people couldn't wander in off the street and access the keyboard to play).  At the beginning of the rehearsal Dr. Jarrett would crawl under the piano keyboard and find a way to play a single pitch…and that was it for the whole rehearsal!  No accompanist.  It was a point of pride.  It felt like (in drill sergeant's voice): 'Get your act together you maggots!'

Now, I've been in some pretty serious New York City choruses since, and over the years I've sung in accompaniment to Robert Merrill, Marilyn Horn, Leontyne Price, Sherrill Milnes, Jerry Hadley and many others (including Pavarotti) at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, The Met, and elsewhere in those choruses…

....and I've NEVER seen that done since.  They all  have pianos playing along with you when you rehearse.

In those groups, for a while I thought, 'why do they want to make it so easy'?  'wouldn't we learn it better if we struggled harder to really understand the music?', 'what if we heard ourselves without someone banging out the notes?'.  I guess now maybe now I'm a hard ass myself.

Reed back in 1977 - being an idealistic sort - thought to himself: 'shucks, this is IMPORTANT, what we're doing is IMPORTANT'.

Perhaps I didn't actually use the word "shucks"...

....but I might as well have.  A large, large part of the reason for my feeling that surge of seriousness of purpose....is energetic - in large measure because of the sense of integrity and work ethic - the energy - that Jack Jarrett brought to those rehearsals.  I didn't actually get it at the time, since I think I was largely punch drunk from the proceedings, and basically a blank slate.  But I felt it.  Let's think of this state of seriousness as 'level one'.

Think about this though: it is far easier to settle for non-excellence in order to keep things friendly.  But he walked the walk.  Plus, he could DO anything he was asking for, with at least one hand tied behind his back. I loved that 'no compromise' way of being.

I asked.  He said 'yes'.  Yet not only was I NOT prerequisite-ready for these lessons, but also the school had a quite strict policy about private composition lessons - juniors and seniors only.  When pressed by little ol' me, the people in the office were quite sure they didn't want to make an exception on my account.  Let's face it: I have never fit the profile of the high achiever…at least on paper.  When I went back and told Dr. Jarrett what had transpired, he said, "well I'm going to take Dr. Carrier's recommendation, follow me".  With that, he led the charge as we 3 (Dr. Jarrett, Dr. Carrier, and I) marched over to the front office, and he made it happen.

So, during that summer, he was a glorified babysitter.


a.m.a.z.i.n.g sight reader.  He seemed to focus about %25 of his energy in actually reproducing the music, and the rest was multitasking his surroundings.  He sat and puffed on a tobacco pipe, and he would sit at the piano with one leg folded under his gluts, and he would make comments while he was playing. "You could go into minor here/how about this chord?".

As the years went on, I tried to create more thorny/complex scores, with lots of instruments, and transposed parts, and meter changes - bigger the better I thought.  That was an adolescent phase for me, before I'd found a real 'voice' of my own.  I was more focused on trying to invent something, than expressing myself.  Yet, there was nothing that ever threw him as he read my stuff, the whole time he worked with me, and he'd still be just chatting away.  Plus he'd get to the end of your piece, then say "great, now you could go here" -- and suddenly the piece seemed to improve - now that he was spontaneously composing 'your' music!

Still, as nice as he was to me, he didn't pull any punches - even when we were alone in private lessons.  I once had written a passage of uninspired harmonies that I - deep down - knew was academic and pedantic in the worst sense.  I said to him, hoping for validation in my best adolescent style whine, "What will this sound like? will it sound OK?".  He retorted with typical frankness and gentle condescension in his light southern accent. "Well" he said, "it'll SOUND like a bunch of parallel diminished chords".


OK, back to the drawing board.  Obviously he's not going to glad-hand me here…and my instincts about how lame this is are on target...

Lesson learned: trust your instincts, especially when you feel something isn't working.

After that summer, I regretfully had to stop taking private composition with him, since they moved me on to a less experienced (or do I mean less cool?) teacher, and his fall schedule filled up with the 'real' composers (juniors and seniors).  I did still have classes with him throughout my time there.  Conducting, class composition - plus I was in his ensembles.  I was especially honored when he conducted one of my orchestral works (pictured below, click to enlarge) at the end of my time there:

All the while I was taking in everything I got to know about him, by study and by example.  There was a bit of a father-figure relationship going on for me (especially since my real father passed away when I was a child - before I really got a chance to know him), yet only one of us really knew the extent of it - even to this day I suspect.  I was always quite shy around him.  Very quiet.

I wanted to be really good...skilled -- like him.  Not only is he skilled at playing and reading, his compositions are superb, and I soaked in a lot from analyzing them.  For a while, as a composer he was my main influence, and those with a knowledge of us both would still hear it today.  I loved the way he is an unabashed romantic in much of his writing.  He embraces tonality, and with a wonderful and unique style.  Terrific harmonic sensibility.  I remember this sudden modulation in the middle of a phrase of one choral piece to evoke a feeling for a particular word...genius!  I asked him why that worked, and he  emphasized that you can be in a new key anytime you want to be, without preparation if you like...

This was the opposite approach to 'follow the rules'.  I ate it up!

For examples of his music, please visit his website (linked below).  Check out the 'Choral Symphony', for example:  We sang that piece with him conducting chorus and orchestra, and during the rehearsal period I sat at the piano, home alone nightly with the choral score to that piece - knowing my classmates were partying the night away.  I was busy meticulously analyzing his choral parts, picking them out on piano.

Thanks once again to Jack, a great opportunity came for me when I wrote my first true orchestra piece.  I had presented a short score in juries (music school thing) the previous semester, and the jurors were purportedly all excited to see the orchestrated version.  I was making real progress.

When I brought in the orchestrated version at the end of the next semester for juries, it was clear (to everyone but me - obviously) that I needed more experience hearing live orchestras.  So Dr. Jarrett, who was at juries that day, again used his clout and made it possible for me to play percussion in the school's orchestra.  Can you believe it?  Being someone who had scant experience to play orchestral percussion, it's hard to express how special an opportunity it was for me to be in those rehearsals learning about the orchestra first hand.

I'd hit the bass drum, the triangle, whatever was easiest.  The real percussionists were very, very cool about it, and so I got a chance to stand in the back of that orchestra and see everything….how they were seated, how the violinists use a bow, when wind players have to breathe, how great composers combine the instruments….everything.  With some pieces, I actually played the percussion parts from the scores, so that I could see what was going on on the page.

In fact, Jack - as I was now knowing him - was in my experience himself going through a personal renaissance of sorts.  He was a sweetheart in these rehearsals.  What gives?

Hmm.  Well, I attributed it to the fact that he was getting more what he wanted from those players than from the 'singers', since they were doing what they were trained for.  It was a far cry from those rehearsals a few years earlier when he barked all those corrections in exasperation.

…Of course, looking back, maybe there was more  - it may not have hurt that he found a sweetheart in, and then married one of the bass players in the orchestra, Shirley.  Shirley was a really lovely person with a warm smile and easy way about her.  You used to see them coming into rehearsal with her carrying the front of her bass and him carrying the back.  It was sweet and heartwarming.

One day tragedy struck.

I come into rehearsal one day, and the mood is dark and somber, and there is another conductor.  Word goes out that Shirley has been killed in a tragic car accident, caused by another driver.

How are we going to go on, I wondered? Especially ... Jack.  How will he go on?

The music department was a tightly knit enough place that everyone had known Shirley -- and everyone, myself included, was deeply, deeply mourning the loss.  There was a service, in which we sang a movement from the Brahms Requiem.  There were many tears from everyone in the room, including those of us on the stage, and Jack was clearly in deep mourning as he sat in the front row listening to our performance of "How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place".  After it was over, we didn't see him for a while, I think it was 3, maybe 4 weeks.

It felt like forever.

One day though, without warning, he's back on the podium to lead the orchestra in rehearsal.  Scant few words are said, and he tells us to get out a piece we were rehearsing for an upcoming performance: movement 4 from Holst's "The Planets".  The movement is called "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity".  You may not know it by the title, but if you're not deaf, or from some remote outpost of the world, you've heard it many times -- a happy, and in places triumphant soaring, piece.  He raises his baton, and still shell shocked, we proceed to give it what would be best called a 'polite' reading.

After we finished, a polite and gentle scolding comes from our courageous conductor.  I can only paraphrase what he said, but this is what I heard:  "Things have been challenging around here lately.  Even though our hearts are broken, we must go on.  This piece has 'Jollity' in the title" (I can especially remember him emphasizing this a few times in his remarks). "No matter how we feel right now, we are musicians, and we can use this piece to lift ourselves, and connect to our humanity."

He stood there, looking at us, more solid than any rock I've ever seen, focused and fully engaged.  A tear dripped from my cheek, and I struggled to hold it together.  In doing so, I looked down and averted my eyes, and could feel the swell of emotion in the room, but for my own composure I did not dare look up.

This is a moment I will never forget.

Some time went by.  It felt like a long time.

After this emotionally charged luftpause, we went on to play through movement 4 again, and something had shifted.

And in that exact moment, the other shoe dropped for me.  Let's call that something 'level two'.  Something clicked.  Something about art and about music - and about life.

Something clicked for me about Jack too: while I had always seen him as this musical genius, this incredible composer, this great musician…I had now - in an instant - become completely cognizant of a new level that I had been seeing all along, but taking in mostly by osmosis, during those preceding years.  It was about leadership, courage, integrity.  Once again I thought, "This IS important".  Only this time for different reasons...

The right ones.

To this day and forevermore, I look to this precise moment in my life for a lesson in how to provide leadership in the most challenging times. I think the most important qualities aren't our abilities, but what we give to the world through them.  We all have our skills and talents, but they can't be developed and shared without leadership.  To have excellence and integrity, you have to provide that, first to yourself, and then to others. Myself: I struggle, I certainly fall short, but I never would have come half this distance without the mentoring of an amazing artist, musical genius, and finally a treasured friend:

The amazing Dr. Jack Jarrett.

Not only will I never forget it, but for you dear reader, just one of these people - a real mentor in your life - can take care of all the Simon Cowells the world will ever throw at you.

POSTSCRIPT:  Over the years I had been trying to contact Jack, and just send him a short note about how much his help had meant to me.  After being at VCU, he went on to become the chairman of the composition department at the Berklee School of Music for 10 years (impressive), and then had invented a notation software called 'Notion', which has become a major player in the notation market.  A while ago he left the company to concentrate full time on composing, and can be found at JackMJarrett.com.  I urge you to pay a visit.

I wrote him emails, first at Berklee, and then at a record label he was on, both with no success.  Finally, I wrote him at Notion, and included a CD of my latest film score.  A couple of months later a lovely note comes with an explanation that he has moved on from Notion and had not received the package for a while, but with very generous comments about my work and about remembering me and knowing me.

It was a milestone for me, a trip full circle.

Hey, I know I'm no Jack Jarrett - but I'm getting there.