Essential Musical Personalities

I recall reading once that Mitch Miller (most famous to the general public for the 1960s TV show Sing Along With Mitch, but he has had many other, far more reputable accomplishments) started musical life as an oboist. I have always wondered—as, for example, when I heard his wonderful recording of the Gershwin Concerto in F with the late David Golub at the piano—what this meant, really. What does an oboist listen for, or intuitively understand, that the rest of us only get more or less in passing? Surely, whatever roles we end up playing in the musical world, we are formed and defined by our first musical experiences. Despite how little I manage to practice, I will always be a pianist, probably on the cellular level.

Many academic musicians, conductors etc. were pianists. Is it an advantage? The pianist controls, much of the time, both melody and accompaniment—the whole story, in other words. The disadvantage, as countless people have pointed out already, is that we have no method other than counterfeit for sustaining a tone, building a crescendo on one note, or effecting any tuning inflection finer than an equally tempered half-step. Figuring out how to “sing” at the piano usually means listening to a lot to singers and imitating their phrasing and style, and that kind of homework is talked about and recommended far more often than it is actually done. By contrast, someone who is a singer, or a violinist, has a head start with respect to things like phrasing, singing lines, and so on, while pianists too often have a tendency towards percussive digital dexterity, off-to-the-races accelerandi, and so forth—and yes, I know whereof I speak. Many conductors are pianists, but likewise many were string players, and really know what to do with a string section. Carlo Maria Giulini comes to mind, here, and there are others. So, again—how does a Mitch Miller approach a piece differently from someone who has the DNA, so to speak, of a pianist or string player?

My belief about musicians and how this affects what they later become is based on casual observation and limited experience. Fact is, I don’t really know what a flutist really listens for, or a double-bass player, or a horn player, but the amount of time spent with any instrument, and listening to ensembles from the perspective of that instrument’s part, must necessarily color one’s musical view and personality. Of course, I am not the only person to suspect that alpha musical experiences color us for life.

Our Head of Bands here once cross-examined me: “Come on, Bellman, out with it. What instrument did you play in band in school?” I countered with the same strategy I use with people who want to know my astrological sign. (I did this once long ago with a college roommate of my wife’s; she got it on only the seventh guess: “Leo. Of course.” Needless to say, I was completely convinced.) “I’m sure you can tell, since you’re sensitive to it. You tell me. What instrument did I play in band?” It was a bluff, of course. I never played in band,* but was curious what he’d say, and what instruments would be tarred by my association. So my friend said, with confidence: “Trumpet!” Sorry. “Uh…horn?” Nope. “…clarinet…?” One wonders what this says about his view of those instrumental personalities that he would map me onto them. It also struck me as interesting that my participation in band was somehow a given, that no other musical upbringing might be a possibility (or, indeed, if there even was any other kind of musical upbringing). My institution has a historical mission of education—lots of teacher training, research in education theory and so on— so large ensemble/mainstage culture is very much the local custom. But still:

How do our real musical upbringings, nurture so deep it’s LIKE nature, play out in conducting, or composition…or, for that matter, musicology? Most practically, how does this play out in ensemble work?

Which leads to my next subject:

Musicians’ racism (don’t worry—not real racism), for which I have a deep affection. More on that next time.

*I started piano at six because I’d play my older brother’s piano lesson stuff by ear, and he’d slug me—“You’re not doing it right! You don’t even know how to read it!”—and I’d cry and my parents decided not to wait to get me lessons.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
This entry was posted in Musical Sociology. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Essential Musical Personalities

  1. ttutheory says:

    As a double bassist-turned-theorist, I think that my double bass playing has definitely impacted what I do now. One of the things I always liked about playing the bass is the opportunity to listen to what others are doing. More often than not, we’re holding one note for a long, long time or resting. Rather than count the 147 measures, I like to listen. Our position in the orchestra also influnces the way we hear: my proximity to the cellos and violas has taught me to listen for their parts in relation to mine. In most cases, I could sing the viola or cello part of a major orchestral work before I could sing the melody.
    I once played under a conductor who placed the double basses behind the French horns, at the back of the wind section. The experience was completely disorienting because my good friends the cellists and violists were so far away…
    I think that listening for everything that happens “on top” of the bass part in rehearsals over the years has definitely impacted my comprehension of undergraduate-level theory.
    The bad thing about being a bass player is that I have no intimate knowledge of some of the canonical theory pieces: the Beethoven piano sonatas, the Chopin preludes, the Haydn string quartets, etc. etc. I’ve never played these pieces, nor will I ever. My understanding is superficial at best, and I’ve struggled to play catch-up with my theorist colleagues who’ve played all of these pieces as undergraduates.
    I find that I teach aural skills with a bias towards orchestral musicians: “This is how I use my ears–you should do the same thing.”
    Thanks for the interesting post!

  2. mm says:

    Does it matter that Gustav Reese was a notoriously poor singer (a fact that he was notoriously unaware of)?

Comments are closed.