Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Decisive Musicality

A young person is most fortunate when he or she has a decisive and early encounter with a real musician with a gift for teaching. In parallel to playing trombone in school bands and fitful piano playing, I studied recorder with Shirley Robbins throughout high school, and that time with Mrs. Robbins was my decisive musical encounter. Her musicality still drives my life and work as a composer. She was often frustrated with me as a recorder student; I practiced too little and all my other interests (tangential, juvenile) were a distraction, but studying with your Mrs. Robbins was always about more than playing the recorder, and to be honest, the recorder was simply an excuse to spend time in her world, which was one apart from suburban Southern California. Her home was a musical and cultural salon in a land where television sets had long occupied most living rooms.

Working with her was about music in a larger sense, and about history and literature (how many recorder students are sent home with books on medieval Sephardim or Samuel Beckett novellas?), about ethics and attitude, no, not attitude: posture. (No surprise that she would later have a second career as an Alexander technique instructor). Being with her was persimmon pudding (with the fruit fresh from her garden) in the winter and getting an awkward adolescent onto the dance floor to galliard and bransle, and it was always her dark alto voice, the only voice I ever allowed to get away with calling me Danny.

Shirley Robbins passed away in late February. The photo above is my first conducting gig, at a very thin 15, with Mrs. Robbins looking on, in one of her backyard concerts.

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