With Dean Westman, BOA Educational Director
Dean Westman: Tell us about some of your earliest musical experiences.
Larry Livingston: As long as I can remember, music was a given in our family. My father was a composer, a band director, a jazz musician and owned a music store. He taught himself instrument repair and played dance jobs on the weekends. He wrote the Eastern Michigan University Fight Song. My grandfather played violin and my grandmother played saxophone. My great-grandfather was the ceremonial trumpet player in a small town in New York. I am blessed to have a very strong lineage in the world of music. When I was growing up in Plymouth, Michigan, I lived under the umbrella of music. It was not on the outside, it was on the inside of my life.
Tell us about your experiences at the University of Michigan with the great William Revelli.
I did my Bachelor’s Degree in Music Performance and Music Education. Clarinet was my primary instrument. In the meantime, I played jazz on saxophone and flute. I then earned a Master’s Degree from the University of Michigan in Music Theory. I was very interested in understanding how music worked, and the experiences that I had as an undergraduate in theory classes inspired me to seek more enlightenment, to look deeper into the musical values that lie behind the notes.
William Revelli certainly contributed to my quest for musical awareness. He viewed the podium not just as a vehicle for conducting, but for pedagogy. He taught his students how to form the sound of a band, how to fix rhythm, blend, balance and intonation problems. He was also obsessed with discipline and the idea of injecting pride both into one’s teaching and even one’s personal life. He was a combination of a crusader, a music teacher and a very demanding parent. He also relied on techniques of fear and intimidation to prompt the desired behavior from his players. His influence was so strong, that if you were not careful, you could easily confuse style and content. The content that he provided was phenomenal. I feel that every time that I am on the podium I should write a check to his foundation for what he did for me. At the same time, without meaning to, Revelli created the impression that in order to achieve high quality musical results you needed to act like him, to invoke his motivational strategies of conflict and confrontation. That style of teaching does not map on to everybody equally well. What I was able to do that was very important to me was to differentiate techniques for solving problems from one’s podium demeanor.
Tell us about your earliest orchestral experiences.
I was always interested in jazz, contemporary music, wind band music, and music theory. Unfortunately, in my formative years, I had not really awakened to the incredible power of orchestral music, and the process by which it can inform one’s basic outlook on all music. In 1969, I began working on a PhD in experimental music at the University of California at San Diego. In the early 1970’s, the whole country was rife with political upheaval. New Music was pushing the edge of the envelope both in terms of very far out chance operations, that is to say, music with minimal or virtually no notation whatsoever and, on the other hand, micro-notational music in which the instructions to the player were extremely detailed and specific. The whole idea of musical experimentation was in everyone’s thinking.
My time at UCSD has had a huge impact on my musical thinking to this day. Ironically, while I was at UCSD, I also had the good fortune to have a life-changing encounter with music of the past. I became friends with Rafael Druian, formerly the concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra and later the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. I had an opportunity to work with him in a chamber music project playing the Mozart E Flat Wind Serenade. I had played the Mozart before, but had never seen it through the eyes of a string player who performed Mozart violin concertos and played Mozart symphonies. I had never been around someone who understood Mozart in the larger sense. The idea of doing Mozart Serenades, the Hindemith Symphony, and other band pieces was wonderful, but to see someone bring Brahms, Beethoven, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, etc. to this Mozart experience radically elevated my perspective about music in general.
I then realized that by immersing myself in the greatest orchestral repertoire, I could not only broaden my musical horizons, but also enrich my interpretive relationship to the masterpieces in the band literature. I continue to believe that the more time I spend studying profound music, the more I am able to grow my overall capacity for music making.
Share some words of wisdom for teachers out there working to provide profound musical experiences for their students
The recipe for helping kids develop the skills to have a life-long involvement with music is directly connected to the spiritual and intellectual depth of the experiences they have while they are in school and, secondly, to their ability to evolve independent of the teacher. If we look at band or orchestra as a class which consumes hundreds (thousands) of hours over a span of several years, what do we want as a take away for our students? The language teacher expects students who have taken four years of Spanish to be able to have enough proficiency with the language to function at least at some basic level in a Spanish speaking country. The Spanish teacher wants the student to have no need of him/her once the student graduates. Should we not imagine similar goals for the graduates of our school music programs?
How are kids different today from your days with Revelli?
Certainly because of computers, the Internet, and technology in general, young people today have a much broader awareness of the world. They are used to a fast tempo and are accustomed to instant access to vast amounts of information. I also think we have a lot more kids that play well and have “chops,” to use the musician’s term, than we did when I was first teaching. There are numerous outstanding school programs across the land, many of them in Texas, which blend superb teaching, wonderful parental support, lots of kids taking lessons, good instruments, and good feeder programs. Some of these school bands, and orchestras, can play the most difficult repertoire with finesse and technical virtuosity.
On the other side, the very fact that the kids live in a world that is all about speed (Internet, E-mail, text messages) does not automatically create a better understanding of, and appreciation for, how to value experiences in the world. If you look at the trailer for a new movie, it is often made up of a fast paced series of sound bites with the premise being that the producers do not want the viewer pressing the channel button on the remote. What I think is more powerful than ever about live acoustical music is that it cannot be compressed in time. You cannot do a Mahler symphony in a third of the time that it normally takes. You cannot play a Sousa march twice as fast as it is supposed to go. So, the idea of how time is organized in great music invites in a cognitive element that may be more important than ever.
Learning to play a musical instrument is a challenging, labor-intensive process that cannot be accelerated. While technology has been a huge facilitator, it has not replaced the need resident in every human being to find meaning and fulfillment in the adventure of life.
How do you define success as a teacher?
My definition of success is more easily stated than achieved. Perhaps the following story can serve to underscore the most important measure of successful teaching. A young person graduates from a school band program and fifteen years later writes a letter to his or her teacher saying, “I’ve just gotten through playing my oboe with some lawyer friends of mine (or dentist friends of mine, or janitor friends of mine, or…). We played a Beethoven quintet, and although I do not play as well as I used to, I want you to know how much this means to me. Music is core in my adult life and I want to thank you for putting me on that road.” Now that is letter number one. Letter number two is “I am now a successful lawyer, and I wanted to tell you how much fun we had going to the intergalactic competition and beating the other bands to win that trophy. Although my clarinet sits upstairs in the attic, it was sure cool to do that.” The second letter speaks of a social experience in which doing music is the servomechanism of other goals. The first letter speaks of an experience in which doing music is the goal.
You are in constant demand as a guest conductor in both the band and orchestra world. What goal do you set for yourself each time you work with a group?
My agenda is to be a contributor to the ecology of music, to inspire students to want to participate in music for a lifetime. I want them to realize that music has an enduring value and that doing it well can increase one’s fulfillment. My goal is not to replace technical perfection and excellence of execution with some “feel good” stuff. I cannot advocate thinking which suggests “You don’t have to play in tune, you don’t have to play in balance and you don’t have to play with a beautiful sound. All you have to do is feel something from the music and you are there.”
But technical proficiency as an end in itself is empty and more about managing a machine than self expression. I want students to see that the point of pursuing instrumental mastery is be able to reveal one’s deepest, most personal thoughts and feelings.
You sometimes do something very special when working with a group. I have seen you end rehearsals by sitting at the piano and essentially “improvising” a beautiful song to the members of the ensemble. Tell us about that.
That actually started years ago while I was conducting at Interlochen. I was doing everything that I could to communicate the values that were in the score. We had worked hard on something and I could not help but realize how committed the kids were to the music. In one of those Gestalt and slightly inexplicable moments, I just found myself sitting at the piano and improvising.
When you are on the podium you are really letting it all hang out. You are revealing yourself in every possible way in the effort to enlighten the players. In the end, it is not about the message you send, it is about the message they get.
Going to the piano without a preplan establishes my own vulnerability, my willingness to take risks. I just take the plunge with no thought as to where it will go. Somehow that leap seems to build a bridge to the ensemble as if we were all in this adventure called music where there are no guarantees. It also is an expression of love. Players get that and, in the end, love wins.
How do we as a community of music educators make music a reality for all?
That is a very important question. I continue to mull, looking for core answers. First of all, it is not clear to me that the best path for our music education programs in public schools is the one we have chosen. We have made a primary commitment to elitist-based, performance-centered pedagogy. We try to develop performance skills early on and then, in a kind of pyramidic way, assemble a stellar high school ensemble of 50 or 60 kids who have “competed” their way into that group. That is certainly the model I came out of from my own high school band. Whenever I conduct an All-State group, I am the direct beneficiary of this very approach – the “best of the best.” Such a highly selective program often ends up involving only a small percentage of the school’s total enrollment. While there are clear benefits to this paradigm, it also has some drawbacks. The positives include the fact that we’ve created performance standards that are very impressive. On the other hand, while we have concentrated our efforts on this singular target, we have done it to the exclusion of the large majority of the kids in the school.
Music has a ubiquitous power and meaning to almost everybody. If you were to go into any high school cafeteria and ask the students “Do you like music?” what do you think the answer would be? Of course, it would be, “Yes!” If you asked them, “Would you like to do music?” the answer would also likely be, “Yes.” Now the last question would be “Are you playing music now?” I think that many high school band directors would be surprised to find out how much music making is happening outside of the official school programs, often at an underground level.
Kids are “jamming” in garages, over the Internet, and creating their own musical material in the bargain. My point here is not to denigrate the laudable achievements of traditional, high-powered high school bands and orchestras but, rather, to look at a different criteria for measuring our success as teachers. If our first priority is to produce prize-winning ensembles, we are doing very well. If our first priority is to help equip as many students as possible to become lifelong doers of music, the record of our success is less clear. We have tended to justify our efforts on the basis of anecdotal stories about the occasional student(s) who went on to Juilliard, or Michigan, or Eastman, or…
I am not talking about inspiring students to major in music in college. I am talking about sending out into the world an army of youngsters who, by their exposure to/involvement with music in our schools, can have music forever. I am talking about the empowerment of future amateurs, dabblers, closet composers, recreational music makers and avocationalists.
If one adopts this hypothesis, the question becomes how can one create programs whose mission is to involve, say, 50 percent of the kids in the school, whether through band, orchestra, choir, jazz ensembles, or rock and roll bands that perhaps should be brought into the school and, therefore, legitimized. Is it possible to preserve the performance standards we have worked so diligently to establish while reaching out to the vox populi? It would be an interesting path to take because, in that mode, the teacher would be validating the musical interests of all of the student population. I am a zealot when it comes to the spiritual value of music, not just for the professionals but for everyone who is engaged in the music-making process. I recently attended a drum circle sponsored by my friend, Remo Belli, and witnessed the direct, ineffable ability of music to ignite every human soul. I sat in a large warehouse in North Hollywood and watched a hundred “nonmusic” folk, rich and poor, old and young, ethnically diverse bang on drums for an hour under the leadership of a facilitator.
My immediate reaction was to be turned off. These “dilettantes” were not playing with proper technique, ensemble precision, and dynamic sensitivity. My elitist training held me in check. Then, Remo said to me, “Larry, look at their faces.” I was arrested by the aura coming from each individual, from the entire room. I thought, “I have seen that same facial expression before.” I suddenly realized where I had seen it. It was while watching a friend of mine play the Dvorak Cello Concerto nearly thirty years ago. In every face in that drum circle I saw the reflection of Yo Yo Ma.
How can we, as music educators continue to break down any barriers that may exist between the band and orchestral world?
I think that there is a theory that all human beings are sensitive to, and that is the theory of scarcity, rather than the theory of abundance. In other words, “I’ve got to get mine!” If you are building a band program in your school, raising money to purchase new tubas, getting a band parent organization started and so on, it is no surprise that you would feel threatened by another organization starting up in the school which might “compete” with your enterprise. The idea of band directors wanting to hold fast to their “territory” and not wanting to share with orchestra is more about human behavior than anything musical. I also think that, in some cases, orchestra programs have not done themselves any favors (and I am being very general here) by manifesting a kind of superior attitude and by not invoking the kind of competitive zeal that has inspired band programs to create outstanding performance groups. The idea of the orchestra as the classical “long-haired” group and the band as the public vehicle for the community means that the band is going to “win.” I think that these dichotomies are contrived out of what I consider to be understandable but wrong-headed thinking.
It all comes back to the question of “who are we doing this for?” We are doing it for the kids. So, how do we make the best experience for them? Well, one of the ways you do it is by having groups play at a high level. But the point of developing technical skill is to be able to experience music on a deeper level, not only to connect more probingly with any music but also to be better positioned to tackle the most profound music.
If your high school band has an orchestra, and you are going to play the Hindemith Symphony for Band, the kids who have played Schubert’s Unfinished in the orchestra are going to play the Hindemith better. In the larger analysis, these pieces are all linked in the world of aesthetics. What Hindemith is doing in his Symphony is harvesting the values, musical insights, and expressive content from all other music before him. The idea of a band director not wanting students to attend the Schubert rehearsal because he or she wants more sectional rehearsals on the Hindemith is understandable on a competitive level. Yet, having band students perform in an orchestra can make them more enlightened, more confident instrumentalists. Of course, what I am really interested in is the lingering aesthetic meaning for the student. One way to imagine this is instead of putting band or orchestra in the center of the circle, placing music in the center. In that model, every musical encounter should be designed to grow and influence the student’s core relationship to music. All of the experiential electrons surrounding the nucleus are about the student. What we are really trying to do is to help students aggregate all their experiences into an undepletable resource from which to form a lifetime in music independent of us.