Monday, August 04, 2008

Ben Levy and the Glass phase

The thing I would just say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn't as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it felt short, and some of us can admit that to ourselves and some are a little less able to admit that to themselves. But we knew that it didn't have the special thing that we wanted it to have. And the thing that I would say to you is that everybody goes through that, and for you to go through it -- if you're going through it right now, if you're just getting through that phase, or if you're just starting off and you're entering into that phase -- you've got to know that it's totally normal, and the most important thing you could possibly do, is do a lot of work.

-- Ira Glass, from a discussion on YouTube. Watch the original here.


I wanted to transcribe a bit of Ira Glass' little sermon on creative work and the disappointments of the learning phase -- though I recommend you watch the clip on YouTube as well. One thing about Ira Glass: he's kind of hard to transcribe. He speaks in long, run-on sentences, and rather than pausing between them, he actually seems to speed up into the next thought. It's very natural to listen to, it just doesn't always look like it on the page. I wonder if that was part of the reason he seemed so stiff and dry in his early days on NPR -- he hadn't yet learned to sound like himself.

Listening to those early tapes is a great reminder that every artist, even the ones we most respect and admire, went through similarly maddening struggles. Every orchestral bassist at some point wondered if he or she would every play Mozart 35 as fast or as well as that other guy; we all had to humble ourselves the first time we went into a lesson with a Bach Suite.

Having good taste, as Ira describes, may actually make this phase more difficult to work through. We see how badly our results have failed our expectations, and we wonder if it's even worth the effort of trying. Someone like Ira Glass -- by showing how his idiosyncratic style needed a lot of time to develop -- can show that it is worth the effort, that patience will pay off.

At the beginning of my third year at NEC, I encountered an incoming freshman bassist named Ben Levy. He was already a strong player, but I don't know that anyone would have guessed that he would join the BSO at the age of 23. He still had a lot to work on when I first met him, and he was incredibly determined to work on it. He was almost always in the front practice room on the lower level, working on his scales and intonation when I got to school. He practiced compulsively, putting in a lot of hours, as many of us did.

What set him apart, I think, was that he had a very keen sense of how he wanted to sound, and was phenomenally determined to realize that sound. Even in his first jury, in which I think he played an easy baroque sonata transcription, Corelli or Vivaldi, he played it with such a sense of style and detail, it was really a convincing performance. He certainly still had a lot of work to do, and he would have been the first to admit that. But I think he was already laying the groundwork for the success that would come a few years later.

I found out that Ben had won the BSO in May 2003, when I overheard some gossip at another audition. At first, my stomach sunk -- as much as I liked Ben, I would have wanted to be the first to get a job, and this was a huge job. In retrospect though, I think that watching someone like that can only have a positive effect on you, if you realize that it wasn't magic. He did the work, as Ira Glass urged, even when the result may have been far short of what he'd hoped for. He didn't let the results diminish the hopes, and he kept his determination. That's the only sure-fire recipe for success that I know.

4 comments:

Laura said...

Interesting musings, Matt. Great title too - "Ben Levy and the Glass phase" sounds like some sort of new Harry Potter-like fantasy adventure novel. Well done.

Matt Heller said...

Thanks, Laura! I pride myself on writing good titles, even when the posts themselves kind of suck lemons.

Anonymous said...

When I read the title, I thought it was going to be about Ben Levy and his affinity for the music of Philip Glass, and how maybe that was just a phase. I'm glad that as far as I know, he still appreciates the Glass master.

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