Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Power of Humor

While I have played quite a few auditions and a few competitions in my day, I have had to do very few job interviews. The few I have done have mostly been successful. As an undergraduate, I flubbed one interview because I was obviously over-qualified. But I want to tell you a story about one interview that seemed bound for disaster that I managed to rescue through the power of humor.

It was a pretty crucial interview. I had just moved back to Montreal in an attempt to get my career out of the doldrums and I needed a decent teaching job pretty badly. Vanier College, a CEGEP (these are two year colleges in Québec that comprise what in the rest of Canada would be the last year of high school and first year of university--"CEGEP" is an acronym for Collège d'enseignement général et professionnel) with a good music department, had an opening for a guitar instructor. I made an appointment to see the chair of the department, a conductor. As I was fairly new to town, some friends of mine wanted to take me out to an Ikea store way out in the suburbs that morning. They insisted I would be back in plenty of time for the interview. As it happened, they dropped me off at a bus stop and said to wait for bus number, I think it was, 51. So I did. And waited and waited. That bus was supposed to take me to the nearest subway stop--in Montréal they call it the "Metro". There were lots of different buses that served that stop so finally I gave up and jumped on the first one to come that indicated it went to the Metro on the theory that once on the Metro, I could get to the Vanier stop quickly. Alas, I was wrong! The bus I got on went all across town to a very far-flung arm of the Metro system. We arrived at a Metro station at about the time I was supposed to be at my interview. So I called the conductor's office and explained what had happened and that I would be there as soon as I could. The long, long ride back took about forty minutes as it involved going from one end of the system to the other. Finally, finally, I was striding down the corridor of the college only to see the conductor locking the door to her office, having given up on me as I was now forty-five minutes late. I had had quite a while to think over what I was going to say as "sorry I'm late" just seemed a little inadequate. So I walked up to her, held out my hand and said, "Hi, I'm Bryan. How am I doing so far?"

She gave me this look, then started chuckling. I got the job. I should mention that being on time is particularly crucial in the music business. As an undergraduate I had had the humiliating experience of being late for an orchestral rehearsal where I had a solo guitar part and having to walk through the empty concert hall with the entire orchestra and conductor glaring at me. In the orchestra biz, if the rehearsal is scheduled for 8 pm, at that precise moment is when the conductor's baton drops. You have to be there fifteen minutes before to make sure you ready: tuned up, reeds ready, music on the stand, etc.

A lot of musicians have a great sense of humor, especially Czechs! I was doing the Schubert quartet for flute, viola, guitar and cello once with a Czech violist. One rehearsal, I had just put new strings on and was having to tune them up every time we stopped because they were still stretching. He leaned over to me and said in his thick Czech accent, "if you are doing that for me, don't bother, I'm deaf!" He was the same guy who said one day that "there is musical talent -- there is also anti-talent!"

Occasionally I get off a good line. One of my best came out of the blue in a moment of, well, inspiration, but not divine inspiration. I had a guitar quartet consisting of some young students that had actually started out as a group. One of my most successful teaching experiments. I had started a group class of beginners and originally had five ten-year-olds. One of them dropped out, but the other four stayed with it for several years. They eventually all took individual private lessons, but I kept them together as a quartet ensemble. They learned quite a lot of music for guitar quartet and I even took them on local television a couple of times. Two of them ended up going to university in music and one graduated in performance and went on to study in Europe. Pretty remarkable. Anyway, back when they were sixteen or so, they were reviving a piece that they hadn't played in a while and I was listening from the back of the hall. It wasn't going very well and they kind of galumphed themselves to the end. The leader looked up at me and said, "that sounded a bit like..." and trailed off. I immediately said "copulating dwarves, yes, I know". If you had heard them play, you would be laughing your head off right now.

My finest moment in graduate school, where I was in the doctoral program in musicology, came in a seminar on 20th century music taught by a very dour composer. He had a big beard and was widely known to have never actually smiled in his entire life. One day we were talking about Messiaen and he was telling us the story of the famous piece Quatuor pour la fin du temps known in English as the "Quartet for the End of Time". Wikipedia summarizes the story as follows:
[Messiaen] was captured by the German army in June 1940 and imprisoned in Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz, Germany (now ZgorzelecPoland). While in transit to the camp, Messiaen showed the clarinetist Henri Akoka, also a prisoner, the sketches for what would become Abîme des oiseaux. Two other professional musicians, violinist Jean le Boulaire and cellist Étienne Pasquier, were among his fellow prisoners, and after he managed to obtain some paper and a small pencil from a sympathetic guard, Messiaen wrote a short trio for them; this piece developed into the Quatuor for the same trio with himself at the piano. The combination of instruments is unusual, but not without precedent: Walter Rabl had composed for it in 1896, as had Paul Hindemith in 1938.
The quartet was premiered at the camp, outdoors and in the rain, on January 15, 1941. The musicians had decrepit instruments and an audience of about 400 fellow prisoners and guards. Messiaen later recalled: "Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension."
It is a very compelling story and the whole class sat quietly musing to themselves when he had done. I had another of my moments of inspiration and after pausing a beat said, "Yeah, but, 'captive audience'!"

The whole class burst into laughter and the professor, after glaring at me for an instant, actually gave a brief guffaw.

This reminds me of something another Czech said about his time in a concentration camp. He was a violinist and was sent to Terezin, the "cultural" concentration camp started by the Nazis. He had with him his violin but no scores. In an interview he said“I had everything memorized.  And I wasn't thinking of, you know, staying there for a long vacation."

I like to end every post with a piece of music. The obvious one today is the Quartet for the End of Time, by Messiaen:

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