Professor Incomplete, or how to play a concert during a power failure

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t the least bit intimidated by the prospect of my upcoming first semester as professor of cello and pedagogy at the Musikhochschule Freiburg. Professor seems like a big role to fill. There are so many reasons to feel I’m not up to the task, not good enough, not smart enough. To be honest, it pretty much freaked me out when I found out that I got the job. Me, a professor?? I felt comfortable coasting along the path of my chosen anti-career, the one on which I’d quit every prestigious job I ever had as soon as it no longer suited me, which was usually immediately.

I spent several months after getting this news fretting about how to live up to my own expectations of what a professor should be. Certainly that person should have a more spectacular career than mine, be more famous, more knowledgeable, and just generally better and more brilliant at everything. At the same time, the voice of reason in my head tried in vain to remind me that they had chosen me exactly as I was when I auditioned for the position last June with all my flaws and all my incompleteness. This was the best answer I could come up with to my panicky doubts: to decide to be Professor Incomplete.

Meanwhile, life went on. The month of March began with a short European tour with the Berlin Philharmonic. Some time ago I vowed to never be a permanent member of an orchestra again and I stand by that, but I adore subbing with a great orchestra once in a while, and it was a rare pleasure to play with the Berlin Philharmonic on tour for a week. Being a guest means being able to fully enjoy the musical gifts an orchestra has to offer without having to participate in any of the politics. It’s an especially privileged status and I’ve always felt that it’s the musical equivalent of having an affair. You experience all of the highs and none of the lows, pure gratification without any of the grueling work that goes into building a great [orchestra/relationship].

On that tour, I got to talking with one of the older members of the orchestra who had joined under Karajan. He told me how exacting his rehearsal work was and how strict he was with the musicians, and said that he would then let the orchestra play by itself in concert, releasing all the control over detail he had demanded in rehearsal. Perfect, I thought. What any good musician wants, and what the audience wants, is to feel the music taking flight. That does require a certain relinquishing of the controls once the machine is soaring.

Two days after the last concert of the Philharmonic in the Musikverein in Vienna, I left for Guatemala for a week and a half expecting to coach a youth orchestra and teach cello students. If I had to sum it up in one sentence, I would still have to say that I went to Guatemala to coach a youth orchestra and teach cello students, and yet that doesn’t even begin to explain what happened there.

As an aside, I should explain that at some point in my adult life I made an unconscious decision to lead a life of experience rather than a life of achievement. I say unconscious because it only dawned on me many years later, after I had attempted the path of achievement out of a sense of duty and found it bland and disappointing. This is perhaps the only way to explain the fact that the same person who was playing La Mer and Brahms’ 3rd Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle in the Musikverein on Friday could be teaching beginner cello students in Guatemala on the following Tuesday.

Two worlds could not possibly be further apart. On Friday, I overheard some musicians complaining that they couldn’t see the conductor on the Musikverein’s jigsaw puzzle of a stage or that they couldn’t hear the other sections from their seats. Just thinking about those luxury grievances in remote Panajachel on Lake Atitlan on Tuesday seemed hilarious.

The kids had been rounded up from villages all over the country and brought together for the first time to form the Orquesta Nacional Juvenil Intercultural – intercultural because the kids involved were from different Mayan villages, each with their own traditions, native languages, and cultures.

It all began with a man named Arnoldo Kuestermann who had a dream, the son of a German coffee plantation owner who was born in Guatemala, spent his youth in Germany, and returned to Guatemala as an adult. Seeing the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra perform, he decided he wanted that for Guatemala too and very quickly rounded up sponsors for the first session of a national youth orchestra that incorporated young people not just from Guatemala City but from more remote villages across the countryside.

Enter Catherine Larsen-Maguire, conductor and bassoonist, Nigel Shore, oboist, and myself. Catherine was recruited as guest conductor by Arnoldo’s sister, an amateur violinist and member of one of the amateur orchestras Catherine has conducted over the years, and Catherine selected Nigel to coach the wind section and me to coach the strings.

On Tuesday afternoon, the kids were all scratching and blowing away at their instruments when we walked into the former restaurant of the Casa Contenta, a hotel that had been impounded from its drunken owner by the government and transformed into a recreational center for government employees. It was to be the kids’ home for the coming ten days and serve as our rehearsal space. Catherine lifted her baton, greeted the kids in her creative Spanportuenglish, and made her way valiantly through something that resembled Wagner’s Meistersinger Overture.

the first rehearsal of the ONJI

the first rehearsal of the ONJI

That initial rehearsal was followed by 9 days of intensive rehearsals, sectionals, and individual lessons. On Sunday, we had a day off and went on a marvelous private boat trip organized by Arnoldo’s daughter Bettina, a travel agent, and we had a chance to get to know some of the kids better. I sat next to Carlos, one of the cello students, and asked him how long he had been playing (four years) and who his cello teacher was. “I don’t have one,” he said. I asked again, wondering if I had understood correctly in Spanish. “No, I don’t have one. You’re the first.” I asked him how he had learned to play, and he said that a flute teacher who came to his village regularly showed him how to hold the cello and how to play a scale.

my cello and bass section

my cello and bass section

On Wednesday, the newly formed “Phoenix Ensemble” – Nigel, Catherine and I – played a concert for the kids that was supposed to take place in the Casa Contenta. Around noon, the power went out and stayed out. Bettina snapped her fingers and magically relocated the concert to the hotel where we were staying, about five minutes by car. By the time we got there to rehearse, a stage had been built in a conference room and chairs had been set up for the audience. The students came to have dinner at our hotel before the concert as well. All of this took place over the course of one afternoon without any appearance of chaos or difficulty. “You need anything, you want anything, you just tell me and we’ll do it,” Bettina had said at the beginning of the week, and all week long she delivered on her promise.

improvised rehearsal spaces: a cello/bass sectional rehearsal during the power failure

improvised rehearsal spaces: a cello/bass sectional rehearsal during the power failure

Meanwhile, we teachers set about trying to perform miracles. Once I found out that some of these kids had never had instrumental lessons, I started to offer group cello technique classes on the basics. The first one was scheduled to last an hour and a half, followed by dinner. Two hours later, no one was thinking about dinner and the smartphones were still filming me explaining in my rudimentary Spanish how to hold the bow, how to shift positions, how to play legato and spiccato, and so on and so forth, trying to answer everyone’s questions.

Catherine coaching the brass section outside the Casa Contenta

Catherine coaching the brass section outside the Casa Contenta

I had to leave the workshop for a concert in Berlin a day before the first orchestra concert, a circumstance that twisted my gut into

improvised rehearsal spaces: Nigel coaching the woodwind section from the reception desk of the Casa Contenta

improvised rehearsal spaces: Nigel coaching the woodwind section from the reception desk of the Casa Contenta

knots, and the kids responded by requesting to be photographed with me literally hundreds of times. If you’re my friend on Facebook, you’ll probably still see pictures of me from that day coming up months from now.

Cut back to Berlin, back to my imminent inauguration as a cello professor at a prestigious German conservatory. So – what was I worried about again? Let’s recap. I spent the entire month being shown how to work hard, delve into detail, give, exact, demand, strive; and then let go. Let them fly. The Karajan example came to mind again. Bettina’s laid-back command of last-minute changes, the perfect marriage of German and Latin American style. The kids with their hunger for knowledge and technique and their joy over small victories. Put in the work and let go. I guess that’s the art of being Professor Incomplete. I guess I know what to do now.

The Phoenix Ensemble on our day off: me, Nigel Shore, and Catherine Larsen-Maguire

The Phoenix Ensemble on our day off: me, Nigel Shore, and Catherine Larsen-Maguire

the unstoppable Bettina Kuestermann with the Phoenix Ensemble

the unstoppable Bettina Kuestermann with the Phoenix Ensemble

5 Responses to Professor Incomplete, or how to play a concert during a power failure

  1. Looks like you cannot run from achievement, Professor. 🙂 With your musical excellence, your widespread experience and your critical attitude towards orchestral careers you will probably be the most complete professor the students could wish for. Good luck, and, most of all, great fun!

  2. I feel privileged to be Lanie’s uncle. Albeit from afar, I’ve watched her blossom into a beautiful and wonderful human being. I particularly like her philosophy about leading a life of experience rather than achievement. So young and yet so wise. You’ve come a long way, baby. Keep on truckin’ 🙂

  3. Now I know why Mom and I had a hard time trying to figure you out. You are abnormal and we watched lots of movies about what families normally strive for and how their children should behave. We tried it on you over and over again but it didn’t take. Well it is a good thing we failed because the evolving results of what we see in your experiences dawned on us that your path have enriched and educated us in which I am very grateful. You have brought true meaning to the song “What a wonderful world” by sharing your experiences with us. You are 10,000 miles away but we are bounded by your experiences as if you are next door. Keep sharing !!

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