Paleo Retiree writes:
Welcome to the fourth episode of my q&a with first-class jazzman and music-educator extraordinaire Ned Corman. On day one, we discussed his early years; day two covered some of Ned’s teaching and gigging adventures; day three touched on the special challenges of the hyper-gifted, the needs of a band, and Ned’s battles with school administrators. Today we discuss how lucky Rochester was to have a benevolent patriarch in George Eastman, the directions music education is going in the electronic age, and when and how you know the time has come to put down your instruments.
Paleo Retiree: What was your biggest crisis after getting rid of [Penfield Schools superintendent] Vern Wyland?
Ned Corman: By the time Vern was fired we’d gone through seven years of anti music department and anti arts. One of our department chairs had a nervous breakdown because Vern made it so difficult to work with him. Dick, the new superintendent, comes to work on the first of July, and I meet with him on the second of July and say, “You got a big problem here, which is that the music department has been having the everything beat out of it for the last seven years. And we’ve had no leadership, and this better be fixed, or you’re losing a gem.” Nobody in the department had state certification, which was needed if you were going to administrate for two periods a day. And nobody would apply for the job because of the mess we’d been in. When I went to the superintendent, I said, “I know how to fix your problem, and this is what you have to do. You have to appoint John Turner and me to be co-chairs. Each of us will administer one period a day, we won’t be in conflict with the state requirement, John and I have the good will of the department, they’ll work with us. We’ll do this for one semester. By the beginning of the second semester, you should hire your own person to be department chair. It’s a wonderful opportunity to make a terribly important appointment. And it will be done with great fanfare and you’ll have demonstrated your prowess and wisdom.” Dick said, “What a creative idea, I accept your recommendation, you and John serve as department chairs and at the end of the semester I’ll take care of it.” Well, he didn’t. So John and I wound up co-chairing the department for the next seven years.
PR: Seven years?
NC: And we were good, we did a really good job. When I pissed people off, John could make sure they didn’t stay pissed off. John was a lovely person and left the organization stuff to me, so I could make sure he had time to do the things he needed to do. The main problem or challenge was that I didn’t want to be an administrator, nor did John.
PR: That’s a long time to serve if you aren’t committed to being an administrator.
NC: We pushed Dick on it every year and he just didn’t move.
PR: During that stretch, did you ever think, I can’t take it any longer?
NC: That’s what it came down to. It just didn’t feel right. And at the end of the sixth year we said “Dick, we’re finished, get someone for the job or we’re moving on.”
PR: Let’s talk a bit about the value of music education. If a kid doesn’t wind up going into music professionally, what are the benefits of music training?
NC: The business of playing music is instant feedback. It’s not true of the entire learning process, but central to the learning process is the feedback and how you get it, and how prompt it is. From my experience there’s not another pursuit that can fortify this “if you work hard, something good happens” pattern as much as music. My objective, especially after I’d been teaching a while, was to show how good work is rewarded, and when you work hard to make music better, if you’ve done good work you immediately get a lift you don’t get otherwise.
PR: It’s good life training generally.
NC: From my perspective it’s a model of a way to live your life well.
PR: Something I got out of playing music as a kid was learning how to work with other people. You’re often part of a group.
NC: That nails one of the other big reasons to teach and study music. One of the confounding dynamics about being a musician is that rehearsal is not solitary but practice is solitary. On the one hand you’re confining yourself to being by yourself, and that has great value to it if you’re contemplative at all. But the reason you’re getting your skills better probably involves an ensemble. And ensemble participation doesn’t work if you don’t do it together. I’ve always felt that there’s a really good connection between athletics and music. But I’ve always felt music maybe had a leg up because in order to make great music it doesn’t have to be at the expense of somebody else.
PR: Nobody has to be a loser.
NC: Yeah. So, after very early on, I would never have auditions. I would just have people select their seat. By and large people pretty much selected their seat where I suspect they would had there been a formal audition process.
PR: I didn’t know that was part of your philosophy.
NC: In one of my first bands, there were three really good flute players, and they were highly competitive, and they kept insisting they wanted to audition. So I said, “I’ll solve the problem.” And I had them sit on top of each other: one was on the chair, one was on her lap, and the third was on her lap. They then worked it out just fine amongst themselves.
PR: How did you come to the policy of not doing auditions?
NC: Wanting to minimize the competitive part of being involved in music. I never auditioned well myself — I was always really nervous. I obviously wanted to play strongly enough that I put up with the nerves. But from early on it seemed to me that if you didn’t have to have auditions it was a good idea not to. Even so I always encouraged kids to play in all-county and all-state bands, and you have to go through an audition process to do those things. So if you were willing to put up with auditioning, the payoff could be worthwhile.
PR: I’ve known some classical musicians well, and they go through terrible audition experiences trying to get into schools and ensembles. And some have developed terrible cases of nerves.
NC: There are beta blockers for that.
PR: Is the classical world more structured than the jazz or pop worlds?
NC: By and large if you’re on the pop or jazz side of things you’re hired by word of mouth. You’re not hired by word of mouth if you’re a classical player unless you’re a famous player. Otherwise the audition process is rigorous. The only auditions I’ve been close to in recent years were at the Lyric Orchestra in Chicago. The principal flute chair opened recently and they listened to a couple of hundred auditionees.
PR: Those are challenging odds.
NC: It’s a very formal process. They listen to recordings, then they invite candidates, and they listen to them behind a screen. You listen to them all for five or ten minutes, then you invite back as many as you want to have re-audition for another 15 minute go around. It’s very nerve-wracking. To decide on the flute player it was hours and hours of work.
PR: How were the charts you used for your groups?
NC: I was trying to be cognizant of what was going on in the pop music world, so if I could find hit tunes that were arranged so they were playable by concert band or jazz ensemble, I’d try to program those. At the time I started to teach in Penfield, I think Blood, Sweat and Tears had started to perform.
PR: They were huge. I remember them well. Chicago as well.
NC: Yup. And around that time the business of writing for student ensembles had started to evolve and develop.
PR: So better charts were available?
NC: Ten or 15 years earlier there just weren’t. The market for school level difficulty hadn’t really started to be mined before about the mid ‘60s. In Rochester there was a fellow by the name of Harold Winkler, his business was called Kuchen Music, a store over by the Canal on Monroe Ave.
PR: My parents bought me my clarinet there.
NC: Harold Winkler was a true Music Man. He was one of the first people who figured out you could make a lot of money if you could do stuff for school musicians. Both in terms of equipment but also in terms of how to get writers to write for student age groups. So the writing was good, it wasn’t schlock, and it enabled band directors to program popular music as well as more traditional music.
PR: I always liked stuff that was upbeat and that swung. Did extraverted, swinging music win kids over more than more melancholic sounds?
NC: I think so. There are ballads or slower tunes that over time I programmed because I really liked the music and it was good. But by and large, kick-ass was where you wanted to be. I don’t think that’s peculiar to your generation. I think that was universal, year after year.
PR: The Rochester area has such a higher level of musical interest and participation than most similar areas do.
NC: An awful lot of that was because George Eastman, of Eastman Kodak, gave the city school district lots of money and instruments. And the city school district was wise and knew enough to support music in the schools. And the Philharmonic is a good orchestra. They did educational concerts, they did a live broadcast every week. And every school in Penfield had their dial set to that station every week. So every kid in the schools would hear 15 minutes or 30 minutes of wonderful classical music every week.
PR: And of course Eastman School was also founded with George Eastman’s money.
NC: If George Eastman hadn’t decided to put all that money into the schools and into Eastman Theatre, Rochester would be a vastly different community. The argument that I make to business leaders is, “One of the reasons you’re able to get people to come here to work who otherwise might not is that the cultural component of our community is vastly different than any other city our size.”
PR: That makes the area more attractive to bright people who have something to contribute.
NC: Sure. In the U.S. there are only 12 cities with 24 hour a day classical music stations — Rochester is one. There are only nine cities that have 24 hour a day jazz stations — Rochester has two. There’s a comparable statistic for indie radio stations. The point is that per capita there’s more music going on in the Rochester community than maybe any other small city in the country. There are nine community orchestras, and also ten town / gown orchestras. The U. of R. has a symphony orchestra, but a bunch of the players in it are town people.
PR: I remember that George Eastman had a big organ in his own house. Was he a musician himself?
NC: He was not. That’s one of the ironies of the situation. He had his personal organist who played personal recitals for him every day.
PR: So he really loved music.
NC: “Paternalistic” gets a negative nod, but George Eastman was paternalistic in the sense that he believed if you made things nice enough for people they’d probably groove, and might even work harder. In those early days, after Eastman founded the company and was making all that money, he poured incredible amounts of money back into the community for cultural enrichment.
PR: Medical and dental as well, I recall.
NC: Yup. His reasoning was if people had bad teeth they weren’t going to be as healthy as if their teeth were good. So give them free dental services rather than let them get sick.
PR: Every now and then a nice bigshot comes along.
NC: Someone with the vision to see the good that can come out of being generous.
PR: What are the challenges that have come along in music teaching now that computers are part of everybody’s life? Is it harder to get kids to play traditional instruments?
NC: If you give someone an electronic keyboard, or any electronic instrument where you push something and it makes a sound, and you don’t have to work at it, there’s a disconnect. It’s hard to get somebody to stick a clarinet in their mouth, because when they blow at first they sound terrible. They play an electronic instrument and right away they sound respectable. I don’t know what the rate of participation is in Penfield schools, but it’s probably lower than it was 15 years ago. There are at least two reasons: the dynamic we’re talking about — push a button and you sound good. The other is the increasing academic emphasis. If you’re going to spend a period a day playing in band and don’t get academic credit or kudos, you tend not to take band, you take something else.
PR: You hear a lot these days about how competitive getting into college is and how driven parents are. It doesn’t sound like fun.
NC: To me neither. When I taught in Penfield, I was encouraging the school district to refuse to send transcripts. This business of grading is ultimately a convenience tool for college administrators. It enables them to go through the selection process and cover their ass, and probably not know a lot more having done it that way. Virtually all Penfield graduates were going to college. Colleges needed students. So I said, Just don’t send the transcripts. You can have a great free school, won’t it be fun?
PR: Sounds so wonderfully “Summerhill.”
NC: I always felt like if you let kids alone they’d take care of themselves. People may learn when they’ve got a gun at their heads, but they really learn best when it comes from their heart.
PR: Particularly when you’re a kid. That’s the learning phase of your life.
NC: There would periodically be movements by elementary principals — it would happen every several years — to do away with recess.
PR: You’re kidding.
NC: So there’d be 15 or 20 minutes more of classtime.
PR: Oh, Jesus.
NC: So I’d get on my routine and say it should be the other way around. We should have 15 minutes of academic study and six hours of free time.
PR: Good for you.
NC: It was an absurd position to take but I sort of felt like it was the truth.
PR: A more general question. How much sense does it make to send kids to big concrete bunkers for hours every day?
NC: I couldn’t agree with you more. If Linda and I had had kids, I think we probably wouldn’t have sent them to school.
PR: A lot of it is warehousing kids during the parents’ work day. It doesn’t seem to be for the kids’ benefit.
NC: I agree. It’s contrary to the way things would go naturally. A lot of the argument is that if you don’t make ‘em do it, they ain’t going to do it. But to me it seems that the human organism flourishes when it’s left to its own devices and to decide what to assimilate next.
PR: It’s not like kids don’t want to learn.
NC: God no. The human being left to its own devices figures out how to get where it needs to go. There’s a Chuck Mangione tune called “The 11th Commandment,” and it has a subtitle, “Thou Shalt Not Groove.” In a way that encapsulates the education process. If you’re grooving when it’s going on then it can’t possibly be good. That’s the way some people feel.
PR: Fast-forwarding to when you retired …. What was your situation like?
NC: I think I was respected. I knew the work I was doing was good, and I knew the program overall was highly respected, so I always felt comfortable that I was viewed favorably.
PR: How old were you when you retired?
NC: I was 57 when I retired. I was getting the second generation of students — I was teaching some kids of people I’d taught in my younger days.
PR: What a funny moment for you.
NC: When I started to teach in Penfield I was 30, which meant that kids graduating were 12 years younger than I was. When I retired, kids graduating from high school were roughly 40 years younger than I was.
PR: That’s a dramatic difference.
NC: I was still feeling like I was 30 but in reality I was now the old uncle. And the dynamic between kids and teachers with that kind of age disparity changes.
PR: Had you planned to retire early?
NC: I was thinking I’d probably teach until I was 65, when Social Security would kick in. I’m not a good saver. Linda and I had been building up a little bit of a portfolio but it was never done so I could retire early.
PR: So how did the moment of retirement come about for you?
NC: It happened very fast. On a particular Friday there was a memo from the district administration saying that if you’re thinking about early retirement you have 20 days to get your papers processed to qualify for incentive.
PR: When opportunities like that come along they can trigger a lot of thinking you haven’t necessarily wrestled with yet.
NC: In the music department, things had been uncomfortable for a while. A guy I hired put the freeze on me at some point. And the woman who was hired to chair the department when John Turner and I stepped down turned out to be not all we’d hoped. She was not without redeeming merit but she and I just didn’t get along. So as I’m going through my early 50s those tensions are within the department. So when I got this memo, I brought it home and said to Linda, “You know, maybe we ought to think about this.” We spent the weekend crunching numbers, and by the end of the weekend we figured we’d have to be careful, but we could live fairly much in the style we were accustomed to. So I asked for a meeting with the superintendent and we got together and I said, “If I decide to step down I’d like your impression of its impact on the department. If it’s a bad time then it isn’t something I’d want to do but if it’s going to be OK then it’s something I’m going to make up my mind about shortly.” He effectively said, “Now’s as good a time as any.” So I decided to retire. I submitted a letter of resignation within days of getting the memo.
PR: At that point were you still teaching with the old fire?
NC: I was still feeling alright seeing my face in the mirror. But I can’t imagine I was still doing as good a job as I’d done a bunch of years earlier. When you’re doing something for the 20th time it’s rare that it’s as fresh as it was the first time.
PR: Working in the media I found there were some benefits to age and experience. You’ve seen it all, you’ve done these jobs before. You can bring perspective and level-headedness and wisdom to bear. And that’s valuable. But maybe it’s accompanied by some disengagement that isn’t so good.
NC: Yup. That’s an accurate characterization. I’m reluctant to say I was teaching as well at 57 as when I was 30, but I think I was teaching differently. I can tell you that the day I announced to the band that I was retiring there were a lot of students crying. The ones that cried the hardest were juniors. They weren’t going to have their senior year the way they thought they would.
PR: Had you spent much time thinking about what you might do after retiring?
NC: I had no trepidation about not having a job to go to every day. But I’m not someone to sit around and twiddle thumbs. I’d never played golf. I wasn’t interested in sedentary activity. But I hadn’t made any plans for what I would be after I stopped being a music teacher either.
PR: Did you find yourself as a retired guy to be a different person at all?
NC: When you were going to your job, you had an office and a support staff, and when you don’t have that any more it has an impact of some sort on you.
PR: What was it like to have your day to yourself?
NC: Not having a regimented schedule to follow? I think that’s a wonderful way to live.
PR: How long did it take before you’d fully sorted it out?
NC: My self-image had at least two components, one was a teacher component and one was a player component. And when I stopped teaching I didn’t stop playing. My playing activity at 57 was about the same as it had always been. So that part of me didn’t change. It was the side that was a teacher that went away.
PR: Plus the rhythm of the school year.
NC: That rhythm’s still a part of me. I still have a feeling on weekends that I don’t have during the week. And when it’s the first of September and the school buses start running, I still hearken back.
PR: How did you start off your retirement?
NC: Linda and I traveled a lot the first year I was retired. We left here in the first of December and didn’t come back till the first of April. We reasoned that if we stayed here and whether I did or I didn’t go to concerts at the high school there’d be one of two reactions. One was “The son of a bitch is still showing up to look over our shoulder.” The other was “The son of a bitch didn’t care anyway.”
PR: You figured making a clean break would work better.
PR: Where’d you go during that stretch?
NC: We just drove around. We drove south to Baton Rouge and turned right. We ended up in San Diego for the Christmas holidays, drove around California, made it back to the south and got back to Penfield in early April.
PR: How active are you as a performer these days?
NC: I stopped playing in about 2000.
NC: I think I was still pretty near the top of my game. But the business, which always goes up and down, was in a down phase. There were fewer calls coming in. One day I realized I hadn’t done a gig in three months and I thought, “You know, this isn’t too bad. I really don’t miss practicing.” Plus, though I was still playing well, I knew that over time it would start to fade. And I wanted to stop playing before somebody started thinking twice before hiring me for the next gig.
PR: To keep yourself at that high level for all those years, how much practicing had been involved?
NC: If I didn’t have a gig I wasn’t practicing. But if I was working 25 gigs a year, I’d be working every other week, and I could keep myself in shape with two or three hours a day for two or three days before each gig. If I was out of work for a month I’d have to practice for a week before the gig to get back in shape. And, as I think I said earlier, I played a lot with students.
PR: Are there some similarities to the life of an athlete?
NC: I think it’s a good comparison. And in the music world there’s yet another dimension, which is that the nature of the music that’s happening changes. The music that was happening when I retired was vastly different than the music that was happening when I was 20. So developing whatever new skills you needed to keep pace with the current industry is something you need to do.
PR: I hadn’t thought about that. You have to keep up.
NC: I watched the Grammies the other night.
PR: Oh God. Can you stand that crap music?
NC: If I weren’t interested in the industry I’d probably react that way myself. But I thought the opening sequence — Taylor Swift, I believe I’ve got it right — I thought it was a remarkable two or three minute performance. There’s a lot of theatricality. I think she’s an alright singer, I don’t have any reservations about her being a performer. But the presentation was what struck me. It was like Cirque de Soleil. There was a guy on stilts and a lot of other remarkable athletic stuff happening.
PR: The level of production that happens these days, and that audiences are used to, just amazes me.
NC: And the volume is so loud. Linda and I don’t go to as many Rochester Jazz Festival events as we might because the sound engineers have it cranked up so loud. We heard Brubeck a few years ago, and that wasn’t overpowering, but for everything else we take earplugs, otherwise it’s just too painful. I regret I sound like an old fuddy-duddy.
PR: Did your ability to connect to the music that the kids themselves are listening to, did that change over time?
NC: Yes. Part of what I tried to do over time was always have some sense of what was going on in the current pop idiom, and figuring out how to find arrangements of some music that was current or recent and would be inspiring to students. I absolutely thought it was important to get them some music that wouldn’t be anathema to them. At the same time, the longer I taught and the longer I’m alive the further I’m away from current pop music. I do know that an awful lot of music in the popular music idiom today isn’t music I’m interested in listening to.
PR: Do you pick up your instruments these days?
NC: I haven’t had anything out of its case in five years. I took out a saxophone a bunch of years ago to play Christmas carols for Linda. But I haven’t played clarinet since I stopped in 2000.
PR: Yet it had been such a big part of your life.
NC: The bigger change for me was not being around young people. What I missed about teaching most was the invigoration you get being around 15, 16, 17 year old people. They have a spontaneous devil-may-care thing that disappears even when you’re dealing with college kids.
PR: Is it their spiritedness?
NC: It’s the intellectuality too. Every year there were one or two or three people who were brilliant or near-brilliant, and creating opportunities for them to express that brilliance was one of the great joys of teaching. They had questions to ask that were really probing and that demanded some good answers. It keeps the teacher fresh.
PR: What would you say you miss most about performing?
NC: I really don’t miss it much. It was the right time to stop playing. And I never liked to practice. Still, if there were a way for me to snap my fingers and have my chops where they need to be, and if some work came along that appealed to me, I’d be interested.
PR: Do you ever feel like an old fire horse, pawing the ground when you hear the alarm bells?
NC: Chuck Mangione did a 40 year anniversary of the “Friends and Love” concert four or five years ago. Had I been called I would have been tempted to get myself back in shape to play that because that was such a wonderful time. Any time I go back to the recording I’m thrilled to have been part of it. So I had a tug of sadness that I wasn’t participating in the anniversary concert.
PR: Do you miss the social side of performing — other musicians, audiences, the scene generally?
NC: Yeah. I always had a wonderful time playing, and socializing was certainly part of it. I was always acting out and having a good time, and there were always people in the groups I was playing with who I enjoyed being with. At the same time, over the years there were a couple of players I worked with regularly who there were some tensions with. In any band there are going to be personality clashes.
PR: Since I retired I’ve been surprised by who’s stayed in touch with me and who has dropped me. Some people I’d thought of as friends have turned out to be, I guess, just work colleagues, and other people who I’d thought of as work colleagues have turned out to be friends.
NC: Lots of times you think that what you’re putting out you’re getting back — you think it’s reciprocal. And then it turns out that it isn’t. But I had more of a sense of that in the teaching area than the performing area. The playing thing, when it was over it was over, but I still stay in touch with a number of the people I played with.
PR: Do you miss leading the school bands?
NC: I never really liked to lead the band. I’m good at organizing things and figuring out repertoire, but the idea of leading the band, when I looked in the mirror to shave that isn’t what I saw. But when you get into teaching one of the things you do is lead the band, the orchestra, the chorus or the jazz ensemble. So that was part of the gig. What I enjoyed more as a teacher was the one-on-one or one-on-two relationships — the interactions with the kids. To be a band director you have to be a disciplinarian, and I don’t like being a disciplinarian.
PR: I guess it’s a personality thing. What was yours?
NC: Well, Chuck Mangione could be a yeller and screamer. If you had a rehearsal with Chuck and he didn’t get pissed off, it was the exception. Fred Fennell, who did the Eastman Wind Ensemble, was by contrast not a yeller and screamer. My persona as a conductor was somewhere in the middle of that. I don’t remember ever yelling and screaming, but I do remember being pissed off and evidencing it. I think about it these days sometimes, because some of what used to be acceptable deportment is no longer considered to be acceptable.
PR: Some people say that the relationship between a band leader and his band or orchestra is almost necessarily authoritarian. Does that strike you as true?
NC: Yes. As a conductor or leader, you have to have an in-chargeness about you. One of the things that makes an effective conductor is figuring out how to convey what’s acceptable and what isn’t acceptable. What happens to you if you play well, and what happens to you if you act out? I don’t remember ever speaking with a teacher who wasn’t concerned about “keeping control.”
PR: You’re necessarily playing the role of the general, whether you like it or not.
NC: Yup. And I didn’t like that side of the job. But there’s a big continuum of how people manage. I don’t remember Fred Waring ever yelling, for instance, but he was a difficult person. Part of what he wanted to do was the rule the day, so he did stuff that would leave you uneasy. At the other extreme were Woody Herman and Maynard Ferguson. I never heard from anyone who played with those guys about getting any attitude from them at all. They were puppydogs — but everybody liked them so much that everybody did what they were supposed to do.
PR: That’s an effective approach to the job too, I guess.
NC: Sure is.
Come back tomorrow for the final part of my five-part interview with Ned Corman.
- You can buy Ned’s memoir here, or download a free PDF of it.
- A terrific piece by Kecia Bol about Ned and his memoir.
- The National Association for Music Education visits Ned.
- Ned pitches the memoir on local TV.
- Beginning at 18:45, Evan Dawson talks to Ned about the memoir.
- Penn State interviews Ned.
- A visit with “Now’s the Time” co-author Rob Enslin.
- A video visit with Rob.
- Check out a lot of other interviews that we here at UR have done.