A Week With Ned Corman: Day Five

Paleo Retiree writes:

Welcome to the fifth 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. Day four was about Rochester’s benevolent patriarch 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. In today’s installment, the final section of our interview, Ned tells me about how he’s continued advancing the cause of music, he shares observations and reflections about the value of music education, and he celebrates the Rochester area’s awakening as a better-than-decent food-and-wine region.

Be sure to check out “Now’s the Time,” Ned’s recently-published autobiography, which he wrote with Rob Enslin. At this link you can buy a copy of the book or download a free PDF of it.

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Paleo Retiree: You retired from teaching more than 20 years ago and from performing a decade ago. But in fact you’ve been very busy and productive in retirement, especially with The Commission Project, which has brought composers to Rochester to work with local bands and orchestras. When did you start The Commission Project?

NC: When I left the school district.

PR: What was it like at first?

NC: The Commission Project started very slowly. I’d never led any kind of business group at all. So in the first year we had one residency, in the second year we had two, but after that it built. I relied very heavily on my former student Amy Tait, who by that time was a vice-president at her dad’s business. Amy’s, I’d say, one of the most half-dozen most influential women in Rochester now. I relied on her to make sure I didn’t get in too much trouble.

PR: What were some of the challenges for you?

NC: In the school district I knew how things worked, but starting the new organization meant establishing relationships with people I didn’t know or hadn’t worked with, and figuring out how to raise money outside of the school district. It was a vastly different process.

PR: How long did The Commission Project last?

NC: From ‘94 until we closed down in 2007.

PR: It had a long life.

NC: And, especially for the last four or five years, The Commission Project was a fulltime gig for me. We built it into a quarter-million dollar a year thing with, near the end, 30 or 40 residencies a year.

PR: That’s a lot of work.

NC: We sort of modeled it on the Penfield Music Commission Project.

PR: What was that?

NC: When I started to teach in Penfield in ‘68, the Ford Foundation was putting money behind composers-in-residence. And for us, for two years, it was very inspiring — there was always a composer around. But the Ford money dried up, so between ‘70 and ‘83 we didn’t have composers-in-residence. Then John Turner and I, who were co-chairing the music department, co-founded the Penfield Music Commission Project to bring composers back.

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Ned leads a Penfield Music Commission Project band. (Photo used with permission from Ned Corman and Rob Enslin)

PR: What sort of effect does it have on kids to have composers around?

NC: There’s a special electricity that develops when you have a composer writing music for a group of students. You can buy a piece of music off the shelf and good shit can happen. But if you bring a composer in to have contact with kids before there’s any music there, part of the inspiration for the composer writing is the association with the kids, and the interaction is the kids learn to play that music, and maybe the composer performs with the kids. It changes the whole process. It’s an intensification of what would have gone on had the composer not been there. You can get drunk on a ten dollar bottle of wine, but getting drunk on a $2000 bottle of wine is a whole different thing.

PR: It must make for a serious connection with the music.

NC: She made the music for you, man! She didn’t do it to put on the shelf. She wrote the bleeping music for you. In all the concerts I attended, the piece of music that had the strongest impact was the piece of music that was being premiered.

PR: Really?

NC: Maybe you had ten pieces of music being performed, and the one that would get people on their feet clapping the strongest was always the piece that had been commissioned. Anyway, the inspiration for the Commission Project was that what had gone on in Penfield was a very unique thing. There were almost no programs in the country at that time that were geared towards having composers in residency with kids, and having music written specifically for those kids.

PR: In the entire country?

NC: There were three other commissioning organizations extant in the country in the ‘90s. But all those organizations commissioned music for professionals. There was nothing for kids after the Ford Foundation dried up in 1970.

PR: Did you connect up with those other outfits?

NC: The Penfield Music Commission Project was going along for a couple of years when I learned about Meet the Composer, in New York City. So I called them up and said, “Look, we’re doing this stuff with public schools. Would you give us money to pay the composers that we’re commissioning, and they’ll make a little more money and they’ll be on hand whenever their music is premiered.”

PR: Hard to resist.

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Meet the Composer’s John Duffy

NC: The guy who founded Meet the Composer was John Duffy. And he said, “This is a wonderful idea, we’ll give you money.” So Meet the Composer started giving us money. There came a time when John’s lieutenant , Ted Wiprud, now New York Philharmonic Orchestra Education Director, came to Rochester, and he got bowled over by what we were doing, and he went back and told John Duffy about it. So John called me and said, “Come down here to New York so we can talk about what the Penfield Music Commission Project is doing because we want to steal your model.” So at that point Meet the Composer started paying people to write music for school groups as well. John modeled that leg of his program after the Penfield Music Commission Project.

PR: With The Commission Project, what were your hopes and expectations for it?

NC: Linda and I decided we would give the Commission Project $5000 a year for five years. If it wasn’t running by itself by then we’d put it to bed. We hired someone to help with clerical stuff and wrote 1500 letters or so, and people gave us more than needed for what we’d set out to do. We used that first year’s solitary residency as a way to say “This is what we did.” I’d developed some p-r chops and some relationships with people in the local media, both electronic and print. So as we built that first residency up we got a lot of free newspaper and television publicity. And those clips and whatever else we got from the newspaper we used to package our solicitation the second year. We were validating ourselves, and that validation encouraged people to be generous so we could do a bigger program the second year.

PR: What led you to close the Commission Project down in 2007? That was your 14th year.

NC: It was our best year too. At the end of our 12th year, I said to our board of directors, “Look, I never wanted to be a music executive. I never wanted to run an organization like this. I have a lot of fun doing it. But I’ll tell you what I really don’t like, and that’s raising enough money to make sure we’re going to perpetuate. You as a board have been very cooperative and helpful but frankly you don’t give very much money. I think a board has to either give or get. I don’t have any figure in mind, but somehow this august board is going to have to help the money tree.”

PR: That’s the hard part of a nonprofit, isn’t it? Raising money?

NC: It is. For the last five or six years of the Commission Project’s existence, we had a half-time development director position. Two women did the job. They were both adequate, but only in the sense that they were able to raise enough additional money to pay their own salaries. But neither of them could take what we had and make it grow into something more than I’d turned it into on my own. The development staff might have said I wasn’t providing what they needed.

PR: So you wanted a board that contributed generously as well as doing the other board work.

NC: And diddly shit happened. The issue was, Ned had always done the fund-raising all along so we don’t have to. By the time we got into the 13th year I said, “I’m serious, and let me remind you, y’all have fiduciary responsibility for this organization, and I’ve worked for it for nothing for all these years and frankly it wouldn’t be bad if I got paid. I don’t need a princely salary but I’m good at what I’m doing so you ought to at least pay me what I was making when I was teaching school.” To be clear, I’d always said I did not want to be paid. A successor would.

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Country Club of Rochester. (Photo by golfbytourmiss.com)

PR: What was the reaction?

NC: The guy that chaired the board was a good man who helped in a lot of ways, Arthur Stern III, from an old Rochester family. His father, Arthur Stern Jr., as I recall, may have been the first Jew to belong to the Country Club of Rochester. I expected Arthur III to capitalize on the family connections. But Arthur had never chaired a board before and frankly had lived out of town for a number of years and not retained the network. As the 12th and 13th years were unfolding, I’d say to him, “Arthur, you’re going to have to figure out how to pick up the slack here, because I’m not going to do this any more.”

PR: Frustrating for you.

NC: As those last years were going by I became increasingly insistent that I didn’t want to be the guy who had to be responsible for keeping the shekels coming in. That caused a lot of anxiety on the part of a number of board members. For the last three or four months of the organization’s existence, it got increasingly contentious. Arthur and I especially had our moments. He eventually saw that he had to step down, and he did. Also, it looked to me like there was a financial collapse coming along in the overall economy. So in 2007 we just shut the doors.

PR: How’d you feel at that point?

NC: It was very hard. For that last year, the board tried to figure out how they could hire somebody to do what I did, and afford it, and still maintain the organization. I brought some peculiar talents to the gig. I could call on people I’d known in the music business for 30 or 40 years. If I needed to raise money I could call these musicians and say, Would you do a fund-raiser for us? I didn’t get tired of calling on friends but I got very tired of being in the position of having to call on friends. As the board looked around trying to solve the problem, what they couldn’t solve was, Who are you going to get to replace Ned Corman? They weren’t going to find anybody for the money they could pay who could bring musicians to town, oftentimes for no fee.

PR: I’m curious about the fund-raisers. Can you give an example?

NC: Our big fund-raiser was the Swing ‘N Jazz and Golf Tournament, a concept that Steven Gates, a former student, had.

PR: What a great idea.

NC: All the musical heavies that came to town did it for nothing — for  transportation, room and board, and because the environment we created for them was something they didn’t have anyplace else. They’d get a chance to play with other musicians they liked and might not have had the chance to perform with. And to boot they could play as many holes of golf as they wanted to.

PR: How can you beat that as an offer?

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Oak Hill East

NC: Part of the pitch I made to the musicians was, “Come to town and help me out with Swing ‘N Jazz and I’ll get you Oak Hill East.” If you’re a golfer and you play Oak Hill East, you’ve died and gone to heaven.

PR: You’re out there on a course where the U.S. Open has been played.

NC: Yep. I’d get them Oak Hill East and Country Club of Rochester. Our tournament always happened at Greystone, which a lot of people think is the best course in town. Irondequoit Country Club was luxurious, and there was a nice club on the west side of the city too. So one question for the Commission Project when they were thinking of replacing me was, “Who are you going to get who can get all these golf clubs to comp the musicians?”

PR: You weren’t just working hard, you were putting to use all kinds of personal capital, making these things happen.

NC: Thank you for saying that. It was knowing people at all those places and being able to approach them in a way that didn’t make them feel like they were prostituting themselves.

PR: What were the Swing ‘N Jazz concerts themselves like?

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Jon Faddis

NC: Very special. Great ambiance — 15 players who never got a change to play together otherwise. Jon Faddis, the long-time music director, has a really remarkable brain and puts things together well. He can take 40 disparate things and throw them up and mix them around and when they fall to earth it all makes sense. The Saturday night concerts were especially remarkable. We’d find a really hot high school player and nobody would know that the kid would be there and we’d bring him or her out to sit in. And if you put a kid like that next to the pros, the audience melts. It’s great theater.

PR: What have you been involved with since The Commission Project shut down?

NC: I was at sixes and sevens at that point. But a year after that, Steven Gates and another former student, George Daddis, and I  launched a new event, the Rochester Independent Music Festival. That festival had a three year life. I was actively involved for the first two years and passively involved for the third. Then I got interested in Greentopia, a sustainability event, in 2011, and that’s been more or less a half-time job since.

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Greentopia. (Photograph by the RochesterSubway blog)

PR: What can you tell me about Greentopia?

NC: Linda and I attended the event, in 2011, its first year, and I met the producers a month or two later, and I pretty directly started working to help them on two initiatives. One was a high-quality music component. My vision is that within Greentopia, there can be a high-end classical and a high-end jazz component that can exist on their own but also help draw attention to the sustainability event itself. So it was, “Let me establish a network of people familiar with Greentopia’s objectives so they can help you spread your word through the community.” I’ve brokered in the neighborhood of 110 lunches and meetings. Linda and I got together with Marty Mucci of Paychex, an especially nice and welcoming man, not long ago. They have some of Linda’s paintings on the corporation walls. I called Marty and said “We haven’t seen Linda’s paintings in a while, you got a half an hour?” He said he’d arrange for that. And I said, “And while I’ve got you, let me tell you about Greentopia.”

PR: Smooth move.

NC: Getting the co-producers together with local leaders to figure out how they can help with sponsorship is also part of what I’ve been doing. On the music side, when they agreed there could be a classical music component, I reached out to the Ying Quartet, who are in residency at Eastman School, and they agreed to serve as musical director for the classical series. We launched that in 2012.

PR: There’s an awful lot of cultural energy in the food world right now, at least in New York City. Are you seeing much of that in Rochester?

NC: You just opened up another whole part of my life. When Linda and I first got married, we decided we’d always drink wine. In 1972 we met a man named Sherwood Deutsch, the founder of Century Wine and Liquor. We bought about 25 cases of ‘70 Bordeaux from him. From that purchase there are still a few ‘70s Moutons left, a few ‘70s Lafittes, and a few other quality Bordeauxs as well.

PR: You guys have done some quality drinking.

NC: The next viable vintage that came along that we could was 1975, so we bought a few dozen cases of ‘75s. I don’t know what’s the matter, but the ‘75s just have not come around. So I’ve kept a half case of all those.

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A Finger Lakes vineyard

PR: Any interest in local wines?

NC: I had lunch the other day with a guy named Evan Dawson, who’s written a book called “Sunshine in a Glass,” a lovely, lovely book about Finger Lakes wines. I urge you to read it.

PR: I love checking out the Finger Lakes wine scene.

NC: Getting back to food more generally: Sherwood, when he got into the wine business, started doing tastings and Linda and I went to a lot of those. At that time, the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, there were few outstanding restaurants in Rochester.

PR: Rochester was a terrible food town back then.

NC: There was some good eating, but nothing high end at all. Today — and I think a lot of it’s an outgrowth of the wine culture Sherwood laid down in town in the 1970s — I could take you to a half dozen restaurants that I think would really please you.

PR: That’s such good news.

NC: In New York City, we used to eat at Michael’s, Le Cote Basque, and another lovely place up near Lincoln Center. I’ll bet there are a half dozen chefs in Rochester who are nearly that good these days.

PR: What’s your favorite eatery in town?

NC: There’s a small 40-45 seat Italian restaurant called Rocco. It’s one of the best. Another favorite is Max of Eastman Place. I met Mark Cupolo and Tony Gullace, respective owner/chefs, because of Russell Ferguson, a local chef who went to Penfield, probably 25 years ago, when I was still intimidated by high-end food. Russell pointed out that the best chefs put their pants on one leg at a time too. So go have a good time. They just want you to enjoy the food. If they’re asking for more than that, screw ‘em, go someplace else.

PR: When you were easing out of the school district, did you consider moving out of the area?

NC: Linda and I talked about it. I owned about 20 acres of timberland north of State College. We talked about clearing some of that land and putting a house there, because the view across the valley is really exceptional. But when I retired from teaching we’d pretty well decided we wouldn’t do that. What we thought we might do was buy a place in the south and go there for three or four months in the winter.

PR: Rochester winters can be really rough.

NC: We decided against it because we didn’t really have enough money to build a place we’d enjoy and still keep our place here. Our house here is about a 2500 square foot house that sits on an acre and a quarter. We have 15 or 20 trees that are 200 years old, and I’m looking out over a gulley at a creek. It’s very pretty and comfortable. It has our wine cellar. It has enough space so we don’t walk all over each other. You can get from here to downtown in 15 or 20 minutes. So we ain’t going nowhere.

PR: You can have an awfully nice lifestyle in the Rochester area for not that much money.

NC: We have four or five doctors who are the best in the city. A mechanic will come to the house to do the work if my Mercedes doesn’t start. I can walk out of my house and drive to Eastman Theater in 20 minutes at the outside. All those good restaurants I was talking about? They’re 15 or 20 minutes from here.

PR: You’re making me envious.

NC: And I know the chefs. I can call them up and say, “You know what we eat and don’t eat. Fix something up for us so we’ll be surprised.” We’ve never been disappointed by that. So: yes we did think about moving out 20 years ago, but not for too long.

PR: When I was a kid I thought it was tragic that people in the area were so clueless about what they had going for them as a region. But in recent years it seems like things have been coming along nicely.

NC: Part of what you’re describing is part of why I’ve been drawn into Greentopia. I want the event to be successful, but my overriding desire is to have another event here that, maybe, can grow as the Jazz Festival did because, if our community is ever going to get hot, it ain’t going to happen unless someone finds a better way of getting tourists to come here. The bi-product of Greentopia is GardenAerial, a reclamation in the High Falls area. We’re hoping that GardenAerial can be in Rochester comparable to what the High Line is in New York City. Part of the Greentopia vision is developing Rochester as a gateway to the Finger Lakes.

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The GardenAerial vision for downtown Rochester

PR: Is the Rochester area any more sophisticated culturally than when you arrived?

NC: There’s a book about Rochester from the 1950s by a local journalist, Curt Gerling’s “Smugtown, U.S.A.,” and what he said was that Rochester was one of the staler places to be, because it was just old money. And in fact, when I got here it was a corporate town mostly dominated by Kodak, and all of that money was centered in the Valley Club and Country Club of Rochester. That’s the way people did things in those days — they belonged to those clubs. It was an obstacle to the kind of culture where people who don’t have any more than I do can afford to go out to a lovely dinner once a month.

PR: A broader-based culture.

NC: It was a staler place, but that’s the way the community was governed. I don’t think people in those days cared if there was any tourism, aside from people coming to town to do their daily business with Kodak and Xerox. It was very stuffy and staid.

PR: What’s your involvement with music these days? Do you get out to some shows?

NC: It’s fairly minimal. I haven’t even had my sound system on in a few months. Linda and I keep subscription tickets to the Philharmonic season. They did the Britten War Requiem recently, and we went to that. But Linda and I are pretty reclusive these days. Staying at home works just fine.

PR: Were you ever a big listening-to-recordings guy?

NC: I’ve got a thousand LPs and a thousand CDs, so I used to listen to a lot of recorded music. And I loved playing CDs in cars. But I rarely used recordings as a way to study music. It was always letting the music wash over me or listening passively.

PR: What were the exceptions?

NC: Occasionally, if I had an orchestral gig of music I hadn’t played before, I’d get recordings of it. There’s a wonderful tenor saxophone part in Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” for instance, and I’d get calls to do that every so often. So I’d go back to the recording to make sure I remembered what it was supposed to sound like.

PR: I don’t have the same desire to have music playing all the time that I did when I was young. Do you find that there’s much of a relationship between age and music?

NC: I can’t generalize, but I can tell you for myself, about five or ten years ago I just stopped being interested in listening to recorded music. Or radio. I joke that my ears got tired.

PR: As a musician, you gave them a workout for a long time.

NC: They did their bit, yes.

PR: Are some people just born with music in them?

NC: Well, the nature-nurture question is interesting. For a year or so I read whatever I could find about having absolute pitch, for instance. And in the most general terms what I learned is that if you take a hundred people with absolute pitch, probably 99 of them come from a musical family and started doing stuff musically when they were two or three or four. So there’s a wiring-up process that if it doesn’t happen by the time you’re a certain age, it still can happen, but the depth or degree it happens probably won’t be as great.

PR: How’s your own sense of pitch?

NC: When my pitch was most acute I could tell you what a note was. I’d be especially accurate if it was a saxophone or clarinet. It was tactile. My fingers would go right to that note. But if someone crushed down a number of keys on a piano right next to each other I wouldn’t have been able to decipher it.

PR: I wouldn’t know where to begin.

NC: A good friend, a pediatrician, liked to say, “If you take a rat when he’s born, and you cover up his eyes and keep them covered until a certain age, and you uncover them, they’ll never work.” Among pediatricians the jargon, I believe, for that is “prime time.” There are developmental aspects that a baby and a child go through that if it hasn’t started to work by whatever the requisite time is the likelihood it ever will decreases.

PR: Windows of opportunity.

NC: Yeah.

PR: What’s the connection between having an academic gift and having a musical gift? Are they two completely different things?

NC: Most people that I’ve known in music have had some intellectual curiosity as well. Maybe that’s because I gravitate towards that kind of people. But there’ve been very few people I’ve known in the music world who have been dullards. The two years I spent with the Fred Waring organization, a lot of the Waring members were East Coast people and one of the things they yelled and screamed about was when you finally got far enough east to buy The New York Times again. There was no National Edition then.

PR: So the musicians you’ve known have generally had good, curious brains. Yet it’s common to run into people with academic gifts who have no musical talent.

NC: That’ll give me something to think about I’ve not thought about before. But I did an event once that involved a lot of doctors. And if you put 25 doctors up on the stage, I bet 20 of them would have had music in their background somewhere. A very high ratio.

PR: I see a lot of older people, especially women, getting back to music after decades away. They’re practicing their fugues and arpeggios. How good can they get?

NC: It varies from person to person. The guy that shared the music education program at Eastman is Roy Ernst. We were friendly. And what Roy did was found something called New Horizons. Their mission was, “If you’re retired and you used to play and want to play again, find your old horn and come on down. If you’d like to learn to play, come on down too.” Roy coordinated with a number of Eastman School graduate students and gave them stipends to tutor all these people.

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A New Horizons brass ensemble

PR: How has that gone?

NC: It’s gone very well. There are about 250 people involved in Rochester, as I understand it. And, I believe, there are a couple of hundred New Horizons satellites around the world. The message went out that we gotta bring the music-instrument manufacturers into this thing. Urge them to buy a professional quality instrument. So the music manufacturing industry got behind New Horizons. And, word has it, Roy did very well. That’s being cynical, but the real positive side is that I’ll bet there are five or six New Horizons groups at Eastman School now. A band, an orchestra, a jazz ensemble, a clarinet choir … For a lot of people who used to play who gave it up because there were things that were more important in their lives, but they really enjoyed it, now that they’re retired with some time and money on their hands, it’s a very natural step for them to take.

PR: Retirement’s interesting. You have some time and money finally, but you’re also older. It’s harder to learn things, and you don’t have the energy you once had.

NC: Yup.

PR: Where do you feel you had your biggest impact as a teacher?

NC: Almost without exception, former students tell me about having felt encouraged by whatever it was we were doing. They felt encouraged. In particular I seem to have been effective at getting people to try to improvise.

PR: What’s the challenge there?

NC: Most everybody’s scared to stand up and play a solo. How are you able to present that to people so they feel they can stand up and try it? And what kind of feedback do you get for having stood up and tried it? There’s a circular feedback loop that can go on. If you do it and it felt good, you’re going to want to do it again.

PR: When it’s really cooking it’s got to feel great.

NC: When you’re in the groove you’re in a whole different place.

PR: I took acting classes for a few years and despite my near total lack of acting talent I had a few minutes when it was working. And it was the most amazing experience.

NC: Yup. It’s transformative.

PR: Where do you feel you were weaker as a teacher?

NC: (Laughs) I suspect someone evaluating what I did would say, “You didn’t notice all those guys disappearing at one point. They were going outside to turn on.”

PR: (Laughs)

NC: And I probably didn’t notice that. Had I, I probably would have done something about it … but I’d rather have been oblivious to it. Just let it unfold. It wasn’t something that I needed to be concerned about. I have no idea how many people showed up for rehearsals who were stoned.

PR: It doesn’t necessarily hurt the music.

NC: I’m honestly not sure. You can’t do the same thing straight and the same thing stoned. I used to get pretty drunk before some gigs and I sure had some good times making music. But I always wonder if my facilities diminished when I was drunk. Having said that, alcohol has a transformative effect and if you can find the right balance between positive and negative it can be great.

PR: It can loosen you up, right?

NC: Yup.

PR: What are you doing for your physical well-being these days?

NC: As long as I worked I was never an active exerciser. After I retired I started exercising some.

PR: What are you doing?

NC: Mostly walking. I have a treadmill but I love getting outside. On a typical day I’ll walk 2-4 miles. I’ve got about an hour of things I do — hand weights, stretches, crunches. I’m up to 60 deep knee bends and 35 lunges.

PR: At about age 50 I started registering that people in my cohort were aging at very different rates. Genetics and luck, but also effort maybe. If you don’t make the effort you really pay a price.

NC: I think two things are going on. One is fast, gross overeating. The other is that more people are more attentive to the things you just described.

PR: I feel bad for people who don’t have the knowledge or the will. Their knees go, they’re hunched over. They’re fat, they’re in pain, and they’re unhappy.

NC: When I was 29 and had my motorcycle accident, it dislocated my left hip. The orthopedist who worked on me said that over time there’s likely to be some residual pain from the dislocation. That was 45 years ago. By exercising but also thanks to a chiropractor I like my left hip has been virtually pain-free.

PR: How did the field of music education change while you were teaching?

NC: Over the years I taught the greatest transformations were, I think, Suzuki and the incorporation of jazz and popular music into the mainstream curriculum.

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A Suzuki-style training session

PR: Suzuki really rocked the old-timers, as I recall.

NC: The traditionalists were scared shitless of Suzuki because you didn’t have to learn to read. The traditionalists would say, “If you learn to play and you don’t learn how to read, how are you ever going to learn to read?” If it feels good it can’t possibly be good, I guess.

PR: And as for jazz and popular, I studied piano as a young kid and the way music was taught at that point was that you were supposed to move into classical as soon as you could. The point of studying music  wasn’t to take part in the music you already knew and enjoyed, it was to better yourself somehow.

NC: Yup.

PR: Looking back I think, Good lord, why didn’t they start the kids with the music they already loved?

NC: What you’ve described as lacking when you were starting tends to be more the case these days. There are great tugs within the industry. Traditionalists today would still do things the way you describe them being when you were little. When I taught privately or did class lessons, it was pretty much from the classical side of things. Mostly because I didn’t have a repertoire of pedagogical tricks that I could apply to the popular music of the day. At the same time, I always tried to get as many people interested in the jazz program as possible, because that was more fun to do. But I also tried to do a classical repertoire in concert bands.

PR: These things don’t have to be at war with each other.

NC: They don’t. The traditionalists are afraid that everything will go to hell if you introduce contemporary music or jazz.

PR: Do they have a point?

NC: The only downside would be not having an approach to teaching that would enable beginning students to develop good hand position, good embouchure, good breathing, good reading skills. I can’t imagine that you couldn’t approach learning the rudiments of music from the popular side just as well as from the classical side. Getting kids involved is what I was primarily interested in. Doing music that kids would be interested in was important to my plans and my approach. My rap was always, “Give me the hottest rock and roll guy you got, and I’ll make sure he comes to love jazz. And if that awakening comes fairly early, I’ll bet by the time I’m done, they’ll love classical music like nothing before.”

PR: So music education can be a progressive opening-up for people.

NC: In my experience, there’s a natural progression. If you take a pop music person and win their confidence and introduce them to jazz, they become jazz lovers. And if you take a jazz person and gain their confidence and introduce them to classical, they become classical music lovers. It doesn’t mean they walk away from jazz or walk away from pop, but classical music is great music — it’s complex, people have been working on it for 400-500 years, and they’re getting some of it right.

PR: It’s a horizon-expanding thing.

NC: It isn’t that one is better than the other. And I never would give up my interest in jazz. But for an awful lot of students, as their jazz skills developed there’s more that they want. And there’s a lot of depth and density in the classical side of things. It doesn’t make jazz any less, but there’s a different opportunity playing classical music than there is playing jazz. People who write great classical pieces of music are amazing with structure and form, and playing it is pretty damn wonderful.

PR: Connecting with kids’ motivation has to be important too.

NC:  If you want a kid to swim, you’ve got to make being in the water attractive. If you want a kid to play music, the music you provide them has to be something they respond to, and they have to be positively reinforced in their response. It’s very cyclical. If you do it and it feels good and somebody pats you on the head, you jolly well want to do it again. If you do it a little better it feels even better. And what you find out is you have to work.

PR: But if it’s rewarding it’s worth the work.

NC: Yup.

music_software

PR: Since ‘95, what have the main changes in music education been?

NC: A few years ago the music suite at Penfield became three or four times what it was when you were a student. A good-sized dedicated room for band, another for orchestra, another for chorus. And they’re all damn fine rehearsal rooms. It’s all up to date, including the auditorium. In that complex is a room called Technology and Music. There are probably 30 or 40 computers in the room. I don’t really know what’s going on in there. But I can’t imagine growing up today and being motivated to play the clarinet when you can do so many things so easily electronically that sound so wonderful.

PR: Traditional instruments must look pretty lame compared to what you can do with a keyboard and a Mac.

NC: There have been a lot of impacts. There was a time when there were three world-class recording studios in Rochester. Only one that I’m aware of remains, and that’s because of the advertising business. But you can go into your closet these days and come out sounding like a symphony orchestra.

PR: How does the proficiency of kids today compare to the proficiency of kids from decades ago?

NC: If you took recordings of people who played auditions in 1955 and you listened to the clarinet auditions in 2012, few if any from ‘55 would have been on the list of selected players in 2012.

PR: Meaning the 2012 players are better?

NC: Much better. For one thing, the clarinet you buy today is a lot better than the clarinet you bought in the ‘50s. The mouthpieces are much better especially. If you can’t play high notes on a trumpet these days it’s because you don’t know which mouthpiece to buy. You may not be a screamer like Jon Faddis, but you can do it. That part of technology has advanced a lot. And the recorded sounds you hear today are so much better. The sounds I heard coming out of my record player in 1955 — well, I could tell it was a clarinet but not too well. Today you put a recording on and you swear the guy’s right next to you. So you’ve got that model. Because a lot of what comes out of you as a musician is a direct reflection of what goes into your ear.

PR: But a lot must be pedagogy too.

NC: The teaching today is a lot better. I don’t think there are too many military-style jerks around any longer. When I was growing up, many of the band leaders at schools and universities were militaristic guys. You sat up straight with both feet on the floor. That has changed over the years. It’s a more convivial setting than it was. And the idea of giving positive feedback was anathema when I was little and learning. The notion of positive feedback and how it can help further things as opposed to being solely critical. And the curriculum is different and in most ways improved.

ned_book_cover

PR: How did your book come about?

NC: Rob Enslin came to town 15 years ago or so with his wife, who was working on her doctorate in voice. The weekend they came to town was a Swing ‘N Jazz concert weekend. Rob calls the next day and says, “That’s one of the more wonderful concerts I’ve heard, can we get together and talk?” So we got together and talked for hours and enjoyed each other. He served as a volunteer for the Commission Project and eventually edited our newsletter. A friend at Nazareth hired him to do p-r, then Syracuse grabbed him and that’s where he is now. Over time, one of the things Rob said to me was, “You have so many wonderful stories, you have to write them down.” For a while we worked with a former student who now works at NPR, Brigid Bergin. Her studies eventually got to be too much for her to continue with the book. But Bridget, Rob and I spent some time in Pennsylvania and visited old haunts and things.

PR: How did you get the words down?

NC: When we talked, the tape recorder was running all the time.

PR: How did the writing proceed?

NC: Rob would write a chapter and send it to me, and I’d change it so it was more in my voice. When we got finished with the book, it was OK, but it didn’t get me. Rob found an editor at Syracuse, and David Marc did what editors do, and when it came back I’m now proud of it and I’m awfully glad we’ve done it.

PR: How long has the process been?

NC: Six years, maybe seven. A long time. That includes a couple of years before the editor got finished with his work and the publishing thing came together. Rob was responsible for finding the publisher and working out a deal and virtually all logistics.

PR: Did you enjoy pulling the book together?

NC: I didn’t dislike it.

PR: Most people I’ve known who’ve written books come out the other end saying, “My god, I didn’t know it would be so much work and take so much time.”

NC: When we started the whole thing we thought we might get done in two or three years.

PR: What are you most pleased with about it?

stan_hasty_1955ish

Stan Hasty, Ned’s own mentor, in 1955. (Photo used with permission from Ned Corman and Rob Enslin)

NC: The neatest thing that’s happened about the book so far is that, after I sent out complimentary copies, I had the loveliest note back from Stan Hasty’s widow, June. It was lovely about the book, it was lovely because reading the book enabled her to say some things about me that Stan had said to her that I’d never heard. Stan never suffered fools gladly. But through my freshman and  sophomore years he really wet-nursed me. If he hadn’t been as effective a psychiatrist as he was, I’d have disappeared from Eastman School. And we got along well. Hanging with him was as much fun as hanging with the students. One of the lovely parts of June’s note was, Stan always said “Ned is really exceptional, he’s really an unusual guy.” It was heartwarming to hear. And in the book there’s a couple of picture of Stan. In one he’s in his mid 30s. The other one’s from a party that Eastman School threw for his 85th birthday. 50 former students showed up. That’s a big percentage — maybe half of his surviving former students. I got Rob to do some blowups of the photographs and I sent them to June. I think that melted her heart. If somebody told me that in another six years I could make something nice like that happen for somebody else, I’d write another book.

ned_by_me

 

***

Many thanks to Ned for his generosity, time and patience, and thanks too to Ned’s co-writer Rob Enslin for a variety of favors.

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About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog 2Blowhards.com. Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
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3 Responses to A Week With Ned Corman: Day Five

  1. Great interview. Many thanks to Ned for spending some time talking to us.

    Like

  2. Eric says:

    Thank you for this wonderful series.

    Like

  3. Jonathan says:

    I had Ned as my band teacher for the first two years of high school before we moved. This would have been 1977 and 1978. I played alto sax in band and baritone sax in jazz band. He was a fun and interesting teacher. Every once in a while he would get off topic and spend the whole period telling a story or pontificating about some cause he cared about. Band was easily the high point of my day.

    When I tell my kids that I had the sax player from the Muppets for a teacher they just look at me strangely. I guess they don’t realize how cool I though he was.

    Like

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