Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ready, Go, Set

In the January, 1977 I made a decision that would redefine me. It was simultaneously one of the most difficult decisions I'd made and one of the easiest. Despite all the advice I'd received to pursue a practical college degree (i.e., one that would lead to employment), I decided to pursue a music degree.

You've probably noticed that when working to free a tightly bound object, the force of your exertions can result in serious acceleration when the binds finally break. The effort put into my decision had a similar effect. I would not only become a musician, I would shoot for the moon. I applied to the best school I knew, the Berklee College of Music in Boston. I declared myself a composer and arranger. And, since composers need to know piano, I declared piano as my principal instrument.

The last one doesn't seem so extreme other than the fact that I didn't play piano, but planned on learning it before I got to school in the fall.

It's a crisp and cool early morning in September. My dad slams the trunk of his chocolate-brown Lincoln Mark III (the one from the French Connection). My mom hugs me as tears fill her eyes. She tells me to be a good boy and that she is proud of me.

We drive from our house in suburban Wheaton, Illinois to O'Hare to catch a plane to Boston. By noon, I'm standing on the corner of Boylston and Mass Ave. A sheet of paper taped to the door reads, "New Student Registration".

I'm excited. I'm terrified.

What were you thinking? Telling them you're a piano player is one thing, but leaving your sax back in Wheaton just so you have no choice but to go forward? Are you crazy or something? They're going to think you're the lamest musician, ever.

It will be OK! I'm a composer, not a player. Not all composers are great players, right?

I will myself through the doors, walk up to a lady sitting under a sign that reads Q-U, and say I'm Mark Tuomenoksa, T-U-O. She thumbs through a file box, hands me a manilla folder stuffed with registration papers, and then gestures to a guy standing by the wall.

This is Derek. He's a third year student. He'll be showing you around.

My dorm room is a 12x7-foot trapezoid that is nearly rectangular. It has a bunk bed, a desk and a chest of drawers. There's no airconditioning, just a window that opens on a center alleyway that is closed in by buildings on all four sides.

My roommate is a 320-pound trombone player from Connecticut who likes to eat sardines late at night. His family lives close enough to school to drive him, so he's brought lots of stuff: a stereo, records, clothes, and lots of cans of sardines.

I've got my suitcase and no saxophone. I ask if he wouldn't mind me taking the top bunk.

The first week at Berklee we have no classes. Instead, we all take tests and evaluations. We test in music theory, arranging, composition, ear-training, analysis, etc. The goal of the testing is to segment classes into groups with common skill levels. Each class has thirteen sections, A-M.

For the first time in my life, I do well on a test. In fact, I do well on all the tests ending up in sections L or M of every course. Exciting and terrifying.

Week two, we begin classes. My first class is Ear-Training. The goal of ear-training is to completely unify your aural, visual and tactile systems, to be able to see and feel what you hear, to be able to hear and feel what you see.

The room is abuzz with speculation about the class. What will we learn? How will we be evaluated? Who's gonna quit first? I sit quietly in the back of the room taking it all in.

At 8:45, the teacher walks into the room, tosses his backpack onto his desk, places a record on a turntable, drops the needle in the middle of a song, looks up at us and says, "Write this down."

I recognize the song; it's John Coltrane. The teacher has dropped the needle right in the middle of his solo and Trane is all over the horn. I assume he's kidding. Who could possibly write that down? Maybe this is some kind of music-nerd hazing or a form of shock therapy.

I make a comment to the guy on my my left, a real piano player from Long Island. He doesn't hear me. He's busy scribbling away. He's transcribing trane in realtime.

I close my eyes trying to get a handle on the solo. The notes are moving so fast, I can't even hear them all, let alone write them down. I'm doomed.

Over the next three months, I spend lots of time on ear-training. I wave my hands in the air conducting as I quietly sing solfege on the Red-Line. I transcribe and re-transcribe hours and hours of music. The metronome becomes my best friend as I practice new pieces, scales and arpeggios.

Ear-training and piano playing are challenging and I simply don't keep up with some of the guys in my classes. Still, by the end of the first semester, I'm able to transcribe a Trane solo as I hear it.

My arranging and composition classes tell a different story. I feel like I've come home. I'm amazed when other students start asking me for advice and guidance. They're the best musicians I've ever known and they're asking me questions?

The guys start looking forward to playing my charts when we get together each week to play through what each of us has composed.

You can't play for shit, but man you sure do get composition and arranging. How do you do it without being able to play?

I have no answer.

Late December, I've learned more in the past three months than I did in all the years that preceded them. I can even hold my own comping chords and playing a short riff here or there. Flying back to Chicago, I think about all that I feared prior to coming to Boston, how I'd been tempted to sit out a year to prepare and practice before applying to school. I'm glad I didn't.

Happy Sunday,

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