My dad is seventy. He had a great career as an osteopathic orthopedic surgeon, and served as the residency trainer for a generation of wonderful physicians. Before he started medical school, he taught at a private school in Rhode Island, teaching science but also directing plays and independent studies of James Joyce. He took that job after completing his Masters at Brown in American Studies. He is the original Renaissance man, with a book collection larger and better than most libraries and an ever-increasing passion for figuring the world out. In his retirement I think he’s up to several books a week, on any number of esoteric and hard-to-comprehend topics.
But before all that, he studied piano. When he was about six he started piano lessons, but they didn’t last long – not because he doesn’t like music – he has a more comprehensive collection and knowledge of music than I – but because, as he said, “I want to play trumpet like Louis Armstrong.” Growing up in the ’40s in New England, that must have been a surprise! But he switched to trumpet, and by high school he was a very fine trumpet player. I regret there are no recordings to back me up, but my guess is that he would have been accepted to a conservatory if he had so desired.
His life then, from the stories he tells, revolved around music. He saw everyone at all the great Newport Jazz Festivals in the late 1950’s and in high school was going downtown on his own to see the Juilliard Quartet play Shostakovich. He also sang in choir (he tells the story of being the great reader standing next to the guy with the great voice – he would quietly sing the right notes and the other guy would follow a split-second later). But I don’t know that he ever really considered pursuing music as a career.
He did, however, keep playing in college. He played in the Brown University Band, under legendary Cincinnati Pops Conductor Erich Kunzel (Kunzel was getting his Masters at the time). Dad didn’t like playing under Kunzel, as he felt the practice expectations were unreasonable for non-majors and because Kunzel often bullied individual players in rehearsal. He kept playing, though.
When I was young, he played in a community band. But as parenting and career began to demand more time, he let it fall aside. He was satisfied to attend concerts and collect and enjoy recordings. I believe he has every Chet Baker recording ever pressed to CD, and was buying Wynton Marsalis CDs before anyone had heard of him.
Fast forward to this year. His grandchildren have started to show interest in his horn, so he’s been getting out and playing it. Not surprisingly, his chops are gone. I think most people would nod an accept that. But not my dad.
For the past few months, Dad has started a regular practice regimen – he bought some books for retraining his lips and mind to play. Here is a man with no plans to play a recital or even join a band.
He is simply playing for the love of the instrument and music.
He’ll call and chat about practice, and the challenge of making it a habit. He is facing the same challenges and disappointments as my sixteen-year-old students, but he is facing them with open eyes and a slow-burning desire to play that drives him.
One definition of the world amateur is someone who does something just for the love of it. That’s my dad, an amateur in the best possible sense. As someone who has taken my passion and made it my career, it’s probably worth reminding myself that everyone starts music as an amateur, and I’ll be happier maintaining the mindset of an amateur in my work.
Dad, you are an inspiration. Seeking to play music just for the love of it and taking the daily steps to make it happen. Pursuing a passion without expectation but with determination. What an amazing gift.