What I Learned from George Crumb

I was very fortunate to discover the music of George Crumb while I was still in high school. My untrained ears immediately recognized the extraordinary beauty of his Ancient Voices of Children. I could not comprehend how someone could possibly create something like that, and so I decided to trek across the country from Los Angeles to Philadelphia in order to find out. Thus, about one year after hearing his music for the first time, I found myself enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, taking a class with the master himself.

I don’t think I’ve ever been as much in awe or as nervous as that first day of class with Maestro Crumb. I remember feeling very angry with the other students who treated him like any other professor. Didn’t they realize the amazing feats of which he was capable?

Of course, he was an inspirational teacher. He would sit in front of the class, chain smoking (yes, this was 20 years ago!) or sitting at the piano to play every Chopin Mazurka or several books of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, while lingering over interesting aspects of each piece. He didn’t match my preconceived notions of artistic genius. He wasn’t arrogant nor was he dismissive of our feeble attempts to understand the higher levels of art. He was gracious and generous with his comments on student work. He seemed genuinely interested in our groping lurches towards knowledge.

Gradually, I learned from him the most important lesson of all: to have a life in music, one must love music.

On the surface, this seems both simple and obvious. We all love music, or why else would we pursue this underpaid, overworked, overly competitive profession? But sometimes we get stressed and tired and we hear the same pieces over and over again and we forget. We forget the mystery. We forget the joy of hearing something for the first time. We forget that the piece that bores us is the most inspirational piece in the world for that wide-eyed student.

Now that I am in front of the classroom rather than safely ensconced anonymously among the desks, I try to continuously keep this lesson in the fore, and to transmit it to the next generation.

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