Giving Thanks

Last week, New York City radio station WQXR ran a short piece in which musicians were asked to share a few words about someone for whom they were thankful. In keeping with this Thanksgiving theme, several classical performers—including Hilary Hahn, David Krakauer, Frederica von Stade, and others—offered glimpses into their formative experiences while recognizing to some of the mostly unsung individuals who made unforgettable impressions on their lives.

While it was a privilege to contribute my own anecdote to the mix, after condensing my feelings into two extremely compact sentences I knew that I wanted to write something more about my former college professor Dean Guy, and just how much his disposition towards life galvanized my own resolve to become a composer.

Dean taught music theory at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and he was the kind of teacher that had a reputation for being something of a hard-ass, which to the undergraduate mind is another way of saying that he didn’t put up with crap and expected people to live up to their potential. He was the kind of person that was capable of exclaiming the most colorful deflating remarks to those who fell short of his standards, yet without a stroke of cruelty.

So when it came time for me get serious about my classroom teaching skills, I came to him for advice. Having some experience with down-and-out college students, he offered me a real heck of a deal—weekly pedagogy lessons in exchange for rides home. These meeting were always a source of valuable advice and conversation, but the best lessons came from hanging out with Dean and hearing about his life.

Dean has been blind since childhood. When he had been a child, the dominant attitude toward the disabled was very different from today’s (somewhat) more open attitude; disabilities were to be ashamed of, and the idea that the disabled might have reason to aspire to engaged, productive lives had yet to impact the popular consciousness. (To this end, consider that one of America’s greatest presidents—Franklin Roosevelt—won the presidency only through careful image management which included elaborately-staged public appearances in which the crippled FDR appeared to walk unaided.)

The more I came to understand how much of Dean’s early life was touched by this attitude, the more I appreciated his determination to carve out his own path, which led to a very active life of performing, accompanying, and teaching. Moreover, Dean is one of the people who has cultivated and maintained a zest for life’s experiences that frequently puts me to shame. Through many hours spent discussing a good melodic turn, the problems of his having a state ID card instead of a driver’s license, and the latest baseball statistics, I came to feel a profound respect for an individual with an unquenchable relish for living—someone who didn’t accept the limitations that others had chosen for themselves.

To a young and somewhat scrappy composer, Dean’s outlook had all kinds of implications. It meant that I should be, first and foremost, grateful for all things in life and for the gift of my senses; it meant that the conventional wisdom concerning both life and music might not be quite on the mark; and it meant that self-knowledge was just as important a component of career-planning as knowledge of “the field”.

In writing this recollection of someone whose attitude toward life continues to impact me every day, I find myself thinking of a Chinese aphorism that succeeds in expressing much of what Dean revealed to me about the world:

The master said: ‘my garden’…and his gardener smiled.

Why is the gardener smiling? Because while the master may own the garden in the proprietary sense, he may yet rarely set foot within it. It is the gardener who actually possesses the garden, in the sense of cultivating a lived relationship. My former teacher Dean helped me to understand that likewise, everything in the world becomes ours the moment we pay attention to it, respect it, listen to it; how thankful I am for that perspective, and how thankful I am for countless other mentors who have succeeded in passing along something beyond the scope of their narrowly-prescribed curriculum.

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