Tag Archives: United States

The Welder’s Torch

It is one of those nights where everything was supposed to happen and in spite of your best intents, the evening still turned out dull. The musician’s playing is unconvincing inside of a dank and cavernous auditorium. The director is underwhelming, mounting an impenetrable enthusiasm for a work that deserves no such credit. The audience is lukewarm and dodgy, dressed in their typical after-work street clothes and ready to go home for the night. After the concert the fog in the night can’t even commit, playing as a dark and wispy entertainer who forgot how to be wispy. And then the bullet-shaped blue and white tram in a mostly gun-free society pulls up, so the musicians had might as well get in and go home to cap off such a colorless night.

“Hey Jacob, why did Hitler kill himself?” my Israeli buddy inquires. Pulling out his handy smart phone he rattles off some of the best Jewish jokes he can download. I purse my lips and think about it. I even take jokes too seriously tonight. “Because they sent him a gas bill!” he cackles. Yanir continues to rattle off a few more politically incorrect jabs as the train rolls along. Prochaine arret: carnot-mairie de Cenon . . . Cenon Gare . . . Jean Jaures. A boring electronic message passes across the sign in the front of the tram car—Monter sans titre de transport, c’est frauder! “Merde,” je pense. I smile and acknowledge another musical colleague, the Spaniard across the walkway. “Que opinas del concierto?” I ask with forced enthusiasm.  She doesn’t appear too much more impressed with the evening than I was, but forces a friendly reply.

Prochain arrêt: Thiers-benauge. My friends are now practicing their French together, making fun of the unimaginative night and the conductor who pretended he didn’t drop his glasses off the podium mid-performance even though he really did. As we pull into the station, I see arms flying. A few people standing around watching. Fists clenched. There is an issue here, and two men are about to go public on my boring night. The doors open and their words and sweat and pride and pissed-offness spill into the tram. Their coats swirl around in the dress of a violent black and blue dance as they join the multitude of onlookers in the mostly gun-free society.

When I was a boy in some Jesus Camp Kansas City church, I remember being brought to sit and listen to numerous Sunday School lessons about all the Christian martyrs. The Apostle Peter died upside down on a cross; he insisted he wasn’t worthy to be crucified like his Lord. St. John was banned to an island of seclusion—probably for talking too much. John the Baptist had his head cut off in a jealous mix-up between a king and his step-daughter. Usually the lesson would move to modern times to point out the common people around the world who are killed for their beliefs. The message, however, was always consistent at the end: Would you die for your faith? Would you stand firm and not waver in the moment?

Certainly, this is one of the silliest questions humanity could ever ask, nearly on par with “How do you remove a club soda stain?” and “Why don’t black guys get white tattoos?” Its saving grace, however, comes when we really are placed in those moments of reckoning where a decision must be made and there is no choice in between. That is when an individual’s true colors come out and he shows the content of his chatter.

When Americans travel abroad, it is difficult to keep a low profile. We barely speak English, much less any other language. We tend to talk too loudly in group settings. . . well, any settings. We wear baseball caps and flashy gym shorts in public. Our fate and identity is often sealed before we even realize it. Once recognized, people tend to have opinionated reactions. We are either their new best friend, knighted with the privilege of being their new English teacher (bad idea) and Hollywood connection (worse idea) or their greatest jihad enemy, the central problem to global warming, and a snobbish religiously imperialistic globocop. Nevertheless, living in France is one of those few places in the world where traveling abroad as a Yankee can be a real asset. We share much in common culturally. Americans have burgers and fries. The French have wine and cheese. Life is not so complicated after all. There is a strong economy which promotes creativity and diversity. Americans and French alike insist on speaking the mother tongue and look down their nose at those who cannot or will not. They both export great musical traditions that have influenced and entertained people around the world. Most importantly, both France and America have maintained an openness to foreigners. This cultural diversity has fostered a youthfulness that keeps innovation flowing and avoids stagnation. Blacks, Whites, Arabs, Asians, and Latinos all live under the same flag, and although they might not always like it, they are better together than they are apart.

There are certain kinds of truths learned about one’s own country that only come from time spent traveling abroad. A tourist will vacation for a few weeks a year gawking and photographing their time away in a brazen effort to impress their friends with trinkets and tales upon return. They are happy to sample an exotic flavor and remain in the same breath entrenched in their comfortable lifestyle. The traveler, on the other hand, will hold his culture up to the microscope, take out his scalpel, and wait. He watches to retain only the best of what he sees and relentlessly juxtaposes his country of birth with his location of choice. Little by little, he cuts away the weak qualities of his homeland, embraces the strengths of the new, and grafts in the changes as he sees fit. Eventually with time, the sense of homeland washes away until there is simply a life lived for the richest risks and greatest opportunities it may bring. The traveler loses his responsibility to a land and blind homage to a faith and becomes a nomad. Home becomes his tent, his suitcase, his friends, and his memories.

So there they were, going at it as if Armageddon was at hand in that blue and white bullet tram. Their fury filled the area quickly; the walls pressed in to embrace the violence. A French woman weakly screamed and backed away hastily—her large black leather purse made it hard for her to move nimbly, especially in her pink high heels. People were circling around to watch. There was no time to think, only moments to respond. Just then, the man in the black jacket pinned his arms at his side, grabbed from behind the back. He flew into the crowd and away from his enemy, unceremoniously landing on the floor. My friends parted more or less like the Red Sea for him, gawking at this strangely lackluster night gone wrong and this man squirming his way past them on the floor toward the nearest exit. As he got out to circle around the window and renew his barbaric dance, the doors began to close. Pounding and spitting and swearing filled that ridiculously ammunition-shaped tram in a mostly gun-free society as they said their last goodbyes. An Arab woman with running blue mascara stood by sadly watching the two as they parted into the wispy night.

Łódź: Saxophone Face-Off!

Performing music in the 2nd International Saxophone Competition in Lodz was a learning and listening experience. I was the 7th player of 39 in my age group of performers who had come from as far away as Los Angeles and Tokyo. We arrived with hopes to win concerts and prizes. In the end of course, most people won nothing except a lot of fantastic memories and pianist fees.

Musically, I learned the value of playing with excellence, and how playing perfectly can be more important than playing with heart in a competition. I’m not convinced this is a good lesson, but it is the reality of the system. Also, obligatory repertoire is often poor music designed to see if contestants have the stamina to keep up with the rest in a manner as clear as possible. On the other hand, pieces can be chosen to revive lost repertoire or premiere new music. This is reality. After this competition, I’m convinced there are some pieces which may be better lost to history.

Politically, I learned that staff pianists will almost automatically play better for native contestants than foreigners, American or otherwise. It’s unprofessional, but they have the power simply by the fact that we’re on their territory. Also, the most complete player doesn’t always win, especially when saxophone teachers feud—students can get backhanded by matters out of their control. With that in mind, I still happily leave my congratulations to the final winner Xavier Larsson, the kid really played fantastic! The rest of us will get another chance.

Some people say there are competition musicians and concert musicians. You’re amazed by the competitor, but can never get comfortable and enjoy their musical offering. Leonard Bernstein always said he would rather hear an imperfect performance played with heart than a flawless mechanical interpretation. For my part, I want the best of both worlds: a musician who can play clean and also with fullness of depth. For me, this is the most elusive and rare of musicians and my own personal aim.

In spite of having planned the last six months of my life for this saxophone olympics only to have made a quick exit in the first round, I’m reflecting on the best. I met fantastic people, lived like a crazy man, made my personality loud, enjoyed every moment, and left no stone unturned. Travelling to such a contest always leaves room for risk. No matter the result, you must choose to be content with yourself as a musician and person. The very act of trying is a musical upgrade on your abilities. When it’s time, people will start to notice.

Tonight, I close with the words of American comedian and actor Kyle Cease speaking in regards to risk and reward in life. His words, of course, extend way beyond a saxophone competition to life in the normal world. I humbly offer them with the wish that you find the ideas as meaningful as I have.

Seriously, if you want anything, all you have to do is show up. Do what you do, and it will happen. Stop trying to get it. That is cutting corners. That gets in the way. Just do your thing. You keep doing what you do, and you can have anything. Only work on what you can do, and let go. Enjoy doing it in that moment. Stop monitoring while you are doing. Results will show up when its time. Also, the results will be bigger than you can imagine, which is why you should stop deciding how it will go. Want the ultimate career? Become the best in that field. People will notice. Want the ultimate life? Allow. Stop thinking you are in lack without that thing or person. Just create. Don’t know how? Good. Just start. It will answer itself. Just start. That’s it.

Location: Łódź

The more I read about the city of Lodz, the more I discover one could nearly write off the 20th century as a historical gaffe. Yes, Lodz is no stranger to difficulty and development, transformed by industrialists and investors from all over Europe who built factories there throughout the 19th century. By 1914, it served as the most densely populated city in the world at 34,400 people per square mile. The special chemical nature of its water supply allowed it to house the largest textile industry in Europe. It carried the dubious distinction behind Warsaw holding Europe’s second largest ghetto (and most productive) during World War II. As part of the Polish communist state, it saw its private factories nationalized and individual fortunes disintegrate. Finally, in 1990, as the Berlin Wall was falling and the USSR was disintegrating, Lech Walesa became the president of Poland in the country’s first free elections since the end of WW II. Again, life for people in Lodz suddenly got much more complicated. It saw itself restarted by a new regime, and of course, capitalism. Its corner into the Russian market was shattered. Its population was cut down, and its economic stability faltered. Although the country’s overall GDP exceeded pre-communist levels by 1995, 21 years later I still feel like I am walking into the aftermath of a meltdown.

zloty 3,80-€1 was the exchange rate I got at the Lodz airport, the obvious detail I noticed walking out of the international arrivals terminal. For a split second, I felt I had won the lottery. Finally, an exchange rate that plays to the $ instead of taking from it! As my taxi driver took us into the city, I quickly realized why living was so cheap here. I was no longer in the scenic lands of Western Europe, but rather in post-Communist Poland, a hauntingly real image of the not-so-distant-past. Lodz is a scary city at first. You see the run-down buildings, the brick scars on the sides where the concrete has worn away. There are skinheads on the street, mostly passive alone but intimidating in groups. I’m pretty sure most of the tram cars have not been replaced since 1980. When the driver wants to change tracks, he has to stop the tram, get out with a steel rod and push the guide to change his direction. Although the occasional skyscraper pokes its head through the rubble, the ghetto caricature remains—that is, unless you take into account the occasionally neo-gothic architecture. At times covered in grandiose archways and soot-blackened goblins, this city has no lack of striking architecture. It’s something where Jay-Z might walk past Harry Potter on the street—if only there were black people in Lodz. The only non-caucasian people I saw the whole time I was there were the Japanese saxophonists I met at the music competition we had travelled to participate in. Honestly, the beauty of this city never really meets the eye; there isn’t much to see until you start meeting the people. Only then does one begin to discover the richness offered here.

The Polish generally seem to be divided by generations more obviously than many countries I have visited, simply for the fact that most people older than my age don’t seem to speak much English. As a foreigner, that can be quite the challenge as Polish bears 0% resemblance to the Romance languages most Americans grow up studying. Being so dramatically different, Poles somehow manage to speak English with clearer accents than most foreigners I have met. I found it odd sitting in settings where at times nearly everything seemed American-influenced, but with a foreign tongue twist. I found Polish people to be quite friendly, free of grandiosity and excess. They are generally conservative in conversation and lifestlye, probably due to being ±88% Catholic. This is easily the most religious country I have visited in Europe, I could feel it in the air. People will go out of there way to help you, taking time out of their work to make sure your need is met, something I cannot say for many places in the world I’ve been to.

Lodz is rebuilding itself. There are shopping malls and restaurants installed in places formerly holding dilapidated factories such as Manufaktura, one of 19th century Jewish philanthropist Izrael Poznanski’s most notable creations. There is Leon Schiller’s National Higher School of Film and other academies, which foster a burgeoning student population. There is even music, a worthy endeavor in the city the great Artur Rubinstein hails from. I find a cultural renaissance happening in Lodz, in the midst of a global crisis which never really touched Poland in the first place due to its comparatively weak economy (think USA and Eurozone) and in spite of a generally uneducated public. I like this city because I see its citizens working to rebuild anew that which was destroyed by a myriad of obstacles—there is resilience here! Take the time to check it out if you ever get the chance, but take a taxi at night.