Dr. Deborah Bish
The story of how I came to study at Florida State University is an interesting one that grew out of a need for environmental change as much as emotional and happened because a very good and dear friend of mine urged me to do so. Once I got there, however, things were not as I had imagined and this experience helped shape the tenacious, driven, and passionate musician I believe myself to be today.
It's no secret that what drew me to FSU was Dr. Kowalsky, but what kept me there was the care, concern, nurturing, and structure provided by my first professor, Professor Deborah Bish, as she was known when I arrived. Professor Bish was, I believe, in her second or third year at the School of Music, which later, before my graduation, became the College of Music (COM). She was in the midst of completing her own doctoral degree at Arizona State University so had a contemporary, first-hand experience of the kind of work ethic needed to pursue a career in music. Even though she was steadily working towards achieving her own professional goals outside of her studio, Prof. Bish never fatigued of what became seemingly daily, endless inquiries of how I could improve. She was always willing, with an open door policy, to respond to my emails or take a few minutes between lessons to help me find my way. In addition to her selflessness, Prof. Bish also took the musical foundation I gained from my first teacher, Mr. Knakal, and provided structure and a solid technical foundation in the way of daily warm-up exercises, articulation, long tones, etc. that I took to heart then and to this day hold onto as Biblical truth. Professor Bish gave me stability at one of the most critical times of my life.
The year before, I was studying in Rochester, New York. It was my freshman year of college and what was supposed to be the most exciting time of my newly acquired adult life quickly became an emotional nightmare. Coming to terms with what it meant to live my life as an openly gay man soon became the least of my worries. Earlier that summer, a month or two before leaving for college, my Uncle Wendall had died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack. My memories of my uncle are extremely fond; memories of him pulling money out of our ears as children, or at Christmas promising to take me and my little cousin George to the jewel mines so we can help my aunt make jewelry, or taking me, my little brother, and cousin fishing. His big bellowing laugh and the way he seemed taller than the trees. He was my father's brother and encompassed everything I knew about my close extended family. I remember the dimple he had in his chin that was genetically passed to me and reminds me of him every time I look at it. Upon arriving at University of Rochester and connecting my computer to its internet service I had waiting for me an email that to this day leaves me grief-stricken. My high school band director, Mr. King, the man who, before I left, told me I was his muse, the man who took a chance on me by making me his single, sole Drum Major in the face of much criticism and championed my going to the Boston University Tanglewood Institute even though it interfered with the hectic marching band schedule, had died unexpectedly of complications related to pneumonia. I was devastated. Soon after the news of my band director's death, 9/11 hit and I distinctly remember being on my way to class, walking past the on campus coffee shop and seeing the horrendous sight of smoke billowing up out of the World Trade Center, one by one both falling to their knees and leaving the country in agony. Friends, dorm mates, classmates, teachers all scrambling to contact loved ones in the area. Some received bad news. Classes were cancelled. This, after so much close and personal death left me numb. However, the biggest blow was still yet to come. Later that winter I received a cryptic phone call from my aunt telling me that my champion, my hero, my comedienne, my grandmother, Mary Ella or "Dear" as she was affectionately known by all, had died. Her death, though peaceful and in style as only she could do, marked the beginning of the end for my emotional well being. Her death left my father and I divided and my extended family scattered. The events around her death, the personal toll it took on everyone seemed to unravel the fibers of familial love that had once been woven tenuously, but tightly. I began to dream of death, long for it, expect it at every turn. These feelings of impending and anticipatory death made the deaths that followed wash over me leaving the destruction of a tidal wave but without the force of impact, my Uncle George, my Uncle Kern and later my Aunt Ella Kate, leaving my father the sole remaining original heir to the Rash name. To then couple these cataclysmic hits with the death-mongering weather of Rochester, New York was all too much. I took a leave, finished out the year, and transferred.
I came to Professor Bish a broken, fragile, insecure boy who had, in my mind, lost everything, could no longer believe in anything, feeling frayed, wounded, and raw from the prevailing emotional attacks. I found solace and hope in the beauty of the clarinet's sound, the enveloping depth and color of its evocative refrains. Professor Bish scrubbed away the emotional gore of the raw, exposed nerves and splayed tendrils of myself and put in their place a sense of safety, an appreciation for consistency, routine, discipline, and order. In waking up everyday at 7am to be in the practice room by 8am to get in my first hour of warm-ups, long tones, scales, thirds, arpeggios, and articulation before heading to class at 9am, she took the chaotic, jagged, bleeding fragments of my former person, of the life I had lived prior and brought a calm, rational, and reasonable structure that became a form of meditation and solemn prayer.
Soon, Professor Bish was awarded her doctorate and became Dr. Bish. By this time she was no longer my primary applied lessons professor, but as was the nature of the clarinet studio, I could always go to her, as I did, with questions, requests for feedback, or just to chat. Dr. Bish introduced us all to the dynamic world of extended techniques as her dissertation treated the life and works of clarinetist and composer William O. Smith. She then released a great album, clarikinetics that features the spit fire work of an amazing composer, Gregory Wanamaker and showcases why meditational warm-ups are the life's blood of any performance artist. Dr. Bish not only spoke of the benefits of a solid warm-up and technical stability, she lived it. I remember coming to the COM and hearing her, through her studio door, going through the very warm-up packet she gave to us as incoming 1st and 2nd year undergrads, practicing methodically and metronomically the very works she was later to record on her album. To bear witness to such discipline and then later see the fruits of its labor was a colossal education in and of itself. Dr. Bish brought with her phenomenal playing a humanity that nourishes your individual life essence and speaks directly to its yearning.
I remember going to her studio often and saying, "I feel as though I'm on the cusp of greatness." She would encourage that yearning and gently, through her wisdom, instruction, and guidance, lead me back to the practice room wiser than when I left.
Thank you Dr. Bish for perhaps unknowingly wiping the slate clean and allowing me to grow; for seeing in me the greatness that I couldn't at the time see in myself; for teaching me discipline, consistency, and instilling in me a reverence for the time spent in the practice room and a respect for the metronome. You always said that "Practice doesn't make perfect it makes permanent; perfect practice makes perfect,"
Thank you for teaching me how to slowly practice perfectly and being a rock in my time of tumult.
Now, Go Practice... Perfectly,