Facing the Music

Are you a musician that should be practicing? Are you in between practice sessions or rehearsals and just need to unwind and let your mind wander? Or do you just need a swift kick in the pants to inspire you? Well, sometimes you need to stop procrastinating, stop dodging and just face the music, literally.

The Sum of Its Parts : Dr. Frank Kowalsky

Dr. Frank Kowalsky

My time with Dr. Kowalsky was one marked with an abundance of life lessons. To say it was magical might come off as cliché, but in retrospect it was a very magical time. That’s not to suggest it was all sunbeams and roses, on the contrary, but it was a time when I recognized my strengths and got to revel in them a bit more.

As a well known performer and teacher, Dr. Kowlasky’s reputation preceded him. He’s taught some of the most celebrated performers and teachers of our day and his legacy will surely be remembered. I like to think of him as a performer who teaches, because he has the heart of a performer and when he’s on stage you can’t help but be captivated by his presence, his strength, his musical conviction. On stage, Dr. Kowalsky is a living, breathing genius who can spin phrases and pull out the most beautiful lines. Performance inspired, or rather, informed his teaching. He taught with the idea of flawless execution being secondary to musical expression knowing that perfection came from aiming for musical transcendence. I can remember a conversation we had where I was lamenting my inability to play perfectly; a feeling I think a lot of artists struggle with, especially in our present world of digital recordings and multiple take tracks. I wanted to be amazing. He told me that when he performs he’s always on the edge of ruin, standing at the edge of a cliff; he approaches the cliff but doesn't go over it. This was the imagery used to convey the pushing of boundaries while still being in control - creating excitement and breathing life, and a little bit of danger in service of the music. His use of imagery to communicate the visceral nature of music and line, to connect the natural and tangible with the ephemeral, was and I’m sure still is his gift to all of us who’ve had the pleasure, privilege, and honor to learn from him. He showed me time and time again that he understood the role one’s humanity plays in living, communicative art and that in living, suffering, laughing, crying, growing one can connect to a greater consciousness and transcend the physical. He showed me that life gives us something to say with our music and that without having lived our voices are mute. We can't possibly perform. He showed me that all of this happens not on the note, but between the notes. Dr. Kowalsky connected those tiny black and white dots on a page and taught me how to make music “between the notes.”

Teaching in Dr. Bish's studio at Florida State Univeristy

While at FSU I had the pleasure of hearing him perform many times, in and out of my lessons. I remember him having a penetrating sound with a little extra something, a shimmer to his color, but one performance that stands out in my mind is his performance of the Copland Clarinet Concerto with FSU’s Chamber Orchestra. The opening of this piece epitomizes for me the idea of playing between the notes. With its long, sustained notes and epic leaps, Dr. Kowalsky demonstrated effortlessly how much life lives between each note and how it’s not the notes themselves that create music but all of the wonder that happens between them. Like a great philosopher his seemingly innocuous teachings later serve as a metaphor for life: It’s not the great big events or milestones in life that make it worth living or define it as a life well-lived, but the collection of all the things that happen between those moments; it's how one gets from one event to the next. It’s a metaphor for character, life, and a call for perseverance. He taught me how to divorce my air from my fingers, joking how divorce is a great word, playing with the cultural irony and negative connotation of the word and using it as a teaching tool. He taught me how humor and spontaneity are intrinsic and necessary to music-making, showing me how to add a little schmuckery to a piece like the Mozart, a stalwart and perhaps overly deified work of the clarinet repertoire. He taught me how overwhelming hurt can be experienced and expressed without words and how perfection may be sacrificed for expression.

Trio con Brio: Lubomir Georgiev, Caroline Bridger, & Frank Kowalsky

When then professor of cello, Lubomir Georgiev, passed – with whom he and professor of piano, Dr. Caroline Bridger formed Trio con Brio – the college of music mounted a commemorative concert. Dr. Bridger and Dr. Kowlasky performed Schubert’s Fantasiestücke, a deeply brooding piece ripe with emotive charm and, almost melancholy lamenting in the first movement. I remember seeing Dr. Kowalsky physically and emotionally spent from grief because of their shared loss. Yet in this instance he and his colleague executed a deeply gripping and tumultuous and at times torn rendering of an otherwise standard piece. I remember hearing the musical risks he was taking, from the extremes of pianissimo to the forward thrust of his fortes, and thinking, “this is raw.” The performer I knew, so elegantly quaffed on stage with a little flair of braggadocio, was laid bare on stage exposing his loss and emotional turmoil in ways that seemed remorseful, apologetic at times to out rightly defiant. He, in all of his grief, gave a master class in connecting the notes, playing between the events of life and death.

Mozart's Clarinet Quintet with Seattle Chamber Music Society: A Celebration of the Life of Toby Saks

Dr. Kowalsky used music to give life lessons, to touch on those personal aspects of life that became too heavy to bear or too private to say out loud. He understood the need to live and to be well-rounded while also carrying an acute awareness of life’s sacrifices and those that have to be made in service of one’s art. He remains the musician’s musician; clarinet was merely the tool for his expression: a musician first, clarinetist second. I remember an anecdote about his time at Eastman School of Music where he studied with Stanley Hasty. He said he used to spend every free minute he got in the music library listening to recordings, just listening. He just wanted to play the clarinet and make music, everything else was secondary. He said it was a great time to be a musician. 

Now, go make some music and play between the notes,