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 : Todd Levy

Todd Levy

Refinement, Lineage, Legato. These three words encapsulate the breadth of my studies with two time Grammy award winning clarinetist, Todd Levy.

I came to Milwaukee where Todd serves as its orchestra’s principal clarinet at the advice of a friend who described his thoroughness of teaching as “clarinet bootcamp.” For me those words were exactly what I wanted to hear because I felt that in order for me to reach the echelons of amazing and leap over the chasm of mediocrity I needed intensity, specificity, and a zero tolerance for average or “good enough” in my playing. My first musical encounter with Todd confirmed for me that he was the teacher with whom I needed to study post the protective, incubator of clarinet diversity I came to buck while at FSU.

I was visiting Milwaukee for my audition, having not heard much about Todd previously, but knowing that he played on Selmer and that his website features a wee little dancing Todd at its intro (www.toddlevy.org), I was both excited and nervous to meet him. I knew he had for a while played with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and that he and Ricardo Morales were close friends who inspired each other and approached the clarinet from similar perspectives, and having a strong affinity for the glowing, warmth, depth, and breadth of Ricardo’s playing and having heard that Todd could articulate clearly all of the things that Ricardo did naturally, I knew I had to at the very least meet him and consider University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where he teaches. My first night in Milwaukee he invited me to sit in on a rehearsal of his for the Brahms Quintet. For those who have been following this series thus far you know that this piece had very significant meaning for me. It was in that rehearsal that I fell in love with his playing. Todd took the beautifully rich writing of Brahms’ second movement from his quintet and pulled out the most gorgeously constructed, sinuous, full bodied, robust lines evoking the rich history inherent in the gypsy-esque arabesques. His ears heard the smallest of imperfection and quickly and succinctly fixed them addressing his colleagues with his calm sotto voce and the precision of a master surgeon, he exacted and perfected. It was both brilliant to watch and to listen to. The quality and care of his playing could not be understated. It is masterful.

Todd and Mark Neikrug in rehearsal for the premiere of his Clarinet Concerto, a work commissioned for Todd.

After my audition he took me to hear the MSO play. I can’t remember what was on the program but I remember feeling a sense of purpose and belonging. He was my first teacher who allowed us to address him by his first name as if to suggest we were colleagues on even footing, and me wanting desperately to be at that level, I was more than happy to oblige the request. In Milwaukee we had this saying that “Todd is God” because his artistry and excellence preceded him and everyone believed that Todd’s way was THE way which only gave those of us fortunate enough to be in his studio a further drive to work harder and live up to this high expectation. Our lessons consisted of taking all of the bits and pieces of my former training and carefully and thoughtfully refining it, retraining my ears to hear the smallest of imperfections in my playing, not being able to settle for them, and then fix them slowly and methodically. He would often compare his exactness in playing, the skills needed to refine and perfect a single measure, to flying a helicopter with all of its movable parts, gear shifts, levers, etc. and how at first thinking about and maneuvering all of it can be overwhelming until one day it all just clicks.  For him and those of us in his studio, playing the clarinet was and/or quickly became a carefully balanced dance between the air, lips, fingers, and tongue. To perfect the ballet they all have to be working in concert.

Todd brought a higher level of refinement to my playing that in my mind set it apart from where my playing had been previously. For the first time ever I believed I could win an orchestral job. I could be a working musician and that my playing reflected that level of playing.

Todd was keen on imparting to us the knowledge of our clarinet lineage. Having studied primarily if not exclusively with David Weber; he was adamant that we understood the quality of our clarinet stock, the history of his teaching, and the importance of WHY we do things the way we do them. Like with Weber, Todd promoted a beautiful, singing tone quality which he practiced not only while playing with the MET but also as principal clarinet of the Santa Fe Opera. He stressed the importance of legato fingers, clean and smooth; beautiful articulation, and complete and utter control of one’s airstream. Though not a very tall man, Todd has a commanding presence that is only heightened by his exacting, instructive whispers which parallel the profundity of his playing. He has this amazing ability to take a note to its softest most infinitesimally subtle dynamic marking allowing the sound to glow around you like the faint flicker of a candle, all with absolute control. To hear his phrasing and dynamic and tonal shading is to watch the organic way a flower blooms. It’s all truly inspiring.

Those were by far the pros of “bootcamp,” but as any military brat knows that with the sweet comes the bitter and there was plenty of bitter to go around. The cold and snow in Milwaukee were astonishing and having just moved from Florida my ability to adjust and get to the school to practice was greatly inhibited. As a devoted teacher, he had a tendency to slip unsuspectingly into a rehearsal, come up behind you and quietly critique what you've just done. He knew what you would be playing before you did and expected it to be ready to play for him at your next lesson prior to the first rehearsal of the piece. He didn't believe in showing up to any rehearsal unprepared, especially not the first, a philosophy I still take to heart to this day, and would make sure that he personally heard and walked you through any exposed parts prior to the first downbeat. In this regard he was selfless. Moreover, he was nothing, if not dogmatic about the level of preparation to which every piece must be brought. All of which I relished.

During the period of time I was there, Todd was experiencing major changes in his personal life. I remember a day when he came to my lesson red-faced for what could have been any number of reasons related to the personal renovations taking place in his life, leaving me with the desire to forgo music-making and simply comfort him. Between my first year and my second year, he had lost a tremendous amount of weight because of this external battle and though he never let his personal struggles interfere with his professional work or cause him to miss a lesson, I believe that the emotional toll this took on him only helped to strain our teacher-student relationship. As I get older I realize that I’m at my best when the rapport between my teacher and me is one of positivity, support, and an “of course you can do it, you’re Bergie” attitude that my first teacher, Mr. Knakal, cultivated. I’ve also realized that I’m extremely sensitive to the emotional state of those around me. In other words, I tend to be extremely empathetic and feel the emotional weight of those close to me as if it were my own. If this were a course of multiple intelligence, I would score extremely high in emotional intelligence. I had and still have so much respect for Todd Levy as my teacher. He taught me so much and gave me a glimpse into the humanity of someone truly amazing. He cares so much about the quality and consistency of his work and has sacrificed so much in pursuit of excellence that one can’t help but be awed by his accomplishment. He, however, remains the one teacher with whom I did not leave on the best of terms. I grew to depend on his word, his permission so much that I forgot how to be self-sufficient as a musician, how to make my own musical decisions and when it was time to go I felt scared, rejected, and ultimately unprepared to carry-on at that level for myself. So many graduates before me were gifted with the opportunity to study with him further by way of the Leonard Sorkin Chamber Music Institute and later went on to win jobs. After my graduate recital, at our last clarinet master class, one which I walked out because I felt emotionally drained, used up, done, Todd and I exchanged via text some harsh words and I left feeling like he hated me and that I wasn’t worth the two years I spent there, that the growth and progress I saw in myself wasn’t good enough for him, that I wasn’t good enough to call him my teacher. Years later I emailed him to clear the air and a year after that, when I was performing in Milwaukee; I went by the studio to say hi. We spoke briefly and that was that.

In hindsight, I accept the role I played in the decay of our professional relationship. There are many days when I wish I could redo a few things in Milwaukee or wonder what would have happened if…, but of course none of that changes what is and one can’t live in the past forever or castigate themselves for the outcomes related to not knowing, lamenting a romanticized possibility. Perhaps, some would say I am too emotional, too sensitive, or I have unrealistic expectations, it’s unclear, but what remains clear is the bounty of riches I did receive that continue to shape and inform my approach to clarinet and music making and for that I will be eternally grateful.

I look back on my life in Milwaukee with fondness. I met some incredible people, made some really great music, and met the musician I’d like to be in me. I learned how much work it takes to be the kind of amazing I’ve always wanted to be and continue to be inspired by the lessons, musical and otherwise, that I’ve learned. It was because of my training with Todd that I was even able to be a finalist for the Colorado College Summer Music Festival and the New World Symphony and it’s because of him that I approach every piece of music with a clear idea of what it will take to make it glowing. Thank you Todd for polishing what will hopefully become a diamond no longer in the rough and for showing me how to fly the helicopter with courage and precision. There are lessons to be learned and I believe I continue to learn new ones every day.

Now, be encouraged and go practice!