Alex Laing is a very cool and interesting person. He is currently the principal clarinet for The Phoenix Symphony and is coming up on 20 years in that chair. He’s a very funny guy, a deep thinker and wants to leave his mark on social improvement in as many ways possible.
I was lucky enough to get the chance to work with him on a program he put together a few years back called The Leading Tone. It was an after school program where we got to work with very young students and teach them the process of working in an ensemble using buckets as a percussion instrument.
It was exciting to assist him in getting this program off the ground and to see the smile on the students faces when they got to perform in front of their classmates and their family and friends.
Alex has reached a very high level in the world of classical music which not everyone always gets to accomplish even if they pour their heart, soul, blood, sweat and tears into their work. Being the principal chair in a symphony is no small feat.
The great thing about Alex is his “real”. You’ll hear in this conversation that he’s just one of us with maybe a little more discipline than most but still someone who I love hanging out with for lunch or a beer.
Please check out this episode to hear how all this started for Alex at a young age as we bring you on a journey all the way to his appointment at the Principal Clarinet of The Phoenix Symphony.
In part 2, we continue to talk about the current status of The Phoenix Symphony during COVID-19 and all the projects he’s working on moving forward.
I hope you enjoy both parts of this interview with Alex and I can’t thank you enough for listening to my podcast.
Alex’s Website: alexlaingmusic.com
The Leading Tone: http://www.theleadingtone.org/
Connect with Alex: firstname.lastname@example.org
Podcast Music By: Andy Galore, Album: “Out and About“, Song: “Chicken & Scotch” 2014
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Joe: Hey, everyone, welcome. I’m glad you are joining me for this episode. Again, I’m very grateful that I am in your ears. You’ve chosen to listen to my podcast today. I have a very special guest and friend, amazing musician. I was lucky enough to meet him, get introduced to work with him on a special project a few years back. We’ve stayed friends ever since. We don’t get to see each other much, but it’s nice to see his face here on the podcast. And he has principal clarinet for the Phoenix Symphony. Welcome, my friend. Alex Lang, welcome.
Alex: Hey, nice to be here, thanks for having me. Joe.
Joe: So with a lot of the guests that I have on the podcast, I kind of want to start from the beginning. And just I want you to bring us up to today, and then I want to talk about some of the special things that you’re doing. But I want to first start with your musical career. And like as a child, did you start early or was this something you got into later on? And so basically my first question was, when did you get like you can start and it doesn’t have to include music. You can maybe kind of bring us on to the on ramp of how you started in music at a younger age.
Alex: Sure, yes. So I think it starts for me in school. I went to a school that had a lot of music in the curriculum, but interestingly, no instrumental music instruction program. So it was a small school alternative education based on the philosophies of this one guy. But it’s called the Waldorf School there. There’s more of them in Europe, but there’s a few here in the States. In any case, there’s a lot of music, a lot of song, a lot of music across all all sort of classes. Your your language class, your you know, your main lesson, your this, your that. So I think that they gave us recorders in like first or second grade and that was I think the first time when me and the people around me sort of started to notice that there was something with Alex in music. I mean, you have to ask my parents if they saw earlier, but that’s that’s when I remember it. Right. So I would bring the recorder home and I was good at it. Right. It was like something that came relatively easy to me. I was figuring stuff out by ear really fast and have it, you know, and playing, bringing it home and, you know, just being a weirdo.
Joe: Yes, and it was this was this in Maryland,
Alex: Yeah, yeah, yes, I grew up in
Alex: The I was born in D.C. and
Alex: Grew up around around D.C. I grew up mostly in Silver Spring, Maryland. And the school. Yeah. So so that was that. And then around, you know, sort of typical sort of the regular rhythm, I think summer between fourth and fifth grade. My my mom and dad say like, hey, you’re going to do a music program or some or some music, OK? So they signed me up for lessons at the D.C. program that the D.C. Youth Orchestra ran. And so in the summer, the D.C. Youth Orchestra would run a sort of they take over. This school is Calvin Coolidge High School in Takoma Park, D.C. And they would run like their youth orchestra, both like the senior and junior division, like doing all day intensive type stuff for the week or weeks. And then they would also run into a group lesson, beginner, intermediate, advanced. So I started, of course, in beginner clarinet with like 20 other kids. And we picked the clarinet because I didn’t really pick on my parents, picked it because I even know the clarinet was
Alex: Right and.
Joe: So glad you’re actually explaining this, because I was going to say, is it just like the natural progression from recorder to clarinet? But I’m so glad you’re explaining this.
Alex: Yeah, I mean, I don’t know. Yeah, I mean, but again, this is without, like, a band program or anything, my mom, I think, sort of figured a woodwind because the recorder that seemed to be something that I did know a musician might have been looking at. I was a bigger kid. I’m a bigger person still. You know, someone else might have looked at my hands and be like, oh, like cello or piano. You
Alex: They might have
Alex: Baritone sax, right? Because, you know, every fifth grader, every
Alex: Fifth grader should start a baritone
Joe: The what’s the haul
Joe: That around,
Alex: Yeah, exactly.
Joe: A tuba.
Alex: Exactly, exactly. We all want to grow up and be Jerry Mulligan.
Alex: So, yeah. So I think I’m sort of figuring it out on her own in that regard, like, oh, woodwind and you know, recorded and clarinet that kind of look like they might be similar. And then the kicker was that my grandmother, her mom had been a big fan of Benny Goodman, like a big fan. And so this idea, I think she wanted her kids, my mom and her siblings to play clarinet. No one had. And so this idea of like I think that also sort of put the clarinet. But I remember this is as funny is I remember that on the drive down there and I totally get this now as a parent. Right, because you’re like there’s probably some like the kid is like, you know, you’re playing with blocks. You’re not paying attention. For my mom, it may have been like a real, like, rush to get out the door, you know, three, two kids at that time and whatever. I remember the drive down there. She’s like, OK, well, look, if she’s talking over her shoulder, right, it’s clarinet is is full of what we’re going to sign you up for oboe. And I was like, OK, whatever. Like, I don’t even know what these things are, but I look back and be like, man, if I had just like we’ve been a little bit later, maybe who knows
Alex: What I like. Oboe. That sounds nuts.
Alex: Why that saxophone actually looking back Mom. But anyway, I guess so. Thankfully, the clarinet was still open and. Yeah. So, you know, you go they give you it’s all like inclusive. Right. So they like we went up there, signed up and left with it with the rental instrument, like right there. And yeah, I went home and like figured out how to put it together, like now it’s in pieces and set it up backwards. Had the be on the top of the instrument as opposed to on the back
Alex: And like started it started playing and I learned and that day I like figured out how to play something and it went from there. And so yeah. Then fortunately that fall subprogram wrapped up that fall. My parents went to Elsworth Music Studios in Bethesda, Maryland, and it happens the clarinet teacher, there was a guy named Charles Steier who is only going to be there for like as time moves forward, he only ends up being there for like another couple months or something. And then he start teaching at us out of his house or maybe a year. But in any case, we made that connection and he became my teacher and I studied with him from age ten to eighteen. It was a really intense, dedicated relationship. He gave me a lot of time. I give him a lot of commitment and effort and. Yeah, and that’s sort of the first that’s like me. Ten to eighteen in a nutshell.
Joe: Got it, and and you mentioned earlier, and we should bring it up because you’re sitting down with you are like, what, six, two, four,
Alex: Yeah, six three six
Joe: Yeah. So
Joe: So one of my questions was when as a young kid, same thing as you. I wasn’t as quite we’ve had this conversation. I wasn’t maybe as quite committed musically because I would I would definitely go in my room for hours and practice the drums. Correct. But just played a record. I couldn’t stand the rudiment part of it and all of the. But I also played in Little League. I played soccer. I was like the high school captain of my soccer team, that kind
Joe: Of stuff. So
Joe: Did you play sports because
Joe: You. Yeah, because
Joe: Have the physique. So I was wondering how
Joe: You were able to balance the two.
Alex: There wasn’t really any balancing that needed to be done until, like junior year, definitely to answer your questions. Yeah, I, I define myself as an athlete, not a good one. Trying to be good. I grew up in a neighbor in the neighborhood. I grew up in sports were like the sort of currency. That was what we did. We play different sports with the seasons. I lived on a cul de sac, so we had this sort of round space in between all our houses and that was our football field, our baseball field. You know, we even played hockey a little bit like street hockey. You know,
Joe: Mm hmm.
Alex: Like we were just, you know, a lot of the energy for that came from my older brother, who was a really tough competition. Athleticism really sort of defined the neighborhood. And I was bigger but younger. You know, I was so I was size wise, like with them. But age was about three years behind. So I can understand now that that’s why, like, I was not I was not. I was like decent, but I was not the best one. But then I’ll go to school. I was the best athlete. I know now that since you were competing against the White House side, you are like the wiring of the nervous system. Three years is a big amount of time just
Alex: In terms
Alex: Of being coordinated and understanding how to move your body and experience. Right. Just having done the thing. So, yeah, but in school I was an athlete against small school. So I mean, very much like, you know, for the Hoosier fans out there, it’s like I went to Hickory, right? I mean, there were 50, 60 kids in my high school class at my high school, my whole school. There were nine kids in my graduating class. So being a standout athlete in the midst of that, you know, take it for what it’s worth. But, yeah, I played basketball with my sport. I played soccer like, you know, I played soccer and played soccer probably up through like freshman year of high school, never played baseball beyond sandlot, but basketball was serious about it and took that pretty seriously around junior year to answer you. Long story short, answering your question, junior year when the two started to conflict with each other and there was a big basketball tournament at the same time, there were some musical thing, some opportunity to do something with the clarinet. And I chose clarinet, which was disappointing to my coaches, my team and coaches, plural, but, you know, whatever, and but felt like what I needed to do. And then I didn’t go out. Then I did go out for basketball senior year as a first time. And then that was that was like the real sort of so that that moment in some, you know, fall of junior year is when I really when I really had to make a decision. And that’s a sort of solidified like what my identity was. I was a musician, you know, not not an athlete. So. Yeah.
Joe: And during this time, were you already planning that your life would be everything involving music and you you or one of those people unlike myself, who literally just panic, like in senior year, like I want to go away or music school, and I haven’t thought about any of this. And, you know, did you plan it? And and and before you even did that, I wanted to find out which were you playing in orchestra and band clarinet that you do both. OK, so.
Joe: So you had
Joe: A little
Alex: No, no,
Alex: No, no, no, I’m acknowledging
Alex: The question I
Alex: Didn’t do either, actually,
Alex: Which was like a weird wrinkle in my musical development. So to unpack all of that, I did start planning around 8th grade. I remember saying out loud, like I was going to major in music and business, like that was a thing. I mean, it is a thing now, but
Alex: I don’t
Alex: Know, I didn’t mean business. I meant like someone. I meant like. Yeah, just some sort of, like, white collar thing.
Joe: Yep, yep.
Alex: My dad was my dad was an attorney. I think early on I thought I was going to I wanted I thought I would say stuff like that. I want to be a lawyer. I think in eighth grade I’m saying music and business. And I think the significant part is that music is like something I’m naming as something I’m going to do. I don’t think I knew at that point like how one could what one did to make a living as a musician. I definitely didn’t know that, like, orchestras were a thing. So getting back to my school. Right. Small school. No, no instrumental program at all. So I didn’t play. I auditioned for, like, all state band, but like eighth or ninth grade, got in and went away, did that week and felt really out of sorts. And I was already this like, weird because I was going to I was having a very different just sort of regular school experience because I’m going to this small alternative private school. There’s probably some racial elements there, just like being around a whole bunch of different people. But mainly the other thing was like I just didn’t I didn’t know anything about band culture. So it was just very like so I never did that again. And then I got a fellowship from the National Symphony in DC, like my junior or senior year. And so I started to do some stuff through them and going to National Symphony rehearsals and concerts and taking lessons with members of the orchestra, starting to understand that as a thing and got to play and some side by side situations with the National Symphony like a really one really formative experience in that regard. Like the first time, like you talk about playing along to records the first time, like I was playing along to a record of like it was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but it was like the record was like the live musicians
Alex: Is the first time I had that feeling. It was like it’s still lives. It just really was amazing. And I didn’t play in large ensemble with any regularity until I got to college. And just to geek out on the music part of that a little bit, what that meant, as you can imagine, shows like. I didn’t know how to play with other people and I didn’t understand the importance of, like, collective pulse, rhythm, intonation, like I didn’t even begin to understand that as a thing until much, much later. But just the basics, like it’s I really at that point didn’t understand, like, why you need to understand with some specificity and depth that a dotted quarter has three eighth notes in it. Right. I was
Alex: Like, there’s a quarter note. That’s the beat. There’s the half note. That’s two beats. And there’s the data quarter, which is like in between,
Alex: Which is
Alex: Fine if you’re if you’re learning. As I was learning, most of my study was like some attitudes. And then pretty quickly we got into real literature. So a lot of my formative study from my high school through college is like learning major concertos, Mozart, Nielsen paper, all this sort of stuff. So I’m like looking at the music, listening to recordings, translating the the notes on the page, you know, translating the sounds that I’m hearing through the notes. And this is a sort of a mix of all of those things. And then and then creating like really for the time I think pretty polished, but sure. You know, sort of reproductions of these pieces or productions of these pieces. But, you know, not not doing the whole like. Six clarinets sight reading this thing together and sort of learning how to turn the symbols into sound in a way that lets you work with other people. So my first year at Northwestern, I did of course not now, of course, but I did well on the placement. An audition because I can play the clarinet, got excited. Great. We’re going to see two principal clarinet of this wind ensemble enough. So for me, like that was like, great, because I wanted to win. I was a competitive person and I think with the sports and the music then comes together, same as you write, like you sort of translate that competitive. But brother man, I, I made such a mess of stuff because I didn’t know, I didn’t know any of it. Words I didn’t know how to like. I didn’t know any of it worked. I knew how to play the clarinet.
Joe: So this is even though we’ve known each other, I never heard this before, so this is really interesting to me based on the fact that you have reached a very high level in the musical community and in music in general. So just to clarify, because you went to this small private school and they had no ensembles, instrumental ensembles the entire time, all of this playing that you ever did was only when you went away to one of these camps or only when you did all state or all of so you basically took the clarinet and continued to improve on it and play it and work on it solely on your own without any.
Alex: No, no, I had a private teacher at one private
Alex: Teacher, I said,
Joe: That, besides
Alex: Yes, yes,
Joe: You’d never literally got the play in ensembles, in groups with other people where you brought up all these great points about timing and intonation and
Joe: And and pulse and feeding off of each other and all
Joe: Of the things that happened
Joe: In these lines up until
Joe: You got basically to college.
Alex: That’s right. And so music wasn’t a social thing for me. You know, it’s interesting. And so it’s finding I’m I’m a I’m a child of the 80s, in the 90s. So like, you know, Karate Kid, like, very much sort of Max. You know, I had I had my I had my Mr. Miyagi like this sort of off the beaten path teacher really dedicated to me teaching in a kind of different way, definitely teaching sort of artistry first and then like learning sort of function second as opposed to like we’re going to do function, function, function. And
Alex: Then when you get all of these basic rudiment together, we’re going to like what you’re describing or the stuff you didn’t have patience for. I mean, we did a lot of that for sure, to be clear. A lot of a lot of just like technical, technical, technical. But still, it was in this context of like, you know, trying to be him in many ways. I think it was a lot of what that was about for better and for worse. Right. That he was this artist and I was trying to be this artist. And you did right by me. And so, so, so many ways. Right. And I didn’t see music as a social thing. So I’m not a bad kid in that regard. I didn’t I didn’t it wasn’t like music wasn’t something I did with my friends. It was something I did with my teacher, which is different, I think, than than a lot of people. But yes, the short answer to your question is no. I did not I did not know how to play in ensemble. And I did some like I did solos. But again, you’re working with an accompanist. That’s a very different dynamic. These are adults who are like, you know, running around with a net, catch you when you drop seats and skip stuff and like, you know, it’s a whole different
Alex: It’s a whole different thing. I did. I did. So, yeah, it was a sharp learning curve in college. Yeah. Yeah. So.
Joe: And so when you started playing, when you started becoming more mature in the clarinet,
Joe: Did you ever think that the direction you would go would be away from classical music? Because. Sure, because Benny Goodman jazz. Right.
Alex: Yeah, yeah.
Joe: That’s what you was was given to us? Sort of. This is the person we admire
Joe: As a clarinet player.
Joe: Did you ever dip your toe in the jazz pool at all or
Joe: It always classical?
Alex: It was always classical, and while the Benny Goodman story, you know, I mean, you tell your life stories and much, right. And you get good at it. That’s sort of like my cocktail party story of me and the clarinet. It’s a Benny Goodman makes an appearance. And I actually did see Benny Goodman like last or next to last live performance at Wolf Trap and 19, whatever, 80, whatever it was. But that’s just, again, you know, just sort of an intersection. No, it doesn’t. I remember in sixth grade, so that’s why I’m playing for like a couple of years. You’ll appreciate, like so like Nadji and Kenny G
Alex: Inspirers. I like these bands. They’re like, you know, especially Noisey was like this idea of like smooth this kind of I don’t know if it was the smooth jazz Kenji’s like on the regular radio. Right. And so and everyone’s like, Alex, that’s the instrument you play. It’s the most people, they’re like soprano, saxophone, clarinet. It’s just like one’s the same, right.
Alex: Aren’t they the same. And so they were going to my teacher and asking him, like, what about wouldn’t it be couldn’t I switch to the soprano saxophone? He was like, basically no. So I mean, he couldn’t that wasn’t something he could do and all that. I definitely wish that I had I had those I had those desires. I wanted to play music that, like people around me, recognized this music. You know, I wanted to yeah, I wanted I wanted that. But I never, never happened. And it’s still sort of you know, I still have, like, itty bitty aspirations to try to, you know. Get a little bit of improv ability. It’s frustrating because an embarrassing, you know, the number of times and people have been like, you know, they they hear your story, they read your resume, and they’re like, oh, man, especially as a musician, this is the worst of the worst. Other musicians would be like, oh, man, you meet them and you oh, we we got to do something together, man. Let’s let’s just come over and you got to be like producer dude. Like I don’t know how to do that. Right. Like
Joe: Music. Count me
Alex: Yeah. I remember that old Saturday Night Live with the setup is it’s like a morning show. Will Ferrell’s in a bit and it’s like the teleprompter goes out there without Greers in the teleprompter goes out in the course of like three commercial breaks. The show goes completely Lord of the Flies. Anyway, there’s the degree to which I feel like that describes my experience, like the notes I must wear are the notes. So
Joe: All right, so so basically
Alex: That’s a.
Joe: Two things. So first thing is, do you have a Sopranos sex somewhere hidden in your house?
Alex: I don’t have a soprano sax. I will say this, though, soprano sax shows up in the story and for the for for your audience and the stuff you talk about, I think this isn’t there some relevance here. Soprano sax is up for me because a friend of ours, Hughie Lovelady, here in town and Phoenix, the contractor used to be in Vegas. So if you want to know some stuff, go check that out. It comes to me because the show Wicked is coming to town to do a sit down in Phoenix and he’s contracting it. And Wicked is sort of a weird Broadway show in that the whatever number is read for whatever is a really basically just like a straight clarinet book. Right. So it’s clarinet, heavy clarinet, pretty heavy e flat clarinet, moderately heavy bass clarinet and like super light soprano saxophone, like just like 20, 30, 40, 50 bars of soprano saxophone at this point. Again, I’m so like Nero, I had not actually played even bass clarinet. I didn’t own one. I don’t know. I must have been just like a pain in the butt because I just don’t see how my college teachers let me go for years without ever having to spend a semester sitting on bass clarinet somewhere. But I remember being really clear that I didn’t want to. And I think they were just like not interested in dealing with me. And so they let me not. But it wasn’t good for my development. They didn’t know what to do. So he was like, do this thing. I’m like, now I’m not. I’m not. No, no, no. And he came back a couple of times. You came back the first time. The first time they came to me and I said, no second time you came.
Alex: At that point, I was looking for something different to do in the Phoenix Symphony. Long story short, I say I say yes. And I’m just going to have to learn how to play the soprano sex. And he was the sax player. He’s like, I’ll make sure you’re you’re totally overthinking this, Alex. You’re more it’s going to be fine. It’s going to be great. There’s plenty of months to learn it. And I did it. It went fine. It was a real learning point for me on two things. One, that got me out of the orchestra, which I was really looking for at that point. And it gave me some confirmation that, like, you can do things out of here. You know, you don’t you don’t have to be as dependent on this place for your everything, which was liberating and important and right on time on a number of levels. It also sort of taught me the rewards, the sort of rewards that can come with taking a risk like and you can say yes to something that you don’t know how to do yet. You know, maybe not if it’s due tomorrow, but you can say yes to something and believe in yourself that by the time this thing is due, I’ve figured it out. And that opened up a whole new life. If that’s possible for you or for me, at least it opened up a whole bunch of things in a whole way of looking at the world that like I could pursue opportunities that I hadn’t gotten all the answers to yet. And if I got them, I would figure it out, you know, and that was that was exciting and confirming. So let’s see, the soprano saxophone ended up saving me, you
Alex: Know, just
Joe: Very cool, yeah.
Alex: It was just twenty years later. And I loved it, to be clear, just and I loved I really enjoyed playing the soprano sax. I did make me think back that I that I’m like, what would have happened? Because I like I do like I love the instrument. Actually, love’s a strong word, but I do like it.
Joe: But you never went and purchased one.
Alex: I did not go and purchase one.
Joe: Ok, I just want to make sure there’s not a closet soprano saxophone
Joe: House, just.
Alex: Here’s the closest I got something I got to hold on, let me see. I have a I have a crushed.
Alex: Metal clarinet, a buddy of mine gave this to me as a novelty. It’s a metal clarinet that he puts on this like industrial press. So he buys discarded instruments and then turns it into this
Alex: Art piece.
Joe: Is so
Alex: You can
Alex: Hang on your wall.
Joe: It would be
Joe: A better story if you said that actually you ran over that with your car.
Joe: Would be
Alex: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly.
Joe: That would be a funny story. All right. So you are at Northwestern because you
Joe: I know we jumped all the way to Phoenix already, but I want to go back because I want to
Joe: Do the progression from Northwestern to so so keep going from there.
Alex: So I’m at Northwestern, went there because the biggest, most prominent clarinet teacher in the country at the time was was there. And I will say that, again, the sort of direct sort of path of so-called classical music, especially orchestral music. It’s built a lot on competition. Right. And so I got that right. This idea of like just try to keep winning. Right. And eventually, like, somehow that turns into a career about Northwestern came in really hot and then it’s pretty from a musical perspective. I think if you looked at the if you back up and look at the whole graph, it’s kind of a decline for me for the next. Three years musically, I mean, not to say that this is not a one know, I was coming at one I didn’t understand like music a lot of what was going on around me. So I didn’t really like the whole sort of culture of music schools and band and orchestra, which was foreign to me. I didn’t get it as a like social thing in many ways. I wasn’t interested in it. Also as a social thing. I think also, you know, I had been so shaped by this one relationship teacher student, which was really powerful and helpful, but also just really unique and not not the normal relationship that you have with a private teacher, especially at the collegiate level. You know, you see them for an hour and a week. They’re interested in you. You know, there’s other stuff going on. They’ve got they might they might have a full time performing job somewhere, even in a place like you, which is pretty, pretty intense school music. But a lot of the faculty are active practitioners in the Chicago area and the Chicago Symphony.
Alex: Things felt different. The competitive piece was very much intact and strengthened at Northwestern. I think in some regards that sort of helped me because it gave me like it’s on a quota system. So three times a year you’re auditioning for placement. So there is that sort of constant feedback and jockeying. Again, though, I would say the competitive piece makes it difficult. I thought, you know, how do you connect to people that you’re also like everyone’s always worried that a bunch of insecure 18, 19 year olds. Right. Just the whole sort of social emotional thing. So that’s all going on. And things are up and down. You know, in that regard, I’m doing OK, but I’m sort of, you know, top middle of the pack of, you know, and I’m also have again, I can have some amazing, like, breakout moments right where this week for this piece, this thing. But I can also have some moments where it’s like I have no idea why I can’t do X, Y, Z. Right. So my understanding of like a lot of the fundamentals and rudiments and my understanding of like when things weren’t going well on the instrument, like why that was happening, that was very low at that time. So that the music being on the social side, though, like Northwestern was amazing for me that it was the first time I got to be in a big school. Right. Coming from this tiny, tiny school where this is radio, not television. So you’re always going to know. But I’m you know, I’m black and so.
Joe: Tall, tall, dark and handsome is the
Joe: Way I refer to
Joe: Way I refer to you.
Alex: Exactly. So Northwestern was the first time was exciting, it was exciting in that regard from the social aspect, right. For me, it was a bigger black community than I ever had before. A black peer group that was exciting to me. Pledge, not fraternity, one of the four traditional black fraternities. That was really great. Again, though, to get that was sophomore year. I was a huge time commitment, a huge priority, first time and really ever. I put something kind of ahead of the clarinet. Right. You know, I was socially not very involved or invested in the school of music academically, completely invested around my music performance. Major. So that was that that’s all playing out. Meanwhile, the teacher that I’d gone there to study with, you know, he’s he’s a giant in the field. He’s older at this point. When I get there, he’s already older. I never was going to see him as a full time student my freshman year because he didn’t take freshman. But the plan was that I would move into a studio my sophomore year. But his health started to fail. So he didn’t take on as many students for what would have been my sophomore year. Very proud moment for me was when I went to register for my junior year and have now been moved into studios. I filled out the little bubble form and like that to my private student. I was like, no, it definitely felt like, OK, this is getting back on track. I’m I’m now moving into his studio. I’m sort of winning again by virtue of doing that. It just felt like that two weeks before my junior year was set to start, I got a call at my home in Maryland from the dean of the School of Music to tell me that Mr. Marsalis, the teacher, had gone there to study with had had a massive heart attack and stroke and
Alex: Was not going to be returning to school that fall.
Alex: And as it turns out, he never returned to teaching at all and sadly passed away not too long after that. So now I’m in my junior year and I’m like. You know, just Northwestern from a musical clarinet perspective has not turned out the way I wanted or expected or in my case or not, just my kid. I really feel like it needs to write because the whole idea is like keep winning, right? You got to stay, keep winning. And eventually you’re in the winner’s circle playing in an orchestra. That sort of. And so and also I had taken my sophomore year. Right. Prioritize something other than the clarinet prioritized pledging my fraternity and all that came with that. So my teacher from high school was still in contact with helped put me in touch with a teacher that I wanted to study with kind of eventually sort of part of that same family of learning and teaching that my teacher from high school would come out of a guy named George Pieterson, who at the time was principal clarinetist of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. So I spent my junior year doing school and all that, but also setting this up that I actually withdrew from Northwestern after my junior year and went to Amsterdam to study with this teacher. I did an artist diploma while I was over there, so I enrolled in the conservatory and that made that change. That really changed things. I was, you know, on my own in another country. And the only reason I was there was to practice the clarinet and get better. I just switched to a different instrument at that time like a new clarinet. So it was sort of a fresh start in that regard. You know, like we’re starting over and, you know, this is nineteen ninety five.
Alex: Ninety four, ninety five. So like no cell phones, at least not for regular people, right? No, no, no internet. Not really like having a laptop wasn’t you know, it wasn’t really a thing. So I was really isolated. I didn’t have any I didn’t I was over there for 15 months. I was broke. But I was hardcore practicing the clarinet and put everything into that. I really saw it as like a make or break moment and threw myself at it like that and came back, you know, I mean, I was practicing five, six hours a day away from everything and everybody. New teacher, new environment, new ideas, you know, so I can’t I grew and developed a lot and then came back, finished up it. And you and I went on to the Manhattan School of Music. I did. And there was a really competitive program that they had there called the Orchestral Performance Program, which was you would do a Masters, but it was going to be focused exclusively on orchestral instrumental playing. So you’re not doing recitals and sonatas and concertos. It’s all focused on the orchestral literature and specifically the orchestral audition, which, you know, is like the bar and the NFL comp. So the legal bar or your medical boards and the NFL combines in a job interview sort of an open winner take all tournament, all sort of wrapped into one. Right. And so a lot a lot on the line. If you could win, you can change your life at that point. A new teacher came into my life, Ricardo Morales, who is the teacher in that program, who was you know, this is transformative for me. I was ready for it. And also, he’s just transformative. I mean.
Joe: And I ask you something about
Joe: The teacher,
Joe: The teacher
Joe: Asked Amsterdam, and so when I ask this question, I’m basing it on my own experience with taking lessons from someone that I had aspired to take lessons from and throw at a very high level. Would you say the teacher in Amsterdam was the highest level at that moment of your life that you had ever taken from?
Alex: Yeah, I mean, the highest level that was really my first teacher that that that 10 to 18 stretch, you know, he was in many ways like more like a root guru, you know, than this was the first teacher that he approved of. Right. Which,
Alex: Look, yeah, it’s a big thing looking back, you know, look, that he did so right by me. So there’s nothing you do have to release your students to learn from other people. You have to and you have to empower them and you have to like. And so I think that was maybe a little late coming for me, especially because, again, the whole Northwestern thing, I went there to study with one person and never got to do that. So there’s a sense of like, oh, this isn’t turning out the way it is. The guy that that was available to me was amazing. And if I had committed to him, I mean, a lot of as you know, as a teacher and as a student, a lot of it is about trust. Right.
Alex: You have to you got to commit. You got it. When your teacher says do this, you got to do it. And if you’re, like, thinking you might know better or, you know, I’m saying it could really get in the way of that. So I never connected with him. And getting back to Amsterdam. Yeah, it was the first time since high school, the first teacher I had, who I was empowering, who my teacher was empowered. And I think an interesting thing, Joe, is the first time I was hearing someone like an approved source saying things that were different than the my first sort of origin, which in my experience was was new. And that was also liberating. Right, to have someone say, like, you should go left at the fork in the road. And as I was taught to go right where I’m telling you to go left,
Alex: What happens when you go left? And then like, oh, interesting things are happening. New things are happening. I wonder I always wanted to go left. You start to empower yourself a little bit. So, yeah, that was transformative. The main thing, though, of that year was so he was a huge impact. The other thing was I really put the clarinet back at the center of my life, you know, and constructed my life so that there really was not much to it besides that. Right. So you’re sort of isolated. No contact really. Was it sounds or you never think you’re going to be the person right in everything. You’re going to be the person like giving out years like this was whatever
Alex: Life. I was
Alex: Like, yeah.
Joe: We we never wanted to have this conversation we’re having
Alex: I yeah,
Joe: Now in
Joe: Our life, we like where
Joe: You have to go back to years and explain that there was no Internet.
Alex: Like that’s a thing, right? I mean, like my main source of contact with my family, my girlfriend at the time, I was writing letters,
Alex: Writing letters,
Alex: I didn’t have any money. So like international calling, that’s like that was know there’s
Alex: No Skype there’s now. So I put the client at the center of my life and they lived a life in which there was not very much else. And so I had a certain sort of drive and aestheticism, honestly, the sophomore year pledging the fraternity and some of the tribulations around that gave me an extra year of grit. I mean, you and me, we talk about this stuff a lot, right? Embrace the suck like, you know, find, find, find a way to take satisfaction in the work and the hard work and the sickness of it. And and I definitely did that that year. Right. Every time I felt lonely, I was like, well, you know, you should maybe do what you came here to do, go practice some scales,
Alex: You know?
Joe: Also, and that was part of my my question, and it could be relevant for both your first teacher and then the next one in Amsterdam and then going to the Manhattan School of Music. But when you get to teachers of that level, from my experience, they don’t screw around. And
Joe: And and they they they don’t want you wasting their time. But more importantly, I think what frustrates us as teachers is that when we see potential in someone, it really drives this crazy. Right? It’s like you wasting my time is one thing if you’re just average or you suck. But if you’re good, if I can see the potential in you and you waste your time and my time, it becomes really frustrating. So I was wondering, was your very first teacher, did he ever have one of those days where you walked in and he’s like, you are not prepared, you’re wasting both our time and
Joe: You need. Yeah.
Alex: Yeah, yeah, I mean, he was that was a really close relationship, he was close to my family. So but definitely, you know, I mean, he knew me from age 10 to 18, you know, once a week. And as I got older, the lessons got longer. Right. So my senior year in high school, junior senior year lessons are three hours long. Four
Alex: Hours long.
Alex: Yeah. I mean, I would
Alex: I would get over there at like five thirty. We would work from like five thirty to I get over there five or five thirty I, I think it’s five. I had the five o’clock spot we would work, his wife would come home, they would there be a break, we’d have dinner and
Alex: Then we’d go back to work. Right. And it was, it was great. And so, so, so many ways it was a level of commitment. I guess this is like my understanding of like what music lessons are again. So it’s like very different, right? I mean, it’s my socialising is social. So music to the degree it was a social thing, it was socializing with my teacher and his family, his wife. They didn’t have kids. Which is different from socializing with your peers. Right. It’s a different
Alex: Type of environment, different sort of understanding of like what’s what’s happening, what’s supposed to be happening. So definitely to answer your question, yeah, there’s those moments with my teacher in Amsterdam. We had one of those moments
Alex: And I never. Yes, I had one
Joe: You only
Joe: Need to
Joe: Have one and
Joe: Then you
Joe: To have them again.
Alex: Yeah, yeah, yeah. With my with my, you know, ten to eighteen. I mean, he was, you know, again, he knew me from when I was literally a little kid until I was an adult. And so, you know, there was there was moments where he told me to get my head out of my butt and
Alex: Like that. But there was never a thought that, like he was going to quit me. Like, that
Alex: So early on in Amsterdam. Yeah. There was one or two rough lessons with him. One, he asked me to do something. I didn’t do it. And then the other one, I showed up and I learned I had to learn a piece of music and they tuned and I had learned it like the notes, but I really hadn’t like really learned it as a piece of music, turned it into music and. Yeah, except me. How come? I wasn’t sure it was like, look, I mean, I’m not here to teach. I’m not here to do the work for you. Go home. So that was like, OK, all right.
Joe: I feel like I’ve I definitely had a lot more of those than you have.
Alex: Yeah, well, but I don’t know about that, but in any case, yeah, he that was I only need one of those and I was like, all right now. But again, to your point, I was like, OK, like, I’ve never had a teacher do that. Actually, I was I’ve never had a teacher be like, you don’t need me to. I’m not going. You don’t need me, you know?
Alex: So go
Alex: Away now. So yeah. Yeah. Okay. What’s next? What you want to talk about.
Joe: So now we’re at Manhattan School of Music and you’re in a very intense, to put it lightly, program.
Alex: Yeah, so now I understand the importance of there being three eighth notes in a data recorder at this point, I figure that out and in Manhattan is actually where a lot of that happens, where, you know, I’m really now I have the skills on the instrument. I’m sort of back on track in a way I hadn’t been pretty much for my whole college career in terms of like I’m at I’m at I’m in sort of an elite place. And I’m I’m I’m competing and seeing that and I’m able to do it consistently. I’m on my playing is starting to get a lot more consistent. I can dial up the results of my monster when I was in Amsterdam. It’s grim. I actually said it out loud. I do some teaching over the summer and I said out loud I was like to share with some students. And afterwards I was like, I have to revisit that, because that’s what my mantra was, eliminate hope. And here’s why I wanted to eliminate. The feeling of like right before I started to play a solo or an audition, like, I hope this goes well, right? This idea that I was subject to, like clarinet gods that were either going to smile on me or not, I wanted to eliminate that. I wanted to really understand, like the instrument and my ability to, like, deliver the goods on demand when the clock strikes midnight, whatever I’m saying, like
Alex: Now do it now. So those that had paid off by the time I got to know the Manhattan school, I was really starting to be able to like. You know, I don’t know that my best playing has gotten all that much better since I was like 16 or 17, as much other stuff I could do at 16, I can’t do that right. Because, like, my tendons are old. But, you know, the wave has gotten a lot more narrow. Right.
Joe: Mm hmm.
Alex: That’s the whole thing that the dip, like my worst playing is so much farther above. You know, what could. And so Manhattan is where that a lot of that starts to happen. I’m playing an orchestra a lot. I’m I’m stepping out and competing and getting some spots and some really some some of the elite summer programs. So I go to Tanglewood, I go to the National Repertory Orchestra and by and training with Ricardo Morales, who first time I had a teacher that wasn’t white. So Ricardo’s from Puerto Rico. And while this wasn’t like an often or constant topic and our lesson, it was the first time that the subject of. Like me and my teacher, not being white, the way everybody most of the people in the band were and like him and he was able to that he was able to mention that in relation to himself, the recipe was this sort of simple recipe. You just got to be like way, way better than everybody. So come on, let me show you how. Right. So it wasn’t like we didn’t spend a whole bunch of time hovering around it, but that was a new construction. The main thing, though, was another thing that was impactful on that is, you know, Ricardo is only 18 months older than me. So I’m doing my masters. But he’s head of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at age. You got that job. And he was like twenty one. And I mean, just to put it in context, I mean, if aliens landed and they said, take me to the highest paid orchestra on planet Earth at the time, it was the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Right. If aliens landed and like, take me to the most prominent, you know, hot hotshot, like it was him writing the highest paid. It was him like he was killing it. This is a guy who was in the semifinals to be associate principal clarinet of the Boston Symphony when he was 16.
Alex: I mean, just a freak show, right. And all that. And I mean, that is also here’s the other thing, because, I mean, you’ll get this, both of us coming from sort of a competitive framework. It was the first time that my teacher’s playing was on another planet from my and it relieved me of competing with my teacher, which turned me into a much better student.
Joe: Mm hmm.
Alex: Right. So now I was no, there wasn’t any like my defensive mechanisms were obliterated in the first 30 seconds of hearing him play the clarinet, like the whole sort of, oh, I could do that. Or maybe I could do that or finding all the stuff you do to sort of protect your ego. And you’re like, there was no way. I’m still not. There’s no way. My goal was as relates to trying to sound like Ricardo is like. You know, he has 60 acres of like ability, and it’s like I have, like, I don’t know, whatever I have 10 can I develop my 10 such that if you drop them into his 60s, it would be seamless. So I am trying to make the stuff I do measure up to what he can do, but he can just do so much more. I mean, and that was liberating. I’d never heard and that made me a better student. It also just changed what I thought the goal was right. So now all of a sudden I was like, oh, that’s how Shostakovich’s 10 sounds. Oh, that’s how so.
Alex: Like, I had a lesson with my audition was on a Friday. I flew into New York on a Tuesday and a lesson with him on Wednesday, heard him on Wednesday and that lesson had him tell me some stuff. You know, at the time he’s young. He was twenty five. I mean, I was twenty five. He was talking. He was twenty six. I was twenty five. So he wasn’t like a you know, he’s a very like active personality, active mind, constantly going like probably you know, you have to like literally like unplug him matrix style to get him to stop. Played a lot in the lessons back then. A lot, a lot of teaching by showing. And that was great for me at the time. I think he does more listening now and he’s like middle age, that guy. So he’s he’s calmer. But I was a better player by Friday is the short end of that story. I had a lesson with him on Wednesday and I was playing better by Friday just because I had a different paradigm.
Joe: That’s crazy.
Alex: Yeah. So he was great. He was great. The studio was great. Everyone was supportive. We were competitive. But we were there was a few of us there and we were you know, he did a good job of sort of making us feel like we were one team all together. And yeah. So then that’s that’s Manhattan School took my first professional audition maybe two weeks before graduation, and then. Yeah. So I left Manhattan.
Joe: And who was that for?
Alex: The audition was your neck of the woods. The audition was for the Syracuse Symphony.
Alex: Yeah. I didn’t get out of the first round, didn’t deserve to but took the audition. And actually ironically, fortunately for me that turns out to be the longest audition list I ever of any audition I ever took to the first audition I took. We had all the added pressure of, like, you know,
Alex: I’m doing it blah, blah, blah, blah. But actually, it was like also it was like ask the most of me. So I knew all the music that I had to polish and learn and I didn’t have to add too many more pieces to the repertoire after that point, which was good, which was just that’s a sort of a lucky, lucky
Joe: All right,
Alex: Turn of events.
Joe: Good. It was a good foundation for auditioning
Alex: Yeah, it was a
Alex: Good first
Joe: The future.
Alex: It was a good look I got on it. I didn’t have to get on a plane. You know, I went down to Penn Station, I got on a train. I went, yeah, but that whole experience of like going to another place and checking into a hotel and then, like, showing up at some stage door, being ushered into a room and then, like, told to wait here and told to wait there. And I bought the ticket. And now here’s your 30 seconds. Go,
Alex: You know.
Joe: So what was your first? Professional landing of a orchestra or symphony type
Joe: Gig. Yeah.
Alex: So coming out of coming out of Manhattan school, I auditioned for I had my heart set on getting into the New World Symphony in Miami, which is they call themselves America’s Orchestral Academy. But it’s sort of it’s like a summer festival that doesn’t add up
Alex: For four for an orchestra. It’s a great sort of thing to do after after school. It’s all about, you know, you can be there for a maximum of three years. But the goal is to get out of there and win a tenure track job somewhere. And again, this whole idea of like, just keep winning, just keep winning. So I didn’t get it. I got like runner up or something like that. And I had taken an audition to to go play in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. So the Chicago Symphony has a training orchestra called the Civic Orchestra, which is a really it’s a great program. I was thinking of it just like as a backup or whatever, but I got in and didn’t get into New World. And so I went back to Chicago just for now, starting to take auditions. The next audition I took was for the Naples Philharmonic in Florida and did well advance this time, got into the late rounds, but more importantly for the story, ran into someone I’d gone to Northwestern with who had stayed in Chicago and built a teaching studio. And now she was moving somewhere, I think, to Memphis maybe to play in the orchestra. And we just happened to run into it. Hey, how are you? Good to see you. But she’s like, I’m leaving town. Do you want my studio? I don’t think I’m going to go. I think the day unfolds and we don’t. We don’t. Neither of us get the gig. And so she said, I’m leaving town you on my studio. And I was like, yeah.
Alex: So again, really just fortune smiled on me. So I moved back to Chicago. I had this playing opportunity with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, kept me playing an orchestra. Now I’m doing all my rehearsals and performances or many of my rehearsals and most of my performances inside Symphony Center in downtown Chicago. So that’s that’s a new thing as well, right? Like sitting on the stage and seeing, like the big hall and like the nerves that come with all of that and like, performances on big stages, you know, that was really great. And, of course, the learning and getting to work with some great conductors because they often will. So I got to work with Daniel Barenboim, who at the time was the music director of his really amazing stuff to say about sounds like really interesting and intricate, really committed, like a specific sound. It’s not just not just a good sound, but like this particular sound. How do we do that together and all that. And then I’m also jumping in my car and driving down to I can’t remember where it was. It’s like some town, like an hour north, an hour south of Chicago and teaching teaching all the clarinet students in sort of the surrounding area, band programs teaching from like three to nine, like half hour lessons like two days a week. But again, I was just really lucky. She had my friend and I built this studio. And so, you know, the parents were accustomed to like paying a month in advance, which makes a big difference.
Joe: Yeah, yeah.
Alex: That’s a big difference if you get all of that money in at once. And she had them really well, they all believed in sort of a system of credit. So it’s like, you know, you pay for the month if your kid gets sick, of course. And add that shows up as a credit in your next month’s bill. But if your kid decides that, you know, three, 30, that they don’t want to go to their for 30
Alex: Lesson like
Alex: That. Yeah,
Alex: Well, no, that’s a choice you guys make as a family. But you can’t just cancel on me. I’m sitting here in this
Alex: Room waiting for him,
Alex: So I didn’t have to do any of that. And I, I don’t think I would have had the understanding or the courage actually to set up studio rules like that, because I didn’t have any experience in that regard. I just sort of fell into it. So that was that year and then.
Joe: Can I ask you one
Joe: The specific
Alex: Of course.
Joe: Allegations, and I also want to look for any of the listeners that are listening to this that aren’t musicians are educated in the way orchestras are set up. What are the chair placements for the various instruments? So, like, it follows the same pattern for most of the instruments. Right. Its principal. And then second.
Alex: Yeah, yeah,
Alex: I mean,
Joe: What were
Joe: You in the civic orchestra
Joe: When you.
Alex: Civic, we were they didn’t, they didn’t, they didn’t you were just clarinets and then they assigned us based on like so they were except for each year. And then you just get assigned and, you know, some of these signed away, the assignments are handed out. You start to get a sense of like who’s favored
Alex: Who is held. And but it’s also there’s a lot of opportunity. So everyone kind of get the opportunity because it’s a training orchestra. It’s not in professional orchestras. You know, the rank. Obviously, there are there are differences in the jobs difference in what they do, but also the difference in terms of, like, status, not really so much, some somewhat inside the ensemble, certainly outside the ensemble. Right. People understand words like principal or something like that. They
Alex: That. But, you know, a lot of it has to do with it’s not about so much. It’s about ability kind of in that moment at that time. But, you know, at the professional, whereas like for a civic orchestra of Chicago or all state being like I think iterates every year. Right. And it’s a whole new everything’s tossed out and you have even civic you had to really decide
Alex: What you work, whereas New World is different. New world that you get in at the end of their first year, they kind of make a decision about you that the thing is set up, though, to to to want to bring you back. It’s they do have some room, though, at the end of the first year, if they if it’s not working or whatever. But, you know, New World is a three year sort of ride, which is again, it’s more money. It’s more performing. New World basically operates like a professional orchestra with some other stuff around it. And not you don’t get paid as much, but they do cover your housing and you’re living on South Beach, which is pretty nice
Alex: In any case, civic. So, yeah, but in a professional orchestra, it’s different, right. Because these positions open for a moment in time and then they don’t they don’t open again. So the person I replaced as principal clarinetist of the Phoenix Symphony, a guy named Jack, rather, he had been in the job and I’m sort of guesstimating here, but I feel pretty good saying he was on the job for thirty years.
Alex: Right. And
Alex: Then I’m you know, I’ve been on the job now almost twenty years. Right. So in sixty years, surely there will have been two people in this position. So it’s not and there have been in that time period, there have been there’s been probably two or three people on that on the second chair. Right. So it’s a lot to do with vacancies. It’s not so much about like. And so if you want to be if what you want to do is play principal clarinet, flute, oboe, bassoon, whatever, like there’s no guarantee that that job that there’s going to be an opening for that position in every orchestra during your sort of career of auditioning
Alex: Being interested or a current principal clarinetist, for instance. Oh, a great way. A great one is the guy who is before. So the current principal finance of the New York Philharmonic is an amazing artist. His name is Anthony McGill. So for any lessons that just want to, like, be blown away by great stuff, go check out the Anthony stuff. But Anthony replaced there’s a little bit of a pop up in between, but a guy named Stanley Drucker, Stanley Drucker is principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic for over 50 years.
Alex: Right. So that’s
Alex: A that’s that. Yeah. I mean, someone could the day he got the job, someone could be born, pick up the clarinet at ten, get amazing plays. If they had twelve fingers and not be, there won’t be an opportunity to audition for that job, to be principal of that orchestra, you know, till they’re 50 where they are there. So a lot of it is. So the titles and all that matters. But it’s you know, I was taking second auditions and and heartbroken when I didn’t get those. I was runner up for a second job in a different orchestra that would have paid me more than my job in Phoenix at this point. I mean, when it comes to being doing this professionally, you just want an opportunity. I mean, there are some people who are like I, I own a lot of clarinets, but I don’t own a second clarinet. Like, that’s not me, for one thing. I mean, maybe at this point not because I just because I’m not good at it, I’ve done enough. But yeah. So the title thing, it’s not the same thing on the professional level. Right. It’s like, you know, people getting these jobs and they’re and there’s not chair challenges every year. It’s not like that. And they’re just different jobs. At the end of the day, you know, you sort of get it. It’s like being a side man versus being the headliner. I mean, those are just different jobs. And you you know, there’s no there’s no, you know, being a being a side, not being the headliner among professionals. It depends on what you’re doing, but it could be like an incredibly prestigious thing, even if sort of the regular person doesn’t get that. Exactly. And it could be incredibly financially rewarding, depending on who you’re playing with. Right. I mean.
Joe: Correct, That’s
Joe: Right. All right, so you are doing your back at the Civic Orchestra in
Alex: Oh, yeah,
Joe: Chicago and now
Joe: This is this is my job. This is what I so I want to know
Joe: What the first first professional. You know. You’ve got it.
Joe: You got
Alex: Yeah, we’re still we’re still a little ways up, I am starting
Alex: To work.
Joe: Actually, I want to say I at that level, it’s very unprofessional, the wording should have been, what is your first symphony?
Alex: Vocational, yeah, yeah, yeah, the good news is, I mean, at this point, I’m out of school, right? And it’s my first year out of school and paying my bills entirely in music. So I got a little bit of a stipend from the Civic Orchestra in Chicago. I’ve got this teaching thing that my I was just lucky. Right. Right place. Right time. Someone just gave me a gift. And I’m not having to, like, work at Starbucks or a bar or anything
Joe: Mm hmm.
Alex: Like that. I started to pick up some I mean, the very first, like, major professional thing I did was I substituted with the Boston Symphony when I was during the summer when I was at Tanglewood. So I was that Tanglewood doing a training thing, part of that program. And the VSO is there as well. That’s their summer home. And so they’re doing something big and they needed more clarinets and they than they have in their complement. And so they reached into the summer program and asked. So that would so I joined the union. Right.
Alex: Because, you know, you can’t work in
Alex: The Boston Symphony if you’re not in the union. So I joined the local in D.C., actually, because that’s where hyphenated local. That’s where that’s where because I was like, you know, I think I probably had to get the money from my parents honestly to pay my my my first round of dues until I got that check. But the first like, yeah, the first professional check I got was from the Boston Symphony.
Joe: That’s called.
Alex: Yeah. It definitely made me like sort of misapprehend
Joe: Yeah, yeah.
Alex: Many zeros are usually in your check. Well, I was in Chicago doing Civic. I got to sub in with the Chicago Symphony, which was great. Had that first first opportunity I got with them came again. I was home in the middle of the day. Someone got sick last minute. The personnel manager is just going through the list and I was lucky to be on it and be home. And he was like, can you be here? And to whatever it was, however many. And I was like, absolutely. And like, you know, through my heart in the case and got in the car and got down there and read whatever. And then so the next thing happens for me is I go I get what’s called the African-American Fellowship with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and that’s like my first gig gig. It’s not a tenure track position in that orchestra. They have had this fellowship since the late 80s. They won position that they reserved for this program. And you basically play halftime in the Detroit Symphony and the other half time you’re training and preparing. And the whole goal is to support African-American musicians so as to ultimately their goals, like diversify, quote unquote, the field. So they’re also giving you a lot of support in terms of preparing for auditions. So I’m I’m working as a member of the DSO like twenty five, thirty weeks a year starting that next year. I did that for two years and that was amazing. Right. So I’m like now I’m doing the thing like I’m playing, playing or playing in a major orchestra. They gave
Joe: That mean
Joe: You completely picked up from Chicago and
Alex: Oh, yeah, yeah, definitely.
Joe: Gave away all the students, got out of the where
Joe: You were gonna
Alex: Yeah. Everything,
Alex: Everything, everything. And so I’m doing that, I’m really learning what it is to play the game. Right. Just another level of understanding about like computer pulse pitch. You know what? How to prioritize, right? Like, how do you triage? Like, how do you like, you know, just understanding how to triage or part like. This has got to get if I’ve got to learn all these notes, like these are the ones I got to learn first and then these and then these. Now, ideally, you want to get to all of that. But if you get that order wrong and you spend a lot of time work, you know, so what’s the most important thing? What’s my job? A lot of it was like really understanding, like, what’s the job, what’s the task? And just being able to do that, building my confidence on the additional front, taking every audition that comes and doing well. So I’m advancing. I’m getting into late rounds and finally I’m running out for stuff. A big part of that is the the I have access to Detroit Symphony Hall. So, you know, one thing that’s really disconcerting about auditions is do they happen in the hall, in an empty orchestra hall, the there behind a screen, which or at least the first rounds are now we’re moving towards keeping the screen up the whole time. That time, the screen would often come down in the late rounds, but the first rounds of the heart response, you get out of it. Right. That’s when
Joe: So what do you
Joe: Mean by the screen so?
Alex: Ok, so orchestral auditions, professional American orchestral auditions are at least in part screened, which is to say the candidate walks out on stage in the middle stages. What is this weird, right? The stage is completely empty. The stage is designed
Joe: All right.
Alex: To seat like hundreds. One hundred people plus a chorus maybe is like empty except for like one music stand. And then out in the hall is the committee that’s evaluating you. And they’re literally behind the screen. There’s a screen in front of them so that they cannot see the candidate who’s playing. So they’re just evaluating
Alex: Ability to play. And everyone’s playing the same thing. Everyone in the first round, let’s say the first round was Beethoven’s six Midsummer Night’s Dream ticket to get. Everyone’s playing the same notes, the same parts, the same exact everything. And they’re after every person. They’re making a decision. Do we want to hear more from this person or not? So it’s a committee of seven people. It might be nine, usually seven. In most circumstances. They’re just voting. And it’s a secret ballot and no discussion not. Hey, Joe, what do you think of this person?
Alex: Make your own. Yeah.
Alex: Yeah, make your own. And if you get four, you get a majority. Yes, yes or no. If you get four yeses, you’re advance to the second round. So usually the first round, if there’s like 80 people that show up to play that do the thing and then everyone can play like no one’s just like doing this on a lark because you’re paying for yourself, you’re paying your own airfare, you’re paying your own hotel and even know that it’s happening. You kind of have to like be if not like you’re scrolling through Facebook and you’re like, oh, hey, Symphony’s auditioning violins tomorrow.
Alex: I guess I’ll just go down.
Alex: And it’s not that’s not how you find out about it. So it’s like a very inside thing. I mean, there’s, you know, it’s transparent, but it’s like, you know, getting a job in higher ed. Right. You have to be looking for that in
Alex: Any case,
Joe: And basically
Alex: That first.
Joe: They don’t see you and you don’t see that.
Alex: You don’t see them, and that first cut is from like 80 to like 20. I mean, so they’re just missing like 60 people easily, maybe, maybe sixty five. So just learning how to do that and get back to the Detroit thing. Right. Well, Detroit offered me was access to the hall. That’s like ice time. You know, you’re from upstate New York, right. That’s like
Alex: That’s like a gift because playing an audition in an empty hall with the sound reflecting back at you and you’re seeing like acres of empty seats and then like out there like X yards away from you, there’s this black screen. And behind that, you know, are people like it’s a real head strip. And so just getting to practice in that simulative environment right where I was. So I would do a lot of you know, we have rehearsals that would leave. I would come out on the stage and practice of the empty hall and just get used to like seeing and hearing, you know, these these are big spaces, right? So getting used to, like playing for, like, competitive value would like you’re being you’re competing and you’re being evaluated and like you’re trying to change your life. And, you know, there’s all this going on. And so just and then the sound is different. So that was a big thing for me in Detroit, was getting to just have access to the stage. And then the members of the symphony were really supportive of me. So getting to do sort of like mock auditions, like a mock interview,
Joe: Mm hmm.
Alex: I would play, got to play for them and really do a lot of this is like it’s like the Combine’s round pick your pick your sporting event, a lot of visualization, a lot of like not just knowing how to do it. It’s mostly knowing how to how to do it on command right now. Right. Like make this free throw right now when everything’s on the line and everyone’s yelling and screaming like that’s the it’s not like what’s the mechanics of making a free throw. Like you can understand that in high school. Younger I go through two years in Detroit, lots of doing well, you know, finals that starts to lose the lose its luster, actually, right. In the beginning, making the finals was like huge. I didn’t necessarily care so much about the game, but. You know, I just wanted to start my life, in any case, leave Detroit without having yet secured a position, auditioned again for New World, got in this time, wasn’t nearly as excited, didn’t want it in the same way. Right. I didn’t want to want to start my life. I wanted to, you know. Yeah, I was sick of doing just being on the way, fortunately. So in the spring in May of 2001, I auditioned for the Phoenix Symphony. This is why I’m still in Detroit starting the first round, make it to the finals at the end of which they don’t hire anybody. It’s a no hire, which now is a professional, I think is just like outrageous. Like all these people have flown, like we’ve got to get our existing professional orchestras. I know I should be an unacceptable thing unless you’re the one paying for. The less you’re paying for
Alex: All the right.
Alex: You’re just like,
Joe: Right. And
Alex: You know,
Joe: How does
Joe: What’s the explanation for something like that?
Alex: Well, it’s funny because Ricardo makes an appearance in the story now, so that summer I am headed I’m finished in Detroit, I’m going to be starting a new world in September. So I’m moving now from Detroit to South Beach to Miami.
Alex: So I drive. I’m going to go through Maryland, I get to Maryland. I’m actually instruments again. I’m going to go to New York and pick up some new instruments. And so Ricardo is there and I’m going to go meet him. So we’re playing. And at this point, Phoenix has announced that they’re going to do the audition again in October. And I in my mind, I thought, I’m not going to go. And I was starting to entertain. I was starting to be like, I think I might like I was beginning to give some room in my thinking that I was. I was really sick of being subject to the audition process, and I was the sort of asking for me, it felt like I was just asking seven strangers permission to start my life. And it just felt like a crazy arrangement. I was tired of it. So I was beginning sort of expressed that a little bit. And so one of the first places I was going to express it was that I was not going to go retake the Phoenix audition for me. I felt like I’m going to exert some control here. And also my mentor, my feeling was already to your point. I made it to the finals. They heard me and they passed. What’s the best thing that can happen here? I can make it to the finals again because the screen at the time the screen would come down. So they take the screen down to the finals. So now they’re looking at you.
Alex: They know who you are. Yeah,
Alex: Right. That’s like defeats the whole purpose of anonymity to be like at the point of hire. We actually now want to know, like, what you look like and invites like all kinds of potential buyers at the time. I just accept the way I am now. I’ve studied at some different ideas about it. But in any case, just to be clear that and why I knew that they would know who I was,
Joe: Did you just
Joe: Say you’re becoming a wise old man? Is that kind of what
Alex: Mean, that’s about
Alex: The sixth time I’ve said
Alex: That, I mean, I feel like we should just call this the wise old man podcast’s, right?
Joe: Know what? That’s a damn good name right there.
Alex: So. So, yeah. So I’m talking to Ricardo. He’s listening. He’s listening. He’s listening. I remember this so clearly. He looks up. As I said, I’m not going to go back to Phoenix. They heard the blah blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah inside. I’m feeling like good like I’m finally making some choices. I’m not just going to be subject to the international musician. I’m just going to go wherever, whatever the international musician, because that’s where the openings come out, right
Alex: In the union
Alex: Paper in the back three pages. Like
Alex: That’s where you find out what what you’re going to do for the next three months. Oh,
Alex: I’m preparing
Joe: Been looking
Alex: For San
Joe: Been looking for triangle auditions
Joe: For years.
Alex: So it’s
Alex: Called it’s called principle percussion, it’s like 16 instruments.
Alex: They got to work
Alex: Then it gets
Alex: Exactly so Riccardo’s listening, listening. And he says, you know, you need to get over yourself.
Joe: One of those moments, yeah.
Alex: Yeah, yeah. And he was quite the answer to your question is a long way of answering that question. So your questions like what’s happening when there’s when there’s no higher. And that’s what he said to me. He’s like, you think that that no higher is about you. That’s not about you. It’s about a committee that, you know, probably had some politics and some, you know, personality stuff. And the easiest thing for their own sort of well being was to not hire somebody because they couldn’t agree and no one was willing to really, like, tip over the apple cart.
Joe: Mm hmm.
Alex: And it probably doesn’t serve the player. Right, because you think you’re doing someone a favor, but you stay still, have to get through tenure and probation. And like someone who is, you try to force someone down someone’s throat, you might get it down there after the audition. They’re going to vomit it back up through
Alex: The probation
Alex: Process. They’re going to be really unsupportive of this person. But I didn’t understand that. And so I listen to that. And I was like, OK, because Ricardo is not big on like he’s not like a sage. He’s done stuff like his thing for him to say something like that. I listened. So I sent my stuff in. I actually asked them. I was like, hey, seeing as how I just played, made the finals in May, could you see your way to advance me since you’ve already had your you’ve already determined my playing. And they were like, nope.
Joe: Oh, well.
Alex: So I came back out in October and started in the first round again, made it to the finals again and then this time got the gig. And and that sort of brings us, you know, to Phoenix and
Alex: Start starting my life as a sort of professional musician. And that’s what I wanted. I wanted to be able to get all of this talking. What I if you can remember, like once I left school and you’re you know, you’re out, you’re meeting people and they’re like, what do you do? It’s like very difficult to answer that question with something that sounds real.
Joe: I’m a professional auditioner,
Joe: It’s a.
Alex: Yeah, man, yeah, man. And even if you’re doing well and it’s like in the in this world, you know, I was I was doing well, lots of reasons to feel good and lots of ways things had fortunate smiled on me and I’d gotten breaks and. But you still don’t have an answer that like you could put on a business card. And so even in Detroit, I was just I was definitely the closest I’ve come up to. But even then, I’m not a member of that orchestra. Right. I’m I’m not a tenure track. That was not that was clear both to me and and to them. So anyway. So that. Yeah. So Phoenix and then. Yeah. That’s, that brings us up to here.