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UpClose: Dale Clevenger

Eliahu Sussman • Features • December 16, 2013

“Music Is Life Itself”

Dale Clevenger, November 2000. Photo by Greg Morton.

Dale Clevenger has forged a virtually incomparable career in music. Recently stepping down after nearly a half century as the principal horn for one of the world’s great institutions, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Clevenger has been the driving force behind the CSO’s brass section, widely lauded as the preeminent of its kind. In addition to being a world-renowned performer – he even had a concerto written specifically for him by iconic American composer John Williams, which was debuted with the CSO in 2003 – Clevenger has also placed a special emphasis on education throughout the years, teaching at a number of colleges and universities, as well as participating in outreach programs through the professional ensembles with which he performed.

Now a professor of practice on the Brass Faculty at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, Clevenger devotes his time to assisting aspiring musicians to “reach for their dreams.” In a recent conversation with SBO, Clevenger looks back at some of the lessons that can be gleaned from his historic career and addresses some of the challenges facing professional ensembles, and the art form they perpetuate, going forward.

 

School Band & Orchestra: Going back to your childhood, what were the early factors that helped launch your career in music?

 Dale Clevenger: I was lucky. I lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and there was one city high school and one county high school, and about seven or eight junior schools fed into those. Each of those junior high schools had bands, and then each of the high schools knew what to expect in terms of incoming students. They gave kids the opportunity to play an instrument. We had band directors and orchestra directors who did their thing, teaching kids music. We had the best marching band in eight states.

I hate to think that kids might not have the same opportunities that I had. Unfortunately, when budgets get tight, the arts are one of the first things that are cut. And that’s silly because, as anyone who knows anything about this can tell you, for every dollar spent on any kid studying music – any instrument – that dollar comes back seven to ten-fold in other areas. Medical schools love music students. So do the law schools. These people have learned how to think for themselves, how to multi-task, and how to do the kinds of things that make for highly functioning individuals.

 

SBO: What was your musical experience like in high school? Did you participate in the marching band?

 DC: Yes, I did! Rick Casavant was the conductor, and I was one of Cas’s boys. All of the marching bands, all of the things that they’re doing on the fields now, it all emanated from him. He wrote the book on all of that. So did some of his students. It takes incredible discipline and organization skills to excel. What profession doesn’t require organizational skills to be successful? And yet we do this in music as if it were second nature.

 

SBO: Are there lessons that you learned early on that stuck with you throughout your career?

The CSO Horn Section in 1991. Photo by Jim Steere.

 DC: Listen to music. Listen to recordings. Our band room was right behind the lunchroom in my high school, and everyday we would carry our food into the band room and listen to music. And because my band director worked in Chicago in the summers, guess which recordings we often listened to? We listened to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra recordings. In 1956, when I started high school, every day I was listening to recordings from all of the major orchestras. We would then play some of what we heard. So to all of the music teachers out there, I say let your kids hear performances of music. If they’re too busy to do that, change something. The band room is an oasis of culture. It should function as such for orchestra people, for chorus people, and for band people. It can still be the same way, if the people in the community and the schools have any sort of cultural enlightenment at all. Music is the heartbeat of a nation. John F. Kennedy said so.

In spite of the challenges facing the arts, we simply have to have bands and orchestras. We cannot do without them. Music is education, it is culture, it is life itself.

 

SBO: What sort of educational outreach did you do while with the CSO?

 DC: We would go out into the schools to play. I did more of that before I started with the orchestra – I taught at Northwestern for 27 years. It depends on the institution as to how successful they are with it. [IU] happens to be one of the best in the world because the people down here have a vision. You hear a great opera or a great symphony concert or a great recording of something, and it’s supposed to lift these students up into a world that doesn’t exist. That’s what we do – we play concerts for people and give them two hours of joy and happiness in a world that’s full of problems.

 

SBO: What are your goals as an educator going forward?

 DC: My goals are to teach young horn players and anyone else who will listen to be the best musicians they can be. In spite of some of the negative outlooks facing major ensembles around the world, I want to teach these young musicians to go for their goals and to reach for their dreams. There are always going to be orchestras out there, even if orchestral musicians don’t make a living wage, because the music will far outlast any government. I’m trying to teach people to enjoy, to be inspired by, and to love great art, great culture, and great music.

 

SBO: In your career, have you seen a change in what it takes to be a professional musician?

 DC: Not really a change. Sometimes more bodies show up for auditions, but the necessities of what they have to do is similar. To make an oversimplified but very profound comment on what it takes to be a professional, you have to play the right notes at the right time in the right way. While it is very simple to say that, it’s not always simple to do. Every instrument is doing at least two very big things simultaneously: the left brain handles the athletics or physical part of the playing, while the right brain takes care of artistic part of the playing, the final result, which is the part that the audience hears. The audience doesn’t care what fingering you use; they just want it to be beautiful and lovely.

Dale Clevenger receives a standing ovation at the CSO’s appreciation concert in his honor, June 10, 2013. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

In today’s world, more and more audiences, orchestras, and teachers are stressing accuracy – don’t miss notes. Well, you have to play accurately, that’s for sure. It’s the balance of how you do it. You have to be a strong, athletic type of player, very accurate and consistent, but that’s not to exclude the more important element, which is how to turn the phrase: what the musicians do in terms of sound and color and magic and storytelling and so forth. It’s a very important balance that needs to be adhered to. I would much rather hear five “wow” moments then 15 moments of really fine accuracy. Personally, I want to hear more risk, because then it’s more exciting. Also, then it’s more fun for the player. This is a balance which is going to go on for the rest of eternity.

There are teachers and players out there who don’t want to miss any notes or hear any missed notes from anyone else. There are some practical reasons for that, too – there are people who have lost their jobs from missing too many notes. In a job that has a reasonable amount of security, you don’t have to worry about that too much and just go through the music.

 

SBO: Speaking of security, there are many challenges facing professional orchestras these days, to grow audiences and to –

 DC: – to exist! You have to consider the society we’re living in and how things have changed in this computer age. Kids now function with immediate gratification. They can listen to all kinds of music, but how are you going to get, through a cell phone or a computer, the sound and feeling of the symphony orchestra live? It’s not easy to do. And how are you going to convince people to leave the bedroom where they can play on a computer or cellphone and get games, and popular music, or country or rock music? There’s nothing wrong with any kind of music – good music fits the occasion – but to be able to present the sound of an orchestra live is quite a task these days. It’s not just television and movies that are vying for people’s attention; I’ve seen very good friends of mine who just live by the phone, the Internet, and messaging. That is in direct competition with the symphony orchestra or an opera. And yet, when many people hear the symphony orchestra for the first time, they say, “My gracious, this is incredible.” We have to somehow introduce this phenomenon to young people.

We need to figure out how to get people to give money in order to pay people to play music, so that people can come and hear something that is absolutely unique. It is a very big-time competition, getting young people to invest in going to hear a concert. I don’t necessarily know the answer. Symphony orchestras are struggling all over the world and opera houses are struggling, and we have to figure out ingenious ways of drawing in audience. We have to take the music to them, to the schools, and bring them to concerts that are free.

 

SBO: Everybody sees the writing on the wall, so what can be done about it? How are schools like the Jacob’s School of Music helping to address these challenges?

 DC: This school is preparing the future performers. In fact, no matter what happens in the world of musical performance, people are going to get together to play chamber music. That will happen forever. And some people will be willing to sponsor and pay for that. This school is a performance school. They have the money, the infrastructure, and the staff to prepare them. There are five orchestras here, and many other opportunities for music to be played. I don’t think anyone has all of the answers.

From the beginning of the musical performance and composition – from the very beginning – the composers and performers have been dependent on benevolent despots: people who are willing to pay for it because they like to hear it themselves. It was true of Mozart and Beethoven, and it’s true today, 250 years later.

 

SBO: What really inspired you, throughout your long career as a performer?

 DC: I found inspiration from the people around me. The [Adolph] Herseths and the [Arnold] Jacobs of the music world. People who had similar goals to what I had, and yet they got there before I did, and were setting an example. And certainly the conductors who can make an orchestra sound absolutely out of this world. Those were my inspirations. It just latched onto me and I grabbed it. I went after it with all of my might. I went after a dream and I was lucky to be able to do it. I was lucky to be talented enough, lucky to win auditions, lucky to have participated in a [great orchestra]. I hope it continues in my absence.

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