My magical, musical journey: Part 3 – the college years

By Ande Jacobson

This piece of the journey picks up where part 2 left off. When I started college, I was torn. I loved music with every fiber of my being, but I also very much loved science and math. I wanted to become a doctor, but I still considered majoring in music for a very brief moment. I knew that to get into medical school, one only had to fulfill the required coursework and take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), but they could major in anything they liked. Still, I loved math and science, so I decided that I would major in the sciences, but still pursue my music somehow. Long story short, I never got into medical school. In fact I never even applied. Along the way, I switched from majoring in biochemistry to electrical engineering (still heavily in the math / science realm), and I pursued my music as well, just not as a major or even a minor. I also made one very firm decision before I got to the campus to start my first term. I never wanted to march again.

As an incoming freshman, I was able to select my courses by mail during the summer before fall quarter began (this was before the internet and home computers), so one thing that we all did during those three days before classes commenced after settling into our dorms or apartments was wander around the campus finding where all of our classes would be. One of the other things I did during that time was audition for several different instrumental ensembles. If I got into any of them, I would have to add those as courses after the fact.

I really hadn’t had to audition before this, so this whole process was new to me. We needed to have a prepared piece, so I played a movement from the Mozart Clarinet Concerto that I’d played previously for a California Music Educators Association (CMEA) festival. They also ran us through some scales and had us sight read a chart of their choosing.

My audition for the university’s symphony was not what I’d hoped it would be, and I was not invited to play with that group. Although the director liked my playing, as a clarinetist, I needed to have both a Bb clarinet as well as an A clarinet. I of course had a Bb clarinet as that’s the standard instrument you see in bands. For some reason our high school’s orchestra always had Bb clarinet parts, so we didn’t need A clarinets there. In fact, as naive as I was at the time, I didn’t realize that so much orchestral literature was written for A clarinet, so this whole exchange came as a surprise to me.

My audition for the university’s concert band was more successful, and I was invited join that ensemble. When classes began, I attended the first rehearsal and decided not to continue with that group.

I also auditioned for a chamber ensemble, and that worked just a little differently given it was dependent on the instrumentation in the audition pool. After all of the auditions were completed, the faculty sorted the players into groups to prepare a chamber music work appropriate to their instrumentation for presentation at a noon-time concert later in the quarter. I was part of an ensemble preparing the Beethoven Trio, Op. 11 for piano, clarinet, and cello. This turned into a wonderful experience. While I don’t recall exactly what our cellist was studying, he was in one of the social sciences. Our pianist; however, was one of those “wunderkinds” who wanted to be a doctor, but was majoring in chemical engineering. Suffice it to say that of all of the engineering disciplines, chemical engineering is among the most challenging. He was also a virtuoso pianist who continued his piano studies throughout his university years.

Our pianist lived in one of the dorm areas adjacent to the complex I lived in freshman year. We didn’t have a dining commons in our dorm complex, so we had to go to one of the adjacent complexes for our meal service. I often went next door to where our pianist happened to live for my meals, and he was sometimes in the lounge practicing on the concert grand piano located there. When I had time, I’d stop on my way back from dinner to listen for a bit as he expertly tackled some very challenging piano works. We were lucky to have him as part of our trio that quarter.

The professor coaching our trio was primarily a violinist, and she also taught several of the more esoteric courses in the music department. She was extremely well-versed in the chamber music of Beethoven’s time and earlier and guided us well. Late in the quarter, it was our turn to perform for a noon concert in one of the smaller venues within the music building. The majority of the music faculty attended all of those noon concerts as did a wide variety of students. One of the professors in attendance was the primary music theory expert who also happened to be a clarinetist. After our performance, he complemented and congratulated us all, and then he started asking some very in-depth questions about my horn, and about my background and my earlier teachers. I was a little embarrassed at the time given my clarinet studies were kind of limited at that point. While I had a lot of playing time, I didn’t have much formal clarinet instruction other than those initial sessions in grammar school, some coaching from my dad early on, and some intensive lessons immediately before one of the festivals I played later in high school. Most of my formal instruction had been on piano. It surprised me at the time that so much weight was given to one’s teachers rather than to the performers themselves. Once that first quarter ended, so did my performance class within the music department.

During my sophomore year, I took some music theory coursework, and lo and behold, the clarinet professor was teaching that series. It was challenging to deal with music theory without a piano in my room to play through the counterpoint exercises, but I ended up going to the music building and finding an empty practice room for that. I discovered that the counterpoint rules made it a little tougher than it first seemed, but I persevered and did OK in music theory. As for playing at that point, it fell to personal practice when nobody was around, or either playing my mom’s piano or playing my clarinet with her on piano on all of my home trips.

After that, my music became much more personal and far less formal. A few years later I found a fellow engineering student to occasionally play some duets with at school, and as my involvement with the chemistry department deepened, I discovered that there were quite a few musicians in the fold. I was still an engineering student, but I was also heavily involved in the Chem Club, and in fact became its president for a couple of years. The faculty advisor to the club was an accomplished pianist, and his wife played the cello. Several other members played various other instruments, so we formed a ragtime band and called ourselves Avogadro’s Ragtime Band after Avogadro’s Number, a very important physical constant in the physical sciences.

I purchased several of the Red Back Book arrangements of Scott Joplin’s works from the famed music store in San Francisco, Byron Hoyt. That was always the place where people went for their written music if they were anywhere near the city. It was a trek, but it was worth it. We never performed for any concerts, but we got together at our advisor’s house and played for the love of it a few times a month. We also eventually branched out to other types of music on occasion, but our main focus was that ragtime collection.

Eventually we all graduated and moved on to other places, several of us pursuing graduate school in our respective fields.

Once I entered graduate school, I moved quite a bit closer to home so that I could visit more often. That meant that I got to once again make some music with mom whenever I could find the time to visit. I also acquired a short keyboard from a friend in grad school to use in my apartment, but that was less than satisfying as my hands would go off the end of the instrument when I played ragtime charts. Still, it was better than nothing. That keyboard made me appreciate mom’s piano all the more.

I wasn’t involved in any organized music as a player at that point and wouldn’t be for about 17 years as I finished graduate school and began my career. To help fill the void, I bought subscriptions to the local professional symphony and a little later to a musical theater group that hosted touring productions that came through the area. Once my career got going, I started doing a fair amount of business travel and would often bring my clarinet with me on my longer trips. I’d play a bit in my apartment or my hotel room by myself during reasonable hours to relax. Still, something was sorely missing.

Additional reading:
My magical musical journey: Part 2 – high school acceleration
My magical musical journey: Part 1 – the beginning
Classical Music, Why Bother?: Hearing the World of Contemporary Culture Through a Composer’s Ears by Joshua Fineberg
The Great Courses: How Music and Mathematics Relate
How to Listen to and Understand Great Music by The Great Courses
Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks
Remembering Mom and Dad by Ande Jacobson
The Student Conductor by Robert Ford
This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin
What to Listen for in Music by Aaron Copland
What to Listen for in Mozart by Robert Harris
What to Listen for in Beethoven by Robert Harris
Who Needs Classical Music?: Cultural Choice and Musical Voice by Julian Johnson

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