On Licorice Sticks, Superheroes, and Silver Linings

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On Licorice Sticks, Superheroes, and Silver Linings

I just finished up with a regional festival that I hosted for the International Clarinet Association. It went really well, but that’s because behind the scenes my students and I- along with the help of a superhero or two- navigated some crazy circumstances. By the final day of the event, I just shook my head and laughed as obstacle after onstacle popped up- It felt as if we had entered a Saturday Night Live skit. Once I got past the stress of it all, I decided that it was an excellent life lesson for me and my students; things don’t always go as planned, and that’s okay. We have to be flexible, positive, and make it work somehow- that is part of the beauty of life. As they always do, my students made me incredibly proud.

The festival was one of only three regional festivals sponsored by the ICA, trying this format for the first time to see if we need to move in that direction when the big festival is out of the country as it is this year (Madrid). As this was a test festival, I felt a lot of pressure to make it “perfect” (famous last words). I planned for months, scheduling over thirty terrific guest artists to perform and present, with the principal clarinetist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra as our headliner. I had vendors from all of the big clarinet makers, including my clarinet maker, Morrie Backun, from Canada. We had reed companies, the local music store, music and instruments everywhere. My students and I were prepared- we had this.
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And then…life happened. Dan reminded me that on the Sunday of the festival, the Mercedes Marathon was happening, and that it would run right by the music building, blocking people from getting to the building in the morning. I have run this race before, but it wasn’t on my radar at all this year. I contacted UAB police and found an alternate route and parking- Tragedy averted. Then, the weather stepped in. We had freezing temps and ice in the days before the weekend festival, but just rain- lots of it- during the weekend. I emailed everyone to remind them to bring umbrellas. Check. The weather prevented a couple of our artists from making it to perform, but we adjusted.
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We had a terrific crowd show up- over 150 clarinetists in all. Once the festival was underway, I felt like I was running a marathon myself, working to make sure that things started on time and stayed on schedule. I greeted people, kicked off recitals and lectures, made sure the students and vendors were fed at breakfast and lunch time, and my students worked just as hard. A few hours into the first day, an alarm went off…loudly…for over nine hours. I called UAB Police several times, but they weren’t able to get Maintenance to answer. Thankfully, while the alarm was obnoxious, it couldn’t be heard in the recital hall or exhibit room. When my Chair called and finally got them to send someone to address the issue, the blissful quiet almost made me weep with joy. And then, one of my students came to me looking uncomfortable. “Dr. Gainey, have you talked with Morrie Backun? He really needs to speak with you.” I felt faint…something was up. “Is it something bad?” I could tell by her face that this was big. It turns out that my headline artist was stuck in New York, thanks to a major snow storm, her flight cancelled. Oh. My. God.
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This is where superheroes step in to save the day. My clarinet maker had sponsored the main guest artist. Morrie is an amazing man and has been incredibly good to me over the years that I have been one of his artists. By the time I got to his right-hand man, Joel, Joel was on the phone with another star Backun artist who just happened to be in Memphis performing, who just happened to be available to get to Birmingham in time to present a masterclass and then play the closing recital. My wonderful piano colleague jumped right in and frantically practiced the new music that the artist would play- this after weeks of practicing the literature for the other artist. I told Morrie and Joel that they should be wearing superhero capes with ‘Super Backun’ emblazoned on them. What could have been a circumstance that would have greatly marred the last day of the festival became an opportunity to meet and hear another fantastic artist- and to remind me yet again that I have great people in my life. Such a blessing.

The first day went beautifully, with inspirational performances and interesting lectures. Everyone was happy, and the final performance of the evening featured a fun Dixieland band, ‘Sweet Licks’- the perfect end to the day. Dan threw a wonderful party that night for the artists and vendors. I still don’t know how I got so lucky to be married to Dan…he deals with crazy clarinetists so well. About forty people attended the gathering, and it was fun to have our home filled with interesting people and conversations, candlelight and fireplaces on such a dismal, rainy night.

Sunday morning, even I couldn’t get to the music building thanks to the marathon, normally just two minutes from my house. I finally aborted the car, and dashed through the pouring rain and packs of runners with my umbrella like Mary Poppins on a mission from God. Day two was underway. Miraculously, participants made it to the building and the day started on time. Again, I ran from room to room, helping to kick off recitals and lectures, with multiple events happening simultaneously. The savior guest artist arrived from Memphis, and I got him to the accompanist to rehearse and created new masterclass and recital programs for him. I had this- everything had worked out.

And then, I received a text from the conductor of the top clarinet choir, made up of about forty participants, that would perform in just a couple of hours. He was in the UAB ER with his back out and would not be able to conduct. The literature he had chosen was all new to me, but the show had to go on. I sent a student to the ER to pick up the scores, and came up with a plan. I asked Morrie to conduct one piece, a local clarinet colleague to conduct two pieces, and I would conduct two pieces. We got word to the clarinet choir members to meet on stage thirty minutes before the concert to let them know what had happened and try to rehearse. Time ran out, and I ended up sight-reading one of the scores from the podium, but it all went just fine. We had fun with it, high-fiving each other as we handed over the baton to conduct the next piece.
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The final recital was wonderful, miraculously pulled off by a true artist. He hadn’t played the recital music in two years (I gave him my music to play from when he arrived), and yet he played that licorice stick flawlessly with great virtuosity. While I was sad to not have the Met clarinetist with us as I had planned, getting to hear Ben Lulich perform was a gift to us all. Thanks to Morrie and Joel’s quick thinking and generosity, the festival ended with everyone proclaiming it a great success. When I finally sat down, I was so tired I was dizzy, but I felt such relief…we made it through, even with all of the obstacles in our path. I don’t think my students and I had stopped running for two days straight. So very worth it, though. I even got to go home and celebrate with some white chocolate raspberry cheesecake from Cheesecake Factory that the parent of one of the participants presented to me to thank me. Sweet!

Over and over throughout my life, I have tried to remember to breathe into difficult situations, to remember that everything happens for a reason, to be open to the lessons. Being my very human self, I often let myself get caught up in the drama of the moment, which does absolutely nothing at all to help the situation. This was another opportunity for me to see the lesson in the challenge. My students and I grew from it and learned a lot…and we saw how good a team we were in the end. And now? We’ll celebrate with pizza next week and move on to the next adventure. As my mentor, Kal Opperman would say, “Next…on to the next!” I am so grateful to be doing what I love with amazing people, and for the challenges along the way that stretch me. Life is good. No – strike that…life is truly wonderful.
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