On Trials, Tribulations, and Triumphs

I’ll be honest; the past few days have been pretty darn stressful. I hosted my 16th annual UAB Clarinet Symposium, and was so excited that my clarinet maker, Backun Musical Services, sponsored an amazing guest artist- Jessica Phillips from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Three years ago Jessica was going to be our guest artist…Sadly, at the last second (for real), a terrible snow storm closed down the airports in New York and Jessica was unable to get to Birmingham. I may or not have had a panic attack. I know I sprouted several more gray hairs.

Thankfully Team Backun leapt into action working to find another guest artist to save the day. In a rare stroke of serendipity, they found Ben Lulich, Principal Clarinetist of the Seattle Symphony. Ben just happened to be in Tennessee and able to get to us in time to play a beautiful recital and give a terrific masterclass, and the event turned out to be a big success. Whew! We did our best to keep the drama behind the scenes, and hopefully no one (other than my students who know me all too well) could see the panic that had been blazing from every one of my pores since I found out Jessica couldn’t get here.

The Festival Green Clarinet Choir (middle school), conducted by Dr. Robert Janssen of the Alabama School of Fine Arts, and the Festival Gold Clarinet Choir (high school/adult) .

We decided to try to get Jessica back for this year’s Symposium, and we advertised heavily about her appearance. 110 clarinetists ranging in age and abilities from 6th grade beginners to those in their 70s and everything in between were going to descend on the Hulsey Center for the Arts, most especially thanks to the highly anticipated return of Jessica Phillips. This was going to be our largest event yet, and besides Jessica I had twelve other guest artists from five different states and a guest clarinet choir from Atlanta. It was going to be a festival of epic proportions (at least as far as our Symposium was concerned).

And then…there was this beastly thing called a bomb cyclone that focused its wrath on the Northeast and we all started to worry. Jessica contacted me the Thursday evening before the Saturday/Sunday event to tell me that the airline rescheduled her flight, and she now should arrive after 9pm. We even scheduled a 10pm rehearsal in the hall with our pianist (bless him) to be prepared for the Saturday evening featured recital. This was followed in the morning with the dreaded news from Jessica:

Oh, my sweet baby Jesus- Lightning does strike twice! Joel Jaffe from Backun was on it, working for five hours, calling over forty Backun Artists to try to find someone who was available to race to Birmingham, someone who had a recital ready to go- and who didn’t live in the Northeast. It wasn’t looking good. My other guest artists were incredibly kind and offered to put together a Potpourri Recital on in place of the guest artist recital. I knew that we would be okay no matter what happened, but it’s just not the same when you’ve promised people a superstar. I did my best to stay positive, but I did spend some time in fetal position under my desk. My students told people to give Dr. Gainey some space…I love my students.

With my Graduate Assistant, Alina Pitman…

A wonderful presentation on Body Mapping by Dr. Jackie Mcilwain from the University of Southern Mississippi.

And then…Joel called: Denise, I think I’ve found someone for you- Jesse McCandless, Principal Clarinetist of the New World Symphony in Miami.

My clarinet studio with Jesse after his recital. Love these amazing young people!

Hallelujah! There was hope that this was going to work out. The Symposium began and the building was flooded with clarinetists of all ages, shapes, and sizes, along with the wonderful cacophony that comes with over a hundred clarinetists warming up. Such a beautiful thing! My students worked like Trojans, taking care of every detail with professionalism and positivity, and I received many great comments about them. I’m one lucky teacher.

In the middle of rehearsal, I noticed a missed call from Joel. Uh-oh. I had one of my other conductors take over and I went to my office to call Joel, my stomach suddenly feeling like it had fallen on the floor and been stomped on. It seems that Jesse was on his way to the airport in an Uber when some crazy person rear ended them. Everyone was okay, but Jesse missed his flight. Instead of a direct flight, he was now on standby for flights to Charlotte and then Birmingham. We wouldn’t know if he was going to make it until he boarded that last flight, supposedly getting him to Birmingham by 6:06….before an 8pm recital. Okay…this could work. I stayed optimistic- I promise I did.

With the very talented Jenny Maclay…

The rehearsals, clinics, and guest artist recitals went really well throughout the day, and everyone seemed to be having a good time. I finally got a text from Jesse and from Joel- Jesse’s flight was a little late, but he was on his way from Charlotte to Birmingham! Now it was a race for time.

Jesse McCandless. My hero!

My sweet Dan went to the airport to pick Jesse up and whisk him to Chez Gainey to get settled and change clothes before racing to school for a short rehearsal with a pianist with home he’d never played. Jesse was amazing, playing a gorgeous recital. This twenty-four year old artist is really going to go places- he is my new hero, my knight in shining clarinet armor.

Jesse taught a great masterclass!

The weekend ended with the traditional big clarinet choirs concert for a terrific audience.

With fellow Backun Artist, London Silas Shavers.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved to come to the end of a Symposium. So much drama and stress! But…also so much learning, inspiration, and gratitude. Sometimes those things that we have to work extra hard for turn out to be extra special…and perhaps trusting that things will work out is a healthier way to approach the stresses of life.

When I left the music building after we cleaned the building and locked up, the day was absolutely gorgeous. I can’t describe the victorious feeling of walking out into the sunshine knowing that you not only survived, but triumphed, thanks to the great people around you- and not giving up. Ever.

When I got home, Dan had a special treat for me; a Danhattan on the sunporch with my sweet family.

I’ve decided that – even though I’ve never had a child- that Clarinet Symposium is like childbirth; you go through the pain, but you forget it over time and look forward to doing it again because of the joy it brings in the end. And we will- March 2-3, 2019.

Bring it!

HUGE thanks to Joel Jaffe of Backun Musical Services for saving the day a second time, and to Backun Artist Jesse McCandless for inspiring us all!

6 thoughts on “On Trials, Tribulations, and Triumphs

  1. Wow! Now THAT was one heck of blog post! I was there for the symposium, and to the “naked eye” (Oops! did I say naked?), one would have thought every part of the weekend came off without a hitch! “All’s well that ends well”, but this went well the whole way through, from registration until the last person left the Jemison concert venue! Your positivity has a way of making things work out, stressful though they may be at the time. I was looking forward to Jessica Phillips too, but who knew what a serendipity indeed Jesse McCandless would be?!! What an amazing young clarinetist with an old clarinetist soul, and what a humble and nice young man! You handled every aspect of the event with grace and charm, and made me, as well as every person there, feel comfortable, special, and appreciated. Oh well, that’s just the kind of gal you are! A good time was had by all!

  2. You are truly a trooper – marching onward to victory! I’m so glad it all turned out beautifully. Perhaps next year you can get Jessica Phillips to come in a few days early to avoid any weather issues. BTW you look radiant!!!

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