More than five years after I left WDST, I got a call from the program director, Richard Fusco. He was someone I had worked with, and while we weren’t exactly best buddies—he was the guy who yelled at me for playing music by Steve Reich, a few years before the owner asked me to interview Reich—I was willing to talk to him.
Richard outlined for me a grand project that the owner and staff of WDST were about to start. It was to be called Radio Woodstock, and it was going to be an Internet project with several simultaneous streams of programming coming from Woodstock and promoted to the outside world. Among the people he mentioned as having agreed to become part of the project were Richie Havens, one of the best-known musicians ever to live in Woodstock, and Randall Craig Fleischer, then and still music director of the Hudson Valley Philharmonic. I was particularly impressed that Fleisher had agreed to work for them, since I have great respect for the guy. He’s a superb musician.
I had a few questions, mostly about the hours and working conditions. Then I asked what the job was going to pay. “Not very much at first,” Richard told me, “but people who start out with Radio Woodstock are going to have a stake in it and eventually they will make a lot of money.”
“That’s interesting,” I replied, “but where is the money going to come from?”
Richard told me that several large music industry companies had already committed to investing millions of dollars in Radio Woodstock to get it off the ground. I said I was impressed, but I still didn’t understand where the revenue stream was going to come from. “You can’t run advertising as part of the programming,” I said. “There are already so many Internet radio stations that as soon as ads come on people will switch to something else.”
Richard agreed. “We’ll run banner ads on the site,” he told me. That won’t raise very much, I said. He agreed with that, too, but said it was a start. “We’ll also sell the music we play,” he said. “People will be able to order CDs right on the website.” That sounded like a trivial source of income as well. When I asked where else the money was going to come from, Richard hesitated and couldn’t come up with a convincing answer.
For that reason, I decided not to get involved in Radio Woodstock. I just couldn’t understand where the money to support it was going to come from. I guess nobody else did, either. Radio Woodstock ran through most of the millions of dollars in three years, and then had to shut down most of its operations. Nobody got rich. (It still runs three audio streams, one of which is the current WDST broadcast.)
When I think back on this whole episode, I think it reflects a great deal about the difficulties of making money on Internet enterprises that don’t offer physical goods for sale. Amazon makes a fortune, but Facebook, despite its billion users, seems to be struggling. (I believe Facebook makes most of its income peddling its users’ information to advertisers, which is why I don’t use it.)
In fact, it seems to me that Radio Woodstock was a perfect set-up for a scam like the one in Mel Brooks’s “The Producers.” Get a lot of investment, use only some of it, and then tell all the investors that all the money has been lost. Perhaps that was the story of Radio Woodstock. But, being an honest person myself, I prefer to believe that the money was lost through honest stupidity.
It’s not often I run into one of the world’s greatest ballerinas in a parking lot and she calls me by name. But there is one such creature, and she figures prominently in what I call my “bullshit resume.” I danced with her!
I came up with the concept of the bullshit resume years ago, reading the potted biographies of musicians on concert programs. The bullshit resume item isn’t a lie. Pianist X has performed at Carnegie Hall, for example. But that credit can cover a wide variety of events, from giving a solo recital in the Stern Auditorium (the main hall at Carnegie) to hiring Weill Recital Hall (a much smaller theater). “Performed at Carnegie Hall” sounds as thought it indicates a high degree of success. But it doesn’t necessarily. I could play a recital at Weill myself, if I had the money to hire the place.
One often sees something like “has sung at Carnegie Hall” on a singer’s resume. Sure. Many choruses perform there every year, and all of those people sing at Carnegie Hall.
My mother performed at Carnegie Hall, as a soloist. She played the Grieg Piano Concerto with the All-City High School Orchestra, at Carnegie Hall, in front of a packed house (mostly, one supposes, friends and relatives of the kids in the orchestra). The conductor on that occasion was Jean Morel, a prominent conductor and conducting teacher. A couple of decades later, my mother and I went backstage to meet maestro Morel after he conducted a performance at the Metropolitan Opera. “You won’t remember me,” my mother said, “but I played the Grieg Concerto with you years ago.” “Of course I do,” Morel replied. “You’re Shirley Felberg” (my mother’s maiden name). But she never used the Carnegie Hall credit on her resume.
I once played two-thirds of a Beethoven Piano Sonata at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, another apparently prestigious gig. I was actually the final–and therefore presumably most accomplished–performer on the annual recital of students of the Brooklyn Piano Teachers Guild, for which they hired the small upstairs hall at BAM. There were about 400 people in the audience, and I was nervous, but I did OK. I remember mostly that the piano was a huge old Steinway with a wonderful sound and almost no resistance left in the key action, which made it very difficult to play.
So, there’s one item in my personal bullshit resume. I played Beethoven at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. True, but essentially false. Bullshit.
Here are some other elements in my bullshit resume. My favorite musical one is not the BAM gig but that I sang as a paid soloist with a professional symphony orchestra. True, but false. I was narrated a performance of “Tubby the Tuba” with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic at a children’s concert. Tubby has a little song, and I sang it. I was even in tune, as the tape proved. (I also narrated “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” at that same concert, which was considerably more difficult. If I hadn’t been able to read music I would have had a terrible time.)
As a bullshit poet, I can claim to be a student of Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, Mark Doty, Patricia Smith, and Billy Collins. The Olds credit is closest to the truth, since I was in two workshops of hers at Omega Institute, one of them five days, the other three. Enrollment was limited to ten people and we were chosen by submission. (I was accepted as an alternate, but someone couldn’t make it.) Howe, Doty, Smith and Collins were all involved as teachers in Omega’s “Celebration of Poetry” last summer. That event, though, had open enrollment, and although it turned out to be surprisingly worthwhile there were 91 of us. There’s a chance Olds might recognize my name, but none of the others would.
Incidentally, I have also read my work at the Dodge Poetry Festival, the largest poetry event in all of North America. Yes, they have an open mic.
My favorite item on my bullshit resume is that I have danced with Martine van Hamel, one of the greatest of all American ballerinas. I’ve known Martine’s mother, Manette, and her late father, Dick, for decades. They were very much involved in the Woodstock arts scene and I ran into them many times and often visited their house. (My father almost wound up buying a violin Dick had made. The deal fell through at the last minute.) Martine, their daughter, was a lead ballerina at the American Ballet Theater, and I got to know her slightly from running into her when she was visiting her parents.
One New Year’s Eve, I attended a party at which all three of the van Hamels were present. Martine asked me to dance with her. I still remember how that felt: like an asteroid being orbited by a comet. So, we were never on stage together, thank goodness. I’m a pretty awkward dancer. But I danced with Martine van Hamel. I also interviewed her on my radio show once, when she was making a local appearance. And when I ran into her in the parking lot outside the Price Chopper supermarket in Saugerties, we had a very cordial hello.
A list of the music people I’ve interviewed for my long ago radio program, and for a few news articles since then, would be impressive, and legitimate, if that means anything to anyone. When my mother learned that I had interviewed Aaron Copland at his house, she gained a whole new level of respect for me. Others on my list are Isaac Stern, Virgil Thomson, Steve Reich, Wynton Marsalis, Michael Tree (of the Guarneri Quartet), Ivan Moravec, and plenty of other music celebrities. But that’s a legitimate list. If I claimed to know any of them, that would be bullshit.
The day this post goes on line I will be starting my next class at the Center for Lifetime Study, where I have been a “presenter” for about 20 years. Teaching has almost always been part of my adult life, although I’ve seldom been paid for it. But I do it because it helps to keep my brain alive and working.
My parents were both teachers. My father was a high school teacher when my mother met him. Although their immediate connection was musical–she accompanied him at a performance, and he understandably loved her playing–I’m sure that one of his attractions for her was that he had a well-paying, steady job during the worst of the Great Depression. After they were married and their two children were born, my mother went back to college to get her Master’s degree in Education, and she became a kindergarten teacher.
Since I was a bright kid, my parents always told me they wanted me to become a college professor. It might have happened, except that I fell in love with a family–my first wife and her three daughters–and left college to marry them and support them. Although I eventually returned to school and got my B.A. in Creative Writing, I never tried to make any use of the degree. I went into the classical record business and, although semi-retired, I’m still in it.
My father, having failed to inspire me to fulfill his ambition for me, decided to fulfill it himself. After he retired from his high school job, he became a college professor, a writing instructor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. And my brother, the “dummy” of the family (he isn’t really dumber than I am, just younger) became an elementary school teacher, at which he had a long and successful career.
I did my first teaching in the early ‘70s. We learned of a new alternative school, The Ark, opening in our area of the Catskills, and it sounded like a good place for the girls. I couldn’t afford full tuition for the three of them. The school director offered reduced tuition for anyone whose parents could teach subjects they needed, so I wound up teaching writing there for the two years it lasted. My oldest daughter was one of its three graduates.
In 1980, I began my career as a classical music radio broadcaster. Although radio is primarily an entertainment medium, I always thought of my programs as being educational. I developed a style of introducing music that was brief and breezy but always included some interesting information. The formula worked, and my classical program became improbably popular and lasted for more than a decade.
The radio show opened more venues for me, including an invitation to do pre-concert talks for my local orchestra, the Hudson Valley Philharmonic. People who heard me do those talks invited me to do other relatively informal teaching jobs. I did a series of classes on Music of the 20th Century for the Dutchess County Jewish Community Center, which was well-liked but poorly attended because it started in September of 2001! I was also asked to be one of the initial teachers at the newly-formed Center for Lifetime Study, a project of Marist College in Poughkeepsie.
CLS is a credit-free, all volunteer program for senior citizens and retirees. Most of the teachers there are college professors, active and retired. But there is room for other people like me who have expertise in various useful topics. I actually have no academic qualifications at all in music. But I’ve been an active music critic and writer for decades, and apparently I know enough to be able to give worthwhile information to others. Our classes currently take place at Locust Grove (photo above), home of Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph and a highly respected artist. The place is a pleasure to visit!
At CLS, I have done a wide variety of music classes, mostly concerned with classical music (Bach, Mahler, Dvořák and His Followers, etc.) but not always (Ragtime, Music of New Orleans). I’ve usually selected topics I was interested in exploring, and CLS has never turned one down. I’ve also responded to a few requests, including the Mahler class. Attendance at my classes is usually robust. Surprisingly, the largest enrollment ever, almost a hundred people, was for the Mahler class. I really should use the term “classes” in quotes, because I try to do a minimum of “teaching.” Instead, I do something close to what I used to do on the radio, playing a lot of music and introducing it as concisely as I can. So I never “lecture” if I can help it, although I do encourage questions. Answering them is an interesting challenge.
My current class is a follow-up to one I did last year. I call it “Mornings with the Great Pianists.” We have 75 minutes a week. Since CLS has good video projection equipment, I have been playing videos of great pianists in performance, from my extensive collection. So I’m not a DJ in this class; I’m a VJ. This series is even more entertainment-oriented than usual. I plan to play at least 60 minutes of videos in my 75 minutes, leaving only a little time for questions (although I do hang around after class to take more).
For every one of these classes, I have to drive an hour each way, paying my own gas and tolls. It seems like a burden. But I’ve been finding my work at CLS so stimulating that I doubt I’ll give it up as long as I’m able to continue. Since CLS opened there have been several similar programs started in my area, most of them closer to me than CLS. But I’ve had so much fun there that I stay there.
Like most of my “teaching,” CLS pays me nothing. However, my work there led directly to my being invited to do “Lunch and Learn” introductions to local presentations of the Met Live in HD broadcasts. They’re done at good restaurants near the theaters, ensuring that my wife and I eat well, and I’m paid well for doing these talks. It’s ironic that I should be posing as an opera expert. Although opera was a part of my childhood, and I was frequently taken to the Metropolitan Opera when one of my parents couldn’t use a subscription ticket, I haven’t been a great opera afficionado during most of my adult life. I’m learning fast, though, and discovering that I can even enjoy sitting through Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung” twice in a couple of weeks–once to prepare, once at the broadcast–with great enjoyment. I can think of some people who’ve known me for years who would find that very, very surprising.