Walk past the “Flower Guy” on the corner of Elm and York streets and you will hear classical music’s most pervasive presence on campus — out his boom box.
For what lures throngs of animated listeners to Sprague Hall — one of the East Coast’s most elegant and acoustically sophisticated recital halls — quite like the Baker’s Dozen?
Not the classical recital programs for which Arnold Sprague intended it. The fact that the Yale Symphony Orchestra draws its largest crowd of the year at the alcohol-infused Halloween show soberly reminds Yale’s aspiring classical musicians of the nature of their presence here.
Although the number of music majors in Yale College is surprisingly large (and growing each year), there are only a handful of undergraduates seriously considering careers in the performance of classical music.
What is it like, musically and personally, for Yale students pursuing a career in classical music? With what anxieties — and comforts, for that matter — does this context provide them? How do they retain their musical focus at such a wonderfully distracting institution — one that makes no attempt to rival conservatories?
“You have to keep your head outside of Yale,” aspiring composer Robert Honstein ’03 said.
That’s no small feat for the pitch of the Duke’s Men of Yale — an a cappella group that he admits one “could only find at a place like this.” As treasurer of the Yale College Composer’s Group, Honstein’s involvement spans the breadth of Yale’s vast musical spectrum.
Making no attempt to bridge the gap between his two musical personalities, Honstein acknowledges that he has no desire to write pieces for his a cappella group. And while coming to a greater “awareness of the music of [his] time” is important to him, he draws a sharp distinction between contemporary classical music and the a cappella repertory.
“They’re worlds apart — I don’t even try to reconcile them. A cappella is a very social entity — that’s its defining factor,” Honstein said.
Although the Duke’s Men celebrate a kind of music he is ultimately not after, their group dynamic nevertheless provides a welcome contrast to the fundamentally private process of composing. But that’s not to say his experience as pitch will fail to inform his future as a musician.
“Leading and directing a large group dynamic is very valuable to me. It doesn’t matter that we’re doing a cappella; it’s the leadership skills that’ll be essential,” Honstein said.
Yet nothing is more essential to Honstein than sticking to priorities.
“Composing is my primary focus. When I think about what I have to do for the day, I make sure that working on a piece comes first,” Honstein said.
And making a priority out of something so demandingly extracurricular is admittedly difficult. Although Honstein receives helpful weekly lessons from respected composer and Yale professor John Halle, he wishes he “had more prodding” during his first years here. While grateful for the faculty’s availability and approachability, Honstein said of composition: “It’s only working for me because at some point I decided to make it work.”
“Sometimes it’s annoying when other people don’t necessarily know what sorts of things you do with your time,” Honstein said, referring to the fact that the younger members of his singing group are unaware of his intense involvement in composition. “Maybe the guys in my class have figured out that this is a priority to me. But I don’t think they know what it means to say, ‘I want to be a composer –‘”
Why the general Yale public swarms to a cappella jams and singing desserts is no mystery to Honstein. Aside from the fact that the singing group community consists of a supportive network of friends and singers, this phenomenon — at Yale and beyond — simply “represents what’s happening to the music-making world.”
Kimberly DeQuattro ’03, one of the strongest female operatic voices on campus (and also a pre-med psychology major), elaborates.
“Who wants to work incredibly hard for something and have a crowd of 10 old people? While I have truly enjoyed performance opportunities and exposure at Yale, it would be even more rewarding to have sizable audiences,” DeQuattro said. “They would better serve one very important aspect of performing, which is reaching out to people by sharing the art and the work that was invested in it.”
Although a cappella groups more visibly dominate Yale’s singing scene, “there are plenty of opportunities for people who are doing classical singing,” said DeQuattro. She herself is grateful for her positive experiences with the Yale College Opera Company, as soprano section leader of Battell Chapel Choir, and for the constructive criticism of professor Richard Lalli in “Music 222,” an intensive vocal performance class.
“Lalli has been my angel in disguise and is an incredible resource. Without him, the undergraduate classical vocal program would be virtually nonexistent,” DeQuattro said. “It’s amazing how he generates performance opportunities for us and how he guides us through the entire process — offering coaching, arranging rehearsals and accompanying. And I know that if I ever wanted to go to a graduate conservatory, he would lead me to the water — but ultimately it would be my responsibility to fill the gaps.”
Having the School of Music next door helps, too. While most singers who qualify for lessons for credit are assigned to graduate students, DeQuattro is one of two undergraduates currently studying with professor Lili Chookasian at the Music School. Working with such an experienced teacher and veteran opera singer has given DeQuattro a greater understanding of her own voice and the ways of the operatic world in general, though graduate students can also provide this guidance.
“Because they’re just a few steps ahead of us, their perspective is valuable,” DeQuattro said.
DeQuattro certainly gets what she can from Yale but recognizes that there is a limit to what it can teach her about the music world. For her, having a sense of where she stands relative to her musical peers is absolutely essential.
“Singing as a reality? It would be wonderful,” DeQuattro said, “but I just don’t have a baseline. At conservatories, there are so many incredible musicians and vocalists who have their sights on professional careers in music that we’re not exposed to at a place like Yale.”
Nevertheless, Yale possesses its own body of “incredible people” — which, in its own way, inspires DeQuattro toward singing all the more.
“Singing allows me to reach out to people with this intangible power in order to share with them as they have shared with me their talents, views and convictions,” DeQuattro said. “To do this beyond Yale to public audiences would be incredibly thrilling, from the few tastes I have had –Êyes, it is a dream. At least I can live it while I am here.”
Cellist Ariana Falk ’03 looks toward her musical future much less wistfully, confidently citing her time and experiences at Yale as definite musical advantages.
“I wouldn’t be able to bring what I can to music if I were only around musicians,” Falk said. For one thing, “having the unrelated passions of others around is inspiring.” And the opportunity to identify herself as more than “that cello girl” is both enriching and necessary.
“I like that I can also be ‘that IM soccer girl who’s a pretty good middle fielder,'” she said.
Not to mention that what she studies in her classes adds to her personality as a performer.
“Conservatory students can think of music scholarship as a chore,” Falk said. “University students learn music history, theory, analysis — which adds a lot to playing.”
In making meaningful interpretive decisions, Falk holds, such knowledge adds necessary depth, and such breadth of perspective can even be attained from classes
other than those in music.
And no, she does not play in the YSO.
“There are symbols people use to judge you here,” Falk said. “You get this certain mystique sometimes, not being in any of the [undergraduate] groups.”
A member of the primarily graduate Yale Cellos, Falk finds the opportunity to work with graduate students of infinite value.
“I can call who went to college and who went to a conservatory in a second,” Falk said. “There’s just a breadth of interest with the college graduates; they’re easier to talk to. But it’s just a fact that the best players are the ones who went to conservatories.”
At the same time, her cello teacher, Aldo Parisot — one of the world’s most respected musical pedagogues, and a major factor in Falk’s decision to attend Yale — feels strongly that the well-roundedness provided by doing things other than practicing is valuable.
“Mr. Parisot has this saying that ‘the cello isn’t about just playing the cello,'” Falk said. “It’s about much larger things than locking yourself away in a practice room for hours on end — I’d feel dumb taking stupid classes to be able to practice more.”
But ask Falk how much she practices in a week and she laughingly tells you not to print it.
“Yale makes it easy to be super well-rounded,” Falk said. “And you want to be lopsided, but — how lopsided do you want to be?”
Falk’s answer is certainly easier in theory than in practice.
“I want to be very lopsided. But it’s hard,” Falk said.
As if the Yale time-crunch weren’t frustrating enough, the rare opportunity to sit down for several hours and play away can almost exacerbate dissatisfaction.
“When I actually get a chance to practice as much as someone at a conservatory does daily,” Falk said, “I can’t help but wonder, how good would I be if I did this every day?”
Even worse is her lingering sense that, “at a certain point, no one cares if you took Shakespeare with Harold Bloom.” Will having read thousands and written hundreds of pages serve well those entering a field in which the physical execution of an instrument is all that matters?
Falk and others like her share a common fear that they won’t be able to catch up with conservatory graduates. Although Falk describes herself as often “scared” and “worried” when thinking of her future as a musician, she takes comfort in the idea that she will “have something to fall back on” — that is, a Yale degree.
Such preparation for the worst is “not pessimistic — just realistic,” Falk said. “Now that I think about it, it’s even a positive.”
And some musicians would even argue that the Yale environment provides a more accurate microcosm of the real world that both they and conservatory graduates will ultimately enter — one that doesn’t allow practicing 24 hours a day, and whose inhabitants worship gods other than Bach, Brahms and Beethoven.
The breadth of knowledge aspiring musicians gain at Yale unquestionably comes at the expense of valuable practice time and performance experience. But whether their well-earned, well-rounded frame of reference will result in an overall unpreparedness for what lies ahead of them as performers is arguable.
Falk, relying on her teacher’s conviction that a technique can grow until one hits 30, is biding her time.
“All that’s necessary right now,” Falk said, “is to know something about music, to care about it, and to log in what time you have.”
Pursuing music at Yale is, for her and others, as simple as that. Even the Flower Guy does what he can to infuse his life with that doctrine.
“I love it, first and foremost. I think it complements the flowers nicely,” said John Lynch from his booth. “Beauty for its own sake. One visual, one audible — one enhancing another. Both of them aren’t expected when you’re walking along the sidewalk in the gray racket of the city.”
Yet even here, a shabbily clad friend standing nearby encapsulated an upsettingly prevalent opinion.
“Oh, whatever, man! You can go off the deep end with that stuff.”
Those who chose to do so at Yale know what they’re getting into.