From the Fresh Air Archives: Say Yes
Editor’s Note: In 2015, Fresh Air with Terry Gross received a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) to create a digital archive of over 8,000 episodes from the program’s history. When the project is complete, broadcasts from 1976 through 2015 will be publicly available via WorldCat.
The Fresh Air archive team is creating metadata for each interview and review featured on the show. They’ll blog about noteworthy content they discover along the way. Here is their first post.
By Alex Vallejo
Most of the subject headings I assign to interviews with Fresh Air’s musicians or actors reference the instrument they play or whether they work in film or television. But below the surface, these segments contain more vital information. Fresh Air guests often offer insights into their careers that can’t be condensed into a single authorized term–a predefined, institutionally-recognized word or phrase librarians use to describe items in a collection. After reviewing two decades’ worth of interviews, I’ve observed larger narratives emerge about life in the arts. Aspiring performers might benefit from these stories of failure and doubt.
They are especially relevant to me. I’m a pit orchestra musician who performs with several community theaters in the Philadelphia region. When a friend offered me a spot in a rock opera three years ago, I was thirty and playing guitar in a punk band. Most of what I learned during my year-and-a-half in jazz school was long gone. Unsure if I could cut it, I hesitated before saying yes.
I could relate to soprano Benita Valente, who was also timid early in her career. During an interview on July 16, 1984, she explained how her voice teacher Chester Haden encouraged her to find new opportunities.
VALENTE: [Haden] said that I had to say yes to whomever asked me to sing, and there were all these man’s [sic] clubs and women’s clubs and weddings and funerals and whatever there was in the small town of Delano, California. He said, “Before you say no, say yes. ‘Cause I know you.” He says, “You’ll say no because you’re so shy.” So I’d alway say yes and he said, “After you say yes, we’ll figure out what to do.”
Benita Valente. Photo Credit: Peter Checchia
My first gig led to several more. Each new score I was assigned revealed gaps in my knowledge, concepts I had never been taught. Theater proved to be a remarkable education. Learning on the job worked for Modern Jazz Quartet bassist Percy Heath, too. He didn’t pick up his instrument until he was twenty-two, after a stint as an Air Force fighter pilot. When asked in an October 21, 1986 interview whether he adjusted his technique for different ensemble settings, he told Terry Gross, “I didn’t have any technique.” Without formal instruction, he considered the first ten years of his career as “going to school.”
Percy Heath. Photo Credit: Wikipedia
For me, the hardest part about musical theater is that orchestra conductors give feedback sparingly. It’s my responsibility to figure out where I need to improve. In the past I’ve been as methodical and critical as Beverly Sills, singer and former general manager for the New York City Opera. On January 31, 1985, she outlined her ruthless process of self-evaluation after a performance:
SILLS: […] I used to lock the door [as] soon as I got back in my dressing room–still in costume, still sweaty–take my score and mark in yellow–I mean, something that you couldn’t erase–yellow laundry marker, whatever those things are–all the places I missed, everything that I had set out to do a certain thing and missed it. And I never changed the yellow until I could mark it out in black that I had accomplished it […] I told myself when I did well and I told myself when I did poorly. After that, nothing else mattered. It had to be my own analysis.
Sills described with pride how mutilated her scores were by the end of an opera’s run. It must have been a diva’s privilege. The books I use are rented from the the publishing company and not mine to destroy. Anyway, I always write my notes in pencil. Mistakes can be erased.
Beverly Sills. Photo Credit: Wikipedia