What I learned at the Pokorny Seminar

I recently returned from my first Pokorny Seminar, of which there have been 15, over the years. It was held at the University of Northern Illinois, in Aurora, and hosted by Andrew Glendening.  

Unless you have been living off the grid for the past 25 or more years, you know who Gene Pokorny is, but for those of you born yesterday, he has been the Tuba player in the Chicago Symphony for quite some time now. (since before I joined St Louis, and still going now that I’m retired!) The Seminar was started in Redlands, California, and has been well designed over the years. It allows ample time for participants to listen, perform, get coached individually and in ensembles, and hear the teachers/professionals expound on music, playing, and life. First off, I learned I still enjoy doing this. After a year in retirement, mostly hiking, biking and not much playing, it was good to get back in the saddle. It was also good to see colleagues, some old friends, some meeting for the first time. I also learned just how talented young folks are today. 

The high level of playing was evident from the first notes I heard. (As an aside, I remembered how green it is in the midwest!) One of the best things that is part of the week was what they called the Important Things talk. Each teacher had an hour to speak on whatever they felt was important to them, or to impart to the students. This proved to be a very wonderful, and different opportunity from what I have seen before at other Seminars. My talk was well received, and featured tips on hair care products, and a family recipe for corn bread. Very important. Others I heard were very helpful, including Demondrae Thurman speaking on tips to avoid as a sub, or guest in an orchestra. Many good ideas were presented, and a well advised young person should take note. 

Many a mistake could be avoided by heeding his sage remarks. Amanda Stewart (my good friend and past colleague) gave a thoughtful presentation on auditions, one that I happily, no longer need! Perhaps what I enjoyed most was from the man himself, Mr. Gene Pokorny. He began by playing a simple tune, one that sounded very familiar, perhaps it came from a Ken Burns documentary? On display again was his trade mark sound, just an amazing, one of a kind trait, but also the most tender, beautiful phrasing. Gone were the fast passages, the screaming high notes, the roof shattering lows, just the most impressive musical offering, simply stated, and wonderful to witness. It was as if he said, hey, I’m Gene Pokorny, there’s nothing I have to prove, I’m just gonna play something I like, and by virtue of his simple, beautiful performance, was the most impressive thing you could imagine! His humanity was on display, from that moment on. 

His description of the Theme from Mission Impossible, a 60’s TV show written by Lalo Schifferin, whose Concerto for Tuba he had recently performed with the Chicago Symphony, Riccardo Muti on the podium. But perhaps for me, it was the last thing he shared that was the most impactful. It was a video called the Blue Dot, by Carl Sagan. I won’t try to describe it here, just go watch it. What I learned was that far from just being an amazing tuba player (and he is without peer!) he is a warm, thoughtful, wonderful human being. 

Even if he didn’t play tuba at all, I’d want to know him, and spend time. And I am hopeful that I will get much more opportunity to do so again in the future. Because I learned once again something I already knew. Some of the most amazing  players, from my colleagues in St. Louis, to the new folks headed there now to replace us old retired warriors, (Jon Randazzo and Chris Bassett)are the most wonderful folks you’d ever want to meet. I totally enjoyed the week, and may be fortunate enough to have a return trip, but if I do, I’m gonna take every opportunity to be around my new friend….. the Amazing Gene Pokorny!

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