That Which Must Never Be Said

Welcome to Italy. It’s 23:00 on a Sunday night and I’ve just finished my monthly three days at the Fiesole Scuola di Musica, checked out of the hotel and arrived at Santa Maria Novella Station, Florence’s rail station, to learn that all of Italy’s trains are on strike. Ok, this is Italy, I’ve seen it many times, but my train is a Swiss train headed for Geneva, it always goes when there’s a strike… Not this time! This strike seems to be thorough and complete and it’s going to last 24 hours. I must now spend 24 hours waiting for the same train tomorrow night.

So what does one do with 24 free hours in Florence? Since I lived 7 years of my life in this city, being a tourist did not sound like the option I was looking for. The first thing was to find a comfortable hotel and have a good and long sleep; I would decide in the morning how to spend the rest of the day and I would try to not think about that which should never be said.

Monday morning: Well, I slept to 11, the first time in a long time, and it seems like now would be perfect moment to forget my diet and go to my favorite Florentine restaurant; that should take a couple of hours. I know Cien’anni is open for lunch and it’s been a few years since I’ve been there. Wild boar salami, taglierini with truffle cream sauce and roast pigeon stuffed with mushrooms and a bottle of Antonari’s fine Cervaro, this should take up a little time and help me avoid the tuba teacher taboo that should never be thought or said… It worked very well. It was delicious nostalgia.

Now I’m back in the hotel room sitting at the computer avoiding the tuba teacher taboo in thought and word by writing an article on another thought of mine; I’m calling it: "Embouchure is a Verb". I worked hard on it and while it’s succeeding in keeping my mind free from that that should be never said, "Embouchure is a Verb" is not coming easily and what I’ve written so far reads something like eating shredded wheat without cream or sugar; not a great way to finish one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time. I give up on "Embouchure is a Verb" But I’m in a writing mood.

And "That Which Should Never be Said", the tuba teacher taboo, is attacking my brain. How does one say what needs to be said, when it’s forbidden to be said, and avoid being shunned and ostracized from one’s community? Maybe it’s time for a nap; good idea.

Now refreshed, I’m back at the computer and even more in a writing mood. But here it is again, the forbidden thought, and I need to talk about it.

I’m a tuba teacher; well, I really teach all brass, but that which never should be said is most apropos to tuba. But how should it be said?

Once, a very long time ago in Los Angeles, before I knew about the tuba teacher taboo, I said it! I very honestly told a student that in my opinion he had no chance of realizing his dream of becoming a professional tubist. He immediately began weeping and I immediately made things worse by trying to explain. After an hour or so he left my house and that was the last time I saw him as a student. I was not feeling good.

That evening the phone started to ring; the first call was one of my good friends and colleagues.

  • "Hi Roger, I’ve just spent the afternoon with Bob (We’ll call him Bob), did you know that you almost destroyed him today with what you told him?"
  • "I know he was a little upset, but I didn’t know I almost destroyed him!"
  • "He’s a wonderful kid, he works harder than anybody and he loves the tuba more than anything. I know he has playing problems but maybe you were too direct."
  • "I’m really sorry if I hurt him but I felt he needed to hear that!"
  • "Well maybe next time you should be very careful how you say it."

An hour later the phone rang again and it was my oldest and best friend in the world.

  • "Hi Rog, How are you doing?"
  • "I’m ok, are you calling me about Bob?"
  • "Yeah, I just got off the phone with him and he’s feeling pretty bad."
  • "I heard already, I’m not feeling so great myself but I felt he needed to hear that."
  • "I know, but we have to be very careful how we say that!"

Later in the evening I got still another call, long distance, from a respected colleague, a member of what I like to call the Midwest Pedagogical Mafia.

"Roger, I just talked to Bob, you’ve made him very unhappy. I think you should remember that that’s something that we never say to our students; it’s an unwritten law."

From that time on I remembered the unwritten law, "That Which Must Never be Said."

But sometimes it needs to be said and it was clear it would be prudent for me to consider how and when to say it. It’s not just a few unpromising players that need to hear that which must never be said anymore, all aspiring tubists need to examine the forbidden words. There are so many of us and so few jobs, that as well as playing great, we need luck to be successful in our profession. But how to communicate that which must not be said but must be said? All players need to be reminded occasionally that we need to have alternative plans in case our first choice doesn’t materialize.

Hard work and dedication are absolutely necessary, in fact somewhere in the expanse of dedication, obsession and fanaticism we must find our personal intensity of study and still keep in mind the realities of the profession we seek. Sometimes I like to tell my students that no matter how dedicated I might have been as a young man, no matter how hard I might have worked and no matter how much I might have loved ballet, there would have been absolutely no chance for me to have become a ballet dancer!

Some things we have to face, whether it’s Italian train strikes or even "That Which Must Never be Said."

Oh, and Bob? He’s a very successful tuba professor in a university in the southeast of the USA. I wonder how he says that which must never be said? I hope he considers me one of his teachers.

Firenze, January 18, 2005

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