tim in essen

Do you ever wonder why it was you and not someone else who became a great cellist? What sets you apart?

Uh, I don’t play the cello. I guess that sets me apart from other cellists.

Earlier this year at the Aspen Ideas Festival you said it wasn’t until you turned 49 that you thought being a musician was cool. What did you mean by that?

I don’t have the foggiest idea. I don’t remember saying that. I don’t remember being in Aspen.

I don’t know if a lot of people think of music as a vehicle for understanding human behavior.

Is that a question?

How often do you practice, and for how long?

I practice whenever the band at work has a performance coming up. It usually takes me 3 or 4 weeks to get back into shape. I start simply, maybe 5 minutes a day, and gradually increase the time over the course of my practicing, to 30 to 45 minutes. That gets me in good enough shape for our band’s gigs.

Have you experienced any of the physical problems that often plague musicians, like tendinitis or back pain?

Yes. Writer’s block. Stiff neck and shoulder (computer back). Ringing in the ears after loud concerts.

You’ve spoken about the perils of the child prodigy syndrome, saying that what you do when you’re young creates your emotional bank account and that you’ll be drawing from it the rest of your life, so be sure the stuff you put in there counts.

I actually haven’t spoken all that much about child prodigy syndrome, but whatever. I don’t think I was a prodigy. I was good at some things when I was young, though, including music. I don’t know — whatever you do creates an emotional bank account. I guess I wish I had done the Fleetwood Mac recording that I skipped out on. On the other hand, skipping it makes a better story.

Do you feel that, because you trained so rigorously throughout your youth, you missed out on other important parts of life?

Not really. It’s what I wanted to do at the time. I remember I had a trombone teacher who told me that I would have to miss a lot of things, like parties, if I wanted to succeed in music. Who wants to go to parties?

Twenty-five years ago could you have imagined that you would win a Grammy for best folk album?

No. I can’t imagine that happening now. But you never know, right?

What are you not good at?

Lots of things. A man’s got to know his limitations, as Dirty Harry says, and I spend many hours in pleasant reverie thinking about mine. But let’s not go into it.

What would you like to accomplish that you haven’t yet?

I’d like to write a comic novel. I’d like to be published in The New Yorker. See my answer above, though.

Your role as an arts and culture advocate seems to be growing. Is it as much a part of your day’s work and life’s work as playing the cello?

Again, I don’t play the cello. I don’t know where you’re getting that. I have played Bach’s Cello Suites on the trombone, however. I’m not sure you’d want to hear that.

Yes, my celebrity status does seem to be growing. At least among the dozens who read this blog. Beyond that, I’m asked if I’m Mark Swed a lot.

Ageism is rampant in our culture. What about in classical music?

I’m still one of the youngest people at a lot of concerts that I attend. I like old people. Though they walk slow sometimes.

So there’s reverse ageism?

I guess so. Well, no, not really. Audiences love kid performers. Critics can be a little snobby about them sometimes, I suppose. They’ll compare Dudamel to Klemperer when he was 70 and find him (Dudamel) wanting. Not quite fair, in my opinion.

Are you a better musician now than you’ve ever been?

Maybe. I’m a different musician than I’ve ever been. I know more.

Are some things harder?

Yes. Reviewing mediocre concerts, which most of them are, in the end. Bad concerts and great concerts are easy to review, you can slam or praise with your best verbiage. But it takes quite an effort to describe mediocrity honestly. The English language, I feel, is not rich in words describing this gray area.

Are there pieces you played when you were younger that you no longer play, and if so why?

Yes, but I don’t play that often. I hardly ever play the trombone solo from Bolero anymore, because I can’t. I can play a mean “Message to Rudy” these days. There are compensations.

While classical musicians tend to have long careers, even the greats start to lose something: rhythmic precision, intonation, bow control. Have you experienced these sorts of losses?

I think everyone, in all walks of life, experiences losses. But there are gains too. You deal with them, try to work around the losses and emphasize the gains. I look at some of my early writing occasionally, and I don’t like it much. It tries too hard. I think I have a little more poise now, at least.

Does fame make it harder to connect with people and fellow musicians?

I wouldn’t know.

Is the gratification you get from music different at 57 than it was at 27?

I’m 53, but yes, of course. I think I have a better sense of which pieces are really great and which merely make a lot of gratifying noise. I’m beginning to tire of the late Romantic repertory (because it’s overplayed), but a good performance will awaken me.

What, if anything, would make you think about retirement?

My salary.

Do you regret choices you’ve made?

Sure, if I’m being honest. I think everyone regrets certain choices. But all we can do is do the best we can when we make them. Not much use looking back.

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