I am currently in Oaxaca, Mexico, on tour with the Meridian Arts Ensemble. I guess it’s not exactly a tour, since we are staying in this one city for 10 days. On the road, then, if not on tour.
The music business is strange. In Europe, and in Mexico (really anywhere but the good ol’ US of A), you get incredible respect if you are a classical musician. The students I am teaching here call me Maestro, and wouldn’t ever call me by my first name. When you tell someone you are a musician in Europe, their eyes light up. In the States, a more typical reaction is “Can you make a living doing that?” (Please note that this is, in fact, a fair question).
Oaxaca is in the part of Mexico known as the Isthmus, and since Madison is also built on an Isthmus, I have merely jumped isthmi. This is a beautiful city. Most of the buildings are one or two stories, and most are at least a few hundred years old. There’s a giant 16th Century cathedral, a lovely concert hall, and a beautiful zocalo (town square). We are surrounded by towns (pueblos) populated by people for whom Spanish is a second language. Meridian has been coming here annually for about five or six years. and I have taught students here who don’t speak Spanish at all – only Zapoteco.
Last year, and in previous years, each member of the group had a translator. This was especially interesting with the students who spoke only Zapoteco. I would say, “Can you put a stronger articulation and a lighter bounce on the eighth notes?” My translator would render that in Spanish as something like “Can you play harder and weaker on eight notes?” Then, the student’s band director, who spoke Spanish and Zapoteco, would render it into the latter language, undoubtedly saying something like “Would you like the chicken or the beef?” It was teaching by way of the telephone game, and it was slow and plodding.
No such problems this year: no translators. Yes, I am teaching in Spanish. Slight problem: I don’t speak Spanish. I speak French and fake Italian. I know some Russian and do a great Russian accent in English (“please to come in and sit down on chair”), but that’s no help here. Would you like to know what is tiring? Teaching in a language you don’t speak. For me, it involves lots of singing, dancing around, gesticulating, and speaking bastardized French with lots of O’s at the end of the words, then asking “Es una palabra?” which may or may not mean “Is that a word?” This morning, I taught three students in the space of two hours, then came back to the hotel, read one paragraph of my book, and fell into the arms of Morpheus for a solid hour.
There is a strong brass band tradition here in Mexico, or at least in this part of Mexico. Even the weaker students tend to have an idea how to play a brass instrument. The best student I ever taught was here in Oaxaca. He played way better than I play, and could easily be a principal horn in an American orchestra if he decides to go that route. We are friends with a trombone player who grew up in a pueblo near here. He is now principal trombone in the top orchestra in Mexico. Did I mention that he also plays trumpet and tuba at a professional level? That’s like playing in both the US Open (tennis) and the US Open (golf). In short, unheard of. But true.
A word about the food in Oaxaca. Delicious. If you like eating (and good weather, beautiful mountains, gorgeous colonial architecture, friendly people), this is the place for you. I especially recommend the tlayuda. Picture an oversized tortilla, spread with pork fat, then a layer of cheese, some tomato and avocado, and a thin steak on top. Time to book your ticket for Christmas vacation.
And a word about the people. A lot of the local people are not very tall. Today, I walked through a crowd and was the tallest person in the vicinity for about nine seconds. I admit that this has happened before: when I came to Charlie’s first grade class to demonstrate the horn (you have to exclude the teacher, though). But to be the tallest adult, even for just nine seconds, was, I have to admit, a new experience for me, and a happy one. All that and I can still fit my legs in on the airplane – best of both worlds.
If you have ever tried to travel a long distance by plane (in my case three flights to get here) and then perform skilled activity, you’ll know that it is difficult. A lot of touring is about keeping yourself functioning against the odds. We are rehearsing like mad on top of the teaching. We have a recital to give, and we are playing one piece on another concert. I am also playing a concerto on that concert (actually a concerto for four wind soloists, so not THAT scary). That means practice practice. I guess what I’m driving at is that a tour, even in a great place like Oaxaca, is not a vacation – not even close. On the other hand, it’s pretty fun. And a tlayuda? You won’t find that at your neighborhood Mexican joint.