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A Great Settlement

By Allen Davis, NCMC Board Member

When I was five, my father took me for an “audition” with a family friend whom he himself had brought years earlier to the great Mischa Elman at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Elman had embraced and welcomed her as a violin scholarship student, and my father was hoping to go two for two with me. But after a brief test it was clear that he would not -- “He doesn’t have perfect pitch,” she whispered. “He’s musical, but not the real thing. So sorry!”

I got the message -- I was chopped liver! And I could clearly see that my father was devastated. He had wanted me to be another Milstein, and what he got was a suggestion that he “settle” for South Philadelphia’s – wait for it -- Settlement Music School. While I loved my teacher and learned a lot at Settlement, the heart went out of my fiddle playing that day with my father and his prodigy when I fell out of contention.

I know enough now to understand that this is the space most of us live in and is certainly the home of community arts schools. Most of us are not prodigies. But while we may never be “great”, striving for greatness is what it is all about. And Community Music Schools like Settlement and the Northampton Community Music Center are there to encourage – not require –greatness (the key difference between them and Conservatories), and to celebrate the journey, rather than only the result.

As an adult I found myself hungering for music making with others – my limited piano skills (a rebound relationship after my breakup with the violin) mostly precluded that. I happened to see a segment on a Sunday morning TV show (“On the Road with Charles Kuralt”, which later morphed into “Sunday Morning”) that featured a volunteer orchestra made up of retired physicians in Miami. It gave me the idea to start acquiring enough skill on an instrument (that was not the violin!) that I could play in such an orchestra when I retired in, say, thirty years or so. (As a financial planner, I point to this with pride as my first successful retirement plan!)

I eventually found my way to the double bass. Building on my musical foundation, I was able to play with others -- after much less than 30 years! While I admit there were moments when I dreamed of a new career, a full life in music, it was clear that I had started too late, and after all, I didn’t have perfect pitch! I WAS, though, becoming good enough to play in most community musical groups -- Valley Light Opera, Pioneer Valley Symphony, church and synagogue events, jazz groups, high school shows, chamber ensembles (I know the Schubert Trout Quintet by heart). These are groups of Community Musicians at many levels and ages, brought together by their love of music and performance, a commitment to their community, and the joy and challenges of music-making with others seeking the same rewards.

So I HAVE actually had a life in music after all. If this is “settling,” I’m happy with the “settlement”! I am proud now to have become a Board member of our own gem of a community music center which integrates the preparation and training of gifted students destined for professional careers along with the musical education for the rest of us and our communities. Our beloved Valley is what it is at least in part because of the rich musical and cultural life it offers – and the engine for much of that is our robust commitment to education. I’m thrilled now to be able to support this work – in these times, our support is more critical than ever. We certainly all need music more than ever!

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