February 21, 2003

Stir Up the Retired Artist Within You

Filed under: Art and About the Everyday — admin @ 10:16 pm

When Moraga’s Ray Muer retired from the broadcasting industry 10 years ago, he wondered briefly what he was going to do during the newest phase of his life.

“I asked myself, ‘What am I going to do with my time? Play golf?’” he recalls.

Golf wasn’t the answer for Muer. He decided to return to his first love, the piano, and launched a career as a jazz pianist. He promised himself that however he spent his time, he would do it well. He took piano lessons as a kid, but never practiced more than an hour a day. The baseball field always beckoned. But for the last 10 years, Muer has been practicing four or five hours a day, plus playing gigs at night. He has studied with local jazz pianists, and treated himself to a 7-foot Yamaha grand piano to help hone his skills. When he was first getting into the swing of things, he was afraid to travel and be away from his practice sessions for too long, so he would work on his technique on the airplane tray table while in flight.
“My wife thought I was nuts,” Muer chuckles.

The hard work paid off, though. You may have heard Muer playing his dinner jazz repertoire at Prima’s or Scott’s restaurants in Walnut Creek, Jack’s Bistro in Jack London Square or at the Claremont County Club.

I have talked to a lot of retired Lamorinda folks pursing a second vocation or avocation in the arts. If it weren’t for them, I’m not sure we could fill the Sun arts page every week. They tend to fall into two categories — those who wait until retirement to do what they always really wanted to do, and those who rekindle an old artistic passion during retirement. Some of the latter group admit that they went back to memories of what they enjoyed doing in kindergarten, or grade school, to discover that their lives could use a little more paint, photography, sculpting, music, dance or theater.

I think covering the artistic community in Lamorinda is particularly inspiring for any of us who strive to make the arts a part of our daily lives. When the Sun arts page isn’t tapping into the talents of the retired community, we are often sharing the story of a stay-at-home mom who preserves a part of her life for the arts to balance herself creatively and spiritually with the demands of motherhood. The people we write about who are able to make a partial living in the arts usually have a steadier, non-artistic career on the side. Even the managing artistic director of the Town Hall Theatre has had to keep his day job. You expect this sort of thing in New York or Los Angeles where we presume every waiter is an actor. But your very own PTA president or dry cleaner or doctor maybe be living a double life as well.

All of these devoted artists are heroes of mine because they don’t let their passions die. It is too easy to forever put down that instrument after high school graduation. Or to let the paint pots dry up. Or to never go to another theater audition.

Whether a passion is golf, jazz piano or reading, those who live to retirement age with health and spirit intact are the lucky ones. When they look back on their lives as a whole, they will probably see a complete and fulfilling picture. My wish for the rest of us, though, is that we make the time to pursue our loves whether we’re 18, 30, 45 or 65.

My dad used to always talk about what he would do when he retired. The list was long, but his eyes always twinkled when he mentioned this or that fantasy. He died one month before his sixty-fifth birthday. Although I am certain he lived a life without regrets, I regret that I’ll never know what magic his retirement years had in store for him. He always said, “You never know, tomorrow I might be hit by a bus,” when he decided to do something whimsical or decadent. His bus happened to be cancer. For me, that collision was a bullhorn reminder of how the clock relentlessly tick-tocks our lives away regardless of how we’re spending our time. Maybe we should all pursue our passions as if a little part of us is already retired.

February 14, 2003

It Takes A Village to Raise an Artist

Filed under: Art and About Kids — admin @ 2:37 pm

Clark Pang’s favorite composers are Robert Schumann and Grace Vamos. This seven-year-old cellist says that Schumann’s propensity for long notes gives him a chance to stretch his arm, while Vamos, a contemporary composer from Danville, gives him the opportunity to play fast and with a sense of humor.

Pang recently won first place and a scholarship in the Elementary Division of the Vamos Competition sponsored by the Contra Costa String Association. It was his first competition. Last summer, Clark was invited to play at the Music Teachers’ Association of California convention. Clark’s teacher, Ariel Witbeck, believes Clark has what it takes to make it in cello, or whatever he decides to do. But she doesn’t give Clark all the credit for his success.

“The Pangs are a just a lovely, functioning family. And as a teacher, I know there are a lot of families in this area that aren’t functioning. When I teach music, I involve in the whole family — you have to,” Witbeck remarked.

Clark’s mom, Elena, laughs as she recounts the family’s learning curve in supporting a cellist. Elena is a concert pianist and older daughter Chloe seems to be traveling the same path. As Elena says, when you play piano, all you have to do is show up and the instrument is waiting for you. With cello, “we have to load the car with the instrument, and Clark’s special chair, and the rock-stop — there is just so much more to do. But every time before he plays, his sister goes and whispers in his ear, ‘You’re the best cello player ever,’ and she screamed the loudest when he won,” Elena recalled.

I have been fortunate enough to visit the Pang’s house several times, and there may not be a more nurturing arts environment in Lamorinda. Some of that environment is intangible, as if the walls, carpet and furniture have soaked up an artsy glow. Physical indicators of the ambience come from framed art in the entryway, all works done by the Pang children. And it looks like the Pangs are running out of room in the kitchen and dining areas for all the Chloe and Clark artwork hanging in there. These piece aren’t hanging crooked by refrigerator magnets, but rather each one is distinctly featured.

Witbeck’s comments caused me to recall how Stanley Middle School music director Bob Athayde once ran down a list of some of his most successful students of past and present. After naming each one and giving me a thumbnail about how they were not only an asset to the music classes, but were also leaders in the school’s academic and sports programs, he would follow up with the phrase, “two squared-away, put-together parents.” He would say something like, “Sue Smith, squared-away kid: violinist, an excellent writer and basketball player. Two squared-away, put-together parents.”
I’ve interviewed visual arts teachers, dance teachers and other music teachers who, without the catchy turn of phrase, echo the sentiment that success in the arts is a team effort for the whole family, not just the student. And the involvement needs to go beyond badgering the child the practice and reminding him or her how much private lessons cost.

All this has just reiterated for me how none of us can do it alone, whether our thing is the arts, sports or bug collecting. Around here, the soccer parents who haul their kids to practices and games, or the families who spend entire Saturdays at swim meets, get more PR than families who load up the minivan with band instruments and carpool to Fresno for a music festival. They’re all helping to shape a success story, though.

I know that there are those stand-out kids who manage to make it seemingly on their own, but most likely even they have found a “family” to support their endeavors. This supportive family just doesn’t happen to share their blood and often carries the title of “teacher,” “friend” or perhaps someone else’s family. And I’m sure we all knew at least one kid growing up who wasn’t very successful and whose parents never showed up at the concert or the game or open house at school.

It will take a village to carry Clark on its shoulders down the path his life is meant to tread. If you find you are not part of someone’s village right now, consider looking for a flashing “vacancy” sign and taking up residence.