EP 5: David Rahbee
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. For the complete interview, you can access here.
Kristine Dizon: Hello, my name is Kristine Dizon, and I'm the CEO and founder of the Modern Artist Project. Today, I'm with David Alexander Rahbee, who is currently the Senior Artist in Residence at the University of Washington School of Music in Seattle, where he is the Director of Orchestral Activities and Chair of Orchestra Conducting. So, thank you, David, for joining us today.
David Alexander Rahbee: It's a pleasure. Thanks for having me!
KD: So, can you tell us a little bit more about your background and what turned you on about music?
DAR: Yeah, I was lucky enough to be born into a family that cared about music, and there was always music around the house. So it was just one part of my childhood with everything else I was doing. And after a while, I gravitated towards it. I don't know, I guess I just didn't think about it too much. It was just something I really enjoyed, and there wasn't that much else out there that I did enjoy. So it just made sense to go in that direction.
KD: No, for sure. So, basically, when you think about the artistic influences in your life, who would you say those people were besides your family?
DAR: Yeah, well, after my mother, I think at first, it was probably my youth orchestra conductor because of the repertoire he chose that turned me on to certain things and sort of jump-started my interest in looking at scores from a conductor's point of view and things like that. So that was actually, aside from the music itself, the choices that he made sort of helped me go down that road. And then, Sir George Solti was a big influence on me. He was my favorite conductor when I was young.
So, I collected all of his recordings, and I really liked all the figures and how he let the brass play really loud and how they were playing in tune all the time. That, to me, was something really exciting, and I loved it. And then, yeah, so I think at every stage of my life, there have been very strong influences that sort of change. You know that it's kind of like starting with family, then it goes to some teachers, then certain styles of professional musicians, and that kind of always, there was always something there, it just fluctuates every couple of years or so.
KD: I know that this is really great. So you mentioned your high school teacher before who talked about different types of repertoire. How did that person connect with you and made classical music relevant to you in that way that made you want to pursue conducting?
DAR: So, I didn't do anything in high school; it was my youth orchestra. So, I really didn't enjoy high school, so I didn't want to bring my violin to high school. I wanted school to be separate, and I wanted music to be the thing I enjoyed. So, it was my youth orchestra conductor, and I took conducting lessons with him. I don't think it was anything he specifically said or did that turned me on to the music. It was just the experience of going through it and learning about it and reacting to it and practicing it and feeling it. So, yeah, I can't really think of any specific thing. I mean, the fact that he chose certain pieces was really the main thing, and that it's my own, what it did for me, my own personal. I guess, how I processed everything and what it got me to think about and what it got me to listen to, it just opened the doors.
DAR: Yeah. Well, programming is like music, you know, it actually becomes even harder because, you know, in the Daniels compendium, there are now 15,900 pieces. And an average concert season could have like, you know, 30 pieces on it, you know, for an orchestra that does six programs a year. Of course, the big ones that go through 30 weeks, they have a lot more flexibility.
But when you have a limited amount of minutes and you have all this music, it's hard, it's hard to choose. There are a lot of factors that eliminate certain pieces or types of pieces, and you know, for better or for worse, sometimes it's a good thing. Sometimes it's a really bad thing. But, yeah, so there's certain music that a young orchestra needs to play for discipline, you know, like to musical discipline. And energy, like Beethoven, is always a good composer for that. I always like to start the year with Beethoven. We didn't do that this year, but it helps sort of set the tone and expectations.
But you know, other than that, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about, can we handle this or can we handle that? I just go ahead and program things. Of course, I'm not going to do things that have like, you know, six horns and like two tubas and all this stuff. I can't do anything that's like impractical as far as numbers go. But I don't shy away from doing pieces that may be considered more difficult than others. I just balance them out with other things.
KD: Yeah, no, this is really great. Thank you, David. So when we think about today's age right with digital media and when we think about social media and all the different types of things that we could do with it with Tiktok, Facebook, and Instagram, how do you feel like this has affected music or being able to introduce music to your students or even just in general to the public?
DAR: I feel like there are two sides to it, you know, one it helps. Well, the internet in general, but things like ways that you can share with people directly, you know, this kind of music is reaching a larger audience than it ever had before. And that's a very good thing, but sometimes I feel like it can get a little impersonal. I don't know, like, I think using social media and online platforms is really an important component and tool. But I don't want to rely too much on it because I feel like sometimes it takes the human element out of things and to me that's a little scary, just as I don't like going to the supermarket and using the self-checkout because I'm not talking, I'm not dealing with a person. Or if I go to the CVS, they're saving money by having one person in charge of five different counters and I don't talk to anyone, I just go and scan my thing and get out of there, and that to me is impersonal and I want a little more, you know, human interaction. So if I'm gonna share stuff, I don't want to just put up a picture and say come to this, like I want to really be doing this like speaking to people. So I think that there's a little of both. I think if you use it right, um because you know, it depends on how you use social media, you can use it to advertise yourself.
You can, you know, people that don't know, you will see things if you use it the right way, and you know, like LinkedIn should be for connecting with people in your field that you don't know already. Whereas, like Facebook and Instagram, are mostly for people you already know. Although, yeah, that's how I like to use it.
KD: This is really good. Thank you, David. So, one of the questions that I have for you is, with what you had mentioned, you know, this idea of this human element, you know, this idea of connecting with someone, even if it's like simply just connecting at the grocery store, you know, purchasing something. So, what are your ideas about making it more human, even in the digital media age that we live in?
DAR: Yeah, so interviews is important, but it's tough. You know, responding to people and if people make comments or something like that, and actually personally responding, especially if it's people you don't know. Like, if someone, if I post a program I'm doing on LinkedIn, and someone I'm connected to, who I don't really know in person, says, 'Hey, great program,' I'll engage with that person. You know, I won't just be like, 'Hey, thanks.' You know, why ask questions like, 'What did you like about it?' or 'What do you find interesting about it?' I'm curious to know, you know.
KD: Or even better yet, hey are you even really there?
DAR: Right, exactly. Or are you coming like 3000 miles to come to my concert on Wednesday? Like probably not. But yeah, and you know, it would be great to be able to share performances online more often, and sometimes that's hard to do. Like our concert coming up has to rental pieces on it and it ends up driving the cost way up to stream it. And then, I mean, there's just, there are so many kinks to be worked out still in the whole idea of sharing performances. And I think some sacrifices have to be made. Not everyone's gonna make money off, you know, sharing something. If I do a piece and the rental company says, 'Well, you're gonna have to pay this amount of money to broadcast it,' that's kind of ridiculous because they're getting like, why should we pay them for the advertisement that we're doing for them? You know, like I'm showing this piece off, and someone's gonna say, 'I want to do it,' they'll go rent the music and do it themselves, and then more people will hear about that composer and that helps sales or whatever. That's what they really need, instead of having a stranglehold on everything. There's so much music out there that rental companies are sitting on, and they're not doing anything with it. And people aren't even aware of it because they don't do anything with it. If they made it possible, if we do a piece by this composer, you can't even get a score of it. You have to beg for them to print a special one for you. So, there are a lot of kinks to be worked out in sharing, and the result that you get from sharing is going to be down the road more valuable than just getting a little lump sum of money here for this broadcast and this broadcast because the money's gonna disappear. But what won't disappear is the reputation of that piece or that composer; it's only going to grow. And that's the investment that those people need to make, in my opinion.
KD: No, I think, I think that's really great being able to bring that to light and being able to mention, you know, the different aspects of performance that a lot of the time, you know, audience members don't really see, in regards to like certain parts of logistics and things like that. So when we talk about the audience in regards to making classical music relevant to them, something that it's like they have to have it in their lives, do you have any ideas of how we could connect more or connect better in that way with you know.
DAR: Yeah. It's it's a tricky one because everything we try to do to connect people right now, like people who are, you know older than us or our age, who are out there, everything we're gonna do is we're sort of fixing the problem from the outside in and a lot of people have tried a million different things how we can get people more interested, you know, bring a jazz combo and put them on the front cover of your Symphony Orchestra program because maybe that will get people who like jazz to come to the symphony, you know? I mean there's all kinds of things you can try to do to fix it from the outside in, but the inside out is where it has to be fixed. And the problem I feel is that the basic grammar of Western classical music should be taught just like math, history, science, art and sports in school. But the argument that schools have or school systems is that well, these kids are gonna be musicians, so we're not going to teach them about that, but who's gonna become a mathematician who's in your math class, who's gonna become a chemist, there's a whole class full of chemistry kids, they're taking chemistry, Why? Because they're gonna be chemists, no, they're learning about the world and the basic grammar of Western classical music. If we don't teach that, it's harder for someone who doesn't have that basic foundation to to be able to take in music the way you or I take it in because it's we it's part of our the language is part of our world and everyone says, 'Oh, music is a universal language', that's true. But classical music is actually a more artificially created system of organizing tones and pitches in a tempered way and there is a language tonic dominant, it's like a subject verb. And if you're aware of the functions of those things, just basic, you can actually take in the sentences of music and it actually can have more meaning and how you hear it and it and it you feel it in it’s expressive way if you don't have that, you could pick out little things, 'I kind of like this or kind of like that, and that's fine. I have no problem with an audience on their own terms liking what they want to, like all I'm saying is that if someone learns about Marie Curie and learns about Shakespeare and learns about, you know, algebra. They also have to learn about bass clef in tenor clef, not everyone is gonna be musically literate, but some people are also not good in math and they have to take math. So it has to be one of those and if that does happen, if we are able to offer that to enough young people, the likelihood that they could grasp what we are talking about when we talk about music goes much higher much higher. Even if they don't take up an instrument.
DAR: If they do, but you know, that's to me that's fixing it from the inside out, which is much more important, fundamentally because everything else is just trying to fix from the outside, not that we shouldn't do that, but it needs to start from the inside.
KD: No, for sure. I agree with you in regards to being able to have it be a part of the structure, more part of the structure in schools. And I know for a fact at least with the students that I work with, some of them start not doing great at school, right? But when they start picking up an instrument, I actually noticed and have gotten comments that, whoa, you know, he's getting, I don't know how that happened, and you know, type of thing and it's great, you know, to see how aspects of what you talk about, you know, this idea of, you know, being able to become more musically literate to be able to be, you know, participating in like it's a community activity also.
DAR: Yeah, I do remember having a recorder on the armrest or a little tiny marimba who's doing that anymore, You know, and if you can extend that a little bit, a few more years, that's the basic grammar. I mean, the difference is that you could go into an orchestra band with an instrument or you could just be in that music class, like you go to gym, you go to physics, you go to music, not just an elective or an after school thing as an extra, it's part of the education. I never, so I mean when you grow up with a language, the grammar is obvious when you don't, you have to piece it together, you know, and that's exactly what happens with Western classical music. If you don't have the grammar, you piece it together and then you like certain things and there's nothing wrong with that. But it's, you can get, so you can like convince everyone what they're missing if they actually get that.
KD: No, for sure. No, this is no, this is really, really great stuff here. And it's really relevant to today. I think also to add a little bit more to what you've mentioned. You know, the idea that it's not just about having knowledge of music, but also to developing soft skills, you know, being able to learn how to communicate in a kind way, in a professional way, with other people and being able to inspire joy. And I think that's something that's also really important, especially in today's age, we're looking post pandemic. You know, we're still picking up pieces of everything that we've done, and we're still being resilient, being able to go through all of these things and being able to try to inspire this within the people that we work with every day. So when you're with your students, the students that you work with in the orchestra, and just in general with young professionals that you work with, how do you think they could be helpful in making music more relevant to audiences, but also in the sense of making an impact despite the problems we have with institutions?
DAR: Yeah, well, first of all, I think on an individual level, somebody has to feel a spark. You have to feel a spark that we, you know, you can't just look at people and say that person is going to be sparked by this, and this person sparked by that, but when they are, and they're encouraged to share that, ready to share and willing to share those feelings that you have, and not just, gosh, I really like this, and I'm just gonna hold it in here, spread the joy, you know. Music is very personal to each of us, how we feel about it, how we feel about it in general, how we feel about a piece of music, and that feeds into how we share that with others. So, it has to start from that level. If you feel really strongly about this, like when I was in college and I loved Bruckner, I would bring my friends over and turn the volume up and say you're gonna listen to this because this is great and everyone enjoyed it. So that's the kind of thing, it sparked me and then they started to like it. I think about the things that I've shared with people that I care about and how that's helped them learn about more things and go on their own and they don't feel the same way I do. Nobody does, but they get that spark. So, finding a way to share with genuine joy and if you care about what you do, it's gonna come across that way anyway, and then those people, well hopefully pick up some of that stuff it has to affect. If it doesn't affect somebody there's nothing you can do. You can show as much care and expression and feeling and how much you love something and somebody may not agree, but you have to show it to them. And if they do, that's where the spark happens and that's where the sharing happens.
KD: No, that's very beautiful. Thank you. So basically, it's one of those things that when we think about institutions, how we can instill that in students, even in children, being able to say this is part of the curriculum, as you would have in math, science, reading. These are tools that you need to be able to learn about the world, right? But then, also, being able to say, "Okay, well, you know, even with some of the problems that we have within school institutions early on for kids, it's a matter of, like, doing exactly what you have just said. Being able to say, 'Here's Bruckner. I love Bruckner. We're going to listen to Bruckner, and you're gonna love it,' you know, people to, you know, being able to share that. And I think that's a really beautiful thing of being able to, you know, transmit those passions to social interactions, and that's something that's really, really powerful.
So, thank you, David. That's all the time that we have for today, and thank you for joining us and sharing your experiences and thoughts with us. We look forward to seeing the amazing things that you continue to do for your students and for classical music.
DAR: Thanks Kristine, I appreciate it. Thanks for having me on today!
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