Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Bud Herseth

Most of you have not heard of Adolph “Bud” Herseth; you should at least be aware of him. His outlook may be instructive.

Bud Herseth played principal trumpet in the Chicago Symphony from 1948 – 2001. That’s right: fifty-three years. He was 79 years old when he retired, and played a few more seasons as Principal Trumpet Emeritus before stepping down altogether. In that time he cemented a reputation as the standard by which all orchestral trumpet players were measured.

I was fortunate to hear him play several times, and to participate in a master class. (He even took the trumpet section to lunch.) At the end of the session, at which the brass section of a summer festival orchestra read through Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, he took questions. In addition to the students were musicians from the National and Baltimore Symphonies, as well as others who were in town to coach the student orchestra. Virtually all of them came to see Herseth, regardless of their instrument.

It has been said the key to a happy life is to discover what you love to do most and figure out a way to make a living at it. Here’s what Bud Herseth said when asked if he thought about retiring. (He was in his late sixties at the time.):

“Why would I retire? Every day I get to play the greatest music ever written with the greatest musicians in the world. I have the best job in the world.”

Few professions can manage a more jaded fa├žade than orchestral musicians. Even the established pros were choked up at that. I remember it like it happened the other day, not twenty-five years ago. For a man of Herseth’s gifts and accomplishments to view his job the way he did made everyone in the room feel small for any inconsequential griping. We were all lucky, no matter how close to the top of the pyramid we’d come.

Bud Herseth died last month at the age of 91. I didn’t know him; I met him once. I knew his playing. No one other than Charlie Schlueter had a more pronounced influence on me as a musician. The first thing I thought when I learned he was gone was to be glad he’d stayed around for a nice run after retirement. Too many giants suffer from what I call “Bear Bryant Disease,” and die too soon after their retirement to reflect on what they had done, and on their legacy.

From what I know of him through friends who knew him better, I doubt he spent much time doing that. I suspect he was happy to have had the best job in the world for longer than almost anyone else, to have had the opportunity to play the greatest music ever written with the greatest musicians in the world. A lot of people are happy he had that chance.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Department of Redundancy Department

It’s easy for some words to become inadvertent favorites. Often simple words, they pass through the writer’s imagination almost as punctuation, only to add up and become quite visible to the reader. I am prone to what I call “the word of the day,” where a word or phrase creeps into the day’s work like ants under a door. I’ve taken to going over everything written in the previous session before starting in on new work when drafting, explicitly to catch them.

The occasional burst of using the same word several times in close proximity is easy to spot and fix. Today I’m talking about words that accumulate over the course of a story, sometimes appearing hundreds of times in a 100,000-word novel. Some are forgivable. “Said,” for instance. “Is.” “It.” “Very” can almost always go. I tend to overuse “just” and “enough.” How to find and remove the most egregious offenses without making the process unendurable tedium is the trick. Remember, if they seemed overdone to me, I wouldn’t have left them in the first place

I discovered over the weekend an add-in to Microsoft Word that counts all the words in your manuscript and lists them in order of frequency used. You can designate some words to be excluded (“said” and characters’ names were cut in my search), and it’s a good idea to break the search into bite-sized chunks, as the program can’t handle 100,000 at a time. Asking for the results as an Excel spreadsheet makes it relatively easy to cobble multiple reports together.

After combining three spreadsheets, I set an arbitrary threshold of two hundred occurrences in what is currently a manuscript off 100,722 words, about once every five hundred words. We can argue whether I was too strict, or not strict enough. (Damn, there’s “enough” again.) The list was longer than expected.

Some of the words are innocuous. “Like,” “when,” “this,” up” aren’t candidates to stick pins in the reader’s eyes. On the other hand, too many instances can be a symptom of lazy writing that manifests itself in other ways as well. If this project is to be done, it’s worth doing right, so they were noted.

This created another unexpected problem. The original plan had been to take the offending words (“just” and “enough” came to mind) and auto-replace them all with nothing. Sentences where obvious holes remained would them be rewritten as much as needed. If the excised word was, in fact, best for the job, it would be reinserted.

The list I came up with had over forty words, with a few thousand instances. Removing them all might work. It might also make some sections so difficult to read I’d not remember the original intent. My compromise solution was to ask Word to change the color of all the words in question to red. Looking at the document now, it’s disturbing to see how colorful it is. The first paragraph alone has ten of its 98 words tagged.

I spent a few minutes as I researched the above looking at a few re-wording options. (I also remembered to highlight “that,” which had 844 instances of its own.) The book will be much better for the effort. Frustrating in places, but pleonasms abound, and this is a good way to get at them.

I had planned for some time to set the work aside for the summer. With two graduations and a family vacation to Colorado this month, summer has started early. (Not that you can tell from looking out the window.) I’ll pick it up fresh after Labor Day and will let you know how things go.