How do you get to Carnegie Hall? I always took 7th Ave but it never got me onto the stage. Making it that far requires practice.
A couple of my clients, Dickson and Gail, have been playing the clarinet since elementary school. Fate put their seats next to each other one night back in the 1970s when the Georgia State University pep band performed at an Atlanta Falcons game.
I don’t know who won the gridiron grudge match but Dickson and Gail sure scored, falling in love and eventually getting married in 1980. Touchdown! Be careful who you sit next to.
Though they both have music degrees—Dickson served in the U.S. Army Band and Gail was a band director—their life paths diverged from music. Dick became a CPA and Gail worked as an IT Disaster Recovery Consultant. But, neither those long work days nor the monumental task of raising children could extinguish their musical fire. They still found time, whenever possible, to play. As Gail said, “It is so much who we are.”
Once their boys, also clarinetists, went away to college, Dickson and Gail found themselves no longer band parents, scout parents, or soccer parents. They finally had time to fan that musical flame that had never fully gone out. They joined Tara Winds, a renowned community band in Atlanta.
Surprised by a woodwind section that was crawling with clarinetists, Dickson kicked around the idea of a clarinet choir. There are six common types of clarinet, and even more beyond that. An ensemble composed of each type—from the highest-pitched to the lowest-pitched—had fallen out of favor since its heyday in the early twentieth century, but Dickson persisted. “We were in a band with so many fine clarinetists and the more clarinets, the merrier.”
Dickson became the music director of the newly formed Tara Winds Clarinet Choir (TWCC), and after his 2018 retirement, there was nothing to stop him from cranking things up to eleven. Plus, he had some familiar members with whom to conspire—Gail plays the rare alto clarinet in the group, and their son Jimmy plays bass clarinet.
The Grimes with their son, Jimmy, during sound check
With that cornucopia of clarinet firepower, it’s possible to play a wide range of musical styles. The TWCC does just that. Each lucky audience might hear anything from classical masterpieces to film soundtracks to pop hits. The group has twenty-five to thirty-five members at a given time. Some are young, some are working, others are retired, but all have the goal of lifelong playing and everlasting enjoyment.
After having many fine performances under its belt, including international conventions, the TWCC commissioned a composition. Things were rolling! And then, COVID brought it all to a screeching halt. After months of no rehearsals, once it was safe for humans to interact again, Dickson and Gail thought everyone needed a big challenge to jumpstart their engines.
All musicians dream of performing at the legendary Carnegie Hall in New York City, perhaps the finest stage for music performance in the world. The historic location has seen the likes of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Arturo Toscanini, John Philip Sousa, John Lennon, and countless more. In the Fall of 2021, TWCC sent them an audition tape and crossed their fingers.
It was a leap of faith. Were they crazy to believe it could happen? This was Carnegie Hall! For a community group, they thought they were very good. As it turns out, they weren’t the only ones. They were accepted!
When Dickson and Gail found out the news they were both ecstatic and terrified. The last time a large clarinet ensemble played at Carnegie Hall was in 1935! They simply had to perform well. And so, they went to work. Practice. Practice Practice. The commitment was total. If something went wrong, it wouldn’t be for a lack of preparation.
One week after the last rehearsal in Atlanta, TWCC met for a sound check on the stage of Carnegie Hall. Dickson said “The emotions that flood you are unlike anything you have ever experienced. You are standing on historic and musically holy ground, yet I felt like I belonged, that we were all worthy musicians and our time to perform has come.”
Gail added that when the group arrived on the night of the performance in their black dress attire and found themselves waiting in the same dressing room as the finest orchestras in the world, “It took a lot to keep calm and even.”
Mr. Grimes, the Music Director, outside of his dressing room
TWCC was the last group slated to perform, preceded by four ensembles. With a 10:30 pm timeslot, they wondered if anyone would stay to listen. “When it was time, we went upstairs to the Stern Auditorium—the big stage—put our shoulders back, and walked out to amazing applause,” Gail said. “Music lovers in NYC stayed to hear us!”
The Tara Winds Clarinet Choir (TWCC) at Carnegie Hall
All their hard work had paid off. “We were excited but confident. Hundreds of cumulative years of practice and the love of music poured out, and we belonged there,” said Gail. “The applause was unlike any the Tara Winds Clarinet Choir had ever received, and we got a standing ovation.” At this, Gail couldn’t contain herself. “We. Got. A. Standing. Ovation. At. Carnegie. Hall.”
Dickson and Gail have been playing for decades, and yet they found themselves having the best musical experience of their lives in their sixties. Just like them, we always need to be refreshing our core pursuits, as we never know what stage in life a particular one will suit us best.
It might be easy to find time to play an instrument in college but careers and family can make it more difficult. However, one day our schedules will change and certain core pursuits can come back into the fold if we allow ourselves to kindle the passion. Dickson and Gail’s story is an amazing example of how a core pursuit can boomerang from one life period to another.
This particular adventure encompasses so many of the habits I see from the happiest retirees: marriage, organized social connections, group activities, and pursuing something that takes time and achievement to fine-tune and improve.
The seeds we sow for core pursuits are important deposits into our future happiness. A week of sailing lessons as a kid might come back to be your favorite activity in your forties or fifties. An instrument that may not have been “cool in high school“ can boomerang into a fascinating endeavor. A sport like tennis might boomerang later in life as a foundation for loving the game of pickleball!
Look for opportunities to plant core pursuit seeds every chance you get and encourage others to do the same. One day they might germinate and grow into giant Redwoods. You might find yourself playing your own version of Carnegie Hall.