Mentors by Kim Archer

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David Maslanka in his home studio

Most of us became musicians because someone mentored us. It’s not easy to guide a young musician, but that’s why our mentors are special, why they inspire us. They care for us and they know us — and because of that, we flourish.

When I was first-year doctoral student, composer David Maslanka visited UT-Austin. He was already famous — I’d already been taught how he revolutionized the concert band world forever with his Symphony no. 2. He was alive, in person, on my campus! I couldn’t wait to meet the guy whose music left me exhausted and joyful, tearful and energized at the same time.

To my surprise and dismay, he turned out to be Weird, capital W, even compared to most composers. He mumbled about his dreams, about meditating and having conversations with creatures there, about reaching into a space beyond oneself that I simply wasn’t prepared to accept. He had such a strict diet it was impossible to find restaurants for him. He rambled at the microphone before his performances. Still, I offered to drive him back to the airport to have time alone with him, to get another measure of him.

There, gripping the steering wheel in the silence, I finally blurted out, “Dr. Maslanka, I love your music and I heard every word you said while you’ve been here but I think you’re full of <bleep>.” (I didn’t say “bleep.”) Looking back now, I can’t believe I did that. David just smiled and asked, “What don’t you believe?” Those 40 minutes flew by. We shook hands at the airport and he said, “You’re going to call me someday. You’ll know when and here’s my number.” I drove home thinking he was a nice enough guy but no way would I ever call him.

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Kim and David at a rehearsal

Then my best friend was killed in a car accident and I found myself writing a symphony. I was overwhelmed by rage and grief, unable to handle by myself the new kind of music that was pouring out, frightened at how different the whole world felt with the loss of my friend, and even within myself. Who could I talk about this with who would understand?

I called David … and a mentorship of almost two decades began.

I didn’t always like that mentorship. When I went through a phase of writing commercial music for a publisher, David told me to either honor my musical power or not waste his time anymore. He told me once that if I wouldn’t name myself as “composer” first, rather than “teacher,” then I ought to accept that my contribution to music will be grading 4-part chorales. I loved David’s frank sarcasm when it wasn’t aimed at me, but he could really sting me about blunders in craft that sure, I should’ve known better than to commit, but had succumbed to out of impatience. Which he knew and wouldn’t tolerate. I asked him once how he could stand that I’d make progress with his help but then screw it up, make progress again then screw it up — never a straight line of development. He smiled with that mischievous glint and asked me to name one person I’d ever known who developed in a straight line. I told him once that he saved me; he responded, “You’re worth saving.”

With David as my mentor, I became aware of bigger pictures, of the universal and cyclical nature of things, from composing to politics to life and relationships. I didn’t believe everything he professed, but some of it started to seem possible. Over the years, David and I corresponded sometimes weekly about doubt, complacency, and fatigue, which are normal but must be faced and overcome. We talked about passion and energy, about connecting with like-minded people and working in solidarity to change the music world, the education world, or any part of the world for the better. He encouraged my skeptical attempts at meditation and both interpreted and praised the results. He shared his love of history and drew me in. I tried to interest him in science fiction but gave up after his comments like “glacial.” We never discussed anything so concrete as harmony or counterpoint, but my sharing a sketch and asking for feedback resulted in the most intense musical discussions of my life, spanning craft and heart equally. We attended performances of each others’ music. He stayed with me in Edwardsville a few times. We took innumerable walks together and cooked good food. I have never laughed so hard, or felt so vulnerable and safe at the same time. I loved David and he loved me. I occasionally beat him at Scrabble.

Earlier in the summer, David told me he was ill but felt certain it was not the end and he had more music to write. He responded with pride about a new, non-musical role I recently adopted and told him about. I was afraid he’d criticize another distraction from composing; instead, he reached back almost twenty years to analyze how inevitable and perfect a step it was, that I had finally learned to face fear and anxiety, and he mused that when this personal power someday combined with my musical power the world will be amazed. This, while he surely knew that his wife was going to pass away soon and that he was far more than just “ill.” He never let on.

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Kim and David walking on trails in Missoula, MT

When David died earlier this month, just a few weeks after his wife, I suspect he went peacefully and with acceptance. For me the grief is still fresh. He often likened me to Luke Skywalker (with his “laser sword”), so it’s fitting to point out that like Obi-Wan Kenobi, he remains all around me, in everyone he mentored and in all the lives he touched. His music is part of my music. His power, his surety in the world, his hope, his sarcasm and humor, is now part of my power. He gave it to me in every thought, every kind word, every hug, every mischievous glint, and yes, every stern admonishment. He was my mentor and I am better for him. That’s what mentors do.

In a matter of hours I will stand in front of a new class on their first day as music majors. For some of them, maybe I will be a mentor. Regardless, I bring them myself and David, and that makes me less sad. These new students very well might start out thinking I’m full of <bleep>, too, and that’s okay. That’s how the cycle works. I will smile and be there for anyone who calls.

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