F minus

Perception And Expectation

As always, it was a simple matter of perception. Conflicting ideas about a thing or a person often ends up just muddying the waters. For instance, is it possible for a good person to do a bad thing? Of course it is. Then how is that person perceived by all those who didn’t know about the bad thing, or by those who only knew the bad thing? Quite different, naturally. And what about those who know both sides of that person? Often muddled, right?

Yet nearly all of us “good folk” have done a bad thing or two. How are we perceived? I have to guess at this one, knowing only my personal experiences in this area. Some have overlooked my bad and kept me as a friend. Some have forgiven me but no longer trust me. Some have moved away from me like the plague, without my ever knowing why. And I suppose, to a large degree, I treat others mostly the same.

The “perception thing” continues to fascinate me. It can be so wildly different from person to person, from event to event… six people can witness an event and five of them will perceive it somewhat differently. Our personal feelings always come into play… what we wish would have happened, what is disappointing about what happened, what is surprising about what happened, how “what happened” affects us on a personal level. Our expectations are often responsible for how we perceive things, or even remember them. And on that note, I have an illustration for you on this matter.

Case in point, I spent 4 years at the Berklee College of Music in the middle ’60’s. Back then it was a primo jazz school, with great professors, of whom nearly all had much playing experience and had already made names for themselves in the music biz. Herb Pomeroy, Ray Santisi, Charlie Mariano, Phil Wilson, John LaPorta, Alan Dawson… Ted Pease, my theory and ensemble teacher, would have been also. He was/probably still is, a terrific drummer and composer. Ted, unlike the others, was much younger, recently married, and I believe, with kids on the way. He chose to teach at Berklee rather than go out on the road and make a name for himself, which he could have done. I would guess his family knows that, and appreciates him for it.

I’m sure these professors chatted with each other from time to time about their classes, their students, what disappointed them and what was rewarding. As I recall, they didn’t bother knowing much about us individually in the first year, as over half the students dropped out in that year, mostly because the homework load was horrific, or because they quickly realized they were never going to be competitive players or composers, as they were suddenly thrust side by side with some of the best in the business. Comparison can be a bitch! Keith Jarret was there at the time, Tony Williams had a cup of coffee there, Alan Broadbent was there, and Ernie Watts showed up in my sophomore year and blew everyone away. So you see, it wasn’t hard to make an instant comparison and decide, “Holy shit, these dudes are serious! Think I’ll pick a different line of work…”

I stuck it out, partly because music was the only thing I knew, and largely because the school, and its high-quality teachers, lit a huge fire within me. I became known as “that kid from Montana,” a fairly bad piano player, but always got his homework done. As an arranging major, I got all the good theory, ear training and composition courses, which ultimately gave me my career. It wasn’t until the middle of my junior year that I began to be noticed by my professors for something other than an occasional smart ass who smoked too much. In an arranging class taught by Herb Pomeroy, the assignment was to reproduce (write out) 16 bars of a big band arrangement that was recorded by someone Herbie would recognize… an exercise designed to show Herbie how we were hearing chord voicings and instrument texture, and how closely our ears were able to reproduce those elements.

 

Herbie



I picked a 16-bar phrase from the Quincy Jones tune, Robot Portrait, to reproduce. It was the most difficult section of the piece, but I loved it and thought that by writing it out I might learn a few of Quincy’s secrets… which I did. The cool thing was, though, that when Herbie reviewed it, he liked it and told me so while giving me a good grade on it. “Not bad, Stevie… sometimes you surprise me!” Which was high praise from Herbie, who could often be humorous and sarcastic in the same breath.

Two months later I did an arrangement on another of my then-favorite tunes, “My Ship” and was able to get it played by Charlie Mariano’s rehearsal band. Through the whole song Charlie sat on a folding chair over to the side of the band, not looking up, not conducting. I was watching him like a hawk, being nervous about exposing my questionable arranging talents to a man who had played in many famous big bands. Can’t tell you for sure how I knew, but by halfway through I knew he liked the song, and was digging what I’d done with it. His shoulders relaxed and he shook his head a few times, in time with the music. It seemed that he had gotten way past the song and the arrangement, and was remembering some past time in his life. When it ended, he looked up at me and quietly said, “Yeah.” And that was enough for me.

Soon after I was invited to be the pianist for Phil Wilson’s trombone ensemble, which I did for awhile. It seemed at the time that my stock had finally risen a bit. Then, in my senior year, I took Herbie’s “Duke Writing” class, a study on Duke Ellington’s line writing technique, in which much was made of dissonance in chordal note relationships, along with the idea of parallel melodic lines working together to form a somewhat dissonant (but very entertaining and challenging) chordal structure that constantly moved, ebbed and flowed. Herbie loved Duke Ellington and knew the technique forward and backward. From the beginning I didn’t quite get it, and my attempts to reproduce the technique were lame at best. I learned right then that I was basically a tonal cat whose comfort level was closer to Les Brown than it was to The Duke. I was okay with that, but Herbie wasn’t. Somewhere along the way he had come to expect a little more from me, and when I didn’t deliver in his favorite class, he was naturally disappointed in me. There’s that perception thing again, fueled by unfulfilled expectation.

I turned in a homework paper one day, he looked at it, then up at me and said, “You’re not getting this, Mr. Hulse,” and handed it back to me with a big red F- at the top. And from that moment until the day I left school he called me “F Minus.”

In hindsight, did that ultimately help me in any way? I have no clue. Did it hurt? Oh hell yes! I loved Herbie and it killed me that he was so disappointed. Probably he had come to believe I was better than I actually was, and that I had let him down in his favorite class. Perhaps he might have secretly thought that he had failed me… Herbie was like that. I think, however, that at the end of that class I had decided that I had gotten all I could out of Berklee, and that I needed to step out into the real world with all I had learned and processed, and try to make a go of it from there. To Berklee’s credit, it still had much more to give musically, but I had obviously hit the wall with what I was able to understand. And that was that.

I finished school, all my senior assignments, and would have graduated but for my inability to read music and play the classical selections in my piano jury. It didn’t matter… I was playing 5 nights a week at Mother’s Lounge in Boston’s Back Bay, with a singer (Jimmy Helms) who would soon have us down in New York, auditioning for big TV shows, and a Broadway road show. Exciting times, great learning experiences and enough early success to convince me that Berklee had, indeed, sent me out into the world well-prepared for the challenges ahead. That has to speak incredibly well for Berklee, who had turned out yet another successful musician, whom it had dubbed, “F Minus.”

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Perception and expectation. Much potential there for a tangled web. For as the saying goes, “perception is reality.” By definition that would imply that each of our realities is somewhat different from everyone else’s. One has to wonder if perception might be closer to reality if we could remove expectations from this equation… or even better, if we could remove our belief system along with expectations! Now we might be getting closer to “the real” reality. I can almost hear some of you saying, “Okay, sure. But that would take all the fun out of it!” “It” being our day-to-day interactions with each other. Well, yeah, I guess maybe it would take some of the fun out of it all. But it’s moot, because we each have a belief system in place that began (the smart folk tell us) as early as when we first began to talk, and are somewhat ingrained into our personalities by the time we hit grade school.

Time to put a lid on this muddled mess, right? So I’m a good person who did a bad thing, and was perceived as an F-. Since I have a somewhat moveable belief system in place, I choose to believe that the F- moniker was meant to embarrass, perhaps, but more probably to motivate. And because I perceive the professor to be a kind and decent person, knowing me and knowing my expectations for myself, his criticism was designed to move me toward reaching for success in elements that were difficult for me to grasp.

There. Not a bad use of perceptions and expectations. I do, however, expect that my perception of this path of logic will change from time to time… maybe as soon as tomorrow. Who knows?

Steve Hulse