Horning in on the Hardest Path

May 1, 2014

Avery Roth-HawthorneNext week, hornist Avery Roth-Hawthorne will be heard performing on NPR’s prestigious program for young musicians, From The Top. Three weeks ago, he was accepted at Juilliard. Now, for a few days, as the gears of personal history lurch and hesitate, he’s between stops, stuck in the exquisite pleasure of being without obligation or doubt.

It’s one of those sweetspots in a life — in his case, between having developed a great talent and now having to deliver on it. At Juilliard, he’ll be merely one of many unusually talented, young musicians, and, even more than before, subject to the laws of natural selection, laws that have no regard for past success, feelings of entitlement, or fear of life beyond the sanctity of a teacher’s studio.

But right now he doesn’t have to worry about that; the future is perfect and unalterable.

Avery, a senior at the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, has played the French horn since the sixth grade. He was first attracted by the instrument’s shininess. And after looking at it for a long time he decided it was the most “photogenic” instrument.

Gradually, Avery was also won over by the charm of its complexity; the hardest orchestral instrument to play, he was told by his teachers, the one instrument never quite mastered — if any instrument can ever be truly mastered — and perhaps most impressively, the one whose players make the most mistakes in an orchestra.

“The focus you need to make just one note occur is what’s so difficult,” Avery told us.

And his mother, Jackie, added, “The real challenge [is that] the horn demands not only great technical skill but musicality, and that’s what Avery seems to have.”

Going Toward Difficulty

Last weekend, we visited Avery and his mother high in the Oakland hills, off a rollercoaster street in the Montclair district. Coming down the steps winding below a garage to a small bungalow-style house you could hear Avery practicing in the living room. An upright piano stood along a far wall. On other walls, two landscape paintings shared pastoral settings.

Avery is 5’11’’ and 130 pounds, lithe, with a large forehead and the look of a scientist, even a nerd, but with an old-fashioned look as well, a face out of Brideshead Revisited. He has a deeply gentle, introverted quality, which stands in contrast to the way he appears in concerts, where he seems reserved but, above all, confident.

On the middle finger of his left hand he wears a ring, which he got at the Kinhaven music camp in Vermont. He’s gone there for the last three summers and has gradually forced himself out of his seclusion by taking small risks. His first year, he made himself take a daily swim in 50-degree mountain lake water, and during a talent show appeared as the MC dressed up to look like Igor in Young Frankenstein. “People said I looked like Marty Feldman in that movie, so I did it.”

It’s a subtle example of Avery’s willingness to go toward difficulty, in this case toward a physical trait that some people might feel hyper-sensitive about. It’s a willingness he also has when it comes to talking about his father.

Discovering Death

His father, Dwight, or Aidan as Avery called him, was a job counselor, an artist, and an accomplished singer. In 1995, he was diagnosed with Relapsing Polychondritis, an autoimmune disease that later was accompanied by a common form of skin cancer. His illness began even before Avery was born; indeed it was at the very last moment, before he began a regime of powerful medications, that he and Jackie found themselves with a child, their “miracle baby” as they called it.

By the time Avery was in elementary school his father’s condition had worsened. His skin was filled with blotches and sores, and at one point he had to have surgery that disfigured his face. He wore ever more bandages, and Avery remembers feeling embarrassed, which later became a source of nagging regret. But from that he learned to look at people in a new and accepting way.

His father died in 2008, on the day Avery went with the Pacific Boychoir Academy to sing Mahler’s Eighth with the San Francisco Symphony. It was Avery’s introduction to the high church of music and, as an aside, the evening included a mild disaster. At one point, one of the other child choirs missed their cue and didn’t stand on time, which led other groups to miss their cues. Michael Tilson Thomas was furious, gesticulating with no result. Afterward, Kevin Fox, who heads the Pacific Boychoir, said it was probably one of the biggest mistakes the symphony had ever had in a concert.

That night Avery took BART back to Oakland where his mother greeted him with news that his father was dead. Avery had seen him earlier in the day and had hoped that perhaps his father might die while he was there so he could close the curtains properly on that part of his life. But it was not to be.

Images Into Music

His father’s death offered both relief and sorrow for Avery, particularly remembering the many good times they’d spent together in Yosemite. If there was ever a legacy from his father, it was a love of nature, along with vivid memories of those iconic rock formations and waterfalls, and Mirror Lake, which is where his father’s ashes were finally spread.

“From those memories, I have developed an image to focus on while I’m playing, a kind of target.” Avery said, which was a trick his teacher suggested. His teacher, Kevin Rivard, co-principal hornist with the S.F. Opera Orchestra and principal with the S.F. Ballet Orchestra , sometimes uses an image of the sound he’s creating: Avery describes it as a “steel rod encased in velvet.” The rod is strength; by contrast, the velvet is a warm, soft quality.

Avery’s own image is still vague; “something swirling” is all he can say, a horizontal funnel as it were. But for certain pieces of music, he also incorporates images of Yosemite. In his From the Top performance of Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro for Horn and Piano, Op. 70, this is what he’s thinking about as he plays, especially in the beginning of the piece. “The first movement is very calm and that’s why Yosemite fits; it’s that same feeling of peace and calm.”

The Daily Grind

Jackie Roth has always been dazzled by her son’s success. From the very beginning, at six years old, when he could harmonize with no training. When he was chosen “Lead Boy” in his section at the Pacific Boychoir Academy. When he got into the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra; when he became a YoungArts finalist; when got a significant scholarship to attend Kinhaven music camp; when he got the Harvard Prize Book from his English teacher; and of course, when he got an invitation to perform on From the Top along with the $10,000 Jack Kent Cooke scholarship. Not to mention Juilliard and still other, more subtle, recognitions.

Avery was won over by the charm of the horn’s complexity; the hardest orchestral instrument to play, he was told by his teachers, the one instrument never quite mastered.

It’s been quite a ride, although especially grueling in the last year-and-a-half. Jackie counts half-a-dozen serious colds during that period when usually she might have one. There have been stresses at her own job, but more the matter of helping put together all the applications, for competitions, music camp, and 10 colleges (including the Manhattan School of Music, Northwestern, the Eastman, School of Music, the Cleveland Institute of Music, San Francisco Conservatory, the Indiana School of Music, the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Juilliard, Coburn, and Curtiss. Avery got into all except the last two.)

And then there’s the daily crusade: Up at 6 a.m., walk out the door at 6:30, drop Avery off at BART at 7. He gets to SOTA before 8. Pick him up in the late afternoon; walk in the door at 5:30. And then practice and homework, and dinner at some point.

And all the while, the worry about money, and so the need to fundraise among friends and seek scholarships whenever possible.

“I worry about money a lot,” Jackie noted. “My financial advisor said ‘if you don’t get control of your spending, you’re going to be out of money by age 63, and that’s if you don’t pay for college.’”

She glanced at her son. “To become a classical musician is an expensive life.”

She estimated the expense at between $5,000 and $10,000 a year, depending on the cost of camps and his teacher Kevin Rivard, who was charging $90 an hour but agreed to drop the price to $70, but only under the condition that Avery keep a journal with entries for each time he practiced, and that he practice relentlessly.

“There was music in my life growing up, but no one pressed me. There were four kids in our family, and yes, I wish someone had pushed me to find my interests.” — Jackie Roth

Rivard himself went to Juilliard; his teacher was Julie Landsman, former principal horn for the Metropolitan Opera, who will become Avery’s teacher. At the end of a 20-minute assessment last year, she told him, “You sound well beyond your years.”

Juilliard will be a dream come true, but even so a ‘full ride’ would have been better. Living expenses, in Manhattan, come to about $20,000 a year.

A Mother’s Experience

“At some point, does this effort to help your son become more about you?” we asked Jackie — at 51, a striking woman with curly hair and sure eyes. She was a graduate of Cornell Law School who wanted to go into labor relations and eventually wound up teaching first grade at Sequoia Elementary, in the Oakland public school district.

“Interesting,” she replied. “I suppose there’s some of that. I brag about him a lot. And yes, I have pushed him to some degree. But that may have helped him to stick with it. I work hard for Avery and I have considered that my job. But the truth is, I just want him to be happy, and now I kind of feel as though my role is over. I’m really ready for a break.”

The truth is, she is and she isn’t. But in her son’s absence, she will still have her boyfriend, several unrealized dreams of her own, Reggae, a longhaired dachshund mix, and some much cherished solitude. As for the tremendous effort she’s made, she has few regrets.

“I’m the kind of mom who didn’t let him be as independent as some other moms might have done,” she said. “It’s my nature. I didn’t consciously not let him do things, but subconsciously, perhaps I did. It’s what mothers of teenagers do. I didn’t want to see him fail, but I wish now I had let him fail in some little ways. You know, like with homework. In that sense, I made his life hard at home. He had to do his homework; he had to study for tests; he had to practice. I wouldn’t let him just be.”

And how much does she feel as though she’s been living through her son?

“I definitely live vicariously through him. I’m very excited by his life. It could not be more different than my life growing up. He’s going to go to a school like Juilliard; I went to the University of Iowa. He’s been focused on this for years; even in college, I didn’t really know what I wanted to study. He’s lost his father; his parents were divorced. My parents are still together, and they’re in their 80s. I can’t imagine a more different life. He’s had so many more life experiences at this age.”

And she added, “There was music in my life growing up, but no one pressed me. No one pressed me. There were four kids in our family, and yes, I wish someone had pushed me to find my interests. But nobody did. Nobody said, ‘you’re creative, you have something to offer. Go for it.’”

Avery Roth-Hawthorne’s performance on "From The Top" will air during the week of May 5 on most NPR stations. The program was recorded at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

Mark MacNamara (macnamband.com) is a San Francisco-based journalist who has written for such publications as Salon.com, Vanity Fair, The Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Nautilus. In recent months in SFCV, among other pieces, he has written about a music director accused of embezzlement; a profile of conductor Alondra de la Parra; an essay about the controversy over ‘trigger warnings’ for college courses; a report on a strike at the Metropolitan Opera; and a feature about the housing problem for artists in San Francisco.