Sex, Drugs and Classical Music. Blair Tindall

John Robert Brown

'I read the story out loud. The room was quiet. I thought, 'Oh, God, I'm terrible. I can't write at all. I suck!' Finally, somebody said: "You have got to write a book." Blair Tindall is describing a magazine writing class, one of the first that she took as part of a graduate programme in journalism at Stanford University, San Francisco.

Born in 1960, Tindall is an oboist, clearly one of the best, good enough to have performed, toured and recorded with the New York Philharmonic, to have played with the San Francisco Symphony, and played in the pit band on Broadway for Les Miserables and Miss Saigon. But she left New York for Stanford in 2002, putting her instrumental jobs to one side to become - at the time - the oldest journalism student at Stanford by thirteen years. Thus her career as a best-selling author began.

'We were asked to write a thousand words about something that had affected us very deeply,' she says. For her student essay Tindall chose to write about her friend Sam Sanders, a New York pianist who had died a few weeks before she moved. 'I had watched Sam struggle through life without anybody realising what he was going through on a daily basis, making the most exemplary kind of music and being unappreciated, really used. People were there only when he was useful to them. In the final moments, when he was dying, almost nobody was there,' she says. 'So I told this story. I felt free to say anything. I was three thousand miles from New York, with a bunch of people who were much younger than I was, who didn't know anything about classical music, or any of these people.'

After the dramatic impact of her college essay on her fellow students, Blair Tindall did - eventually - go on to write the book. Her Mozart in the Jungle; Sex, Drugs and Classical Music was published last year by Atlantic Books, quickly going into three printings, then paperback. Now, a UK edition is available, with plans for the book to be made into a cable television series for 2007.

Emphatically, this isn't the titillating book that one might expect from the title. Little is written about Mozart, or the jungle. That contemporary book marketing seems to demand that such a powerful and intelligent book be represented by such an attention-grabbing title is unfortunate.

Tindall is clear about what she is really saying, and why she describes it in this way: 'I came out with this kind of timeline of cultural economics in the United States that I had never seen before, and a real understanding of why things unfolded the way they did in the United States, how we funded the arts, and that doing performing arts as a full time profession was something that was extremely new. It wasn't something with centuries of history behind it, as so many Americans think. When I tell them that there was no full-time orchestra in this country until 1964, people are floored. They just cannot believe that. So a lot of the myths of the performing arts as a profession in the United States were built on hopes and dreams, and really good PR.' She suggests that classical music could learn from the diamond companies, which have transformed a relatively common mineral into something precious by limiting its abundance in the marketplace.

'When you look at the facts and figures, all of the people who are educated to do this, and only this, and the number of full-time jobs available, you see that an awful lot of people are going to have to figure out how to be entrepreneurs when they don't have the background to do that. So I wanted to share that hard information. But I wanted people to read it, because that's the sort of book that just wouldn't sell. The people I wanted to reach just wouldn't be interested.'

Tindall started at the top when her first two articles were published in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. 'I told the story using facts. I chose a few characters from my life - there were lots more interesting characters who were not included - to try to illustrate various issues in the arts. Every scene, every person represents something. There's nothing in the book that's just capricious. I tried to make everything have a purpose.'

From the viewpoint of many young musicians, Tindall had an enviable playing life. 'I agree, it was a wonderful career,' she says. 'But it didn't have much of a future. It was a little terrifying to be entering my forties and wondering, 'Where is this going? What am I going to be doing when I'm 60?' So, did she move to California in anticipation of hostile reaction to the book? And why go to Stanford?

'My plan was always to move. I had just one toe left in the music world. All I was doing at the end was Broadway shows. I had bought a condominium in an area I thought would appreciate, and it did. And I've since got a real estate licence. I'm also selling real estate out here. So it became a real interest of mine, after I saw how well you could do, doing that. So it was always my plan to publish the book and leave, because I really don't like living in New York. I love it out here in California, It's a whole new world, and a whole new way of doing business. There's only one way to learn, and that's to close the door on the old thing, get out there and give it a whirl.

'To answer your question - In the New York music world some people were absolutely outraged, but I noticed that those were the people who tended to flip through the book until they found somebody they knew. They didn't read the book cover to cover.

'More people would come to me and say: 'Thank God somebody finally told this story. This explains everything to me. Now I understand why I'm unhappy, or why I couldn't get any further.' A lot of people have been inspired to go back to school, I think, even I if they want to stay in music, to learn ways of being more entrepreneurial, or communicating better. Some people have teaching studios and they reach more people, or have started record labels that they are trying to make profitable, or distribute on line. So there is nobody in the middle. People felt strongly one way or the other. On Amazon, the book is either one star or five stars. 'Linda Tripp', somebody called me. She's the woman who squealed on Monica Lewinsky. I don't think that person read the whole book, and I don't think I was really that harsh on people.

'A lot of musicians were trained to be obedient. We are like a giant dysfunctional family. Like beaten children who are afraid to reveal where they got the black eye. And a lot of people point the finger at me, and ask how I could talk about this stuff. But if you don't want to see a picture of you picking up prostitutes on 10th Avenue, don't pick up prostitutes on 10th Avenue!

'When writing a memoir, you have to be painfully honest about what you did wrong, too. So why did I stay in this thing so long if I was this unhappy? Why did I make these bad decisions? There's a strange draw, that is tied in to the currency of childhood, which is not cash but attention. So, unlike most professions - and this is the same with athletics, figure skating, ballet - you are so rewarded with attention as a child if you're good at this. But as you get older, of course, attention doesn't pay the bills. And you keep wanting to reclaim that feeling. Your whole personality is formed around this. So I think that makes it very difficult for people to leave it behind.'

Blair Tindall's career change would seem also to be a testimony to the general efficacy of journalism courses. She disagrees. 'When young people come to me and say, 'Shall I major in journalism?', I say: 'No!' It's a tool, not a subject. You have to have something to write about. Have a life.'

And does she play or teach now? 'I sold all my instruments when I got out here,' she says. 'Then, on New Year's Eve, because you can claim it for the last tax year, I bought a new oboe. I played it a bit. I'm about to start doing speaking engagements for which I always play the oboe, so I'm starting to practice again. And I'm learning to play the soprano saxophone.

'I teach writing on occasion, but I hate teaching the oboe, because I'm so bad at making reeds, and that's a huge part of it. When it came to actually teaching the music, I really enjoyed that, but getting to the mechanics of it, I'm just not gifted. So I was terrible at helping students with that, and you can't even approach playing until you've got it down.'

The expression 'not gifted' is the wrong description of Blair Tindall. Not only is she an exceptional woman, but also the type of person to whom things happen. For instance, she recently married a well known American TV presenter, Bill Nye the Science Guy. 'I had actually never seen him. I met him on my third day here. By February we had gotten married - or so I thought. Then the whole thing fell apart. The marriage licence came back as invalid. It was devastating at the time, but in retrospect it looks pretty humorous.'

That complicated adventure will be the subject of her next book: 'The Headless Bride; a Hollywood Nocturne.'

An edited version of this article was first published in Classical Music, 25 November 2006. Used by kind permission. Reproduction of any of this page is forbidden.
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