Congratulations on surviving another crazy, crazy year! While 2021 has been somewhat more positive than 2020, give yourselves a pat on the back for a job well done! This month, I’m going to feature a different kind of legacy gift – I hope you enjoy the story.
As long-time readers probably recall, each December I try to tell the story of one of the many zany and wonderful people I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know over my career. Usually, they have been some of our clients – for example Anna, The Secret Santa, who figured out how to give her greedy nephews and nieces a lump of coal when she passed away, or Sammy, my client who won the lottery and gave it all away.
This December, I’m going to share the story of someone who instead was an essential part of my life in my early twenties, and who has left me a non-monetary legacy gift that has kept on giving 25 years later.
In the spring of 1996, I was finishing up my undergraduate degree in Music, at what is now known as Western University, in Saxophone Performance. Interested in pursuing graduate studies, I had applied for master’s programs at two universities in the United States – the Eastman School of Music (you might recall my newsletter in the fall on George Eastman, its founder), and the University of Michigan. Both have renowned music schools, with many graduates holding places of high regard in the pantheon of music.
As the days progressed, I heard quickly from Eastman and proceeded to travel down to audition. From Michigan, I heard nothing but radio silence. This became particularly worrisome, as Michigan was where I really wanted to go, as the Professor of Saxophone there was Donald Sinta, who was the rockstar of the saxophone world. He was an incredible player and teacher and had written many of the most important training materials in the history of Saxophone pedagogy. Amongst his students were many of the top players and teachers in the world. I was increasingly nervous that my application may not have been successful.
Then one Monday afternoon, I came back to my apartment to what is to this day, still the most bizarre phone message of my life:
“Hi there. This is Judy calling from the University of Michigan School of Music. If Ryan is…still here, could he please give us a call? We are…hoping…he might be able to come for his audition on Thursday?”
The long pauses before “still here” and “hoping” made me tilt my head to the side and wonder why Judy seemed to be so hesitant. Still, being happy to finally hear back (but vaguely terrified at the really short notice for an audition), I called Judy back.
“Hi Judy, its Ryan Fraser returning your call from Canada.” To which Judy immediately responded with “Oh thank God!”. She then proceeded to muffle the phone, and yell in the background “Hey Everyone, the guy from Canada is alive!”. I then heard a cheer come up from the rest of Judy’s office. I was thrilled that so many people were happy that I was alive, but rather perplexed. Judy went on to tell me that Michigan’s new mailing address label system messed up my Canadian Postal code when it printed the letter with my audition details. When the mail was sent back to their office in Ann Arbor, the post office had ticked off the box for “deceased” instead of “wrong postal code” which were located next to each other. It turns out the recruitment team for Michigan spent a couple weeks debating if it would be OK to call and see the status of my life, before deciding it was most likely an error at the post office!
Three days later after a flurry of activity, I was in Ann Arbor, ready for my audition. I was stoked that I was going to audition in front of one of the true masters of my instrument in the world. As I waited outside Mr. Sinta’s office, the only Doctoral saxophone student (whose name was Kelland) walked past, turned around, and asked me who I was. I explained I was about to audition, and he kindly shared his first meeting with Mr. Sinta, to help me relax.
“Oh he’s great! I first met him when I auditioned as an undergrad here. I’ll never forget it – I played a few bars of the Ibert Concerto, and he stopped me about 8 bars in. He looked at me and said, ‘Do you like movies kid?’ I said ‘Sure!’ He said, ‘How about Harrison Ford, ever watch any Harrison Ford?’ I said I loved Harrison Ford. Then Mr. Sinta said ‘Indiana Jones, great movies great movies!’ I nodded yes. ’Remember that scene in the first one? Where everyone’s faces melted, and their eyeballs exploded? Your tone reminds me of that!’”
Right at that very moment Mr. Sinta’s door opens, all 6’4 of him leans out into the hall and says, “You here for an audition?”
Timing is everything in music. I don’t know what the next part of Kelland’s story was going to be, but so far, it had only made my nerves much worse. When I introduced myself to Mr. Sinta, he stopped mid-handshake and said:
“Wait a minute, you’re the dead guy – I’ve never had anyone come back from the dead to audition with me before, that’s pretty impressive! Did you know I was dead once too?”
I kid you not, he had a similar story, where rumours of his demise spread around the music world. People started calling him from around the world to see if he was still alive. We laughed and bonded in that moment, and my nerves settled right down. He was a warm, kind and funny person, and clearly a terrific teacher.
That audition was one of the greatest experiences of my life, despite its rocky start. Mr. Sinta immediately assessed my nerves and went out of his way to calm me down. He told me that his cardinal rule is that any student he took on (and he took very few graduate students), had to have an interest beyond just music or the saxophone, and most importantly, have an area of knowledge that he could learn from, because in his words “Learning is a two-way street”.
Speaking of streets, after my audition, he invited me to come with him to the school’s concerto competition. We took a drive to Hill auditorium in his tiny car, travelling at a breakneck speed that left me with few nerves left by the time I arrived. When we got there, he introduced me to the judges, who were many of the most well-known composers and performers in the United States. It was an incredible afternoon, and the performers were all amazing.
I was hooked.
Months later, I found myself at Michigan as a master’s student in music, humbled by the talent around me. Kelland, whom I had met, turned out to be perhaps the finest saxophonist in the world at the time. The other master’s student had recorded his first album mid-way through his undergraduate degree. A student in first year of her undergrad was probably better than I was. It was an incredible group of students. Moreso, however, due to Mr. Sinta’s insistence on his students having more than just music in their lives, many of the students were working on multiple degrees simultaneously. One was doing a triple degree in Music, Engineering and American Art History. Another 4th year undergrad had done both an astronomy degree and a music degree and was applying to the University of Hawaii to hopefully work towards a PhD in astrophysics. As you can imagine, the conversations amongst the group of us were wide ranging and fascinating. None of us were interested in just one thing…we were interested in everything.
Mr. Sinta was an incredible teacher with a rare skill to adapt himself like a chameleon to the needs of whomever he was working with. If you had an ego, he would take it apart and humble you, as he had to my friend Kelland in his younger days. If you needed a lift of self-confidence – then he’d do that for you just as easily. Inevitably, he was able to deconstruct the exact needs of each of his students and teach them in the fashion that was correct for them. My time with him filled with many hilarious moments, and many, many learning experiences. It was clear I was studying with one of the greatest masters of all time on the instrument – but most of all, a master of humanity.
Mr. Sinta commanded a level of respect from everyone who interacted with him, not because of his ego – but because he was a genuine and remarkable person, who held everyone to the same high standards he held himself. His record American Music for Saxophone in 1965 is widely considered a masterpiece and perfect in almost every way. I once asked him why he had so few solo albums, and he told me that on one note on the album, he used a bad fingering and every time he played the recording, he can hear his slide from B-natural to B-flat and it drove him nuts. I’ve listened to the recording hundreds of times, and I can’t hear it. I’ve never been sure if that should have made me depressed, awed or both!
Like any great teacher, he held us to the highest standard, but was prepared to be with us every step of the way, so long as we aspired to the same standard. If we put in the work, he would put it into us. In one memorable conversation on teaching and pedagogy, he explained to me that he felt his role as a pedagogue was to “see my student’s brains as a hard disk, and fill those disks with a zip-file that will slowly decompress throughout their lifetime.”
I can vouch for the accuracy of that statement. It’s been a quarter century since our time together, and I’ve only seen him once or twice since. Yet, at least once a week, I find myself to think back to something Mr. Sinta and I discussed in my lessons. He is a permanent resident in my brain and I’m still learning from his wisdom. Perhaps the most amazing part is that so much of what he taught all of us were transferrable to many other aspects of life, not just the saxophone, which is why they are so valuable to me today so many years later.
A year later (I crammed a 2 year degree into a year due to a rapidly plummeting Canadian dollar), with degree in hand, I quickly learned that having studied with him opened many doors, and found myself hired in days at both the University Windsor and Western University teaching saxophone, where I remained until retraining as a Financial Planner six years later. The financial environment for both music and education changed dramatically in the late 1990s with massive cuts to funding in Ontario at the time. I saw the writing on the wall and realized the wisdom of Mr. Sinta’s insistence on multiple skills – and put my business and finance knowledge to work retraining as a financial planner.
It was a hard decision, but with my wife being a primary school teacher as well, it was clear to us that one of us would likely need to switch careers in order to “diversify” our job stability at a difficult time for both of our fields of employment.
Fortunately, the confluence of events that led me to become a financial planner, pushed me into a field that brings me as much joy as saxophone did and has allowed me to create an even greater impact over the years than my career in music.
Thinking about legacy
Mr. Sinta’s legacy is massive, for both me and many others. While he has taught many students, almost all of them have gone onto immense success in music and many, many other fields. Beyond this though, I know that many of us have found his impact has been far beyond just our musical upbringing – the attitude and inquisitive approach to life he showed us has become a daily part of our lives.
So many of us who studied with him had the opportunity to train others in a similar vein. Many of my former students are now professors and teachers themselves, and just as many have gone on to careers in many different areas including comedy, accounting, and the military amongst others. Several have far surpassed where I was when I switched careers and have dedicated their careers to being wonderful educators and performers.
As someone who spends a lot of time writing and talking about legacy, I think there are some profound things we can learn from my time studying with Mr. Sinta. While I often talk about legacy in terms of money and charity, he is a constant reminder to me that our impact often is most profound when it comes to how we inspire others and lead our lives. In the two decades since we last met, he continues to be a profound influence on the way I see and interact with the world, despite being in a completely different field, and despite having lost touch.
We should all strive to be such a remarkable person. At the end of the day, it won’t be our money, our gifts to charity, or the size of our estate that makes the biggest difference – instead, it will be the “lifeprints” we leave on the people around us that truly will define the world long after we are gone.
Happy holidays to you and your family from all of us at Quiet Legacy. If there is ever a time of year where we should all be thinking about all aspects of our legacy, this is it. I hope you take a few moments this December to honour the people who have impacted your life – and think about your own legacy and how you can inspire others.
All the best,
PS – In case you are interested, Mr. Sinta’s “American Music for Saxophone” album has recently become available on YouTube thanks to Naxos Music. Take a listen to him play one of my favourite, hauntingly beautiful pieces of saxophone music here: Saxophone Sonata, Op. 19: II. With tranquility – YouTube
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