A Craftsman of Ideas: Jeff Gaynor

Jeff-GHappy Profile Phriday! This week I’m thrilled to introduce you to Jeff Gaynor. Jeff started his collegiate education as a musician, and is now part of an esteemed computer think tank. Here’s his story:

Ok, so let’s start at the beginning. What got you interested in music?

It was the day my brother brought home the album Switched on Bach. I was probably 11 or 12 at the time. It was trendy enough that I’d listen to it in the first place.  The music was something else — I’d never really heard classical music before and I devoured that. Thanks to Wendy (Carlos) for giving me a lifetime source of joy! I played double bass a bit, so I ordered the parts to several of the pieces and got so I could play them along with the record. I tried playing a bass a year or two ago and found that all these years later I had the bass parts note-perfect memorized.  In any case, from there I got everything I could lay my hands on as far as Bach and more generally Baroque Music. I started my own chamber orchestra at 14 or so and started taking keyboard and composition lessons at Wittenberg University with a pupil of Paul Hindemith.

After I got into Indiana University as a bass major, I decided to switch to organ performance. Why? Well, it was less portable than a bass for one thing. Another is that most of Bach’s best writing is for the instrument. I own a nice 3 manual and pedal instrument and still play for myself and friends.

So, you got an undergraduate degree in Organ Performance, and a harpsichord minor. But your Master’s was in mathematics? Tell us about your path from undergraduate studies to graduate school.

There were several factors that converged during this time in my life.

The first had to do with the rigor of the course of study. At one point I started a Masters in Music at IU and one of the first classes I had was Music Theory. Now at this point I’d been happily taking Math classes as my hobby during my Music degree, so I had good exposure to great thinking, solid methodologies and what good theories look like; and frankly, Music Theory is intellectually an embarrassment. Not too long before this, I was accompanying a student of Josef Gingold, the famous violinist. He was a fabulous musician and teacher – one of the best I’ve ever met. He was amused because he had to rush off for a hearing related to someone’s doctorate in violin. He went on to state flatly that he never learned violin in a university and felt odd being at the center point of a degree program. He and the rest of the faculty he was going to meet were awarded honorary titles and such so that the university could make it look like there were academic credentials behind everything and he really did not take that too seriously. Why should he? He was a Musician’s Musician and didn’t need it. This, along with the above incident made me feel less like I was getting an education (which I was in the Math. Dept.) and more like I was being led on.

And that’s half the story. In the early spring of my senior year I re-injured my knee – an ACL tear. I had been working as a church musician for a couple of years by that point. I quit working and started a Master’s in Early Music the next fall, but it was clear that my knee was in dire need of repair. I got disillusioned that first semester and had surgery the next, taking the rest of the year off to ponder. And while that’s a pretty easy surgery these days, when I was having it done it was a pilot surgery and I was in a cast up to my hip. There’s no fitting behind an organ bench with a cast like that!  Fortunately I got some work for a couple of months as a computer programmer too which helped me realize that the Sciences were where I should be.  I actually played my senior organ recital at almost the same time as I earned my Master’s in Mathematics, so I have much less time between my degrees than most, at least on paper.

Wow. So you had a major surgery that forced you off the bench, and had been having second thoughts about the degree. Was it easy to walk away from music at that point?

I missed it at first and felt quite lost. But that ebbed since I knew that a change had to occur.You see I’d already been working as a musician while an undergraduate and that’s when the reality hit: Organists are among the most widely employed and heard (live) musicians around, and the pay is dismal. Holding down a few jobs, teaching and trying to eke out a meager existence is the reality. Also the fact is that musicians are contracted to play music, so generally as a player you don’t get to choose what to play, but are instead obligated to play what people want to hear. (Doesn’t matter how awesome that Boëllmann toccata is, the bride will kill you if you substitute it for her Celine Dion!) So what I observed with others who were working was that they gradually got more jaded and cynical then really slide into just going through the motions. My decision then was simple: I really love Music and decided not to let anything kill it for me.

You then went on to earn a Doctorate from Reprecht Karls Universitaet in Heidelberg, Germany, in pure Mathematics – with honors.

Yes. My specialty was elliptic functions and non-orientable minimal surfaces. (Ed.: I don’t even know what that means…but it sounds super cool!) I’m the only American student the faculty knew that did a complete course of study in Math in the German university system at that time, rather than just a few semesters abroad.

You mentioned feeling disillusioned with the scholarship and intellectual rigor as an undergraduate. Especially taking into account your experience with the German system, can you talk a little more about that?

The main medium of learning for people is cultural — sitting at the elbow of a master and being able to observe the hundred little things s/he does without thinking about them. Books, classes, workshops etc. will ever be a pale second to experiential learning, and this is why we have dismally poorly educated students coming out of schools and I do include colleges in this. There are scandals about football players with college degrees that can’t really read, but I don’t think that a lot of other students are too far ahead of them. So, the point of this paragraph is that people in the arts should be learning as apprentices. This gives them a good feeling of quality.  If you are in some art degree program that doesn’t park you next to a master, you probably are getting half an education. I also found that the rest of the degree was essentially trade school and had very little to suggest it should be treated as an academic subject. Sorry, that is the truth. The greater Truth here though is that if there is no real academic part of Music, why is it at universities? This is more of a cultural item in the US that everyone needs a college degree (at last count about 40% of the population in the US has attended college compared with roughly 10% in Europe.)

Also one of the more important bits of advice I can give from having lived my professional life in and around universities is this: You are being systematically lied to by them. They are not interested in giving you good career advice: universities just exploit the very American idea that education will save us and lead to a better life. Since for many students the price is prohibitive, this means that the whole reality of student life is assuming crushing debt for no sure return. Hortatory nonsense about art for art’s sake or following your heart just masks this (and can be relied upon later to make you devalue yourself since “doing it for the money” is pretty much a sin). Debt will keep you impoverished and you can’t really start living your life well until you pay it off, be that 10, 15 or 20 years. Avoid debt unless there is a clear return. Departments need students to justify their existence, and universities now often approach 50 or 60 administrators per 100 students (was 3 per 100 in the 1960’s). All of these people need lots of students to pay their keep.

Them’s fighting words! The logical next question: how would you reform those very programs?

Administrators are not set up to change this from the inside nor are they capable of understanding the limitations on learning their institutions impose.

A school needs to provide the experience of learning at the elbow of a master. They need to teach strong critical thinking skills and lean on historical information so that students can pull together cultural and historical landmarks. To know when a piece or the performance practice was written simply skims the surface: to put it into a historical context with world events and the culture in which it was created (and that in which it’s being performed) allows the performer to relay the story with a cultural and historical awareness that is more informed, and I’d say much more compelling.

Who were the masters with whom you studied?

In Music I studied with Anthony Newman and later Marilyn Keiser. Newman gave me quite an appreciation of technique and Marilyn I think did more for getting me to just be Musical than anyone else. Can’t thank either of them enough. In Math. probably Dr. Challifour who was a Mathematical Physicist. He wrote up notes for each class every term which amounted to writing a text for each class. This was invaluable in many ways. Also Albrecht Dold, a famous Mathematician who wrote a scary hard book on Topology. I dearly loved his classes since the way he thinks is simple, elegant and profound — often annoyingly so (“NOW WHY DIDN’T I SEE THAT?????”). I really aspire to that still. My advisor, Friedrich Tomi, showed me the value of spare measured prose and how to approach thinking about hard problems. I had arguably one of the better educational experiences ever at Heidelberg. This has allowed me much perspective on education in the US.

Music. Math. What do you do now?

I work as a computer researcher in Cyber-security at the NCSA. This is a very venerable think tank that has, among other things, invented the web browser.

Can you cite anything from your musical background that has pulled through to your current position?

Attention to detail. A Japanese saying “One who has mastered a subject shows it in all they do” applies in spades. Getting good at something requires dedication, discipline and hard work — all of which are in very short supply in this world. You will go far if you have the work ethic of a musician.

I come from a family of craftsmen – master woodworkers, mostly. (You can see some of their handiwork in the rotunda at the University of Virginia) The family name is Critzer (pronounced without the “t”) and the road that runs in front of the old family is still called “Critzer Shop Road”. It was called that because on Sundays it would be packed with buggies waiting to be serviced for the week. You can see the road on the map here.

Doing good quality work was paramount: now that I’m an idea worker, the same principle applies.

I despise people that tell you to follow your heart as a career path, because you will ultimately be providing a service to make a livelihood and will, as I found, lose control of it. Make a split ‘twixt what you love and what you would feel comfy doing as a job. I really enjoy research and where I work, but when I leave at the end of the day, I’m off work. Then I can hop on the organ bench at home and make the cats really fluffy…

What advice would you give to a student struggling with this decision?      

A story about Mozart, his father and sister is in order. When Mozart was younger (around 6) the three of them were travelling and ended up staying in a small monastery. The story goes that they all ate dinner and afterwards the kids, being, well,  kids, snuck into the church there and Mozart started playing — just improvising. The monks heard the Music and gradually come from the rest of the monastery,  then one by one they would walk a few steps into the church then be completely transfixed by the Music and stop in mid step. In this way he managed to turn a whole monastery to stone. That is the effect music should have on people. That is what art ought to do generally. (Famous painting of it is here.)

More to the point, I feel strongly that “Art is the only dignified human undertaking”. By this I mean getting something to work in an organic way, i.e. make doing whatever its own art form. Playing a piece of music slightly out of tune or with poor rhythm is glaring to a musician, most of whom will strive to fix it as a reflex. Apply that type of thinking to everything else and you will never want for a job. The only way you will ever attain this is to throw yourself at something you love and do it as a labor of love.

 Finding the art in every action…words to live by. Thanks for sharing your story, Jeff!

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