Spotlight On Alumni: Adam Tully
I have followed Adam’s post Oberlin career with great interest. His embrace of tango as his primary creative medium led to his invitation to play with his group at my 2005 Oberlin GFA Convention. I received his new CD with delight: it is a gorgeous and inspiring recording. Moving, interesting, virtuosic and compelling throughout. I am happy to present here his story, so far, as he presented it to me: in his own words. To my delight and to the obvious advantage of other young musicians, Adam includes a list of key pieces of advice for aspiring musicians. Thank you Adam for sharing this indelible recollection and thoughtful assessment of a life in music.
Adam Tully writes:
From Oberlin to Buenos Aires
[When Steve Aron invited me to write an article about my experience after Oberlin, I was in the middle of a big life change. After 20 years in New York City I was sitting surrounded by boxes that I was about to ship to Buenos Aires, where I was moving permanently. I think I answered him: “How about I move and then write something once I’m settled?” Two years later, feeling almost settled, I am sitting down to write.]
I suppose this story is about following a dream. More accurately it’s about slowly uncovering a dream, patiently and persistently chipping away at life’s calling like a sculptor at a block of stone. I don’t know if when I started I could see the final sculpture or if the idea revealed itself over time. That distinction doesn’t matter; what always mattered was the chipping away, and the belief in the final product that would someday be visible.
This was not the first time that I dropped everything and moved to Buenos Aires. The first time was in 1995, when I was in my second year at Oberlin, a student of Stephen Aron. My early years of Spanish guitar happened in intense phases: from my first teacher in Washington, D.C., John Rodgers, to my first flamenco teacher Paco de Málaga (which led to a fascinating detour), to my acceptance at Oberlin a couple of years later. There I found myself thrown into the daunting, intimidating world of conservatory musicians, those apparently native-born virtuosi who seemed to live and breathe music with a nonchalance that the rest of us apply to brushing our teeth. I wanted the experience to make me great, but I also had a number of yearnings to satisfy: I thought I would design my own flamenco major, I wished I could play jazz, and deep inside knew I wanted to compose.
And then I went to Buenos Aires, discovered tango music and tango guitar, and, after six months, returned to the States. I had now discovered a different culture and a type of music that really seemed to speak to me. Added to what was already churning around inside, I felt like a ball of musical confusion. In retrospect I know this was a good thing, perhaps the best thing possible. At the time it wasn’t easy to reconcile all of my longings, and after another semester I decided conservatory and college were not the plan, at least for the time being.
These were my initial fits and starts as an artist. The elements that eventually came together to form my musical personality were all there…only they existed in raw form, bouncing around the walls of my ribcage. The first five years of classical guitar had taught me a handful of important lessons: I had made the first step on the instrument and learned the importance of the practice room and the routine of repertoire, lessons, and performances. I also learned that I was being called by some deep inner voice, by what I now call ‘the universe of the Spanish guitar.’ Finally, I knew that I loved to play by ear. I grew up with classical music (piano and cello lessons, church choir) and switched to the guitar as a teenager in order to play rock and roll. My first contact with guitar was playing with friends, self-taught, figuring out songs off of records, all of which felt good and natural. Today, 24 years later, those ingredients remain. I am the same musician I had become as a teenager. There is only one simple difference: I’ve spent more time chipping away at the stone.
Here’s a snapshot of my current life: I live in Buenos Aires, the birthplace of tango, a genre which is two decades into a new, unprecedented creative boom: new groups, new styles, new composers, a blossoming pedagogical movement, and a vibrant live music scene. Tango guitar has its own specific history and context, and I live in the most tango-guitarist-blessed location on earth. I play in several guitar groups and host a radio segment on the main tango radio station where I interview and assemble groups of guitarists to play spontaneously on the air. I lead a trio that plays my own compositions, which sound like traditional tango with my own personal stamp. I teach tango guitar lessons (in person and online). I’ve even started to rack up a win or two in the career column: a grant, an album on a respected label, a tour of Japan and a festival appearance. For the first time in my life (I’m in my early 40’s) I’m checking off dreams that for decades seemed unattainable…chip, chip, chip.
It’s easy to see now that my ‘ball of confusion’ at age 20 was really the shape of the person I was meant to be, the person I already was, hiding inside that unformed block of sculptor’s stone. The material was all there: classical formation, a desire to play music by ear, the musical and spiritual call of the Spanish guitar universe, and the need to create my own, new, original music.
Each of these items has remained throughout my life’s work: tango music contains the most perfect blend of ‘classical’ and ‘popular’ tendencies I’ve ever encountered. It’s created and executed with a slew of European elements, from the musical language to the complexity of orchestration to the historical use of strings, pianos and the bandoneón. At the same time, it’s completely and unmistakably Latin, with the classic mix of African and Spanish elements. It has dance roots, lower class roots, popular (i.e. play-it-by ear) roots. If you can’t figure out the way it grooves, you won’t really be able to play it. Tango, and tango on guitars, contains an entire world of Spanish musical language and soul. My years studying flamenco, and studying Albéniz, prepared me for this in a way that was invaluable for a North American of Protestant cultural heritage who was approaching Latin music.
Finally, there was the composer within me. I knew back in 1995 that I wanted to be like Charles Mingus, a composer who played his own music, rooted in a strong tradition, but also equipped with a strong personality that yearned to innovate and to make something unique. For me, this was the piece that took the longest to emerge. After years of learning tango (the musical language, the repertoire, the history) I felt ready, and felt the need, to develop my own voice and create music.
That’s my best summary of the journey of 20-plus years, with the conclusions I’ve drawn today. To fill out every detail would be tedious, but in case you have the impression that my development was linear and obvious, I would like to prove otherwise. My experience has been meandering and drawn out, a long plateau (something to celebrate, I have come to learn). There is a very, very long list, and throughout most of it I had little sense of cohesion or progress. With that in mind, here is a rough timeline
1996. I move to San Francisco with two goals: to play guitar and speak Spanish. I end up living and performing in an underground Latin American cultural center run by a Chilean communist. I expand my interest in Latin American music, absorbing Argentinian folk music, Mexican, Peruvian, and Cuban music. I go to Cuba for a couple of months, a hurricane hits Havana, my parents freak out.
1997. I move to New York City and spend the next three years finishing college at NYU, studying Latin American literature as well as classical and flamenco guitar with Dennis Koster. I delve into Cuban music.
2001. I happen onto the NYC tango scene, form my first tango group, and it fast becomes clear that I have found my musical medium. I would spend the next 15 years toiling away on this small but very interesting music scene.
For the next 15 years, in addition to becoming a tango musician I: bounced between day jobs and music jobs, completed a Master’s at Mannes College of Music with Fred Hand, worked as a wedding DJ, taught guitar at high school, taught guitar at a police college, amassed debt, got a job in the music industry and followed that career path for eight years, all the while playing steady gigs, studied composition with Fernando Otero, experienced the death of a close friend and brilliant tango musician Octavio Brunetti, my same age, got involved with a group of pioneering tango teachers based in Buenos Aires (Tango Sin Fin), began traveling to Buenos Aires more often, eventually met the woman of my dreams here. And then…enough of life seemed to fall into place that I felt, for the first time…that things were working out.
The big things did eventually come together: I found the musical genre, the scene, and the context that allow me to the creative work that I need to do. Not to romanticize it: being a musician here is hard. Being a musician anywhere is hard. In case it sounds like it all happened to me, like a big stroke of luck, here are some thoughts for those of you who are starting your journey, or are somewhere in the middle, that vast expanse of waiting and wondering. These are thoughts that I think would have been encouraging for my 21-year-old self:
1. Do the things you love.
This is an extremely simple maxim. Perhaps it’s complicated in practice, but you can make it your guiding principle. Choose the things you want to do and bring them into your life. Fill your life with them. Pursue the things you are crazy about. When it comes to your musical life —and your life in general— try to bring in the things you want, and, easier said than done, remove the ones you don’t.
2. Work hard. Really hard.
Another simple maxim, but it needs to be stated and repeated. There is a very unglamorous side to genius, and it’s called sweat. No one recorded an album or painted a painting, especially a good one, without putting in the hours. Study after study of concepts like ‘talent’ and ‘genius’ arrive at this conclusion. The good news is that you’re filling your life with the things you want, so putting in hours and hours is a joyful thing. George Leonard described this so simply and perfectly in his book Mastery, in which he uses his experience with aikido to illustrate the long, arduous process of becoming really good at something. In aikido you have to keep coming back to the mat. So, pick the things you love and then keep returning to them, keep working at them. This daily practice, more than any moment of glory, is your life. If you choose to fill it with the things you love, then it’s a great life.
3. Make opportunities.
In the age of information, social media, and self-production, this concept is constantly hammered over our heads, but it’s still a good one. In fact, I’m convinced that it was an essential concept in the pre-internet age, and likely in the Baroque and in the beginning of time. No one really gets ‘discovered’ and no one ever did get discovered, at least not as a cosmic, isolated event. By the time someone finds you and decides to open a door for you, you have to have already done the work: created the thing, honed it, packaged it, produced it, submitted it, put it out there. The tools have changed, but not the work. If you can’t get a gig, you have to invent the gig, and then play it. Believe me, we’ve all been there, and yes, it builds character.
4. Be patient.
Your plan is to devote your life to this, right? Good. You can exhale and relax. This is a marathon. If Segovia, Nina Simone or Jonas Salk decided to throw in the towel the first time someone said ‘no,’ the world would be a different, sadder, more limited place. No one, absolutely no one, figured it out on the first try. Most of them probably took somewhere between 500 and 500,000 tries before things started moving. Failure, you may have heard, is a great teacher. True — if your response is to get back up and keep trying.
5. Role models are nice, but the perfect fit isn’t out there.
I had a hard time with this one. We humans compare ourselves to others. We also want things to add up neatly and make sense. It’s very easy to say, “If I do what that person did, then things should work out.” What we fail to see is that ‘that person’ did their thing in another era, or in another medium, or with a different set of circumstances. And that person was . . . a different person! The perfect comparison isn’t out there, and if you try taking one example and molding your life to it, you’re likely to be disappointed. The good news is that comparison doesn’t work because it’s your life, and your life has the natural tendency to be original. Take inspiration from your hero, of course…even create a pantheon of heroes, teachers, and superstars. But rather than trying to be one of them, find which aspect of each speaks to you. You are in the process of creating your own superstar, and believe it or not, the some of the folks in your pantheon will someday end up being your mutual admirers!
6. Material stability isn’t always there. Find stability in your vocation.
I remember a particular low point in my personal financial life, and I remember at the same moment having a very deep feeling of being grounded. I realized I was finding spiritual stability in my vocation. I said to myself: “I was put on this earth to make music.” And I felt and believed it deeply. I still do. But being spiritually grounded is not a fix for money problems. You have to work on those separately and as with many things, there are no easy answers. Your calling can be your centering force, a supplier of great strength.
7. Work on you, and the strange, original mix of pursuits that entails.
In the course of your life as an artist you may feel that you fit a mold (orchestral violinist, straight-ahead jazz pianist, etc.) or you may find you don’t really fit any mold. In most cases we tend, even if slightly, toward the second option. It’s my belief that the artists we most admire became memorable, and did memorable things, because they nourished their own eccentric mix of attributes. You don’t have to overthink this, or go out of your way to be weird (which will likely read as inauthentic), but simply follow your own tendencies. Joshua Homme says (and I paraphrase) that he set out to make “my favorite music I’d never heard.” Your bio is made up of things that you do, things that you choose to do. Going back to my first thought: choose the things you love.
8. You will spend many years trying to reconcile artistic concerns with professional ones. It’s OK. Try to avoid being jaded.
Art and commerce are very often at odds. Donald Passman, in Everything You Need To Know About The Music Business, describes how creativity and financial concerns are “eternally locked in a Vulcan death match.” This doesn’t go away, and you know what? It’s OK. The sooner stop trying to solve the enigma, the better. I’m not saying you should give up, and I’m not saying you should let money win. What I’m saying is that that these two forces are often at odds, just like the sky is blue. When I first starting working in the music industry I noticed that within the company where I worked (an agency that collected royalties on sales of sound recordings) that my value system (music that I thought was good) was often not aligned with the company value system (music with high sales numbers). This may sound simple or obvious, but it was a great revelation. The two value systems weren’t perfect opposites, they simply were separate. In fact, each one was perfectly valid. Some music is good and commercially successful, and some music is good and commercially much less significant. What was liberating was being able to decouple the two. I believe that much of the resentment that builds up in artists has to do with the art/money dynamic and the inability to separate the two. An artist may be denied a professional opportunity based on commercial criteria. To interpret the denial as a verdict on the artistic merit is understandable, but wrong! And avoidable! Try to avoid this fallacy and other paths that lead to being jaded. I believe that if you make it to 40 without being jaded, you win. *
9. As you work on your art, your life as a human being will also be happening.
A lot has been said about life and art: which imitates which, and which affects which. What I’ll say is that there is no difference between you the person and you the musician. At the beginning of my career I was protective and defensive. I felt the odds were against me and that the world wasn’t set up for me to succeed doing what I wanted. This is perhaps typical for a young artist, and it may serve a certain purpose, for a limited amount of time. When it burns away, however, it’s replaced by the realization that you can live a full life, you can be a human being and you can still live your passionate life — filled by holing yourself up in a practice room, a recording studio, a composer’s desk, or a jazz club, as the case may be. No one promises it will be a ‘standard’ life, but if you love what you do, it can be a beautiful one. The same goes for the people that accompany and surround you, friends and partners. If they accept your non-standard life in all of its colors (passion, struggle, commitment, obsession, labor, beauty) then things are able to be as they are meant to be, and you can live your life to its fullest.
*A note about points 1 and 8: at some point you may struggle with the following dilemma: do I try to make my living playing music or do I make a living elsewhere in order to keep my music pure? There is a balance to be struck here, with an entire spectrum of possibilities. I’ve found myself on various points on this spectrum, and, again, there’s no easy answer. I know musicians who are true artists who fall in various places along the spectrum. I also know musicians, true musicians, who are content with a certain amount of work that is not ‘artistic.’ There is no easy answer, but by trying and trying again, you can hope to reach a balance that works for you.
. . .
I hope those thoughts will be of use to the artist who is at the beginning, or the long middle of the journey. I came upon them, or they came upon me, at different points and they continue to provide me with reinforcement. It took me years to get to where I am, and in case that sentence sounds as if I’ve ‘made it’ I will clarify: I feel as if I’m just beginning. Letting go of the need to ‘make it’ gives us the freedom to make progress and do the beautiful work we are meant to do. That work eventually bears fruit, and we are fulfilled.
In 2017, after 15 years as a professional tango musician, I released my first album as a composer/bandleader. That was the amount of time I needed to create what I created. I decided to call the album ‘La Llegada’ which means The Arrival.’ For me, an arrival is not the same as ‘making it.’ Arriving is beginning. We move forward, the vast horizon always there, and with the foundation of our practice, we are poised to keep pursuing it, chipping away…chip, chip, chip.
Thank you for your story, Adam, and I wish you every success as you continue to chip away at the project of the musical life!