David Chafe's Professional Website
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Summertime, and the living is interesting.

June 16, 2014

Here in St. John’s, 2014 isn’t going to stand out as our finest year for weather. A bounty of snow well into April, followed by a Spring of chilly temperatures, rain, drizzle, fog, with the occasional shock of sunshine. But not one moment of it has bothered me, except for people who complain about it. At the end of the day, there are two things we have absolutely no control over: The weather and when we die. Mind you, I have been trying to take hold of the latter by doing something I once thought laughable - going to the gym several hours each week. I’ve paired that not with slowing down and sniffing the dandelions, but instead heaping more work than ever on top of myself. Now why on earth at my age would I push my mental and physical endurance to the point of nearly bursting? Well here’s the thing… I’ve never… ever… been happier and more relaxed in my life, in spite of this shitty weather.

Yes, I explore the depth and breadth of profanity when feeling on the verge of a near-death experience at the gym… or at the piano. But I’ve finally learned to recognize those moments of frustration and angst as little bits that contribute to the shape of something much larger. Call it my midde age (though, I’m pretty much at the point where I’m not at the middle of anything anymore… on that slippery slope towards being just plain old)… But I’ve somehow managed to figure out how to fashion fits of torment into experiences that fit the big picture. How I came to arrive at that earth-shattering realization isn’t exactly mystical. I started listening to people. In a really big way. Here’s a few instances which I think have helped me realize that playing a wrong note in a performance doesn’t matter as much as the overall musical experience, and in fact might even contribute to a stronger performance, oddly enough.

I happen to be in the middle of a lengthy and fascinating process in my PhD program where I’m interviewing a steady parade of musicians about their work experiences. Just when I thought I knew all there is to know about the music profession, I really have known only my own tiny little world all along. Simply by listening to people, I’ve learned more about the world beyond the end of my nose over the past one month than I have over the past fifteen years of worrying about myself. That outcome alone has been shocking and refreshing. I can hardly wait to have my dissertation completed so that I can have a document that clearly shows what it’s like to be a musician in St. John’s… and based on other people’s experiences, not mine.

Next week, I’m recording an album with a trombone friend and colleague, Stephen Ivany, who’s about half my age yet teaching me more about collaboration, patience, perspective, and music than I’ve experienced in years. Funny thing about that - We have been talking for a year about recording but wouldn’t have been able to manage it without funding… which I didn’t think was going to happen. So there I was, plugging away at a solo piano recital program all year, planning to record a solo album, driving myself cracked in the process because all I had was myself to listen to (and talk to sometimes, but that’s another story). Then, lo and behold, Stephen and I got some funding to record. As a result, my solo work is sidelined until sometime later, and will be stronger because of this bit of teamwork currently underway which is pushing my piano-playing to new outer limits.

Here’s my favourite one…
My fitness trainer at the gym is a young woman who emigrated to here from Thailand. She too is half my age, and literally about a foot shorter than I. She could snap me in half like a twig if she wanted… but that’s beside the point. The thing is, I’m not going there to get all bulked up. I’d look ridiculous if I did. I just was at a point in my life where I wanted and needed someone to kick me in the ass on a regular basis and make me do things without complaining (much) and think about everything more sensibly. In the ten months I’ve been working with her on my physical endurance, my mental endurance and general outlook have also improved drastically. She never yells (at least not at me). She’s this zen-like person who quietly tells me to do however many more repetitions of whatever routine I’m doing. When I started trying to lift heavy things, analagous to how I used to manage life’s little weights, I would hold my breath and grip with all my might and had a very narrow focus on my body and mind. She turned that on its end by telling me to breathe (what a concept), keep my chest out, head high, back strong and tight, and move slowly. In very small increments, over a slow process, I have become able to do increasingly more in shorter periods of time and I’m sweating less. Do I really need to draw a line from that advice to a life lesson? I don’t think so.

Okay, so I did catch myself a couple of nights ago feeling down in the dumps about what I felt wasn’t a solid performance. But I am doing today what I wouldn’t have thought to do even a year ago. Channelling that energy into making more music, not less, and doing it better.

I hope you don’t think I’m saying that the only way to manage life’s little stresses more patiently is to do a PhD and hit the gym. All I’m saying is that… no matter how you do it… by ripping off the blinders and seeing “problems” in the context of place, time and other people… and by really paying close attention to those other people… “problems” all feel much, much smaller and get re-labelled as “experiences.” Especially if you breathe normally and move at your own pace.
And don’t forget to keep your chest out, even if people look at your strangely.

piano keys

What goes around…

October 2, 2012

I used to be scared to death to go to class a few decades ago when I was an aimless university student. I knew I wasn’t exactly submitting works worthy of publication, mind you. I wasn’t interested in my courses, so I never applied myself. I’d hand in papers knowing I was doomed. But I was still sickened on those days when I’d get them back, even though I knew what to expect. I was usually right in my predictions.

A couple of weeks ago, I submitted my first essay in eight years. The last one before that was as a masters student, before a full-fledged career and heavy teaching and performance commitments outside of school. Nevertheless, I figured I’m older and wiser now. I’ve been around the block a couple of hundred times. I’m a master of time management (so I thought). I know how to write well and impress my professor. The next class after my nine classmates and I submitted our papers, the professor spent an entire session lasting nearly three hours deconstructing each paper in front of everyone, critiquing us on everything from content to punctuation. I sit closest to the professor in a round-table seminar room. He picked me as his first victim. And a victim I was, as he verbally ripped my submission to shreds as what felt to me to be an example to my much younger peers of how not to write a paper. Everyone had a copy of everyone else’s papers, so they were able to read along as he went line by line over my essay without a kind word. You could have heard a pin drop while he was doing so. I entered the room at 9:00 am with a little bit of cockiness. I left the room at noon feeling like I was punched in the face over and over again, made more painful by the public spectacle of it all.

I drove home wanting to run into every light pole and pedestrian. I wasn’t fit to look at or talk to. I was feeling completely unworthy of a doctoral program and afraid that I was flunking out of it. I hadn’t had these feelings of impending academic doom for thirty years. I had an impulse to e-mail my professor and apologize for my lacklustre work. I didn’t, because I was worried I’d come across as grovelling for his good favour. I couldn’t win.

I mustn’t have disguised my self-pity very well. Before I could completely figure out how to manage this deflating experience, I received a very kind e-mail from the professor, offering time to chat because he sensed I was feeling anxious. I took him up on the offer. We met for a very nice, long coffee chat downtown. Talked about one another’s life partners. Even gossiped a bit about mutual acquaintances. Talked about piano here, sociology there. I came to realize what I should have understood in the first place. That the nature of his course at this level is to learn how to present papers worthy to be considered for publication. He picked it apart, because his own submissions get picked apart by choosy editors in the same fashion. It was a real-life lesson. It was intended to be a constructive exercise which I was too self-centred to realize in the heat of the moment.

Then I realized something else in the course of our coffee chat: That this is not something a professor would have done for me when I was 18 going through the same sorts of feelings. There’s the difference… This time what’s at least as obvious to others as my worrying (given away by gritting my teeth, shifting in my seat and shallow breathing) is the fact that I love what I’m worrying about. My professor, who I’m sure one day will be a good friend once I survive his course, has the decency to identify and work closely with someone who is worried for all the right reasons. Truth is, I really have nothing to worry about. I worked my butt off to get into this program because I feel like I have something to give to it by way of my research interests. He wasn’t criticizing my work for the sake of criticizing. He wanted me to get into a position of taking the punches, sucking it up, learning from my weaknesses and coming back with something stronger.

It’s so funny and amazing how things happen. Another sociology professor, the one who received my proposal for doctoral studies a year ago, was actually my private piano student for seven years prior to that. Here was this highly-regarded published scholar every week in my piano studio challenging herself and nervously taking herself out of her comfort zone, relying completely on my artistic advice and experience. Seven years later, the tables are turned and I’m wanting to prove myself worthy of her academic world. And she’s returning my service to her by showing me extraordinary support and enthusiasm for my being there.

I spend anything from minutes to hours each day happily working with young people to get them through anything from learning notes in a song, to producing a show, to making a major career choice. Next thing I know, I’m in their shoes being calmed down and patiently guided by a constructively critical professor who’s been where I am… that is to say, as a middle-aged doctoral student temporarily displaced but who ended up realizing a very fine career.

Now he wants to be my piano student…

Stephen Ivany and David Chafe

"This Shall Be For Music"

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"Bright and Beautiful"

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Christopher Bowman and David Chafe

"Over Hill and Valley"

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David's Debut Gospel CD

"It Is Well"

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