I first met Mr. Lloyd Goldstein at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tampa about five years ago. Every so often, the church has what they call a “Music Sunday,” in which the service basically becomes an open mic for all those musically inclined to stand up and perform. At one of these, I performed an original song of mine, death metal growling vocals and all. Mr. Goldstein had performed a beautiful piece on his upright bass minutes earlier, and he was sitting a couple of feet from me in the front row. Performing my crazy stuff in front of such an educated, advanced musician made me nervous. I fully expected him to strongly dislike my song, to put it nicely. To my surprise, he sought me out afterwards to offer unsolicited compliments about my performance.
That’s the kind of person he is.
He’s extremely open-minded, extremely kind, extremely giving, and extremely supportive. Extremes can often be a negative, but when it comes to those attributes, the more the better, right?
But there’s a quality that he seems to have maybe a little too much of: humility. After watching him perform several times, and listening to Singing Tree: Folk Music With a Classical Twist (the fantastic album he made with hammered dulcimer player Ray Belanger), I was a bit shocked at certain things he said during the interview. For example, when asked if he’s doing other projects, he replied that he never felt he had the skills to join any other projects. He also referred to his joining the Florida Orchestra as a “miracle or a semi-fluke.” My jaw felt like dropping, but I think I managed to avoid that. Here is a musician who performs with grace and fluidity, gets a glowing, rich sound that very few ever manage to coax out of their instruments, and he’s taking the time to point out everything that’s wrong about his playing. Too humble? I’d say so.
Lloyd has been volunteering at The Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa since 2005, offering the gift of music to all those who could certainly use it to uplift their spirits, and/or take their minds away from their difficult situation. He played in The Florida Orchestra for 21 years, in the Fort Lauderdale Symphony, and has taught at the University of Tampa. He’s also an avid practitioner of yoga, and has published a book of meditations called Inside Yoga: The Gift of Practice.
I sat down with Lloyd at a nice little coffee shop in Tampa. He speaks in a very calm tone, but I could feel the simmering passion underneath. The fact that his answers were often very extensive, digressing as he felt necessary to clarify certain details, also made it clear that he’s immersed in a journey of constant self-improvement, both as a person, and as a musician.
His bass playing is somewhat like the way he speaks. It doesn’t jump at you. It merely offers itself gently, but those who listen closely can feel the burning passion that permeates it.
How did you get started in music?
I was in the third grade, when one day they brought in stringed instruments into the classroom, and right away I was interested in the bass for some reason. I don’t really know why.
I had half-hour lessons with the violin teacher in the school starting in third grade, up until fifth grade. I played all through school. She didn’t really know how to play the bass. And unfortunately, from then until the age of 20 I never owned a bass or had any lessons. It was just kind of about being around music and the orchestra. The love of it seeped in, but at the age of 20 I had to start from scratch.
What did you do then?
I had kind of a “burning bush” experience. I had not been playing for a couple of years, and I had dropped out of college. I was living in a cooperative community for a few months. One day I cut my finger on a table saw. In that moment, I literally heard a voice saying, “you idiot, you’ll never play the bass again.” It was the only time in my life that I’d heard a voice inside that was so…definitive.
I immediately called my father (we’d been estranged for a while), and I told him I wanted to seriously pursue the study of the string bass. He said, “I don’t care what you do, as long as you put one foot in front of the other and walk straight.”
That was really the true beginning of music for me.
How did the idea and concept of Singing Tree come about?
I met Ray at the Moffitt Cancer Center. I had been working there for a while, as had he. Someone there said, “You guys should try playing together.” So, we said, “ok.” Then we stumbled our way through a song. Everyone realized that it was a really unique sound, something very special. We decided, basically on the spot, to start getting together to work on music. I always knew that, in addition to doing my solo work, I wanted to do a collaboration with somebody. Not a big band – either a duo, or a trio. And that was the answer. It’s been six years now.
What’s the song selection process like?
Many of the song selections come from Ray. He has a long history in the folk music world. There’s a huge repertoire of songs that he’s played over the years. He brings a lot of that folk history to the table, and I bring my classical background. So, a lot of the arranging ideas come from my quarter.
We’ve done three of my original compositions. In creating more and more repertoire for myself at Moffitt, I sometimes come across interesting choices. I want to do “This Little Light of Mine” with Ray, which is a bit of a departure. I also want to do the prelude to Bach’s first cello suite, and I want to write an accompaniment for Ray.
Do you have plans to engage in other musical projects aside from Singing Tree?
I never felt that I had the skills to jump into projects. There’s people out there involved in ten different projects and such. Each of our arrangements takes about six to eight weeks of weekly practice. First of all, to come up with the arrangement, and then to teach it to each other, etc., to refine it to the point where we can perform it. There’s a lot of time invested in this, so I don’t generally venture into other things. We always have several songs lined up to work on. And then, I’m always working on new repertoire for Moffitt, which is my main job, playing solo arrangements. And those are a lot of work, and you always need more of them.
So, the answer is probably not. [Laughs] At least not in the immediate future. But, as my skills grow – especially my improvisational skills – then I might feel more comfortable branching out.
But, there is one project that I was asked to participate to which I said yes. There’s a gentleman that has been named the best mountain dulcimer player in the world. He asked me to participate in his upcoming solo CD. That’s the one project that I’m going to bend over backwards to be a part of, if he follows through on his offer.
Describe your listening preferences.
My favorite listening experience is NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts. It’s a series of concerts recorded at NPR studios with just one microphone – very up-close and personal. There’s a concert with [cellist] Yo Yo Ma, [double bassist] Edgar Meyer, [mandolinist] Chris Thile, and [violinist] Stuart Duncan. They made a CD called The Goat Rodeo Sessions. It’s just kick-ass, acoustic, virtuoso, crossover, folk, jazzy…all these things woven together. That’s really been my biggest inspiration as of late.
For a while after I left the orchestra, I didn’t listen to a lot of classical music. But recently, I’ve begun to listen to the local classical music station. It’s so refreshing to hear a good orchestral recording. I go to see the Florida Orchestra occasionally. That music is extraordinary. I really think that most of my ideas and the way I feel about music were molded by that music. So, now I revisit it often.
But, to be honest with you, I’m open to almost anything if it’s good. Like Duke Ellington famously said: “There’s only two kinds of music: good and bad.” Anyone who’s being creative and honest. Even if it’s very basic, but if it comes from the heart, then I enjoy it.
Walk me through the path that led you to the Moffitt Cancer Center.
It wasn’t quite the “burning bush” experience that I mentioned earlier with the bass. But, it was similar. Yoga practice was a big thing for me around the same time that I started re-doing my bass technique based on François Rabbath’s, which was around 14 years ago. I credit yoga practice with giving me the openness and freedom to make those changes, without letting myself get in the way. As any experienced musician will tell you, you have to be willing to not be good and make mistakes for a while. And yoga enabled me to remain present enough to do that.
The idea to go to Moffit came out of the meditations I’d do at the end of each yoga practice. I would listen inside for some kind of message from myself to myself. I kept hearing “go do some volunteer work” for over a year. I finally listened to it, and Moffit seemed like a great choice. So, I went over, and I was told I’d be allowed to play in lobbies and waiting rooms, but not at the bedside of patients unless I was certified. I was surprised to hear that there even was a program called “Arts in Medicine” there.
So, I decided to get my feet wet and started playing in the areas they allowed me to. But, eventually I decided to look into the training, which I completed. One thing led to another, and now I’m actually a staff member there.
It’s the best work I’ve ever done, and I feel blessed to be there. It’s the most inspiring thing.
Could you explain what a certified music practitioner is?
That’s a term that was coined by a particular organization, which was trying to create a training program so that people could do more consistent, appropriate work in hospitals, but not as a music therapist. With music therapy, the practitioner is actually trying to elicit certain responses and outcomes from a patient.
What I do is much less specialized, and it has no expectations of clinical outcomes. I just offer the gift of appropriate music to a person who is in a challenging situation. Working at a cancer facility, just a cancer diagnosis can cause a tremendous amount of stress. The music that we offer can provide a few moments of relaxation or distraction. Maybe a connection to the outside world which they might’ve lost, or just remembering times that they’ve had in the past.
Music has a powerful effect on a person’s entire mind, body, and spirit. The big deal about being a music practitioner is knowing how to choose appropriate music in the moment to have it be a gift, rather than an invasion of a person’s experience. We’re trained to allow the recipient of the music to be always in control of the situation. They can always say “no” at any time. It’s all about serving them. That’s the big difference it has with a performance on stage – you’re providing a service first and foremost. You’re offering a gift, and hopefully that becomes a bridge to that person having some sort of release from what’s bothering them.
When I play for someone, and I see them with a frown, and then I look up and their eyes are sparkling, they’re forgetting where they are and enjoying it – that’s huge.
Tell us what it was like to study with celebrated bassist and educator François Rabbath.
He’s a very kind man, and not elitist at all. He never discounts anyone. I was not gifted. I was just a moderately talented person. When I first played for him, I played a Vivaldi sonata. And he said, “Well, you have some music in you, but it’s not coming out because you must change…” and then he listed a few things I needed to change. And that was all he said to me, and then moved on to the next person.
When I saw him play at that first workshop, I couldn’t believe it. It was the way I dreamed the bass could be played, but I’d never heard it played that way. And I had to have that. So, I started bothering him, and all the other teachers there. I spent a whole year after that trying to achieve that sound, but I didn’t have a lot of guidance. So then I went back the second year, and I bothered him. He suggested a couple of adjustments, and said, “try that.” But I kept pulling at his coattails, and he said, “I can’t give you the time that you need here. If you want this, you have to come to Paris.”
So, I did. I went five times, two weeks each time to get lessons with him. After the fifth year, he said, “Don’t come back. You have enough to work on. By the way, go get your wife pregnant, because there’s more to life than playing the bass.” At first, I was disappointed, but then I saw him again that summer in Washington, D.C. at a workshop. I was doing performances which included yoga, recitation, and playing some of my own pieces on bass. Rabbath was in the front row, and afterwards, he said, “You see! You played for one hour! I cut, and you grow!” He took credit for cutting me off and making me think for myself. He’s been really supportive ever since. He’s been very interested in my work at Moffitt.
I got one of the biggest thrills of my life this past winter. I called him on the phone – which I’d never done – and I told him I had performed one of his pieces at Moffitt. I told him I had played it a little differently because the patient was very physically uncomfortable. I explained to him what I did with the piece, and he said, “That’s great, you’re putting the color on it” – la palette sonore he called it. Then he said, “By the way, have I given you your diploma yet?” And I said, “No, I never thought I’d get one of those in this lifetime.” The people that get these diplomas are the big names, the ones that are a big deal in the music world. So, my wife and I went to Paris, and I received my performance diploma, and my teaching diploma.
When he saw me and Ray perform a while ago, he said to me, “You must keep him.”
Aside from Rabbath, who are your other major musical inspirations?
Lucas Drew was my main teacher in college. He’s a wonderful musician, and a sweet person. He was the right person for me, because I wasn’t a quick study, and he was very patient and supportive. He was very musical, and he’d share that musicality with me.
He wasn’t spoon-feeding me technique. He allowed each person to play whatever came naturally to them.
When I got my Bachelor’s, Lucas knew I wasn’t ready to survive. So, he came up with an apprenticeship for me, and kept me for a master’s degree. Right at the end of that is when I was able to get into the [Florida] Orchestra. I consider that kind of a miracle or semi-fluke.
There were two other teachers earlier that were both extraordinary. Mik Groninger was a maniac, a wild man. He was teaching at a community college, and I was his only bass student. He was such a virtuoso. The first thing he told me was, “There’s no excuse for faulty intonation.”
Then there was Vince Cantorski. He was the next step. I got a scholarship to FIU (Florida International University), so I went. He helped me get a job in the Fort Lauderdale Symphony, which helped me to quit my job as a security guard. I used to practice all the time, on the job. I was a terrible security guard.
Each of these people were hugely influential and encouraging to me.
Has your study and practice of yoga influenced your musical self in practical ways? If so, how?
Yoga connects you with more of who you are. A lot of the time, we’re using small parts of ourselves, and often in a disconnected fashion. Yoga means integration. We forget that we have deeper sensibilities, and that it’s all connected. When you do yoga on a regular basis, you’re using more of your faculties, more fully. So, you’re able to be more focused, more open. All these things are huge assets in making music. Because of that openness and integration, I was able to improve my technique following Rabbath’s method. I don’t think I would’ve been able to do so if it wasn’t for yoga.
I still meditate before each concert, trying to be really present. I’ve slacked off on it a little in recent years. But, I can feel myself getting older at the age of 56. I can feel the limitations in range of motion when I don’t keep up with my yoga practice.
You have such a full, rich sound on the bass. Have you had any musical/technical epiphanies that have helped you achieve that sound?
Part of it is the instrument, I have to give credit to it. It’s never stood in my way or let me down. It has a beautiful, rich, multi-layered sound. I also have been fortunate to acquire a really good bow. I think I’ve been spoiled by this instrument.
I’ve put so much emphasis in sound production, it’s been a constant exploration for me. Rabbath calls it “tone research.” A day doesn’t go by in which I don’t do some sort of tone research. Evaluating what’s happening with my sound in all aspects, etc.
I’ve had to place more emphasis on my left hand recently. Rabbath placed emphasis on the bow, so I focused on the right hand. I still feel like I have light years to go with my left hand technique.
But that thought would never cross the mind of anyone who ever watched Lloyd Goldstein play live or listened to him on the Singing Tree album.
* * *