Zon: I've never been the kind of person that sort of thought of something and then just sort of went after it. You know, I've never been that kind of person. I’ve always been that kind of person that’s so, um…
Dennis: That’s Zon Eastes, Director of Outreach and Advancement of the Vermont Arts Council. Zon and I grew up in the same town – Pratt, Kansas – and you’ll hear him reference Pratt as well as mutual acquaintances, including my sister, Dianne, who was a classmate of Zon’s.
Dennis: I shared with Zon the questions I try to answer in this podcast, the first one being “Describe a dream you have or had.”
Zon: I've never been really that way in the kind of big picture things. I’ve certainly… “Let's go to Italy” or “let’s go to Denver” or something like that – it's easy. But I guess when I would think about that question and I think what you're trying to get at is kind of what moves a person and what are some of the challenges in realizing kind of who you are, maybe. I don't know.
Dennis: I like it!
Zon: I don't want to reframe your question but where I went, the kind of where my brain kind of went today is about the idea, and I think it's a very human thing, that my desire to be part of something that's larger than I am, that still manages to give me space to do what I want to do.
Zon: And I would say that at a certain age or whatever, when I first started thinking about this as an idea, and I think it was pretty early on, I didn't know what that was going to be – exactly – but I always knew when I recognized, “Oh, there’s an opportunity for me that might lead me in that direction.”
So I'll just start off with a couple stories that kind of got me rolling…
Zon: …or made me understand this about myself. So, the first one is when I was five years old, I remember my parents, my mother was leading but my parents sat me down in the living room and they said… they were a little awkward and they said, “So, Zon, you don't really like to go out and play with the other kids here in the neighborhood.” And my mother said, “Do you think if we got you a piano, you might wanna play that?” And now, looking back on it, I totally get that my mother was trying to find a space for me; trying to find an opportunity, an outlet for me. What I understood at that moment was “something's wrong with me.”
Dennis: Oh, really?
Zon: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. That's what I understood. I better say yes. I didn't know what a piano was. I mean, I guess I sort of knew but I didn’t know that you did anything with it or anything. I don't know, it wasn't part of my life. And so I said yes and they did get a piano and I started studying piano with my aunt.
So that's the story that made me understand that I maybe wasn't… I mean, I already did understand it at some levels but I understood then, if I didn't already, that I'm going to have maybe a different road here that some of what I was observing in my little neighborhood.
Dennis: At five years old?
Dennis: That's pretty young.
Zon: I didn't really understand much about it but I realized I wanted to please my parents, of course. And so when I did this thing, I started playing the piano and I was very facil; it was easy for me and I enjoyed it. I loved my Aunt Wanda and so I really kind of zoomed along with that sort of stuff and it was wonderful. And then I started playing the cello in school. And I started playing that and was another kind of wonderful experience when I met Nancy Kerr and she sort of took me in her wings in a certain way. So in a town like Pratt, though there was a lot of opportunity for… you know, there was music and there were opportunities for kids, they were narrow and small. I didn't see a whole world in front of me, in other words. It was kind of like, “this is what I did.”
When I went to music camp when I was fifteen, I went to Kansas University and went to music camp there. And the world just opened up for me. I suddenly met all these kids. Every single kid I met was somebody I could immediately connect with and somebody that I understood. Whereas, growing up in Pratt, there weren’t so many kids like me. I mean, there were a few; Dianne and I had other friends and stuff, but it didn't feel like I was just in a place that made sense for me. So, I finally discovered in going to music camp that there is a world there for me. And so I suddenly understood: I’ve got to go find this world, whatever it is.
Dennis: Right. Because you're coming out of a small town in Kansas, Pratt, population about six, seven thousand, I think, right?
Dennis: Pretty small place. It did have an orchestra program, it did have a band program and choral music in the school system and everything but still, you know, your pool of talent or colleagues in the orchestra, it was a pretty small orchestra as I recall having grown up there as well, so, you know...
Zon: Well, I remember, you know, just by comparison, all my cousins, all my male cousins (and there were many of them) in my town, in Pratt, were… they were all athletes and it was like a whole big universe out there for them and there was a lot of camaraderie. And that's kind of what I grew up in. You know, my father and his two brothers living in this past, they grew up in the same town and so there was just kind of feeling that, “I'm not in that world.” I'm just not in that world, whatever that was. So you know finding my world was part of what I went toward. So I think that's part of this thing of me figuring out that I needed to find a world. I needed to find a place for me to be. And finally, when I got to New Mexico and started… I wasn't sure when I went away to college still what I was doing and my parents were basically not that educated, so they couldn’t help me too much figure out about college. I didn't understand much about it or anything. I went to the college where I got the biggest scholarship because I wanted to help save money for my parents, you know.
Dennis: Wow. I want to go back a second. You're talking about finding your space in the world. And you just said it stared at five years old when your mom suggested maybe the piano and then you found the cello. How old were you when you discovered the cello?
Zon: I was ten. That was a really wonderful story too. Not about me at all but about the steadfastness of this one man. His name was Neil Lentz and he had lived in Pratt for a number of years – I don't know how many – but he ran the orchestra program in the Pratt schools. And the way he did it was brilliant. And I say that only because I've been around a long time and I've seen a lot of orchestra programs in small and large cities and what he did was really amazing.
So he let the band director go through and pick off a good third or half of every classroom, you know, right away they want to play trumpet or whatever, clarinet, all those things, which is great. And then he came back through and he said, “Okay, if you didn’t sign up for a band instrument, raise your hand.” And so, when I was in my fifth grade classroom, I don't remember if Dianne was in my classroom or not, but we all raised our hands, those of us that he said, “Okay, you're all coming with me.” We all went. We didn't choose it. We all went down to this room. And so I was in this room with… and I don't know whether he organized it with all the fifth grade classes or whatever. But, anyway, in this room and we had to do this like twice a week for a month. And he had instruments there. We couldn't take them with us; he just had the instruments in the room. I walked in the room the first time he said, “Hold up your hand.” I did and he said, “You look like a cello player to me.” That's how I started playing the cello. That's probably how Dianne started playing the cello!
Dennis: Oh, that's crazy!
Zon: So he handed me the cello.
Dennis: So basically, by default, by the fact you didn't pick up a band instrument, he grabbed you and said “You're now in the orchestra.”
Zon: Yeah, every single fifth grader was. So after a month, he said to, you know, I was there in my little row with other cellists or whatever and he said… and of course this was all easy for me because I’d played the piano for a number of years, so, naming notes and figuring out about rhythm and all that kind of stuff. And we were just plucking our strings. I don't think there was a bow involved. I don't really remember. And you got to remember, he did it for our school at Haskins school and he schlepped all those instruments to North school and schlepped all those instruments to Southwest. And he did this all the time for a month.
And out of that came, in my fifth grade class, I don't know how many of us signed up. At the end of the month, we could sign up or let it go. I remember my nextdoor neighbor, Bob Doubek, he was right beside me and he said, “You don't wanna to do this! You don't wanna do this!” And I said… there was some part of me that realized that Mister Lentz had done all this incredible work. And I realized I sort of do want to do this. I didn’t know what it meant or anything, but I just started in on it. And it was, again, like I said, it was easy and I was having a great time. And then after a month I signed up, that's when I got an actual cello. So, I took it home and I showed it to my family. But I had already made a month’s worth of investment. For me, that was cool.
Dennis: That's amazing!
Zon: But it's a remarkable what that man did because I was at the tail end of his tenure in Pratt and when I went to seventh grade, that was the year he left. So he had built the program. So when I walked into seventh grade, there was a junior high orchestra of probably sixty or seventy kids in Pratt, Kansas.
Dennis: Sixty or seventy? In the junior high school?!
Zon: Yeah! I was one of… and Dianne would have been too… I was one of maybe eight or twelve cello students in the junior high. We were all in this room together playing orchestra. And then after that, every single year, Pratt had a new orchestra director. Every single year, it changed. And so the program just went down, down, down. So, you know, by the time you became aware of the high school or junior high thing, it had already shrunk way down. So by the time Dianne and I were in high school, there was probably, I think the orchestra, when I was a senior in high school had like maybe fifteen kids in it. And that was nine through twelve.
Dennis: Yeah. I did orchestra for a brief period of time. And I can’t remember the orchestra director's name at the time, he handed me a viola and I took it home and played with it for the summertime, you know, worked on it a bit and practiced and took some lessons from him and so forth. And dad brought home the Herb Alpert album “Whipped Cream & Other Delights” that had this gorgeous brunette covered in whipped cream on it and I said, “Screw this, I'm going to play trumpet!”
Zon: Of course! Of course! I completely understand. Whipped cream?
Dennis: What else would you want to have there?
Dennis: That’s a great one. Getting back on your journey though, so I mean you were different, you had all these cousins who were playing sports. You had a bend for music, your parents supported you, you went off to New Mexico to go to university and so forth and study further. How did you keep moving forward? What drove you forward in this?
Zon: So my first year in college – so here's the story that sort of clicked it for me when I was about eighteen. When I was in my first year in college, I went to Fort Hays State University. And there wasn't a cello teacher there, so I just was sort of hanging out, sort of studying with the violin teacher there. But there was this very charismatic high school orchestra conductor there. And I asked him if I could come and just, you know, sit in on his orchestra class in the junior high thinking that what I wanted to do with my life was to become – there's my goal – was to become an orchestra conductor in the junior high. Well, that lasted eight months. Whatever.
So I went and what happened when I went to that orchestra class, like for the first couple times, again it was very much like Pratt. When I had left in junior high, there was – in this junior high orchestra – probably fifty, sixty kids, high energy as you can imagine, and they were playing in this sort of Beethoven's 5th. And I knew some of the kids that were playing in the orchestra, there's no way… they couldn’t play it individually. But out of this orchestra was coming Beethoven’s 5th. And I knew some of the kids that were playing in the orchestra. And it was amazing! And I remember thinking, “Wow!” So this thing works because the sum is greater than the parts. And I realized, “Oh, this is what I want to do.” That's another one of those stories; find your world and the world was bigger than me and I need to find a connection into it. Because look what Beethoven did, he created this incredible masterpiece that even these ditzy seventh graders who could barely play their instruments could experience and be thrilled by it.
So the fast forward part of that is I conducted the community orchestra in Vermont for over twenty years and did just that same thing, only with a community orchestra and not with seventh graders or eight graders. But I actually working with adults who didn't have huge experience in orchestra playing; maybe, maybe they didn't but I was able to show them all these incredible masterpieces and get them connected to Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms, in ways that they didn't know were possible. And it was absolutely the case that the orchestra continuously always sounded so much better when everybody got focused around the same kind of idea. When we would start the rehearsal period, you know, whatever, six or eight weeks before the concert, it would often sound just unbelievable, godly, you know. But when you start focusing and maneuvering people's minds around and playing games and the thing would start to stick; it would start to work. And they would start to understand the concepts and get a hold of it.
Dennis: How would you do that? How would you make that happen?
Zon: I think the way that I learned to do it as a teacher… I was a cello teacher for many years. I think the way that I learned to do it, believe it or not, was through distraction.
Zon: So for instance, by giving people images that might not feel immediately germane or particularly applicable but if I just pressed on them to say, “Think about this while you're playing,” amazing things would happen. And individual students but also orchestra, I would do that with the orchestra… well, here’s another story that happened to me once, accidentally. I love these things, they just accidentally happen. I was principal cello in the university orchestra. When I was in my last year in college, I was principal cello. And at one point – we had a new conductor that year – and at one point, he asked me – all the principle chairs – if we would run sectionals on a regular kind of basis.
So there were twelve cellos in the orchestra, I think, eight or twelve cellos. And they were very strong headed. It was a good cello department but very strong-headed musicians, many of them, and I was supposed to somehow do a sectional. And I remember sitting down with them. I don't know what piece it was and just starting in, I didn’t know what I was doing; I was just guessing or whatever. And I said, “Let’s just play this passage.” So we played it and it sounded awful. And I don't know what got me to do it but I just said, “Let’s just do that again. And this time, everybody just listen to see which note in the phrase is the most out of tune.” Why did I do that? I don't know, but I did. We played again and without any work or any thought, it was quantum mechanic leaps higher. It wasn't just a little better. It was like that phrase came immediately in tune. Everybody played together and everyone identified the same note as being out of tune. It just happened. And I realized, “Okay, so the point is don't tell ‘em what's wrong and tell them to make it better; that doesn’t do anything. Give them a vision, an idea that they can think about, whether it's related or not.” And they focused on that and all the right things started to happen. The body takes over.
Dennis: Right. Right.
Zon: So it's through that kind of distraction, I think that I learned, by experimentation, because I really believed in it, that if you could distract people… and sometimes it felt very focused for like a student or something. It felt like it was the right thing. It's not like you made them think about, you know, what's the capital of Turkey or something like that. But give them a very clear, you know, some alternate way to approach it that it just releases the body into doing the right thing. The brain and the body connection would increase.
Zon: So in thinking about your questions, what I've realized is that something like a musical score provides a lot of instruction. And that's fantastic. And my world has been so enriched by being able to know the music of Bach, to know the music of Mozart, to know the music of Haydn and Beethoven and Brahms. It's just unbelievable about my life. I feel so lucky. What is really intriguing to me now in my life (and this is part of the same story) is, is it possible to get that kind of concentration or that kind of focus to happen without a score? Without the composer having laid it all down in first hand? And that’s the project I'm involved in right now which is this Vermont Creative Network, where we're sort of developing this idea that if we can all get kind of camped around the same set of concepts, can we bring strength to the sector? The entire Vermont creative sector? Can we all benefit from – we don't know all what the score is; it's not all laid out – can we develop something enough so we can all start to see a way. And it feels like it might happen. And that's very exciting for me!
Dennis: That's way cool.
Zon: So I don't know if that's a way of expressing where my dream is about… what my goals are or what my dream was because I would never been able to articulate what I just described to you five years ago as being something I was headed toward. It's almost like all this stuff had to happen to get me here. Does that make sense?
Dennis: Sure. I mean, I've argued with people time and again that everything you've done prior to now has prepared you for what comes next. You know, and so, sometimes you know, we have these random events in our lives that we don't see them as being connected, but they all are part of our history and a part of our learning and a part of our growth and they set us up for what happens next.
Zon: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And you know, I was so lucky to work with this incredible Swiss violinist conductor woman who was really a Bach specialist. I worked with her for… well I was under her, she was my main musical mentor for about twenty years when I first moved to Vermont. She was an amazing woman. And she always said (just what you said) that all this stuff works together. And the real point of it is that I loved to hear was: it doesn't matter whether all these things have come together in the best possible way; that fact is you're the only who can tell this story because you're the only one that's experienced these things in this way.
Dennis: That's beautiful.
Zon: And so if you're connecting all these things and you're paying attention, you can actually – and this is where I go now – you can sort of begin to kind of line up the things that you want to tack together and that becomes the story.
Dennis: I think that's great. Yeah.
Zon: Yeah, so even if you're sitting there thinking, “I don't know. I don't know.” It is my story and it is your story. You know, we all have stories to tell and they're amazing.
Dennis: They absolutely are. Zon, what kind of obstacles are you encountering with trying to realize this new project in particular.
Zon: Yeah, well that's great. That's good. I think that for me, I would say that the kinds of obstacles, it's the same one my whole life. It's like, I don't know where I'm going. I don't know what this is because I don't even know what I'm going toward. And so the obstacle gets to be sort of being open enough, being wise enough maybe, to be attentive to what's going on and paying attention to it. And not to be closed in having such a clear notion about where I'm going, that I don't see opportunity. I have to make sure that I'm open to opportunity all the time, where it begins to see...
I just came out of a really difficult situation in the last couple of years. It was an NEA grant from the committee that I lived in and the leadership team became really remarkably dysfunctional. And I knew what to do. I knew how to fix it but that didn’t fix it. That didn't make it work. That didn't make it go. It's almost like what I had to do, what we all had to do in our way – not agreeably at all – but we all had to kind of get out of the way of the thing and let it move itself. And it finally ended up, not because I stepped away, but because I just got out of the way enough to let some other energy into the thing, rather than trying to prove who was right and who was wrong.
And the final project for the grant came off exactly or within just a few percent of what I had envisioned and hoped for in the very beginning. But I wasn't capable, even as the gifts that I have or whatever, I wasn't capable working with that management team to get it to be there. It's almost like by stepping away and allowing, trusting that the vision was there strong enough that it got there. So I think for me partly, it's long winded perhaps but for me, it's figuring out how to stay open in the right kind of way.
Dennis: That's great. It's a huge challenge because like you said, we have mindsets around certain things we see, what we think needs to happen and we listen to opposing opinion sometimes. And like you said, handing the reigns over to somebody else or to step back from it and let it take on its own life is difficult, especially when you're in charge of trying to make things happen, right?
Zon: Exactly. And also if you come with a personality like mine that just pretty much does know how it's supposed to go.
Zon: I am my mother's son.
Dennis: Well, you’ve had a really interesting life thus far and it continues to evolve and everything. Any surprises along the way?
Zon: Well, yes. I think that… and I would say relatively, when they come – and I'm having one right now – I think it's just that this stuff works, if you get out of the way. You know, it really can work. I've been a little bit… even though I believe in this idea for instance of this Vermont Creative network and even though the work’s going very well, I'm kind of consistently surprised that it is going so well. And I think it's because I'm trying to really pay attention and do it from a grassroots, iterative, informed point of view. And I think people really trust that. And while maybe five, ten, twenty years ago, I would just maybe perhaps moved more directly because I felt like I knew what to do. I mean, if you ask me how this network should function, I could say, “You should do this, this, this and this,” but that's not how I'm running it. That's not how I'm moving it. That's not how I'm working in it. But it is still sort of going like that even if you give it enough room.
Zon: Is that making sense?
Dennis: Yeah, sure. It makes perfect sense.
Zon: And so it's been fascinating for me to realize that I can go ahead and have my dream and my goal but I don't have to press that dream and that goal. I just have to kind of hold it in this space. And it's not going to get that beat up. And I think that's what I finally have learned about myself that I'm okay.
Dennis: That's cool.
Zon: It's taken a while to figure that out but I think I'm okay.
Dennis: It's never too late! With your vast experience and everything, any advice you have to share with other people?
Zon: Yeah. Well, I think the advice is I would say look at a life like yours. Make sure that your experiences are broad and full. And really push to gain new experiences as much as possible. Don't shy away from anything. If an opportunity comes, take it, you know, so long as you're not hurting yourself or harming yourself in any way. I just think that it's so important to really grab a hold of everything that's already out there. Very few of us have the ability to invent something out of whole cloth. Very few of us have the ability to sort of create something entirely new. So I think it's really – at least, that's my experience – I don't feel capable of that. But when I look around at what's out there, I love to synthesize ideas that I see.
Zon: And so, taking this idea, taking that idea… I wouldn’t have had half the ideas that I have if I hadn't been out in the world and start paying attention in a certain way.
Dennis: That’s great!
Zon: There you go!
Dennis: [laughs] Great story! Thank you! To learn more about Zon’s current project, please go to www.VermontCreativeNetwork.org. I'm Dennis Hodges. Dream. Believe. Do.
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