When asked for an interview as part of Boise Weekly's ode to Boise State's 75 years, Dr. Joseph Baldassarre, Boise State professor with a doctorate of musical arts, reluctantly agrees saying, "I try to live by something I tell my students: 'Keep your head down and your helmet on.'" With as rich and accomplished a career as Baldassarre's, it would be understandable if he were a bit more arrogant. The somewhat reserved, quite humorous 57-year old family man (who recently became a grandfather) is anything but.
Going into his 33rd year at Boise State, the Cleveland-born Baldassarre and son of a luthier (who was also a fine flutist) was offered a job teaching music at Boise State, which meant a major relocation.
"Having a full time job was an important thing. I had two jobs at the time in northern Ohio that were about an hour apart, and paid about the same amount I would get at this job. I figured I'd be out here maybe two or three years. One of the places I was teaching at told me they were moving some things around and when a full-time job opened up, I'd be a shoo-in. It still hasn't happened," he says, laughing.
Baldassarre likes his job quite a bit and says about staying interested in his job after all these years, "You have new students every year. It's a blessing and a curse. When it comes to the classes, that's how it's built. You teach the class; they pass the class; they move on. Private students are around an average of four years; with graduate studies, sometimes I have them for six. Working one-to-one and seeing someone progress, especially with the guitar where so many of them come in with no classical training but an interest in it, then go on to graduate school. I've even had students go on to get their doctorates. I have two students right now who came in with several years' experience. That's like Christmas. And then there are those students who don't know anything about classical guitar, but are willing to learn. That's what I did."
As a child in Cleveland, Baldassarre was somewhat of a musical prodigy. At 11, he was a regular on radio and TV. He was soon doing studio work as well.
"Someone heard me play and told me the Cleveland Institute of Music was starting a guitar program," he says. "I auditioned and they gave me a full-ride scholarship into their preparatory program. I was 13."
But, in the program, Baldassarre would be learning classical guitar, something he knew nothing about. It was from the Institute he would get his doctorate years later.
The question, "What is your favorite instrument to play?" elicits a quick, honest answer. "I just like music. I like anything that's done well. I was in the doctor's office when I was a kid and a tune came on [in the waiting room] that had an instrument I couldn't identify. It kind of sounded like an accordion, but had much more expression. The person playing it was just 'Wow.' The announcer came on and said it was Stevie Wonder playing harmonica. I didn't consider the harmonica a real instrument, but thought, 'Anything done well is a joy.'"
Part of that understanding comes from Baldassarre's own mentors. One of his first teachers in Cleveland was jazz great Jimmy Hall. "He was very heavy into technique and reading." Baldassarre says. "I was learning to be a musician and a solid guitarist so that if I decided I didn't want to play jazz, it wouldn't matter." He learned not just how to play jazz, but how to play, period. "I think taking one style of music and putting that on a pedestal and scoffing at other types of music is just musical bigotry.
"There were acts in the '60s that were playing pop music. I look back at that now and with what I know, think. 'Yeah, these guys were playing light music, but just because it's light music doesn't mean it's light musicianship.'"
When asked if he can listen, just for pleasure, to the kind of music he teaches, Baldassarre says, "I know what I like and, hey, I like what I know. I know a lot of people who are in accounting or pump gas, and the last thing they want to do when they're off the job is deal with numbers or pump gas. But I dream music. I wake up with a tune in my head. That's all I am." Rushing on, he says, "My father started teaching me to read music when I was 4. I picked my instrument when I was 6, which is the European tradition. My parents were from Italy. I was in third or fourth grade when I realized that there were only three or four people in my class who could read music and play an instrument."
He says he's not sure why he picked the guitar. "It was not a popular instrument at the time. The accordion was the big instrument. Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland ... that was polka country."
From a 4-year-old who learned to read music, to a professor and a musician who himself put out three CDs last year, Baldassarre's life is about music. As a teacher who must hand out criticisms on a regular basis, it must be difficult to put something out there and open it up for review. But he takes it all in stride.
"[One] CD had six reviews. Three of them were real good, two of them were pretty good and one of them was scathing. That's the way it goes. I mean, some people don't like A Clockwork Orange even though it's the greatest movie ever made. Except maybe Citizen Kane."
As Baldassarre rides away from the interview on his 2000 Indian motorcycle, he heeds his own advice: He keeps his head down and his helmet on.
For much more information on Baldassarre, visit his Web site at DrJoeB.com.