There’s that old joke:
A tourist in New York asks a pretzel seller, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”
He answers, “Practice, practice, practice.”
It’s not that easy, though. Millions of musicians practice and practice – very few get good enough to play in venues like Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center. Those that do aren’t just good – they’re well-connected, persistent, hard-working and lucky.
My friend Bernard Woma is playing with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center in two weeks. The story of how he got there – and on stage at Carnegie Hall last year – is just slightly more complicated than your ordinary rags to riches story of musicianship.
Bernard grew up in Nandom, a small town in northwestern Ghana, near the borders with Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire. As a boy, he wanted to be a Catholic priest. His father had other ideas – Bernard was born with his fists clenched, a sign in the Dagara culture that he was to become a xylophonist. He learned the sacred and secular music of the Dagara people and, by the time he was in his late twenties, was good enough to move to Accra and join the resident ensemble at the National Theatre of Ghana, a company he now serves as master drummer of.
That’s where I met Bernard. He was a few years into his time with the company, and I’d just come to Accra on a fellowship, hoping to study traditional Ghanaian music and its relationship to contemporary Ghanaian music. Unfortunately, most of the teachers that had been recommended to me turned out to be dead, drunk, or dead drunk, and I spent a good bit of time in the fall of 1993 waiting around the National Theatre to see if my teachers would ever arrive. Bernard eventually rescued me and started teaching me the Dagara xylophone, the gyil.
Studying with Bernard at the same time, on the same scholarship I was on, was Dr. Kay Stonefelt. When Kay went back to the states, she began a teaching stint at SUNY Fredonia, and began inviting Bernard to come give workshops at SUNY. These workshops eventually led to a very unusual invitation – Bernard was invited to come to SUNY as a visiting lecturer in music and pursue a BA at the same time. This was a bit of a gamble both for SUNY and for Bernard – Bernard’s formal schooling had ended in primary school, and he was challenged to work at a university level with very little preparation.
He’s pulled it off, and is now on schedule to graduate with his BA this May. And his professional career has flowered, in part from the opportunity to work with artists like Derek Bermel, a composer interested in Bernard’s music. They’ve performed at Carnegie Hall and will perform a piece at Lincoln Center that moves from percussion ensemble to Bernard backed by the New York Philharmonic.
Not bad for a kid from Nandom. Way to go, Bernard.