The Accidental Artist
"--- you don't reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings ... serendipitously."
-- John Barth, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor
by Angelo T. Salazar
Elmo Makil's career in music apparently happened by accident. "I did not decide to get into music. It was decided for me!" he reflects. He recalls attending a summer music seminar in Baguio City. After two days, he walked into the church where the seminar was held, and found it empty. And so he sang to his heart's content, trying to put into practice the things that "this man" had been talking about the whole time. It so happened that "this man" was William R. Pfeiffer who was once the vocal coach of the famous Westminster College Choir, and who at that very same moment was behind the organ, making some adjustments. Imagine Elmo's shock when this big caucasian suddenly emerged and in a deep, booming voice commanded him, "Come here!" The flustered Elmo Makil apologized profusely, but to his surprise, Pfeiffer handed him some money so he could telegram his parents to have them come over for the seminar's culminating activity. And when his folks arrived, Pfeiffer told them, "Send this boy to Siliman University, and I will take care of him."
And so began the long, laborious process of forging that musical gem that is Elmo Makil. Wrote the critic Jaime Daroy in the Philippine Daily Inquirer in 1989, "Elmo Makil, baritone, is full-bodied with a fine flood of refulgent sound. Makil, to my ears, is not only our best baritone, but also one of the most sensitive musicians around."
But such recognition did not come easy for Elmo. When he got to Dumaguete City to attend college at Siliman University, he got his first taste of "katarayan" from no less than the wife of William Pfeiffer herself. "Let me hear you sing," she demanded. "Sing what?" asked Elmo. She took out some sheet music and asked him to sight-read the piece. Elmo explained that he could not read music yet. Mrs. Pfeiffer, rather condescendingly, asked him, "Are you sure you want to be a voice major?" This pressed Elmo's buttons, and with some irritation, he said, "Give me one semester. If in that semester I cannot catch up with everyone here, I'll go home."
It's remarkable how some things, unpleasant as they may be, fit into the bigger picture. This was a defining moment for Elmo, and he committed himself to excelling at music, if only to get back at Mrs. Pfeiffer. Elmo practically lived in the school of music, throwing himself at his lessons. By the end of the semester, he was at the top of the class, and that decided everything for him. Before coming to Dumaguete, Elmo was considering a career in agriculture or medicine. We lost a farmer or a doctor to these turn of events, but we gained an outstanding singer.
William Pfeiffer turned out to be an excellent teacher for Elmo Makil. Not only did he instill discipline and technical proficiency in the impressionable young artist from the Mountain Province, but he was also the main source of inputs for Elmo's core philosophy. During his first few lessons with Elmo, Pfeiffer taught him nothing else but to listen to himself. "Kick your ass!" was the rather unorthodox advice Pfieffer offered Elmo. "Nobody will do that for you. No matter how strong willed your teacher is, he cannot do that for you. Listen to yourself, and if you don't like what you hear, do something about it. Your teacher can only guide you."
Elmo Makil's philosophy of toughness has been misinterpreted and misunderstood by many of his peers and his critics, who often label him a "contrarian." But he insists, "How can you face an audience if you can't even be tough on yourself?"
The other legacy left by William Pfeiffer to Elmo Makil is the disposition to always ask "why?", to always try to discover and learn how things work and why certain situations happen the way they happen....
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