Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

So, That Happened

I don’t know whether this brands me as a type-A person or a borderline obsessive-compulsive person or a visual learner or what … but I keep ongoing records of what happens to me every day.

It’s not, as has been chronicled previously, a diary. Apparently (no – genuinely), I stink at keeping a diary. But I make little notes at the end of a day (or, sometimes at the end of a few days, thus disproving the obsessive-compulsive theory) about what was accomplished. Anywhere from “supermarket run $$” to “Cantata Sunday”, it gets noted.

This can be helpful when the New Year’s Eve question inevitably arises: “what was 2012 all about?” Which I did ask myself this morning, and couldn’t right away come up with a detailed answer. Other than Gangnam Style and the 112th Congress, neither of which I will admit to fully appreciating.

This is, frankly, absurd. Don’t I read my own blog?

So okay, fine. I’ve done a couple of year-end summaries on this blog that have commented mightily on those years’ current events. Honestly, all you have to do is turn on CNN or equivalent to get that. Instead, I offer this: A Self-Absorbed, Incomplete Year In Review 2012 (Featuring Many Events, Only Some Of Which Have Been Blogged About Previously)!

 

Winter, early 2012:

[] Unpacked my sax for use at The Big Schnozzola, the annual gathering of UMass Hoop Band current and former members. Current members played; alumni (or at least this alumnus) survived, just about. Chops? Hello? I’m sorry for abusing you, chops… (Can’t febeel mah fabace!)

[] Presented a talk on the history of the military band for my church’s men’s breakfast group. As much fun as it was to conduct the presentation, it was at least as much fun to prepare the Powerpoint visuals on my Mac. Slightly less fun to observe the thing only partly working on the PC that the men’s group leader brought. Really guys! It was slick and cool! Honest!

Early spring 2012:

[] Attended a welcome-home gathering for a college band friend who returned from Afghanistan. No, he wasn’t in the line of fire all the time – he was more of a JAG guy than a grunt on the ground – but in my book, if you go there and come back in one piece, with your sense of humor (and everything else) intact, it counts.

[] Bought a car. Bought a car before my running my previous one into the ground (formerly a tradition). Bought a car from my trusty mechanic. Bought a car whose winter-weather performance has turned out to top my previous ride’s. While test-driving the soon-to-be-new car, I wondered whether my previous car, sitting in my mechanic’s parking lot, was feeling just a bit betrayed.

Late spring 2012:

[] Served as music director for the Bellingham HS production of “Charlotte’s Web”. The show was written by a justly-famous Broadway composer, but let’s just say it wasn’t his strongest work. Therefore: I had fun using merely the technology I can find around my house to “adjust” a number of the songs. Creativity in the service of necessity!

[] Bought a camera. I thought I wanted a camera that actually looks like my ancient idea of a (35mm) camera, rather than one of those little dinky deck-of-cards things. I stand corrected (by my good friend in the camera sellin’ business): the deck of cards hasn’t taken a bad picture yet. And oh lookie!– turns out, the reason I haven’t been a camera hound since college? I haven’t owned a camera since college. Snap snap snap snap snap snap snap snap snap snap…

Summer 2012:

[] Bid farewell to the most effective arts administrator I’ve ever known. Safe to say I wouldn’t have gotten into any of the trouble (or most of the jobs) that have come my way, had she not come up with this weird little idea for a summer arts camp all those years ago…

[] Shot my first nine holes of golf ever. Accompanied by a very understanding friend. By hole number eight, I was thinking maybe another nine holes sometime in my life might be conceivable. I also started thinking that neon-yellow golf balls were going to be a wise investment…

[] Was a first-time solo turista. Lots of research (and a few bucks!) later, I pretty much catalogued the National Mall. Mere hundred-degree temperatures can not keep this fella from standing in lines, waiting to get into DC attractions! I’m a pro at this now.

[] Ate DMA birthday cupcakes. It’s a long story, beyond the fact that it was my birthday. Confection ambush!

[] Watched just the right amount of Olympic coverage. Read: a lot. Enough to decide that my favorite new sports discovery was: The Challenge Brick.

[] Acquired another college marching band to root for. Very easy to root for this bunch, actually: their new director had them looking and sounding really really good, really really fast. Feels like home.

Fall 2012:

[] For the very first time in my teaching career, I set up a classroom which was my very own. No one else taught in this room. Just me. I could decorate it however I wanted. Cheapskate that I am, I printed up a whole lotta music quotations off my computer. Hands down, my students’ most-noted quote: “Opera: a kind of music where a guy gets stabbed, and instead of dying, he sings.”

[] Had an actual houseguest. In preparation for this occurrence, I cleaned mightily, in spite of the allegation from my houseguest that I needn’t have done so. Oh yes I needed. I should do this houseguest thing more often.

[] Made my annual pilgrimage to the marching fields of Newark, DE. Ordinarily, this trip is at least a tiny nod to my past; this time around, “the years just fell away”. Silverado!

[] Attended what one of my friends termed “Faux-coming”, which meant UMass Homecoming Day at Gillette Stadium, as the football program has gone Division I-A and therefore the stadium in Amherst is just not large enough anymore, or some such logic. More on that issue sometime soon … but for the moment, suffice it to say: [1] the last time I threw a mace in Foxboro was my senior year of college; [2] they’ve got artificial turf now so I can’t spike the thing anymore (boooo) … and [3] it occurred to me that the two alumni drum majors who were throwing sticks all over the place each had red hair and beards. We did not plan that. That was not our goal. … But it was okay.

Late fall / early winter 2012:

[] Played a one-tune gig with my six-year-old, drumset-smackin’ nephew. He’s well on his way to being a better drummer than I am. Steady beats ‘n’ everything! Just wait’ll he’s as big as the drumset … then he’ll really be dangerous.

[] Voted FOR two people (and, admittedly, firmly AGAINST their opponents, but still, it counts). In a statistically unlikely occurrence, everyone I voted for was successful, and the way I voted was the way all the referendum questions turned out. Fear me!

[] Whatever that month-plus-long upper respiratory thing was … I got it. Yes, you CAN have two colds at once.

[] Conducted the second of my brother-in-law’s Major Works for church choir and various instruments. His compositions are the ones that force me to do the most serious score study. (During the presentation of this most recent work, I had my socks knocked off by my ten-year-old, violin-playin’ niece. Kid knows her way around a fiddle.)

[] After thirteen and a half years teaching in the same town … I prepared to go teach in a different one. My apologies to the people for whom this is a news flash. It’s a relatively recent current event, and one which was my decision, not anyone else’s (lest ye wonder). Updates to follow. Promise.

 

So, yes, I guess, 2012 had stuff in it. And then some. Wonder what 2013 will bring (besides a year whose name doesn’t roll off the tongue that easily)? I’m curious… prosperity, happiness, good health and peace? Well, the negotiating rule is, shoot for the moon. If you don’t ask for ten, you may not get five.

May we all get ten.

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December 31, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Bravery

This might sound really self-inflating. Or at least self-inflating on behalf of the folks in the church choir I have the pleasure of conducting.

A couple of Sundays ago, we presented to our congregation a cantata, a multi-movement piece of choral music called “Yuhanon”. It was written by our music director and organist, Kevin Murphy, specifically for our choir and for specific instrumentalists who are a part of our congregation. Not to put too fine a point on it: it was hard.

The notes were often challenging for the singers to find. This was partly because the patches of music that preceded the choral entrances were more often than not written in 12-tone series style. For the uninitiated, which is to say, for those who have not taken graduate courses in twentieth-century compositional styles, this means that this sort of music is written without any particular tonal center. Which is to say, it’s borderline impossible to find a home-base note, a note that one can definitely identify as “do” in the classic sequence “do-re-mi”. Which is to say, singing the music sometimes felt like the equivalent of trying to grab a tennis ball that is falling during a skydive at the same rate as you are, while blindfolded.

To be fair, there were other stretches of music that did in fact feel perfectly tonal, in which it was easy for singers to find their next pitch either in relation to one they just sang, to one that some other section just sang, or to one that a nearby instrumentalist just played.

On top of that, the texts that Kevin chose were not the classic Advent texts that one might expect to hear on the 16th of December in a church; certainly if you were waiting for a “Gloria in excelsis Deo”, or lyrics that described how startled certain poor shepherds were to be addressed by a pack of angels in fields where they lay, you didn’t get either of them. At least the texts were included in an insert in our worship-service bulletin, so listeners could follow along and get the gist of each movement’s text. If you had that in front of you, you had a good chance of understanding why Kevin wrote certain sections of the work the way he did. There was a whole lotta “text painting” going on, during which the music reflected (or in fact illuminated) the intent of the music. Baroque composers frequently made sure that the highest note in one of their melodies corresponded with the words “God” or “heaven” … Kevin’s piece used pitches and rhythms and harmonies in a very much more complex way to achieve the same sorts of musical expression.

In the weeks leading up to the presentation of the cantata, Kevin did a bit of work to publicly and privately prepare people for the fact that it was a challenging piece, written in a way that might conceivably lead to a performance which was not note-perfect, but understandably so. And if the composer is on the grounds for the performance and says outright that he’s going to be okay with a presentation that isn’t precisely note-perfect … that might go some distance toward taking the nervous edge off the choir.

Or it could have been gamesmanship – a psychological ploy – even a way of lowering expectations such that if people think the piece could fall apart and it doesn’t, then we have a winner! But given that the composer is also a regular participant in the choir’s activities from week to week, I tended not to think this so much.

In any case, the way in which our choir went after that piece on that Sunday, well … quite simply, they brought their A-game. And no, the thing wasn’t completely note-perfect, but (forgive me) it was damn close and there were many more moments in which it sounded really well-prepared and confident and even brave.

And in so doing, the choir may have given people the impression that you have to be a really fine singer in order to be one of us. Unintentionally, to be sure … but I can imagine that there may have been people out in the congregation who thought to themselves, “boy, that’s over my head. I could never do that.”

Whoops.

Not our goal, for openers. Also, as the saying goes, “we live to serve” – not to impress. As has been chronicled in this space before, we have a great many more people in the group who have not been formally trained as singers than who have. We have many people who, if asked if they are Singers, would probably say “no; but I’m in the choir.” They may not know all the musical and physiological terminology associated with what they’re doing (I always make sure to gently define words like “crescendo” and “chest voice” and the like, something like including subtitles at the bottom of the movie screen) … but once they’ve been in the choir for a little while, they figure out how to blend their voices with all the other voices and contribute to a beautiful sound.

So, if anyone had a thought about joining our choir, or any church choir, or any community chorus … and then heard a piece of music that made them think maybe they couldn’t do it, just because it sounded difficult or complex … we apologize for the misconception.

And we suggest, nay, we beg! … that they reconsider. We won’t let them flop. Or, certainly, we won’t let them skydive alone. We’re all in this together … and it’s a blast.

December 27, 2012 Posted by | choir, music, SUMC | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

And Heav’n and Nature Sing

I have a history with holiday tunes.

Today was my day to catch up on all the holiday shopping I need to do. For me, the time that has elapsed since Black Friday has been as full of school- and church-related musical events and rehearsals and preparation as ever … and then some. But I had amassed a mental pile of great ideas. Ah! The niece foolishly let slip that this particular subject interested her; the brother-in-law mentioned something in an offhand way that fired my imagination; now all I had to do was locate those items.

So, after putting on my spear and magic helmet, my breastplate and Wagnerian sense of reckless abandon … oh, fine. After slapping on a baseball cap and some clothes that would not make me look like I’d just rolled out of bed … I mounted my trusty steed (hi-yo, Sentra) and forged a path into the world of holiday commerce.

And was reminded, as I am every year, of what it is that can make holiday shopping excruciating.

Not the traffic. Today, I had no schedule particularly, so I wasn’t late for anything, so if I got into gridlock, I just turned up the CD full of Vince Guaraldi and did the driver’s seat version of the “Charlie Brown Christmas” school-auditorium dance. Let the other drivers stare.

Not even the parking lot traffic. Though I admit to harboring some briefly un-Christian sentiments for the owner of a zippy little red sports car who stole a parking space that I had been awaiting for a good three minutes, while its previous owner loaded his car and readied himself to leave. The departing car backed up and neatly (probably unintentionally) blocked me off, whereupon Red flung himself into the space with the firmly buckled swash of an Errol Flynn movie.

Not the crowds in the stores. Though I had a moment of crisis when one particular otherwise fine gentleman paused for the purpose of staring deeply into the eyes of his smartphone, just after having advanced two steps into the front foyer of a large chain store. The gymnastics I performed, in the effort not to plow into Smartphone’s spinal cord, should have put me right next to Nadia Comaneci in the Great Big Book Of Legendary Sports Performances. I walked away feeling as if I’d gotten my exercise for the day.

Instead – and sadly, too, for a fellow whose living is made in the service of educating as many people as possible about great ways to perform and listen to it – it’s the music.

 

I love holiday music. I do get a kick out of imagining the recording sessions that probably had to happen in the pit of summer, in order to get a holiday-themed CD released to stores and public-address-system music delivery services in time for December. “Have Yourself a Sweaty Little Christmas,” performed by musicians in flip-flops and Bermuda shorts. But at no other time of the year, save perhaps the Fourth of July, do I get as fired up for the music that will be unleashed – music which is particular to that time of year and that time only. Weird to hear “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” in August; perfectly grand to hear it right around the winter solstice.

As with any sub-category of music, there’s some that’s terrific and some that’s awful … but I usually burn a CD every December with my personal favorite Christmas items, plug it into the car stereo and go. Guaraldi … Crosby … the Boston Pops playing Leroy Anderson’s “A Christmas Festival” (required) … John Denver and the Muppets … and every year, a wild card. This year, that one is an arrangement of Silent Night, a demo recording released by a percussion ensemble music publisher. The arrangement is in either a really slow 5/4 or a reasonable 10/4 meter – very creative, good for slowing the heart rate.

The stuff that is dispensed by the department store sound systems, though … well. It suffers from all the “challenges” that current pop music offers. Actually, all through music history we have had singers who haven’t known how to sing in a healthy way. And lately, they’re assisted by auto-tuning devices, and please don’t get me started about that. But even without that technological crutch, most successful pop singers perform with the particular version of gospel / R&B -inflected ornamenting which renders them incapable of singing a melody straight – they add flips and scoops and all manner of extra little touches, and the original melody barely gets out alive. In certain styles of music, the extras do make sense. Okay for actual R&B tunes. Not so OK for the National Anthem, as I’ve chronicled in this space previously. Okay because after all, Stevie Wonder and Carole King and Jimmy Buffett and all kinds of fine pop musicians did it, and it was appropriate for the music they gravitated to.

Not okay for some Christmas music.

Sorry for making such hard-and-fast declarations, but there are certain pieces of music attached to the Christmas season that I don’t want to hear subjected to the Unique Vocal Stylings – nor do I particularly want to hear those pieces of music arranged in ways which not only don’t enhance or even support the original material, but which definitely, jarringly, take it to places where it probably was never meant to go.

I walked into my first department store of the day and immediately heard a relatively generic pop songstress delivering a power-ballad version of “The First Noel” that, to me, revealed her complete lack of understanding of what the song was about. It didn’t help that the grand finish of the arrangement featured our lead vocalist wailing, molto rallentando, “Born is the King [breathe] … of I–is- [breathe] … -ra-el!”

As soon as that item was done, along came “Feliz Navidad”, and my first reaction was, so Jose Feliciano’s version wasn’t good enough? Not that I’ve always thought it was the deepest song ever written; but at the same time, well, I love the Earth Wind & Fire tune “Let’s Groove” but (if you listen closely enough) the lyrics ain’t exactly Holy Scripture either. I thought that the vocalist, a young man with a bright future, was actually singing it in a more tolerable way than the previous mid-word breather; but he was being overwhelmed by the R&B studio band that was allegedly backing him up. Poor guy. Frequency compression claims another victim.

I visited a couple more stores and began to feel my musical immune system kick in. I focused lots more on avoiding the cheap plastic brightly-packaged instantly-breakable crap toys and less on what sounds were being forced on all of us consumer types from the speakers in the heavens. I got into a holiday-commerce groove, and thought I might actually make it home alive (and escape with my honor and artistic integrity unscathed).

 

At my last stop, I got out of my car – after having parked it on the outskirts of the parking lot (always safer, I find) – and heard a faint and relatively unusual sound. Carols, sung by 15 or 18 people, mostly unison, probably not accompanied by much more than a portable keyboard. The sound was coming from the direction of the strip mall that was my final stop.

Sadly, the music teacher portion of my brain went on duty first. I say “sadly” because my first reaction was “error detection and correction”. A bit flat there. Not quite together there. Let’s listen across the group to each other. Unified vowels? Leave the consonants till very late in the syllables please …

Within a moment, a different part of my brain kicked in and scolded the music teacher part. That section of my musical brain is the one that has been freed up to assert itself since late yesterday afternoon (because that’s when school vacation started for me). That’s the part of my brain that hears the Salvation Army bell being rung, and instead of wishing they could maybe find a lower-pitched bell, it wishes I could find more change in my pockets because the folks ringing the bells do good work.

It’s the part of my brain that is the Tiny Tim (“God bless us every one”) to my “error detection” instinct’s Scrooge, sometimes.

The fifteen or so singers in question were clearly not a professional choir. They may have been a church choir, or they may have been just a group of friends who decided they wanted to park themselves between the barbershop and the supermarket entrance and sing carols on the last Saturday before Christmas. A couple of them were in wheelchairs. Most of them were retirees, probably. And someone indeed was sitting behind a little keyboard at the end of an extension cord; I had a hard time hearing the keyboard over the singing. Some of the singers were singing lustily; others may have been singing just loudly enough to hear themselves. The music educator brain was assessing the balance. The other, more relaxed part of the brain was telling the music educator brain to ease off, and was instead wishing there were more groups like this, parking themselves in more heavily-trafficked shopping areas.

The world could stand more reminders that singing started out as an activity for anyone, not just people with access to Auto-Tune and agents. It started out as a social activity, not just as a cash cow. And it started out as a means of human expression, not just as noise to fill the background (or to get people to shop faster).

And heav’n and nature sing.”

If we only could turn down the noise enough to notice … or to remember to do the singing ourselves.

December 22, 2012 Posted by | choir, entertainment, music | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment