Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

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.

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December 22, 2012 - Posted by | choir, entertainment, music | , , , , , , , ,

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