Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Hearing Voices

I stumbled onto an intriguing job posting today.

No, I’m not looking for a new job. I just GOT this new one, for heaven’s sake.

In any case, the job is in an almost entirely different field from my current line of work; although some of the job qualifications I could have acquired eventually, had I somehow stayed in the journalism biz long enough and pointing in the right direction (which is to say, not the direction I was pointing, which was toward trade and tech journals, rather than television and radio).

National Public Radio is looking for someone to say, “This is NPR”. Repeatedly.

There’s more to the gig than that, but that detail was what got quite the attention of a number of my online acquaintances.

There’s a certain something about an NPR voiceover that makes it distinct, and distinctly different from, say, yahoo sports talk radio, or from 1010 WINS in New York City, or from most commercial broadcasters. Hard to pin down exactly what that certain something is. Once I heard some rube describe the men of NPR News as “announcers who’ve discovered their softer side”. But if you randomly turn a radio on and get an NPR voiceover, whether it’s “from NPR in Washington” or from a local affiliate’s on-air personality, you know you’ve hit public radio.

To describe the NPR voice, I suppose I could use adjectives like calm, relaxed, urbane, serene, or folksy; but that would label me as biased toward the organization. So sue me; I like the sound of it. With a few possible exceptions like the Car Talk guys, just about everyone on public radio, from news programming to “America’s Test Kitchen”, has those certain, yes, soothing elements in their voices. It’s a little jarring, the first time you hear “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me” when one of the panelists is comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, he of the reedy and slightly desperate voice.

THAT’S what it is – nobody at NPR ever sounds like they’re breathless and desperate. (Except around pledge drive time, but that’s not really programming, that’s begging. So.)

Anyway, the job opening. I’m not qualified. I have a few of the qualifications that NPR lists in its classified ad, but not nearly enough for them to toss my resume in the “take another look” pile.

We’re looking for someone with serious production chops, … and is comfortable managing a complex workflow and ‘ready-to-air’ deadlines.” So, not me. I’ve only visited radio stations.

Must have strong [experience with] Dalet, Adobe Audition, ProTools or similar production tools” … I’ve heard of the latter two, but I admit that I looked at the first one and heard the word “exterminate!” in my head, so I think that tends to deny me full marks.

[Must have] at least four years of production or broadcast experience with emphasis in professional voice announcement and production” … not even nearly close, unless you count my emcee work at church hymn sings.

[Must demonstrate] at all times respect for the diverse constituencies at NPR and within the public radio system” … well, I know people who can confirm that I’ve never made fun of Garrison Keillor, Ira Glass or any attempt by NPR to cover professional sports, so that’s something. And, years ago, I wrote a set of lyrics to the tune of “O Tannenbaum” that on the surface made me sound like I was taking shots at the public radio fundraiser, but actually there was plenty of affection involved. (“O woe is us, O woe is us / If we don’t get your pledges / Our operating budget is / Ragged ’round the edges”…)

So, knowing that I was not going to be a finalist for this position, nonetheless, I got to wondering: what would I sound like if I tried to make an audition recording?

Very few people I know actually like the sound of their own recorded speaking voice. Something to do with how we’re used to hearing it from inside our own heads, and it sounds different on the outside, where we never are. Many times, students of mine have exclaimed, “that’s not me! That’s not us!” Ah, but it is.

(I’ve gotten used to my speaking voice. Now my singing voice is another matter, but that’s one thing that’s great about being a church choir director: you’re almost always facing away from the congregation.)

From the NPR ad: “Bonus points for the ability to sound authentic on the radio – we’re not looking for ‘the voice of God.’”

You’re not? Why didn’t you say so sooner!?

So for kicks, I marched over to my little digital recorder device, took a deep breath, and read the copy that NPR suggested would constitute a proper audition recording.

Support for this program comes from Zurich Insurance, providing risk management and insurance solutions to help businesses meet their ever-changing needs. Learn more at Zurich N-A dot com. {ZUR – ik}. Novo Nordisk, committed to diabetes care and changing lives for more than 90 years. Novo Nordisk hyphen U-S dot com. and CarMax, offering more than 35,000 used cars and trucks. Online, and in stores from coast to coast. Learn more at CarMax dot com. This is NPR.”

I will admit that speaking those words … words which for the most part are just ads for NPR’s corporate sponsors … put my mind in a different place than most words I speak.

All Things Considered is a production of NPR News, which is solely responsible for its content. Transcripts of stories you hear on this program are available for free the following day at NPR dot org. Select the “Transcripts” link on every story page. To find out more about the movies you hear about on NPR programs, go to NPR dot org slash movies. This is NPR.”

The equivalent in the non-NPR world would be contributing your own voice to the paragraph “You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension: a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas; you’ve just crossed over into the Twilight Zone.”

Or substituting your own voice for the CBS Sports announcer who used to rattle off the commercial sponsors of its NFL games: “Brought to you bahhh…”

Or using your own voice to pull a Don LaFontaine movie trailer maneuver, saying things like, “In a world… where this and that collide… one man… has the power to change the world… forever.”

Can’t pull any of that off. Sorry.

But this, I can manage:

And even though Ernest Shackleton organizes another doomed expedition to the Antarctic whenever he hears us say it … this is NPR, National Public Radio.”

May 22, 2013 Posted by | media, npr, radio, technology | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Super-Size Me?

I am not an impulse buyer.

More than once, I have half-joked that just about the only purchases I make that aren’t subject to either comparison shopping or “let me go home and sleep on it for a night” are the half-gallons of milk I pick up at the local market. (And only because I’ve done my comparison shopping already, so, no need now.)

During the trips I’ve made to my favorite driving range this month, I’ve kept an eye on a little grove of golf clubs near the cashier’s window. The clubs’ grip ends are stuck into a wooden box with appropriate-sized holes drilled in it. Their club-head ends reach eagerly toward the people handing over bucks in exchange for buckets of practice golf balls. Their price tags flap in the breeze.

Over the course of the last year, since the first day I dragged my new bag full of discount golf clubs to that driving range, set myself up as far as geographically possible from any other human, certainly including the gentleman who ran the joint, and attempted to make the club face meet the ball, I have undergone an relatively minor-league transformation. I have gone from zero to something.

I began with no discernible long-distance hitting ability. Through a summer of self-diagnosis (and three actual formal lessons with a Golf Pro), I acquired the capacity to actually strike golf balls on purpose. I do sometimes hit a hot grounder to shortstop, but for the most part the missiles go up and out. It’s now rare that I can’t at least keep the ball inside the foul lines.

I can now reliably hit a golf ball from one end zone to, and over, the far end zone. Conveniently, that driving range of mine features a bunker which Google Maps tells me is 100 meters from my favorite tee. It’s a fine way to judge that at least I can get that far. There’s another bunker 150 meters out, and I’ve hit that one on occasion, though certainly not with consistency.

The cut-rate driver that I acquired at what I’ve come to call the Annual Mad Scramble For Loot golf equipment sale seemed to me, at the time, a formidable instrument. The club head was nicely threatening-looking, I thought, at least if you were a golf ball – probably because I’d only ever owned a putter and a scrubby little iron, so it was the only club head in my bag that didn’t look like it could double as a butter knife. But I took a few swings with this thing and it made a satisfying noise: mostly “thwack”, with a nice aftertaste of “pang”. Unless I made incomplete contact, in which case the whole range heard more of a “tunk”, followed by two gentle hissings. One hiss was made by the ball cutting the tops off the nearby blades of grass. The other came from betwixt my teeth; a four-letter word with the last two letters similarly excised.

This morning, I paid my standard pittance and collected my golf ball bucket from the driving range general manager, who today smiled and said, “ah! One of my regulars.” Yep, I’m your five-bucks-every-third-day guy. I set my bag down at my usual faraway tee. Stretched a bit. Tried to hit proper iron shots off an artificial turf mat. (That nearly never works; you can’t make a divot. The iron bounces off the deck and the ball goes bouncy bouncy bouncy bouncy bouncy bouncy for about three car lengths.) Tried to tee off using my hybrid, which did work, to the tune of a hundred yards and a splat of bunker sand, or ninety yards and a slow roll. Nothing unexpected, at least given my current swing.

A little while later, it was my driver, a number-one wood. I have a number-five wood, too, which has, to my eye, a really steep club face angle. No matter what I do, that five sends golf balls more Up than Out. The number-one makes that nice noise, and gets me usually to between 120 and 150 yards. I’m no PGA tour candidate, but when the ball comes to rest, I can’t read its “Calloway” logo, so I’m okay.

Today, though, I got thinking about that little grotto of clubs for sale by the cashier window.

One driver, right in the middle of the group of a dozen or so clubs, looked a bit like a crime boss amidst his minions. It reminded me very strongly of the drivers that Christy Kerr and Keegan Bradley had wielded as they teed off during televised tournaments I’ve watched recently. Which is to say, at first glance the club head looked like it was the size of my head.

This thing was Chewbacca to my number-one driver’s Lassie.

When baseball players choose bats, they have to choose based on criteria that do not include size. Hockey players, and tennis players as well. There are rules. You can’t use a tennis racket that is twice the diameter of your opponent’s; you can’t change the content or the dimensions of your Louisville Slugger; and you can’t even have a hockey stick that is excessively curved, never mind of a different size.

Golfers, apparently, have options.

But in my professional life, I have come to know that a more expensive trumpet won’t make a rank amateur sound like Satchmo. (For that matter, if you buy a bigger trumpet, it’s a marching baritone horn.) So why was I looking longingly at this club? If you have a more menacing-looking driver and you swing badly, the ball still goes astray. A mis-hit is a mis-hit is a mis-hit. Conversely, I would hate to be forced to ascribe a sudden improvement in my game to the addition of different equipment. Somewhere in my psyche, like anyone else’s, there is the need to take at least a little credit. I made this!

I tried to get the owner of the range to let me take that beast out for a test drive. He was reticent, but at least I wasn’t just coming in off the street for the first time. So he put up a slight sales pitch – “that’s a good used club, especially the shaft … pretty new … for seventy-five bucks, a decent deal. No sense paying what you could pay for it new, probably three or four hundred dollars.”

Having done my comparison shopping, my Internet and sporting-goods store homework, and my protracted reconnaissance, I knew all that.

I guess I gave him just enough of a sense that I was genuinely interested in buying it that he relented. He masking-taped the underside of the club, accepted my credit card as collateral (“you break it, you buy it”, after all), and gave me another bucket of projectiles. At his recommendation, I went to find a taller tee to hit off of (“the club face is big enough that if you hit off your usual tee, you’ll hit over the top,” he said). As I set up, I tried to look nonchalant, as if I had done just as much hitting with this size club as had the fella at a nearby tee. Don’t know whether I succeeded, but at least I tried not to think too hard about my swing. Set feet, check shoulders, head down, hit through …

BANG.

Up and over that first bunker … and the second one.

I don’t have one of those high-tech rangefinding devices that get sneakily advertised during the Golf Channel’s “tips from a pro” shows, but I got the idea.

Without a serious set of lessons from a pro, and presumably without pumping a little iron to boot, I’ll never be one of those guys who looks at a par-five 500-yard seventeenth hole and thinks, “eagle.” But my goodness, that was a nice sound to make with a strip of metal and a pair of upper arms.

And then another one. Not quite so much distance as a result of that sound, but comparable.

I was set up on a driving mat that was all the way over on the right-hand end of the row of mats, and so there was no one for my right-handed self to see ahead of me. I could hear the gentleman behind me, though. It sounded as if he was making more than decent contact when he swung … but after every single drive, he took somebody’s name in vain. Or at least made very, very unsatisfied grunts and blowing-out-of-breath sounds. Maybe I was wrong; for all I knew, those irritated noises might have been reacting to shot after shot after shot after shot that looked more like a lacrosse ground ball than any kind of golf shot.

Forty-nine or so of my own swings later, only a couple of which posed a threat to the dandelions, I decided to wander back to the cashier window and make a purchase. But I paused briefly, ostensibly to re-tie my shoes, but really to get a look at the man with the equally-threatening-looking driver and the dim view of his own work.

One of the four shots I watched (I tie slow) cut some grass, but the other three went BANG, up, out, and gone.

So maybe at some point I’ll be be jaded about hitting from one end zone over the far end zone and well into the next guy’s football field, or maybe get frustrated about not being able to do so consistently. But for the moment …

Hee hee hee hee hee.

I wonder if Teddy Roosevelt was a golfer?

May 18, 2013 Posted by | golf, sports, technology | , , , , | Leave a comment

A Hard Act to Follow

For twenty-six years, Sir Alex Ferguson has been the manager of Manchester United, a soccer team which takes part in that rather remarkable league called English Premier League football. And in that time, he has led that team to as many league titles as he has not.

That last sentence is a rather strange one. I am nonetheless rather proud of it, in spite of the fact that it almost plays down Mr. Ferguson’s accomplishment: thirteen Premier League titles in twenty-six seasons. If you’re an American sports fan, you might try to set Ferguson’s record in context by racking your brain, in search of the really successful sports team coaches or managers of your experience. Perhaps you may come up with names like Vince Lombardi, John Wooden, Joe Torre, or Phil Jackson.

In Lombardi’s football head coaching career with the Green Bay Packers, he led that team to five championship titles in ten seasons – a similar “winning percentage” to Ferguson’s, but over less than half the time. John Wooden led the UCLA men’s basketball team to ten NCAA titles in twelve seasons – a still-unmatched “winning percentage”, but again, during a career less than half the length of Ferguson’s time with Manchester United.

As a Red Sox fan, I have looked at Joe Torre’s record as skipper of the New York Yankees in the 1990s and 2000s with envy, but that record is four World Series titles in twelve years – again, he led his team to the championship only a paltry 33 percent of the time.

Phil Jackson might come close: he gets points for winning eleven NBA titles in 20 seasons, as coach of two different teams – but there are those who would give Ferguson more points for being with the same team for so long. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anyone who has been coach or manager (title-winning or not) of an American sports team for 26 consecutive years – and I can’t imagine it happening any time soon.

As is the case with many charismatic sports team leaders, there are Ferguson anecdotes that would make people smile with admiration and respect, and there are also anecdotes describing his treatment of his players that would make any rational human being think, “that’s probably no way to treat another person.” (Throwing a soccer cleat in anger at David Beckham’s forehead, in the locker room, and drawing blood? Not what I’d want to be remembered for. Tellingly, during the season after that incident, Beckham was not with Manchester United, but Ferguson still was.)

But at the end of the day – at the end of this season, and at the end of this career – Ferguson’s record of achievement will be what is invoked. He took an unheralded Manchester United team and turned it into a thirteen-time Premier League champion and a worldwide name in sports. And at the end of his career, he had been coach of the same professional sports organization (and had survived and thrived in an pressurized environment of towering media and fan-base scrutiny) for longer than most of his players had been alive, let alone participants in the sport of soccer.

The topic which will inevitably arise, if it hasn’t already, among the fans and followers of Manchester United is this: who will be the next Man U manager? And who can … who could … who would want to try to … follow Sir Alex Ferguson?

As a Boston sports fan for the last forty or so years (oh oww), I have had opportunities to ponder this series of questions. Boston has a nice little history of success (coupled with contrasting runs of futility, which of course set the successes into sharper relief); and when a Boston sports figure is visited with great accomplishment, we can’t imagine life without him. When Bobby Orr left the Bruins, it took me effort even to think of the names of any other Bruin defensemen, right away. The first year that the Celtics team roster didn’t include Larry Bird, Kevin McHale or Robert Parish, it felt like the Earth’s rotation had paused. And there probably aren’t too many people who can name the first people who stepped into those people’s roles immediately thereafter. I’ve used this phrase often: “someone will succeed them, but no one will ever replace them.”

It’s always difficult to be “the new guy”. And it’s really tough to be the one who has to follow successful people.

Again, the Bostonian in me pauses to reflect:

Terry Francona achieved legendary status by being the manager who led the Red Sox to not one but two World Series in four seasons, after the storied franchise suffered its equally-storied 86-year championship drought. His title-winning percentage was only 25 percent – hardly Wooden-esque. But when Francona stepped down as Sox manager, I remember being ready to feel badly for whomever came next. That fellow, Bobby Valentine, lasted just one season – which probably had more to do with his management style than with the man he was following, But following Francona – the man who broke The Curse – would have been hard to do in any case.

There are those of us who wonder what life will be like when the coach and quarterback of the New England Patriots aren’t Bill Belichick and Tom Brady – and their title-winning percentage, huge for the once-hapless franchise, is only 23 percent: three titles in 13 years.

I frankly can’t even remember who coached the Bruins just before Claude Julien brought his professional hockey approach to Boston just a couple of years ago and helped bring the Stanley Cup back to the Hub.

And when Arthur Fiedler passed away, after having been conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra for nearly fifty years, he was succeeded by composer and conductor John Williams. Williams, on the strength of his musical experience, not the least of which included his Star Wars, Superman, E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind movie-score successes, might have been among the very few names who could have carried off such a transition. Even so, he had his hands full convincing a number of the Pops musicians in his early time in Boston. And when Williams decided to depart the Pops, the startlingly young and (to New Englanders) relatively unknown Keith Lockhart was handed probably the most difficult task in Boston music history: take up the Pops mantle and follow the combined legacy of Williams and Fiedler.

On the smaller scale of my own professional life, I’ve observed or experienced the “hard to follow the legend” effect a few times.

The gentleman who was the choir director at the church where I grew up passed away after having held that position for twenty years. At the time, the average length of time spent in any one church-musician job was estimated to be not quite one-sixth that long. The young woman who was chosen as his successor was very different from him: she was probably forty years younger, she was a she (which constituted a new and challenging experience for some of the choir members), and she happened to be a classically-trained singer (our late choir director’s primary instrument was percussion). She was only at our church for a couple of years before moving back to the Midwest; but while her predecessor’s framed picture is still on the wall in our little chapel, she is remembered with great fondness (and more than a few mischievous giggles) by folks who sang with her then and are still around now.

I have chronicled, in this space, the process of transition that took place after the sudden passing of my college band director, who had held that position with nearly unprecedented success and national influence for thirty-three years. In one of those posts, I described my own experience as the guy whose job it was to follow another local college band director who had held that position with distinction for twenty-five years. Happily for me, he made it easier than it might otherwise have been; but there were still early moments of struggle (not by him!) – easily understood; no apology necessary.

At the beginning of this calendar year, I went to work in just the third new school district of my teaching career. In a rare occurrence for this profession, it was the first time I’d actually followed any “former music teacher” in that position. My first position was small, newly-created, and short-lived (it was eliminated after a year). The mandate from the principal at the second school I ever taught at was, “build a program” – there hadn’t been a full-time music teacher there for at least the previous couple of years. Four months ago, I stepped into a position in which I was following a gentleman who was a very popular and accomplished teacher. I’ve heard lots and lots of glowing reviews about him. The high school singers he’d left in place were quite a skilled bunch, which has been great for technical music-making (my first concert with them was this past week – there was some fine singin’ that night) … and at the same time they obviously missed him. A lot. And I’ve tried – using an anecdote from my own recent experience – to let them know that I understood at least a little bit about where their heads were.

The job of “the new guy” – no matter what the occupation, no matter what the position – is not (nor should it be) to make everyone forget his or her predecessor. And it’s not (nor should it be) to be just like that person, no matter how much the fans, or the media, or the ensemble, or the alumni, wish that could be the case. If the “new guy” does his or her job well, s/he will honor the accomplishments and influence of his or her predecessor where that is appropriate and helpful; and s/he will build on past successes. My college band director said, during a college class that taught music education majors what it took to direct school bands, “It takes ten years to build up a program; and only one year to tear it down.”

Whoever the person is who will be the manager of the Manchester United football club will have my sympathy, and my empathy. He will be endlessly compared to Sir Alex Ferguson, fairly or not. With luck, he will understand that everything he can do to try to be a successful manager may not be enough for some fans, or media, or players. And, it can be hoped, even if he isn’t the next Sir Alex, he can find some success – or at least he’ll not be so dispirited by the experience that he’ll be discouraged from ever trying to find success anywhere else, afterward.

May 11, 2013 Posted by | band, baseball, celebrity, choir, education, entertainment, Famous Persons, football, GNP, marching band, media, music, sports, Starred Thoughts, SUMC, teachers, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment