Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Everything You’ve Got

During one of my sixth-grade chorus rehearsals earlier this week, I called on a raised hand that obviously had a question behind it, and not a bathroom-break request. (With regard to the bathroom break, I paraphrase the main character in the wonderful musical show I recently blogged about: “whatever you’re asking … the answer is no.”)

I hoped that the young lady’s question was going to have something to do with the topic at hand. Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, it did.

“I’m on the track team, and …”

No really, it actually had something to do with what we were dealing with in Chorus that day …

“… our coach said we should save our full-strength work for the actual competition.”

It was one of those questions camouflaged by an assertion. Why don’t we operate like the track team? (I’m going to be a Pollyanna and assume that the subtext of the question wasn’t “why can’t we chat whenever we want?”) And here’s why the question was appropriate:

I had been noting that a few of our rehearsal techniques were probably not going to help us come concert time. That is, admittedly, a gentle way of putting it.

“If you chat while the piano introduction to a tune is going on, not only will you not know what it sounds like, therefore not have any clue about when to start singing … but you’ll get used to chatting during the intro. And when you get on stage, that’s what you’ll do.”

I debated going to one of my favorite Starred Thoughts, the venerable “practice does not make perfect; practice makes permanent.”

Instead, I suggested sagely, “If we practice the way we want to perform, we have a prayer of doing well on the actual stage. There are going to be enough things that are different when we finally do get on the stage – you’re blinded by the stage lights, it’s dark out in the house, there are PEOPLE out there, you’re on the risers, there are no ‘re-starts’ – that you don’t want to also be thinking ‘we should have practiced more … we should have practiced harder’. So put everything you have into rehearsing what you want people to be impressed by. So that what you do out there is what you normally do.”

That was when the track coach’s philosophy was invoked.

In that moment, I held to my own philosophy, the better to continue encouraging my sixth-grade singing charges to Not Slack Off. Not that I’m intractable; but these kids, sweet darlings though they were, did not need another excuse to lose focus.

But on the way home, I got thinking.

First, did the track coach really say that? Sometimes the journalistic skills of eleven-year-olds can be a wee bit suspect.

Second, if he did really say that, does that mean that there’s a fundamental difference between the preparation strategies of athletic teams and those of musical ensembles? Or just between his and mine?

It’s true: on occasion during the “final run-through” I have looked at my trumpet section, or my church choir sopranos and tenors, and said something like, “Sing/play wisely; don’t spend it all in one place; it’s going to be a long day.” Sometimes you do have to concede the game, if not the match, to the physical demands of musical performance.

But I got to wondering: as an athlete – which I’m not, which is why I’m asking (maybe not so rhetorically) – if you don’t lay it out there, if you don’t practice “with pads on” at least some of the time …

How do you know what “putting everything you have into it” feels like? How do you know what you need to do, when you need to do it?

March 21, 2014 Posted by | arts, choir, music, sports | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Payoff

I went and got myself a little culture last night. (In the land of my upbringing, here in the great northeast of the United States, that’s pronounced “cult-chah”.)

In my current music-ed line of work, I’m mostly in front of or otherwise in charge of some artistic endeavor or other. So, although it’s not a politically-correct phrase anymore, it’s still true: it’s nice every once in a while to be an Indian and not a Chief.

So I jumped in the car, drove for a while, found the former firehouse that had been converted into a little black-box theater, and settled into a seat in the back corner of the house (the better to not have anyone whisper “down in front!” at me). For twenty minutes, I perused the playbill and watched other people come in and decide on their favorite general-admission seats … and then the lights above me went down, the lights on stage went up, and the community-theater presentation of a rather famous musical show began.

To this show, I had carried a couple of items of unfortunate baggage.  Here’s the first:

In the mid-1990s, a snarky little movie was released called “Waiting for Guffman”, which told the story of a community-theater group in a Midwestern town. The movie was made by the same people who made “A Mighty Wind”, “Best in Show”, and “This Is Spinal Tap” – all “mockumentaries” which poked fun at recreational activities and their participants. “Guffman” has been a favorite of mine, not merely because one of the characters is played by an actor to whom I bear some resemblance. A lot of its humor comes from the foibles of some purveyors of the amateur musical-theatre activity. It does so as gently as probably can be done, revealing most of its story’s small-town would-be actors as enthusiastic, doggedly serious about their craft, and blissfully unaware that most of them are only vaguely good at it … and perhaps pathetically noble through all of that. Still, Fred Willard is in it, so there’s going to be a certain amount of over-the-top.

So I went to last night’s show having not been to a super lot of what could be called “local amateur community musical theater” productions. I’ve been involved in children’s theater for quite some time now, and I understand all too well the truth that in those shows, utter perfection will likely not be achieved. There, we’re focusing at least as much on offering our kids the experience of Putting On A Show which may inspire them to keep doing it throughout their lives … as we are on hitting marks, singing great notes, saying the funny lines such that people will laugh, and speaking clearly so the audience can hear.

I wasn’t sure what I should expect from, if you will, “grownups’ theater”. Or even whom I should expect.

The cast ranged in age from “just out of college” to “my kids are just out of college”. There were some very, very fine voices attached to a lot of those people, even if all of them hadn’t been voice majors. Good thing: it was challenging stuff. And much more often than not, the acting made me forget that it was acting.

And, as a pit-orchestra veteran, I appreciated how well last night’s pit orchestra rose to the challenge of the particular score they were tasked with playing, and also how well they did it from a location that was completely out of sight of the stage. That’s how “little” this little black-box theater was. The pit was somewhere backstage. I think. It was either telepathy or, more likely, a whole lot of quality rehearsal that gave the audience reason to believe that the pit was “out of sight” figuratively as well as literally.

A few paragraphs ago, I did mention that I’d carried more than one piece of baggage to the show. Here’s the other. It’s a piece of baggage that weighed on me at the start of the evening.

I own the DVD of the Broadway revival of this particular show, from about seven years ago. On top of that, I’ve bookmarked and carefully watched the video of a recent staged-concert version of this show, which is currently posted (infringing copyright heavily) on YouTube.

The people in those productions are professionals with the experience, and the willingness to study their craft, and the kind of talent, that gets people in position to be On Broadway in the first place. Slaving at the five-and-ten, dreaming of the great day when … they’ll be in a Show.

The Broadway people whose names we know – and *the influence of whose performances we can recognize in other people’s interpretations of their roles!* – are phenomenal performers. They are so good at their job that they can do it practically in their sleep … while deathly ill … or while myriad offstage calamities are simultaneously befalling them. No matter what, they are utterly, reliably skilled, such that they make us believe it’s effortless. They make us forget that they’re humans, and could flop at any moment unless they bring their “A” game all the time.

Most other people on earth who try to do what they do … stand a nearly-one-hundred-percent chance of not looking or sounding quite that good. Because for the majority of us (and I am part of that “us”, no doubt!), our “A” game will not look like their “A” game.

The people on stage last night were bucking those odds. As well, they were putting on a show that at least a few of the people in the audience, myself included, knew backwards and forwards. I found myself mouthing most of the words to most of the tunes. It sure wasn’t a totally new show, never-before-seen. It wasn’t one of those shows which closed after three performances on Broadway in 1951 and then faded into obscurity, songs and all. People knew what that show was supposed to look and sound like. And yet more perilous: some of us had brought precise and recent images of award-winning performances with us into that black-box theater last night.

Probably not fair to load all this on top of a cast made up of people with degrees in subjects other than greasepaint. But boy, it was fun. It was almost as if the cast was gleefully thumbing its collective nose at the risks of putting that sort of show on.

All of this is not to offer some kind of patronizing apology for the fact that the Broadway Illusion Of Complete Perfection tends to be seen only on Broadway. (Broadway people will probably be able to quote you chapter and verse about the miscues and screwups and other imperfections that they’ve been part of, even though the paying customers might not have noticed any of them.) No need to say something condescending like “not bad, for amateurs”. Last night’s was a thoroughly enjoyable show – probably because of, not in spite of, the fact that the presenters were taking part in the activity for the love of it.

The word “amateur” has taken on an unfair connotation. It’s come to imply low-quality performance, or a lack of training. But at heart, doesn’t it mean … “we’re just not getting paid”?

In fact, I think I had such a good time because the presenters generally didn’t make a living at it. Only a couple of them had majored in this stuff. Many had plenty of experience treading the boards, but it was their avocation, not their vocation. I think I discovered that, as much as I enjoy laying out big bucks every so often to see someone like Harry Connick Jr. strut his stuff, or to listen to the Boston Symphony Orchestra play a definitive version of a classical work, the payoff of a performance presented by people who don’t do it for a living can often be at least as great. That curtain call last night seemed genuinely joyful.

True: in my case, it helped that I knew a couple of the folks involved with the show. Full disclosure. I was rooting pretty hard.

Regardless … last night’s payoff was good and big.

 

[Most of the shows in the Marblehead Little Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” are sold out, but there may yet be a couple of tickets left for one of next weekend’s shows. Please do go here to find out. I think you will not be sorry you did.]

March 15, 2014 Posted by | arts, entertainment, music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Are You Kidding?

Another week, another free-associating flashback to an ancient memory.

I read a brief post on the local social media engine this afternoon that referenced the Vince Lombardi rest stop, toward the very northern end of the New Jersey Turnpike. For most people, this location is at best a place to remedy the difficulties of a long highway journey – gotta go, gotta eat. For most people, this location is assuredly not a garden spot, in spite of it being located in the Garden State. For most people, this location is best experienced by utilizing, as one of my favorite teachers once said, “the ol’ git-in and git-out deal.”

But if you’re a college band person, and your band ever traveled between New England and the lower Mid-Atlantic, this joint may be the location of one or more of your favorite memories. Or at the very least, when you drive past at 70 miles an hour, you still look over at it and smile a little.

In my case, not a memory I would like to experience again, necessarily; but as with so many things in life … it’s amusing now.

 

The graduate assistant of the Boston University band (your humble correspondent) stepped up into the cab of the band’s equipment truck. It was the biggest truck which I was licensed to drive, and easily the biggest vehicle I’ve ever been in charge of, then or since. I was up high! and in control!

The second annual Allentown college band show was finished, and so was our weekend trip, which had taken us from Boston to Bridgewater State College (a brief appearance at their football halftime) to the University of Delaware (this was when BU had a football team to put on the field against UD), to Allentown, PA, to participate in a Sunday afternoon of college marching band performances.

That late-September afternoon was yielding to early evening, and the sun was still shining, but not far above the horizon. The two BU buses pulled away from J. Birney Crum Stadium and headed for whatever interstate gets you from Allentown to 95, and after all these years I am still not clear about which one that is. Therefore, I attached my truck (figuratively) to the back bumper of the second bus and worked hard not to lose it amidst the considerable Sunday-afternoon end-of-weekend traffic.

It seemed to be getting darker. And darker. And darker. Yes, the sun was going down, and it was that wonderful twilight during which it is a trial to drive sometimes; but it seemed comparatively very dark considering my headlights were on.

Weren’t they?

I tugged on the lever that controlled the truck’s headlights, and in an instant I knew what the rest of the trip was going to be like. The high-beams came on. I let go of the lever, and the high-beams went off. And the regular headlights did not come on. Either of them. And now it seemed rather exceptionally dark.

In order to see properly, I had to pull the high-beam lever back and hold it there. All the way to I-95, and the Jersey Turnpike. And all the way up the Turnpike. Not complaining; you do what ya gotta do. Mister Pollyanna here declared that it was great that the high-beams were both working very well.

I flashed the high-beams off-on, off-on, at the second bus, trying to get the driver’s attention. The lead bus was pulling away at a fully ridiculous rate of speed. Throughout the weekend I had gotten the impression that the two bus drivers didn’t get on as well as they could have, and it had been curious to watch Driver One pull lane-changing maneuvers seemingly in such a way that Driver Two had to work extra hard to match those lane changes without wiping out cars while trying. I knew that my not-quite-late-model truck had zero chance of catching up to Driver One … but somehow, without words (and at the time, without cellphones or any other means of electronic communication), I successfully suggested that Driver Two had better not kick in the warp drive and leave me out there too. Happily, he didn’t. We formed a pathetic little convoy, the smallest convoy you can make without being a single vehicle. Bus changes lanes? Truck changes lanes. Bus changes lanes again? Truck changes lanes again. Don’t ask why. Just do. I probably looked like a little kid trooping around after a high school football player he idolized.

After either ninety minutes or a thousand years of driving, I saw Driver Two get in the exit lane that would take us to the mighty Vince Lombardi service area, and I gave out with a tiny little “…yay…” Idly, I had wondered if there was a plan, or whether all the BU vehicles were free agents now.

By this time, I had catalogued most of the possible ways to describe this experience that could possibly avoid dropping F-bombs, but was running dangerously low on ideas. Mister Pollyanna had (he now is forced to admit) become more of a Bill Cosby “foul filth and your filthin’ foul” expresser of notions. I will smack the truck rental guy across the nose, lousy pre-trip alleged maintenance check, amateur-hour operation, grouse grouse grouse.

We pulled into the Vince parking lot, cozied up to where Bus One was parked (and had been for some time), and shut our engines off. I shook my left hand vigorously to see if blood wanted to renew its membership. Keys out of the ignition, don’t have to shut the lights off!!! … and I stumbled down out of the cab. I followed the stream of BU band members from Bus Two through the rear entrance of the Vince rest stop building, and found a fast-food vendor line to join. I stood right behind Driver Two. Driver One walked over to his colleague, looked at him, looked at me, and cheerfully said words I shall never ever forget. They may ring in my ears until I join the bleedin’ choir invisible.

Well! I think it’s goin’ pretty well, don’t you?”

Your mild-mannered correspondent did consider, over the course of a long split-second, what his best response might be. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to take advantage of that perfect opportunity, to righteously unload on someone who surely had it coming.

Sadly, I’m still wondering.

Instead … I looked at Driver One, then at Driver Two, then back at Driver One, and executed a maneuver that I have watched a very dear colleague of mine use to great effect on several occasions. I closed my eyes very slowly … carried out a textbook about-face … opened my eyes … and Slowly. Walked. Away.

March 7, 2014 Posted by | band, BUMB, marching band, social media, travel | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment