Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

The 31-Day Blog Challenge, Day Twenty-One: As the Songwriter Wrote…

Today’s writing prompt:

31 DAY BLOG CHALLENGE, DAY 21: “Something I miss”.

Well, plenty, since over the course of my first half-century on Earth, I’ve been lucky enough to have quite a few experiences that might or might not ever happen quite that same way again, and that’s a shame! …

Here are two of those that leap immediately to mind:

 

[1] Franklin DC dinners.

In this space, I’ve dropped a lot of details about my college marching days, but not this: we rehearsed from 4:40 to 6 in the afternoon, every weekday. Not every band gets this. Most bands rehearse twice or three times a week; we got nearly seven hours of rehearsal and that didn’t even include Saturday mornings before games.

So, our daily routine included finishing rehearsal and then tearing across campus to the nearest dining commons (named after Franklin County, in western Massachusetts, and not after anyone named Franklin) to grab dinner before the facility closed its cafeteria line at 6:30. Usually, we stood in line, faintly perspiring both from the hustling across campus and also from 80 minutes of rather dogged band rehearsal, and shuffling slowly up a winding ramp from the entrance up to the second-floor dining level. And then we would sit, and eat, and laugh and joke, at least until 7pm, when the corps of sweepers and moppers and other cleaner-uppers would tiptoe into the dining area and try to slip us silent hints that “at some point we would really like to go home, so we wonder if you might wrap this up some time before 8 o’clock please”. They never actually said this, but I could imagine that those were the hints.

The thing that kept the workers there, and kept us there too, was the particular group of marching band folks (and a couple of other friends-of-band-members who weren’t in the band but might as well have been). We were just over-tired enough that funny things seemed funnier, and we were just friendly enough that we kinda suspected that we might be sharing supper with people who’d eventually become lifelong friends.

Thanks to things like social media connectivity, alumni band, and other sundry gatherings through the years, lots of us have crossed paths since then … but I miss those evenings. The rest of the college experience, full of papers and tests and dorm issues and campus buses and such, was held at bay, and we ate and smiled and just about fell over laughing, for about an hour a night.

I miss that.

 

[2] Pit crazy.

My time at the Charles River Creative Arts Program was about a decade long. During the last six of those years, I was a staff member of some kind, and thus eligible to be part of the pit orchestras that were formed to accompany each of the two children’s-theater musicals which were the centerpiece of the day camp’s two Arts Festivals, usually in the third week of July and of August, respectively.

We met as a pit during “tech week,” the last few days of intense rehearsals before showtime. The usual schedule included … spending two or three hours after the camp day ended on Monday, desperately preparing the accompaniments to 10 or 12 of the show’s songs. We played what we had for the tech rehearsal (full of children and tech-theater counselors scurrying about) on Tuesday evening. We played it all for the dress rehearsal (full of children and costume staff scurrying about) on Wednesday evening; and then Thursday, Friday and Saturday it was showtime! (And on Sunday we rested, and also looked back and marveled at the amount of work that had gotten done in just six days.)

The pit was full of staff members, not all of whom were music department staff; some were music professionals, and some played our instruments for fun. Lots of different skill levels, but all the same level of commitment to having a blast while we did lots of rather dogged work. There was much silliness. There was a lot of laughing.

One year the pit was a piano, drums, bass and a couple of woodwinds along for the ride. One summer we had a perfect storm of musical staff, and were writing arrangements for piano, bass, drums, acoustic guitar, piccolo, clarinet, two multiple-sax players, trumpet and flugelhorn. It was never the same twice from an instrumentation standpoint; but it was always, always something to look forward to – and there was always an underlying sense of “enjoy this moment; it’ll never happen quite like this again.”

The shows were put up on an outdoor stage, located adjacent to one of the buildings of the Charles River School, where the summer program was based. The pit did its thing off to one side of the stage, beneath one of those rental-company tents, about ten feet square (so, necessarily, our long-time drummer and at least one other player were under the tent in name only). Whenever I smell bug spray, I think of the Charles River pit, because great heavens!, did we ever protect ourselves from bugs (which were of course attracted particularly to our warm and sweaty selves and also to our music-stand lights).

After the closing-night show, a few of us would linger for ten or fifteen minutes (while the cast repaired to another area of the camp to set up its farewell cast party) and engage in a rather spirited C-blues jam session. Myself, I would get to the pit far earlier than our pit-orchestra report time so a friend and I could sing and play as many of our favorite James Taylor songs as we could get to before paying customers (or the rest of the pit) started to show up.

Renovations of and additions to the Charles River School’s campus have actually caused a new building to be slammed down on top of the actual spot where the pit used to set up shop; so the current pit location is actually about fifty feet or so to the south. But whenever I stand near there … and quite often even if I’m not on the grounds … I think of those rather intense tech weeks, and at least I appreciate having been able to be part of that craziness.

I miss that, too.

 

Because, indeed, life careens on … people’s trajectories head in various different directions … and as much as we’d love it to be so, those exact combinations of people and activities never do happen exactly that way again. But we cart the memories around with us, and smile.

The way your smile just beams
The way you sing off key
The way you haunt my dreams
No, no, they can’t take that away from me

The way you hold your knife
The way we danced till three
The way you changed my life
No, no, they can’t take that away from me

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May 21, 2016 Posted by | arts, blogging, CRCAP, friends, marching band, music, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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

Your Band Will Shine

My experiences as a music arranging person have been varied, and anywhere from deeply personally and professionally satisfying to “glad I could help” to just plain fun.

Via being in the right place at the right time, or talking with the right person, or word-of-mouth publicity, or out of necessity, I’ve had opportunities to write for a wide variety of groups of singers or instruments. By that I don’t just mean band, chorus, orchestra, jazz band … I mean “band with no trombones”, “choir with very few tenors” … “piano, French horn, banjo and drum set” (my personal all-time favorite “whaaaat?” ensemble) …

At one time, I was really interested in getting some of my arrangements published. Charitably, a couple of pretty important teachers of mine suggested, “hey, you should send this or this or this item to some publishers, see if they’ll put it out.” Not only was this a dangerous thing to say to a relatively young ego, it was said by people who knew music and knew their business. And, well, heck, if these trustworthy and honest people (which they were) are telling me this, I need to believe it!! … Sadly, I never did follow up on this idea very strongly, for weal or for woe. It was more procrastination and alleged other priorities that got in the way than it was lack of interest, but the end result was kinda the same, I guess.

 

Back in the ninth grade, when I stole (sorry! –borrowed) one of my high-school band director’s demo records (yes – a 33 rpm LP double-album. Vinyl. Scratches ‘n’ all), the first musical arrangers I really took note of were John Higgins and Jay Bocook. (Doesn’t everyone play Bocook’s stuff at some point in their band lives?) Messrs. Higgins and Bocook were writing for Jenson Publications, a Wisconsin-based company that then was the beast of the industry but eventually was bought up by the Hal Leonard Corporation. I played and re-played their arrangements of current pop tunes and their adaptations of drum corps tunes – they were great charts! (It didn’t hurt that the demo recordings were played either by rather massive college bands, so the tunes were unrealistically huge-sounding – or by a band full of professional studio musicians who could play anything at any time – but the company probably thought that was fine. The better they sound, the better they sell.)

What I didn’t realize, in 1981, at age 15, was that at that time the publishers were offering adaptations of drum corps tunes (“Your band will shine with this electrifying arrangement of the Blue Devils’ ‘New York Fantasy’!”) featuring trumpet lines so high that only DCI sopranos, or those studio pros, could have played them. A few years later, some of the publishers did begin to market arrangements that could actually be performed decently by humans in cold weather. Sometimes that meant that the tunes didn’t quite have the same air of daring or drum-corps peel-my-face-off screamitude, but the companies were probably responding to the feedback of band directors who logically didn’t want to invest money in charts that were out-of-reach of their bands. Do ya want to stay in business, or what?

That, really, has been the underlying theme of my arranging experience (if it has one): while writers of literature are often admonished, “write what you know,” and “don’t write what you don’t know”, I have done a lot of work under the philosophy “write for what you have, toward the strengths and away from the weaknesses.” Mostly because it was necessary. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was a jackass when his answer to a question about military planning was “you go to war with the army you have, not with the one you wish you had” – but that, paraphrased, is the gospel truth for arrangers: if the band has no screamer trumpets, it’s a bad plan to write notes above the staff. (If the band has no screamers, and you write for them anyway, the band director will probably not hire you again. Survival of the smartest.)

I’ve had the opportunity to write for a number of college marching bands that DO have all the right instruments, and plenty of each kind. Only half-jokingly do I declare that it’s a thrill to write for bands that actually have second-trombones! But other than that, I haven’t done a lot of writing for strictly-standard instrumentation that I could submit to publishers.

The first high school band I ever directed had the following instrumentation: two flutes, one clarinet, one trumpet, one tenor sax, one bass player, four percussionists, and one keyboard player who was just starting piano lessons. And, guaranteed, nobody publishes music for that collection of instruments. … So “Seventy-Six Trombones” was probably out. So? My tenor sax guy was my low brass section; my clarinetist very often was my midrange, and I don’t even remember what I did with four percussionists, but they all reported having a good time that year, so…!

It’s not that I don’t have the experience, or the desire, or the musical imagination, to write charts for ensembles like: “double choir (SSAATTBB)” or “standard jazz ensemble also with two flutes and two French horns and a tuba” … but for the most part, that hasn’t been what’s been in front of me … and frankly, it’s just as much fun to write an arrangement of a tune that makes a group sound full even when they aren’t.

 

I may have written briefly about this before: my very first arranging moment was at the Charles River Creative Arts Program, a summer day camp doing business on the grounds of the Charles River School in Dover, Massachusetts. The program had established the completely ridiculous tradition of putting up a complete children’s musical (on average, 90 minutes long and fully costumed, staged and choreographed) during each of its two four-week sessions. It was a classic case of “nobody told us we couldn’t do it, so we did it”. On top of that, most of the shows were original – the July show was often written by staff members over the preceding winter, and the August show was commonly written by the July session Playwriting class. Talk about writing on a deadline! And, miraculously, the August shows were very often very, very good.

The gentleman who was the music director for the show that was going up during my first session on staff, Jack Megan, looked at me with about a week to go before opening night and said, “I’m not going to have time to arrange this one tune for the pit orchestra. Can you do it?” And of course, being the wide-eyed enthusiast (and also wanting to come through in the clutch), I said, why sure! The pit orchestras for our shows were usually made up of staff members, and not all of them members of the music department staff. So some players were conservatory-trained; others were decidedly not; at least we all enjoyed laughing, which we did a lot. For my first arrangement, I wrote for piano, bass, drums and alto sax (me).  One ensuing summer, we had a pit that included piccolo, flute, clarinet, alto and bari saxes, trumpet and flugelhorn, and piano/bass/drums. Usually we landed somewhere in the middle, and not always with classic instrument balance, top-to-bottom. So, for six glorious summers, it was like a game show: “you have an occasional-flute, a decent trumpet, a violin, a pianist, a great drummer, and probably a bassist but we’re not sure; and we need something that sounds like a classic Broadway overture. You have 24 hours. Go.”

It was a blast. When the tunes were great tunes, the object was to write arrangements that supported the tunes but stayed largely out of the way, the better to not screw them up. On the occasions when a particular song wasn’t up to CRCAP’s usual standards, it was kinda neat to dress the thing up in fancy (pit) clothes and see if anyone noticed.

 

When I got to my high school gig, the goal was to make the band sound like a band, even if it did lack certain important instruments … or a lot of people … or both. This band hadn’t even existed on a regular basis before I was hired, so for a while I was kinda making my own decisions, hopefully wise ones, about what to do to make the group sound bigger and better than it really was. Before we went outside to play pep tunes at football games, we decided to re-start the athletic-band side of our existence by playing at boys’ and girls’ basketball games. For openers, in an acoustically-live gym, nine horns and a decent rhythm section can sound like Michigan State if you play your cards right. (Also we didn’t have to worry about the weather.) Throw a lot of melody lines into instruments, let the rhythm section take the chord content (i.e. don’t dilute the wind sound!) and you can convince a lot of people that you got every instrument covered. If the crowd doesn’t think “hey, not bad for a pep band” – in fact, if the crowd doesn’t think AT ALL, but instead gets up and grooves with you…? We have a winner. And let’s be honest: certain tunes that get athletic crowds up and dancing are not exactly the most complex musical compositions ever written anyhow. No countermelodies or flat-13 chords to distract from the pep! “Land of a Thousand Dances” wasn’t exactly Tchaikovsky to start with, after all.

So when the coach of the opposing team came by at the end of halftime, one night, and said to me, “we’re going to take all our timeouts this half no matter what, just so we can listen to you guys play!” … well, that was kind of a comforting moment. (And that is an absolutely true story. I turned to the kids and said, “did you just hear that?” and they nodded, a bit stunned. “Good,” I said. “And get ready to play a lot.”)

 

So would I rather have THAT experience, or would I rather pick up a check for a buck or two every time a publisher sells my version of some tune or other? (“Your band will shine with this arrangement of ‘Zombie Nation’!”)

Not that I wouldn’t want just one published hit, on the scale of Tom Wallace’s “Hey Baby”. Just one! I’m not asking much…

Money is nice. Musicians (young or otherwise) feeling like a million bucks because they can play the tunes they like, in a way that makes them feel likeable? You can’t pay the heating bill with that … but it’ll keep you warm anyway.

January 30, 2012 Posted by | arranging, band, choir, CRCAP, drum corps, Hoop Band, marching band, music, SUMC, Thom Hannum, UDMB, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments