Category Archives: featured

30/30 Logic Challenge

You ready?

  1. You must start with a blank Logic file – no templates
  2. You can only use internal Logic sound, no external sample libraries
  3. You get 30 minutes from launch to bounce
  4. The final project folder has to be less than 30 MB.

Post it here or wherever you can, then drop a link.

THE 30/30 Logic Challenge is ON!

Here’s my first entry:

click-clack.01.mp3

Here’s the logic project file. Enjoy!

Click Clack (zip file)

The NAMM Rules

I know many of you are making the trip down to NAMM this weekend, and for many of you APU students, it will be your first trip. You should know that NAMM is a vapid, soulless wretch of a trade show, carefully designed to make you feel alone in the world and bereft of value, not unlike the Amsterdam redlight district. It’s also the biggest music nerd field trip of the year, so enjoy!

To help you navigate the treacherous waters of the trade show, here are a few guidelines.

WHAT TO WEAR
Don’t wear swag. Just don’t do it. Unless you’re getting paid to be there, and the company you’re repp-ing insists, don’t drag out that awesome Pearl Drums shirt to shown everyone that you’re a drummer. Everyone there is a drummer.

The only exceptions to this rule are faded Fender swag (Fender has reached a level of awesome that transcends all rules) and vintage swag (if you have an emagic logo cap from the late 1980’s, do it!).

Everyone else, there are three NAMM outfits.

1) Black t-shirt, jeans, TOMS shoes. This is the standard outfit for anyone under 30 who has no reason to be there, but bribed their local music store for extra passes.

2) Rockstar casual, dark sunglasses. This outfit will be worn by people you recognize from their one hit 10 years ago, who are there to play on small stages in front of banners promoting the instruments they are shilling, while they try desperately to figure out what catastrophic career decisions led them to this point.

3) Polo, khakis, dirty tennis shoes. These are the people who actually make the gear and write the software.

NETWORKING
Nobody there cares who you are or what you do. Don’t let that stop you from passing out your demo and card to everyone wearing outfit #2 or #3. If you’re looking for an endorsement deal, by all means, bring your Grammy with you.

SWAG VS. GEAR
If it’s on a table in a bowl, it’s swag.
If it’s on a table and bolted down, it’s gear.
If it’s being handed to you, it’s swag.
If it’s being handed to you and it’s plugged in, it’s gear.
If it’s edible, it’s swag.
If it’s wearable, it’s swag.
If it’s stickable, it’s swag.
If it’s edible, wearable, and stickable, it’s probably some new bread-based modeling guitar from Line 6. It’s gear.
If it’s swag, take it.
If it’s gear … take it. Just don’t get caught. If you do get caught, see the section below titled “EYE CONTACT”.

WANKING
If you are handed an instrument to play at any point during the show, please show taste and musical discretion. Ask yourself this question, “Is there perhaps some way I can test the expressive tone of this new guitar string polish without resorting to an Yngwie Malmsteen solo?”

THE BACK ROOMS
Everything interesting at NAMM happens in back rooms that you are not allowed to enter, and that you probably can’t even find. This thought will haunt you throughout the entire show.

EYE CONTACT
If you are wandering through the exhibit halls and you happen to see someone who looks like your music tech prof, wait patiently for him to make eye contact, and then respond with a subtle head nod of recognition. Then, do not go over and interrupt him because, dude, we’re not gonna hang out.

THE AFTERPARTY
When the shows shuts down for the night, the sickest players on earth pack into the clubs and theaters surrounding the convention, and music gets made. This is where you want to be. Do anything, anything you can to get into these shows. Bribe the Yamaha drum guys to find out where the superband session is happening, sneak in to the club through the kitchen, stand against the back wall the whole time if you have to. You will hear things that you didn’t think humans could do. It will be staggering. Thank me later.

These are the rules. Enjoy NAMM.

To War and Back Again

Oh, my heart just aches sometimes.

Josiah and I went to war tonight.

“Please leave the door open.” Slam.

“Don’t touch that.” Poke.

“Sit down and finish eating.” Wail.

“Hold still please.” Kick.

Finally, barely fed and crammed into jammies, we slowed down just enough to read Christmas stories by candlelight, because my wife does many things well, but none better than planning perfect moments for the joy of others. So, we lit candles, spread a blanket on the floor, and read about a little girl whose father was off to war, so her mother cut apart her wedding dress to make a Christmas dress and doll for the girl, and then the two of them went into the woods at night to chop down a tree for the church pageant. Yeah, I cried a little.

And then I scooped up my boy, took him into his room, and shut off the light, forgetting to turn on his nightlight first. The room fell pitch black.

And in the perfect darkness, the rain dripping from the roof, he laid his head down on my shoulder, sighed deeply, and without words he declared his unconditional surrender.

I sang his lullaby to him in the darkness:

Lay down your head, Josiah
Lay down your head, though night is falling
The Lord protects his children through darkness
The Lord will guide your steps in the light

Long ago lived a boy named Josiah
He heard the voice of God in the night
Long ago the boy named Josiah
Led God’s children back into the light

So raise up your head, Josiah
Raise up your head, though night is falling
Hear the voice of God in the darkness
And lead his children back into the light

When I wrote it, Gretchen’s first comment was, “Wow, a little word of prophecy there, huh?” Maybe so.

I don’t know what’s ahead for Josiah and I, how many more times we’ll go to war and declare peace, or how much higher the stakes will get. I’m sure that there are nights coming when peace will cost significantly more than a song in the darkness. I don’t know how many moments in life we get like tonight, when you lift your son up, and he lays his head on your shoulder, and you try your best to weep softly so that you don’t break the magic of the moment.

He has both strength and tenderness, and I pray to God that both of them survive my parenting. I pray for wisdom and patience, to know when to be just and when to be merciful. I pray for strength that lasts through the day until I get home at night, so that he doesn’t always have to make his feast with the sparse remainder of my daily bread.

I pray that as he grows, he will look more and more like Jesus, and you can keep your damn bumper sticker. I mean that in all of the gritty ways. I pray that he learns when to braid a whip, that he has the strength to stand guard over an outcast woman and stare down an angry mob, that he speaks with fire and truth, that he spreads out a banquet for the friendless and unlovely. Most of those things, he’ll have to figure out on his own, because I don’t know how to do them.

I pray that he becomes a better man than I am.

God, you have blessed me through him. I hope that you bless him through me.

May we find peace at the end of every battle, and love, always love, no matter what.

josiah-and-daddy

Obama accepts Nobel Peace Prize … and the moral necessity of war?

barack_nobel_prize

Obama accepted his Nobel Peace Prize, and did it with a rather unusual defense of just war. Following is an excerpt:

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago – “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak –nothing passive – nothing naïve – in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

The rest of the speech is online here (and a billion other places). I thought it was a very astute distinction between the role of social critic (MLK, Ghandi, Bobby) and the moral obligations of a head of state.

Thoughts?

And That, Son, Is What We Call “Pro”

I had one of the most satisfying recording sessions ever yesterday. We were recording keyboards and drums for a handful of song demos, all part of a new musical being written by the lovely and talented Abby Miller.

It was me and three other very talented people, including a drummer, Aaron Sterling who is part of the new LA Wrecking Crew – he plays on every record coming out these days, it seems like. He and Abby wrote some of the songs, Abby and I wrote some of the songs, everybody there had a different stake in the project.

What blew me away was how seamlessly everyone moved between their different roles, from arranger to producer to sideman. On some songs, Aaron was producing the session, it was his tune, and I got to be just a keyboardist (I love that). On the next tune, it was mine, and I was telling him what to do. The engineer (our very own Mr. Chris Steffen) and Abby moved through the cycle too, from engineering to arranging, from writing to tracking vocals.

The only thing that nobody did, all day long, was bust out an ego. Chris and I talked for a few minutes after the session, and we agreed that it would be impossible to try and do something like that if anybody had brought a rock-star vibe along with them.

There is a beautiful balance between having deep pride in your work, and no ego about what you do. I want to learn how to live in that place. I believe it’s called being “Pro”.

Sappho 31, The Demo

One of my favorite things that has ever happened in the world, ever, happens at 40 seconds into this demo.

Ever.

So, Sappho 31 is done, I’m off to rush it into an envelope with the final version of the score, but I stopped first to drop it here to you good people at the Roadhouse. The demo is unmixed, thrown together at the last possible second. Many thanks to Rebbecca (Brannon) Ginzink, Gretchen Lee, and Ashley Morgan for helping me sing the female vocals.

Sappho 31
sappho-demo-mix.mp3
download

The Score:
Sappho 31

Testing, Testing, I ii iii (IV V7 vi viiº)

In about 2 hours, I’m starting a master’s degree.

I know what you’re thinking. “Michael, what could they possibly teach you? You know everything!”

It’s true friends, there’s nothing left for me to learn in music (or in life ((especially in relationships, I have that totally nailed))), but for the sake of appearances (so that the other professors don’t feel bad), I have to go back to school to get the degrees to demonstrate that I’m actually qualified for the position I’m already in (and to learn the appropriate use of parenthetical asides).

Step one of the adventure is a placement exam in harmony and commercial orchestration.

I didn’t even start thinking about the placement exams until a few days ago, and then started freaking out a little bit last night. It’s not that I think I’ll bomb, it’s that I think I’ll do just OK, and that would be terminally embarrassing for me. I’ve already met and been talking with the faculty who teach the program, and they all know that I’m coming in as a prof at another university “just to get the ink”. It would be a very, very poor reflection on me, and our school of music, if I didn’t absolutely rock the exams.

I do a ton of arranging, but I do all of it on computer, and the whole reason a computer exists is to do the menial basic tasks for you. It’s been forever since I’ve actually looked up the exact ranges of specific instruments – on the rare occasions when I take them a half-step too low, bells and whistles go off, and I rethink the voicing. It’s been an eternity since I’ve had to actually DO manual transposition from score to parts. I know how do to it, but I haven’t done it in a long, long time. There are a hundred little standard indications on a score that the software just inserts and manages for me, which is exactly the point of using a computer to do notation. It relieves you of having to think about all of those things, and lets you think about what you’re actually writing.

So, all that to say, can somebody please tell me the actual range for a Bb Trumpet?

Sappho 31

My God, how incredible is it that we get to simply pick up a pen, or click open a file, and out of nothing but hubris and time create something that didn’t exist just a few hours, or days, or months before? How fantastic is this soul that hums along beneath the surface of our human machine!

But enough of that crap. Yes, I’m composing again. Or still. Whatever. I am making notes go. I am writing for a young (Ha!) composers competition, where the prize is cash money and a debut of the piece by a pretty kick-ass professional choir.

The theme is “Romantic Love”, and I thought, what better place to start than with the dawning of fiercely bitter lesbian political love-hate poetry, Sappho. If you don’t know about her, go check it out. Awesome stuff. If you really want to get into it, check out Anne Carson’s fantastic new translation, “If Not, Winter“.

So, I settled on one of the best known fragments from Sappho, Parchment 31, sometimes called the Poem of Jealousy. Sappho is watching another man woo her beloved, and she is jealous not of her attention to him (much), but of his ability to just sit calmly in her beloved’s presence, just sit! and not be utterly consumed with desire.

The last line of the poem is tantalizing – it is cutoff, but the fragment that remains seems oddly appropriate. It is, in various versions, either “But I endure” or “But even in poverty” … you can see below how I chose to render it, but that’s almost certainly not what was intended. As I said, tantalizing.

If you’d like to see just a sampling of how people have reconstructed this poem, you can check it out here. Below is my own translation, with little attempt to be literal to the original:

Sappho 31:
He is as a god to me
That man
who sits to face you and
simply listens to
your sweet speaking

and your sweet laughter
makes my heart pound
hovering in my chest
for when I look at you
my words are fleet and away
and away

my tongue breaks
and thin fire runs beneath my skin
and eyes lose sight
and I hear nothing but
this
this
pounding heart

and cold sweat grips
and shaking grips
and pale as the summer grass
I pass
from life
to death

bereft of you
I endure

Music is Vast

(NOTE: Some of you already saw this on Facebook. I really wanted to post this here instead, but the server was just going nuts the last few days, so I couldn’t. These kind of thinky thoughts totally belong at the Roadhouse, not on that trashy whore Facebook.)

If you took Intro to Music Tech from me in a previous semester, the class probably started out with my patented “You all suck at music, and will likely end up working at Walmart” speech. While I stand by that speech, and think that it is largely true (especially for you, Brandon), I feel as though it may have set the wrong tone for my class.

Instead, this year, I gave a different speech. Addison Road-ites will notice several recurring themes from my posts here, wrapped up in a tidy 5 minutes diatribe on Music and Technology.

So here it is: my opening speech to the incoming freshmen.

Music is vast. It is so much bigger than you think it is. It covers more things, runs deeper, any grasp you have on it is always too small. It will always be bigger than your experience in it.

Music is vast. I call myself a musician, and in the last 4 months that has meant playing keyboards for a national commercial, writing a modern composition for trumpet, piano, and laptop, conducting a choral recording session for another piece I wrote, playing keyboards live for 100 awesome fans at Hotel Cafe, teaching a younger player how to set a tap-delay for a guitar tone, leading worship, singing backing vocals on a demo, writing two songs for a musical, and playing piano for a bad j-pop album. All of those things are music. That’s just one summer, for one person, and you should all know that I am nowhere near the top of the heap when it comes to this industry. Other people are doing far more work than I am. But all of that is music.

Music is vast. It runs deep. It reaches out and strikes the soul, and the whole body resonates on that pitch. It reminds us, like nothing else can, that we are more than meat and bone, more than dust. We are the breath of God, created in His image, and just as he sang the world into being, we create in imitation of Him. We are the immortal echo of the eternal, living for just a little while in these clay jars, and music reminds us who we are. If you haven’t ever felt that, then I honestly have no idea why you’re here.

Music is vast, and it is shared. Music is the exchange of ideas. Melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo, vibe, tone, tension, resolution – music is about the trading back and forth of ideas. And language is, frankly, a very bad tool for exchanging ideas about music. There’s a quote, attributed to Frank Zappa but probably not his, that says, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”

Technology is the ink and paper of music. It is our best tool for exchanging ideas. If you have ideas worth sharing, and again I don’t know why you’re here unless you do, then technology is you best tool for capturing and sharing those ideas.

My goal is not to turn you into geeks and nerds; that will happen on its own. My goal is to turn you into musicians. That means being fluent in the language of music, which is, increasingly, the language of music technology. My goal is to help you learn to use technology so well that it lets you do what you really want to do, which is music. The technology should be transparent, it has to get out of the way, and let you be a musician.

Music is vast. It is broad and it is deep, and it’s way to early in your musical lives to start defining yourself in narrow ways. Don’t say, “I am this, not this” or “I do this, not this”. You have no idea yet who or what you can and will be. Be big! Be curious, be broad, be deep, be soul-ish and magnificent. Everything else in this world will conspire to make you small – don’t be complicit! Resist the urge to define yourself in small ways.

Be a musician. Be vast.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Okay, let’s get one things straight. Addison Road isn’t going anywhere. All this awesome has permanent staying power, and no upstart rag of a 10 billion dollar social network site is gonna shut this party down.

Let’s get another thing straight. Don’t text me at 2 am to ask me when I’m going to start writing again. The answer is the same as it’s always been. Whenever the hell I feel like it, Dan!

Let’s get a third thing straight. I missed you all this summer. Well, not you, Dan. But the rest of you. So, in fine back-to-school tradition, here’s how I spent my summer vacation.

May

All of this obscene wealth and technical progress has conspired to gift us, the blessed generation, with something of inestimable value: time. We luxuriate in an excess of time. No previous generation has had to devote so little of their time to acquiring the basic necessities of life, and yet we squander this gift like it’s gutter trash. These were my thoughts in May, when my wife and my University conspired together to give me the gift of three days. I spent them on a mountaintop in Malibu, at a Catholic retreat center, writing music. The result was a new composition for trumpet, piano, and laptop titled “Serra”.

I also played keyboards on a trashy j-pop album for Sony Records, which was actually much more fun than it sounds.

June

Not the artist, the month. Although the artist did visit. June and Stick and the munchkins made the trip down to LA to stay with us at our new house, which has plenty of room for guests. Plenty of room. Except that a few days before they showed up, Gretchen’s sister also made the trip out to LA to stay with us at our new house, which has plenty of room for guests. With her 3 kids. Our house does not sleep 5 adults and 7 kids comfortably. Also, it was that weekend that we decided to throw a Princess Party to celebrate Sophia’s 4th birthday. All in all, it was 3 day of unmitigated chaos. It got to be so much that Stick even had to drown his sorrows in 1/3 of a glass of wine!

Also in June, I got commissioned by an amazing photographer in New York to compose a piano piece for the gallery opening of his next show. His manager somehow heard “The Science Project” from The Dailies record (I know, crazy, right?) and wanted something similar. (We think we know how this happened. If you google “The Dailies”, our band is the first hit, and this photographer is the second)

July

Ah, July. July, July, July. I learned so much from you, July. I learned that I can punch my liver 16 times in a night without passing out. I learned that the women who are hitting on you at the Hard Rock Casino are not amateurs (to all my bosses and my students and my wife, I know this only from observation, not from experience). I learned that disposable income tends to get disposed of. I learned that a good steak is improved by excellent company. I learned that Zack is a very quick study. I learned that the occasional 3-day fling of bachelor excess is fantastic, but that I am very glad to come home to my life.

At the end of July, the APU small group came back off the road, and we stepped into the studio. I was utterly, marvelously blown away. I can’t wait for you all to hear this album. It’s the best thing, by far, that has come out of that school. And yes, I am a little biased, but still. You gotta hear it.

August

On Thursday, at 3:15 in the morning, we got up, broke camp, strapped on our packs, and hiked 2 hours up and out of the wilderness in the dark. We had spent the week backpacking through the southern range of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, some of the most beautiful wilderness anywhere. It was me, my father-in-law Phil, my brother-in-law Brian, and 4 other guys that were friends of Brian. I can’t really explain what a life changing experience this trip was for me. It was the first time in 10 years that I left my cellphone behind, had no email connection, nothing to distract me from being present in the moment. I spent long hours talking with Phil about life, work, family, priorities, and had some extended times of solitude to reassess the things I value in my life. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the next scene of The Michael Lee Experience: An Unauthorized Autobiography started that week.

We hiked out of the wilderness and got to the cars just as dawn was starting to break, and we drove to the trail-head of Redcloud, a 14,000 foot peak. We hiked up above the treeline, then above the scrub meadows, and finally got up above all vegetation. At about 13,000 feet, the air is so thin that you can only take one or two steps at a time before gasping for breath. Unless, of course, you are my inhuman stud of a 68-year-old father-in-law, in which case you just sort of jog your way up the trail, stopping every once in a while to make sure we’re still following. A thousand feet from the summit, we stood on the saddle between two peaks with the mountain range spread out before us like a painting. As we watched, thunder clouds started rolling over the peak, and a dozen people came pouring down the trail warning us off the peak.

One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was to turn around that close to the summit, and head back down. The reality of Colorado weather is pretty brutal though, and you just can’t be the tallest thing standing on top of a bare granite mountain when lighting comes crashing down out of the sky.

The next day, I got on a plane and flew back to my family. On Saturday, we celebrated the marriage of Zack and Sara. On Sunday, I threw up twice.

On Monday, Gretchen and I left the kids with Linda (my birth-mom) and Thom, and headed to Napa to celebrated 10 years of wedded bliss! We drank wine, ate food, drank more wine (I threw up zero times), stayed at the best little inn anywhere, stayed at another place that smelled like cinnamon, drank more wine, and just generally luxuriated in each other’s company. We rediscovered our marriage, not just as a business partnership, or a baby-raising club, or as roommates, but as husband and wife. It was fantastic.

We ended the week by heading to Sharolyn and Jason’s house (they picked up our kids from Linda midway through the week), drank some more wine, and then home.

Also, in August, I started writing a musical with one of the artists I play for, who has an uncanny ability to make things happen. Think Stephen Sondheim meets Jon Brion.

August was a good month.

This was a good summer. Great, even.

We are a blessed generation, and I am a blessed man.

Our Father, Vindicate – Finished!

On May 28th, 2008, I jotted down the first few notes of Our Father, Vindicate. I stared with the melodic theme (E – D#, F# – D#), and the sound of that flat 6 suspension in bar 26. One year and one month ago today.

A few minutes ago, I just finished the final mix of the recording. It’s such a huge feeling of accomplishment to see this thing come together, and to have something solid in hand, something people can hear and respond to. I’ve loved writing this piece, I’ve hated it at times, I’ve put more hours into it than anything I’ve ever done, and I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a musician because of doing it. I’m glad it’s behind me, but I’m very glad to have done it.

So, here it is.

Our Father, Vindicate
By Michael A. Lee
our-father-vindicate.mp3

Downlod the chart: Our Father, Vindicate.

The vocalists are, in order of part from top to bottom:
Anthony Maglione
Brent Froelich
David Loucks
Jessie Bullock
Kyle Campbell
David Kress
Lucas Short
Phil Nash

Additional vocals by Michael Lee, and Harold Clousing.

Feeling Incompetent

This week, I’m recording the last few pickups on “Our Father, Vindicate“, and editing the whole thing down to a final mix. I’m doing this in Pro Tools.

I am a Logic guy. On Logic, I can fly. I can bend it and tweak it and make it do anything and everything I need, and I can do it with my eyes closed. But, this project was tracked in Pro Tools, and I need to really understand that software better, so I’m forcing myself to finish the whole project in Pro Tools.

Yesterday, I spent 90 minutes figuring out how to remove the basic volume automation that the tracking engineer had used to make a rough mix. I just about put a fist through the monitor.

I own a house now. Last week, I needed to fix a few small gaps in the brick around out pool. 90 minutes later, I was covered in mortar glue (which does not wash off), unable to touch anything without coating it with thick sludgy stainy cement glue gunk, the bricks were permanently stained with huge swaths of the crap, and the initial problem was still not solved.

I hate, HATE, feeling incompetent. I just want to scream “I am an intelligent, skilled, and valuable person … I just SUUUUUUUUCK at THIS!” I have to fight so hard not to give up, to force myself through to the other side. I know that someday, I will be able to set mix groups for Pro Tools in my sleep. I know that someday, I will be able to repair masonry without permanently damaging myself or our home.

It’s just that today, that someday seems eternally far away.

School, Again

Well, it was a long and arduous process (I had to pay $50), but I was finally accepted as a graduate student at that most prestigious of all schools, Cal State LA (Go Golden Eagles! Or whatever!). Looks like I was wrong about never going back to school again …

As I went to drop off my transcripts at CSULA, I saw two girls feeling each other up outside the admin building. I think this is going to be a little different experience than my first master’s degree; at Biola, the lesbians are still in hiding.

I’m going to be getting a Masters of Music in commercial music, with an emphasis in arranging. I’m actually looking forward to it, for two reasons. First, I need some outside impetus and set parameters to move my writing along in new directions. Second, I feel like this is as close as Professors ever get to a “student teaching” experience, where we get to see someone else do their thing, and learn from them. I’m interested in the content, but also in the methods and techniques of the teachers.

Iran erupts

Giving people the illusion of democracy is always a dangerous thing. It turns out they come to expect their voice to be heard.

Ahmadinejad declared himself the victor in yesterday’s Iranian elections, and the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (who gets to decide which things are ‘islamic’ and which are not, and therefore actually runs things) gave his nod. Pre-election polling showed that the challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, would win by a wide margin, as much as 2-to-1 in some estimates.

Tehran-riots-001
The Iranian people are justifiably upset, and have taken to the streets in riot and protest.

If I were Ahmadinejad, I would be terrified right now. He has the guns and the media, but the people seem to have found their voice.

The illusion of democracy is a dangerous thing.

updated 6/14, 1:23 am

Bearing Witness

Being a faculty member at graduation is a strange experience. You feel a little bit like a prop in someone else’s play. We line up, don our caps and gowns, march onto the field, and then, we do nothing. We watch. We lend whatever meager gravity we have to the occasion. Some faculty members skip, but I go every year, to sit and bear witness.

It’s strange because, for the graduates, it’s their graduation, their one walk across the stage, their one handshake with the President of the University, their one capstone to a 4 year sojourner. For us, though, it happens every May. There are usually one or two students that you have special connection with, a handful that you recognize but can’t quite remember because they switched majors after taking your class, but the day passes, and then you take a breath and start thinking about the fall semester.

This year was different for me. This year, I watched a dozen students walk across the platform that I feel especially connected to. I had them as freshman, they toured in my small group, we played together in concerts, and I had them again in my Senior Seminar course. I watched them grow and change. I saw them in the act of becoming.

I wish you could meet these students. They are thoughtful and curious, and already carry inside of them that indefatigable burden of identity, of being musicians. They are dissatisfied with their own limitations, and moreover, they are disciplined and relentless in overcoming them. When they pick up their instruments, their considerable technical ability is placed in service to their musicianship. They are artists, and scholars, and they embrace the particular obligations of both.

Phil Shackleton sat next to me during the ceremony, and I think he sensed what I was thinking – he must have been thinking something similar. He said, “You see a group of students like this leave the school, and you think you’ll never see students like this again. But you will, they are coming up, we just don’t know them yet. It moves in waves.” I have no doubt that he’s right; he has seen this same cycle enough times to know.

But I haven’t. I started teaching at APU in as an adjunct in 2002, and became a professor in 2005. That was 4 years ago. These are my students. The first group that all came through my freshman course when I was the only one teaching it. They are the first-fruits of my idealized hope for what this school could become in the lives of young musicians.

In my more morose moments, I think that the best thing we’ve done as a school is manage not to ruin these students. We’ve allowed whatever they already had inside of them to survive, even to flourish. Maybe we’ve done more than that, but I’m sure that I am not the impartial witness to say what.

I know this; these students, these particular students, have made me a better teacher. They have pushed me to think more deeply about the subjects I’m teaching, to be more engaged with them in their learning. They have allowed me to open up my life to them in ways that might help them see their own path with greater clarity. They have helped me form a better understanding of my own place in this place.

I was proud to stand witness today, to be a passing figure in their pageant. I look forward, with great anticipation, to whatever these fine men and women set their minds to next.

classof2009

Pieta

pieta1

Artist Paul Fryer’s piece “Pieta” was recently put on display in a cathedral in Gap, France. Although it is certainly not unusual to see a bloodied representation of Christ, it is unusual to see him upon an electric chair.

I have often wondered how Christ would have been executed if his passion were to have taken place in modern times. Would he have died under the needle? Or perhaps dropped to his death with a rope around his neck? No matter the modern form of execution, none compare to crucifixion on the cross. As painful as death by electrocution, hanging, injection, or rifle must be it is over in an instant, modern methods seeking to be as “humane” as possible. The cross was designed for a long and violent death as the victim bled, choked, and asphyxiated to death. In fact, people were surprised that Jesus died as fast as he did.

I would be interested to hear what your initial reactions are to the piece. I appreciate the work for its craftsmanship. Works of wax have become eerily life like and an effective medium for portraying humanity. As for the chair, I do not find it to be as scandalous or shocking as it is described, but merely a modern viewpoint of the crucifixion; helping us realize that Christ was indeed executed by both religious and political authorities, institutions of men, rather than suffering an ethereal or metaphorical death.

What made me interested enough to post on the piece is where it was being displayed: a church. If “Pieta” was merely on display in a gallery it could be approached from a distance. It could be found interesting or provocative, perhaps arousing a curiosity as to the artist’s perception of Jesus and Christianity, but would remain distant or merely cerebral. However, within the Church, where Christ is the center and the cause for gathering in the first place, one is forced to grapple with their understanding who Christ is and what this image has to offer that understanding.

I commend this church for its willingness to present Christ to the people in this manner. People will be blessed.

Our Father, Vindicate This!

Well, it’s finally happening.

About a year ago, I started working on a choral piece based on the text of The Lord’s Prayer. I posted some early examples here and here. In November, I thought it was finished. Then, I did a composer workshop where actual people sang through it, and ended up throwing out the entire ending, rewriting it from middle section on out.

In January, with the help of Aly and Phil, I wrote a grant proposal to do a demo of the piece, and to use that same recording session to record a tutorial video on how to record this particular kind of composer demo. It got pushed back, and further back, but finally, at last, the day has come.

On Friday, I get to go into a huge studio with a world-class group of singers, the kind who can sight-sing awkard and atonal lines with the same fluidity and accuracy that you’d expect of a real musician (instrumentalists), and we get to record the demo for this thing.

I am more than a little nervous. The singers on the session are guys from the LA Master Chorale, LA Opera, heavy hitters. I am not a conductor, not in anyone’s imagination, but there it is, I’m the only one there to do it.

In large part my anxiety stems from the fact that I care about this piece so much. I’ve invested a year into it, countless hours writing and re-writing, more time than I’ve spent on any piece of music. I think it’s the best work I’ve done as a musician, and for me it represents a way forward from being a gigging keyboard guy to being a legit composer, with commissions and everything. I am deeply invested in the piece, personally and professionally.

The night before the session, I have a 3 hour rehearsal until the wee hours of the morning for yet another LA singer songwriter doing yet another hollywood scenester gig, and the sheer exhausting will probably prevent me from being anywhere close to competent for the actual session. The irony is not lost on me.

For those of you who are into such things, here is the final version of the score.

Our Father, Vindicate

On Unions

On Unions

I am a member of two labor unions: The Association of Pleasanton Teachers and the American Federation of Musicians Local 6 (I play trombone).  In the last few months, I have been synthesizing some of my experiences where I have observed the importance of unions, and also their potential negative side effects.  I would love to hear what my friends and colleagues have to say about some of my jumbled thoughts.

Musicians’ Union

It seems that every time I do a non-union gig, something weird or unusual happens.  Something as little as making announcements during my warm-up time, being asked to show up and hour early (without overtime) before a concert for some last-minute rehearsal (I said no), or being told the wrong start time, and consequently staying at a church service for an hour after the stated end time.  (I stayed, and received no extra compensation for my time.)

All of these stories come to mind when I agreed to play for free at the church I attend with  my family this Easter.  When I said yes to my church, I felt like  tried to check my “union” attitude at the door and wanted to serve Christ’s church however I was needed.  Then I received the first e-mail about rehearsal times.  4 hour rehearsal on Tuesday, 2 1/2 hour rehearsal on Saturday, call time an hour before the 8:00 first service.  My part in all of this consisted of playing five 3-4 minute long tunes, about 20 minutes of music total.  My union sensibilities crept back into my mind.  Much of the rehearsal time was spent with the vocalists working out parts around the piano.  My thoughts were 3 fold:

1) If I were being paid and hourly rate, they would have had me come 2 hours later during the 4 hour rehearsal, and rehearsed the vocal stuff without me.

2) There are many people in the church who donate much more of their time and expertise than I do, and that humbles me.  We are currently without a music pastor, and many lay musicians are maintaining the high quality of our program.

3) I am glad I brought a good book to read.  (I am an orchestral bass trombone player, I know how to come prepared!)

On Sunday, I am embarrassed to say, I arrived a couple of minutes after the 7 AM call time.  No need to worry, as rehearsal as far from commencing.  the first thing that was rehearsed, at 7:20 once all forty musicians were in place, was a vocal solo accompanied by a single keyboard.  This went on for about 10 minutes or so.  After 7:30, the whole ensemble did a sound check for a couple of minutes.

In contrast, when I arrive at a union gig, it almost always starts and ends on time.  Announcements are made after the clock has begun.  They are brief.  On the rare occasion that service goes overtime, I (and everyone else) get compensated.  Our time is given a great deal of respect.

Teachers’ Union

This brings me to my membership in the teachers’ union.  In the 1980s the teachers in Pleasanton went on strike to demand more respect of their time, their professionalism and of course, to demand more money.  Teachers are constantly being asked to do things that are not in their contracts.  Much like the requests made of me at a non-union gig, teachers are asked sometimes to go on overnight field trips, spend non-paid hours filling out detailed report cards, bring home essays to correct, etc.  In this context, I bring up that Pleasanton teachers were recently asked to work 2 fewer days and take an equivalent pay cut for the upcoming school year.  For teachers who had gone on strike to gain the pay, benefits and respect that we current teachers enjoy, this was  a tough pill to swallow.  The pay cut would preserve programs for students, and jobs for our fellow union members.  How responsible for providing programs to students are teachers?  Are we entirely responsible, and should we carry a burden for a large chunk of the budget cuts through a cut in salary?  (We would be providing a tremendous benefit to the community at no additional cost to the community.)  Are we somewhat responsible or not at all?  I found myself solidly on the side of “take the small pay cut for the good of our students and the teachers that were given lay-off notices (pink slips) for next year”.  I had trouble understanding why any teacher would be again saving programs within our district.

The Connection

I had a better understanding as to how some of my teaching colleagues could vote against taking a pay cut to preserve programs after this recent Easter.  Since I was not being compensated for my time, it was easy for those in charge not to use it efficiently.  If I don’t say to my church, “You can’t do that again next year, or I am not playing,” then they have no incentive to be more time efficient.

Similarly, if teachers simply say, “Don’t cut programs!  Take some of my money!” this will automatically become the first choice for fixing budget problems.  Other solutions will be skipped and avoided.  It was remarkable to me when a young pink-slipped teacher voted NO to this pay cut, when he of all people had something to gain (the likelihood of his job).

I have been bouncing back and forth on these ideas.  If you carry the “no cuts for teachers ever” idea too far, you can end up hurting students by allowing programs to be cut and newer teachers to be laid off.  If you offer and inch in pay cuts today, you might be asked for a mile tomorrow.  I am trying to find a balance between these opposing concepts.

Where We Are Now

The teachers in Pleasanton agreed to forego 2 days worth of salary and we will have a 2 day longer Summer… IF the communty matches our efforts.  We traded less money for more time (furlough).  The caveat is that the community has to come through as well, and a parcel (land) tax that will be put to the voters in Pleasanton on June 2 has to pass for the teacher 2-day furlough to occur.  I like this approach because it ensures that everyone in the community will sacrifice, not just the homeowners and not just the educators.

Requiem for a Dog

As has been well publicized, we lost a special friend yesterday.  

I met him three days before 9/11, a few hours after he had been born.  He was to be a gift to us, figuratively and literally.  The office manager at the church where I was employed at the time gave him to us.  Copland was a purebred Labrador Retriever, a deep, rich chocolate color.  I’ve always thought it would be cool to name dogs after famous composers, and one of my all time favorites is the great American composer Aaron Copland, whose Appalachian Spring is one of the great masterworks of the 20th century.  If we ever have an English Bulldog, I want to name it Vaughan Williams, even if it’s a girl.  

I remember the day we brought him home.  It was a Sunday, after church, and the whole family came, including Gramma Harriet, who would only be with us for another 18 months.  We had prepped our little 400 square foot studio apartment for his arrival.  We had read all the books, bought the XL kennel, the chew toys, and all the trimmings.  We were first time parents.

coplandasapup

Those first few weeks were hard on me.  I don’t like change, and I liked it even less when I was 23 and thought the world was still my oyster.  I actually remember verbalizing one time that I thought we should give him back, that he was just going to be too much dog for our compact life.  

But the weeks passed, and he learned to poop outside, and all was well.  In fact, I have two lingering memories of his first year.  The first was getting up in the middle of the night, freezing my tail off while he decided whether or not he was going to validate my interrupted slumber with a little piddle.  The second was taking him to a community doggy obedience class, which was the smartest move we ever made.  We learned, together, how to sit, lie down, stay, come, and heel.  Once you and your dog understand how to do that together, the bond between man and beast is permanently etched in stone.  

onthebed

Some months later, we were sitting around the fire pit with Bryan and Aly and we heard a little splash in the pool, followed by the unmistakable sounds of doggy distress.  Bryan was actually the first to make it over to Copland, who was furiously treading water.  He pulled Copland out of the water, soaking himself in the process.  Now, since that day, Copland has been known to charge headlong into turbulent surf up to his neck, so long as he could touch the bottom, but he would not ever go in that pool again.

It was around this time that Copland discovered his love language, and that was fetching a ball.  I did a little math yesterday, and here’s what I concluded.  I took him out to play, without fail, at least five times a week, often more.  He lived seven years and eight months, which is about 400 weeks, for the sake of landing on a round number.  400 x 5 means about 2000 playdates with Copland.  Erica would take him from time to time, but once we had kids, it was definitely my gig.  I’d throw the ball 15-20x per session, before he’d start to foam at the mouth from perspiration.   So, on the conservative end, I threw that ball 30,000 times.  I became one with the Chuck-It.  I am a Chuck-It ninja.  I can kill a man at 30 yards with a wet tennis ball.  

Every day, without fail, at around 3pm, he would give me this look:

coplandsface

The arched eyebrows, the tongue hanging out, the look that said, “You know what time it is, fool!”  If, God forbid, I allowed a day to go by without a playtime, it would increase twofold the next day.  When we would return from a trip, he would assault me until we went out to play fetch.  

And what a player he was.  Copland could have played center field for the Yankees.  In fact, I remember playing with him at our little neighborhood park one day, and adjacent to us was a baseball field where a little league team was having their afternoon practice.  Copland must have been three or four, in his prime, and he was in rare form that day, charging the ball with his muscles rippling and the wind in his face.  You could throw a line drive at him as hard as you liked, and he would simply pluck it from the air.  The sound of the wet tennis ball hitting his mouth was as satisfying as a fastball hitting the catcher’s mitt.  

Anyways, after about 15 minutes, I actually heard the coach dressing down one of his players, and I swear to you, he said, “That dog would make a better outfielder than you!  Show some hustle!”  One part of me was saddened that this coach was giving his player a hard time.  The other side of me knew it was an absolutely accurate statement.

For all his enthusiasm, Copland was a gentle soul.  I remember the day we brought Ella home from the hospital, and Erica sat down with her on the couch to meet her big brother.  He spent five minutes sniffing her from head to toe, curious, but not threatening.  When Erica would get up in the middle of the night to nurse her, Copland would get up, too, and sit at the door of her room, facing out, a stoic  centurion.  When she was done, and the baby back to sleep, he would return as well.  He did this, night after night, without fail, while both of our kids were nursing.    

coplandella

Copland had a baritone bark that could freeze grown men in their tracks, but never in his life bit a human being.  He would let both of our kids actually attempt to ride him.  They would pull on his ears and his tail, and he would just sort of shrug them off, roll over onto his back, and show them how to love on a pooch.  

zionridingcopland

On nights where I was up late, working in our home studio, he would sleep on my side of the bed.  I’d come in, tired, and he’d dutifully move and take his spot on the floor.  Erica has told me that this is the thing she will miss the most, her night time cuddles.

I don’t really have a good segue into these next photos, but for some reason it sums up everything I loved about this dog.  These was taken in February of 2008, on a short trip up to the snow with our friends, The Retichs, and their kids and their dog, Bailey.  We found a great hill for sledding, and Copland spent the entire day chasing us down the hill…inthesnow2… and then charging right back up.

inthesnow

He did this for hours.  Labs will literally play themselves to death, I’ve heard.  I have no patience for the unenthusiastic, which is why I’ll never be a cat person.  This dog was more enthusiastic about life than any other creature I’ve known.  In the snow, at the park, in the yard, on a hike, or just hanging out at home, he lived his life to the fullest.

……………..

It was about five months ago that the bumps started showing up.  The vet told us that they were normal, just fatty polyps that develop on dogs his age.  Most people, he said, don’t bother with them unless they don’t like the cosmetic effect.  

Around the new year, we noticed a bigger bump on his hind quarters.  This one did not look like a fatty polyp.  We took him in, and the vet told us the bad news.  It’s a tumor, and malignant.  What do you want to do?  Well, we ended up running a few tests and an x-ray or two, and it turned out that the tumor hadn’t spread.  Not only that, but the vet told us that he had rarely seen a large lab of Copland’s age with such a vigorous heart and large lungs, and that he was in tremendous physical condition.  

He was blunt about the risks, but he also told us that he thought we might be able to get the tumor out and have him around for a few more years.  We weighed our options, and decided it was worth it.  On February 5th of this year, Copland had major surgery.  My studio, which has the greatest amount of unused floor space, was tarped and fenced and turned into a doggy recovery zone.  I’ll spare you the photos of the tumor itself, which the vet produced like a prize winning seabass, but I will tell you that my sweet dog’s backside looked like the bride of Frankenstein.  

conehead

Now, he had surgery in the morning, and that afternoon, was looking at me with the arched eyebrows and the tongue hanging out, with that absurd cone on his head, his rear end stapled and bleeding, and was ready to go play ball. 

He recovered beautifully.  His fur never quite fully re-grew itself, but he was back outside within two weeks, as if nothing had ever happened.  During this time, we started noticing a limp on his right, front let.  Another trip to the vet, and this time he said that it was most likely arthritis, and prescribed some anti-inflammatories.  Those seemed to resolve the problem, for a short while.  

These few final weeks passed without much incident, although the limp lingered.  Even slightly hobbled, all he wanted to do was play, and cuddle, eat our food from the table, and generally be glad to be on board.  Last Saturday, we took him to the park, but this time in the car.  I didn’t want him to have to walk there and back.  We took it easy, throwing the ball just a few feet, and but a few times.

That night, he was whimpering and crying, and we decided that we had to take him back…  yet again… to the vet, and see what was up.  

On Monday, he had another x-ray taken, and the sad truth was revealed.  An unrelated cancer, a bone cancer, was rapidly spreading through his body, and he had already developed a hairline fracture from the deterioration, thus causing the limp.  After the fact, the vet told me that he want back to our round of X-rays from late January, and there was no indication of bone cancer in that comprehensive (and expensive) workup.  It was aggressive, and it was the end for him.  

As I paid yet another bill, and walked him out to the car, I lost it for the first time.  I didn’t even make it to the car before deep, guttural sobs overwhelmed me.  For some reason, the tumor removal in February, as serious as it was, never connected me with the fact that he was going to leave this earth well before I was.  But Monday afternoon, when I heard the phrase, “Well… the only treatment is to remove the leg, and that’s only going to buy him about three months,” that did it.  He had to put him to sleep, and we needed to do it as soon as possible.  There was nothing left for him but deterioration, and suffering.  

We told the kids.  Ella broke down with mommy.  Zion, still in his three year old bubble, remained generally blissfully oblivious.    That night, we decided that Tuesday was going to be a special day.  

Copland had ham and eggs for breakfast on Tuesday.  Instead of going to school, and work, we went to the beach.  We actually doped him up with tylenol and his anti-inflammatories, and between that and his ham and egg breakfast, he was feeling no pain.  

I had a silly ritual with him.  When it was time to play, I’d look at him and he’d lock his eyes on mine.  I’d say… “Do you wanna go…. to the park?” and he’d leap up into the air, wagging his tail.  I could do this a dozen times and it never ceased to amuse me or the kids.  Just for grins, I did it again, and even on his fractured leg, he wagged and smiled and barked, “YES!”

It was a stunning day, warm and bright, despite predictions of rain.  He charged, as he always would, into the water.  He dug in the sand.  He chased the ball.  We tried not to cry, and failed miserably.  It will go down as one of the sweetest days I can remember.  

 

atthebeach

atthebeach2

withthekids

When we got home, a dear friend named Deva, who has hosted Copland several times as a dog sitter came over and fed him a steak.  He spent his final afternoon doing what he loved to do, sitting by the screen door in the living room, surveying his yard.  

looking-out

My only regret in all this is that when it came time to actually put him to sleep, we had to go back to the vet’s office.  He got all anxious and nervous.  We just lay down with him on the blanket and scratched his belly and whispered into his ears.  We stayed with him until the end.  I’ve never been through that before.  I anticipated a long process, but the contents of the shot work very quickly.  In the end, he actually made a sound that sounded like his happy grunt, and then went to sleep.  He was a good dog.

………………

I think that one of the reasons I’ve been so emotional over this process is because his passing precedes our 10th wedding anniversary by only two weeks.  I’ve already been keenly aware of the closing of a chapter in our lives, and the beginning of another.  Our kids are out of diapers, and speaking in nearly complete sentences.  We aren’t planning on having any more, although if The Good Lord sees fit to circumvent our contraceptive strategies, that’s certainly His prerogative.  

Copland will forever be intertwined with my memories of this first decade of our home, our new civilization.  He taught me that I had to be firm and patient, gentle and unconditional in my love.  He taught me how to be a little less selfish, and a little more generous.  I have said many times that raising a puppy for its year is outstanding preparation for an infant.  

I think that, beyond that, they teach you about the entire cycle of parenting.  You feed and bathe them, then you teach them a few tricks, and if you do your job right, you get to enjoy their company for a season.  By God’s grace, I pray that I’ll never have to go through the agony of losing a child, but there are parallels nonetheless.  They are not mine.  Of their lives, I am but a steward.  I will eventually have to let them go.  

I can’t say I’ve let Copland go quite yet.  I am simply not used to the rhythm of not having him around.  I guess that even in death, that dog still has a few things to teach this human about living my life.    

In an attempt to not leave this long note on a total downer, I’ll share one more story.  Yesterday, after we returned from the vet after putting him to sleep, Zion was playing outside with his Papa, my dad.  Zion looked straight at us and said, “Did you drop Copland off to heaven?”

“Yup, pal… we did.”  

“Cool!  Wanna play?”

“Sure, pal.”

………….

Ok, I swear after this I’ll stop adding to this epic post, but I just found two more shots that are awesome beyond words, and since I’ve already been this self-indulgent, what’s a little more?

headshake1headshake2