Tag Archives: art and culture

How Michael Got His Groove Back

Thank god for the Yellowjackets. I was just barely hanging on until then.

The APU “A” Big Band played a gig last night for a few thousand people in the events center, and the pianist had a conflict, so I sat in. 30 tunes, all sight reading, with everything from thick-fisted George Shearing voicings to awkward non-pianist attempts at writing quartal stacks, with insane rhythmic jumps. A few standards thrown in for taste.

Fun stuff to play, really fun. Not fun stuff to read through with no rehearsals.

I was really anxious leading up to the gig. I don’t do this kind of playing anymore, and haven’t for quite a while. I’m a pop guy, all about tone and time, the small tasty part in the bridge, that kind of thing. It’s been probably 10 years since I’ve had to sight-read big band charts, and that skill fades very quickly with time. I was talking with Doug about it the night before, and he said, “Oh, you’ll do great – it’s just like riding a bicycle.” It’s not. It’s almost exactly the opposite of that.

I wasn’t anxious about the crowd, or about the director, I was anxious because it was a band full of students, and they are all really, really good. Really good. Missing class to sit in on recording sessions good. Monteray Jazz Festival kind of good. On the regular sub list for Les Brown kind of good. Publishing and playing their own charts kind of good. I was anxious because I felt like I needed to prove something.

For musicians, there is a kind of currency, of legitimacy, that comes from what you can do with your instrument. It’s how you prove you belong in the club. More than arranging, composing, pedagogy, conducting, the thing that defines you as a musician is what you do when you pick up your axe. That carries over to how they view those of us in the faculty as well – the profs who can still swing rank higher in the students’ eyes than those who “just teach.” The Dean of the school has huge credibility because “he plays.”

So, I felt like I had to prove that teaching wasn’t an escape from having to play hard, that I could still handle my business, that I belonged in the club. It some way, I felt like I was proving my right to stand up in front of them and talk about wave physics, binary conversion, software and hardware, studio production techniques, ethics, everything that I teach that is tangential to the act of playing. I needed to back up my credibility, so that when I tell them that being a musicians includes all of these things, I am speaking as a musician, and not just as someone who used to play, and now teaches. For them, that means being able to handle unison be-bop runs at 200 BPM with the trombones hitting ostenato stabs.

I did … well, OK. I handled my business pretty well, hit the hits, played some tasty 8 bar solos that arrangers like to drop in as palate cleansers between horn rips. I missed a few difficult reads, at least one of them really exposed.

Then, we pulled up an arrangement of a Bob Mintzer tune, New Rochelle off “Blue Hats” by the Yellowjackets. Medium fusion shuffle, right in my wheelhouse. There was an extended piano solo in the middle of tune. I killed it, absolutely killed it. It felt great, sounded great, and everybody was into it. Started slowly, built the themes, stacked the voicings, went way outside, twisted the subdivisions up, got bigger and bigger until it just exploded into the horn hits, and then it was done. It felt … fantastic.

So, I’m hanging my hat on that moment. My raging insecurities were quelled, at least for now, and I can go back to teaching about MIDI data bytes and how to build a velocity-switching sample instrument. Only now, I get to do it as “a player”.

No More Tithing

So, a few years ago, Matt shot a quick and cheesy little video about what church would look like if we simply did away with tithing. I subbed out some of the music, and we distributed it through Sermon Spice – you can see the original here: No More Tithing.


You need to watch it all the way through, just trust me on this one. Watch the little gags along the way. Got it? Good.

I did a Google search tonight for the phrase no more tithing, just to see what would pop up. And lo, the google gods blessed me with this:

I called Matt, and made him watch the whole thing while on the phone with me. We laughed so hard I threw up.

Ba-ba-ba-Baaaaass Flute

I wandered around the School of Music this evening with my children, and Sophia was fascinated by all of the different instruments. She would see somebody playing something, and stop them to ask, “What’s that?”, quickly followed by, “What does it do?” The students were all very gracious, and stopped to explain their instruments to her, including several personal demonstrations.

The bass flute was by far her favorite:

Angel with a Bass Flute

We also got to stick around for a few minutes to hear the head of our string department rehearsing the Bach Double Violin Concerto for tonight’s concert. Sophia was rapt through the whole thing, even swaying from side to side as the two halves of the ensemble traded phrases against each other.

I’m going to check the benefits package on my contract, to see if “enriching and unique childhood experiences” is there, next to dental and 401k.

Special Guest

So, guess who is coming to talk to my Production Techniques class about how to write and record a song? Charlie Peacock.

You know, the guy who produced albums for Switchfoot, Isaac Slade (The Fray), Nichole Nordeman, Leigh Nash, Amy Grant, David Crowder Band, Audio Adrenaline, Sara Groves, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Al Green, CeCe Winans, Brent Bourgeois, Twila Paris, Sarah Masen, Susan Ashton, Avalon, Philip Bailey, Margaret Becker, Michael Card, Bob Carlisle, Eric Champion, Steven Curtis Chapman, The Choir, Michael English, Béla Fleck, Steve Green, Cheri Keaggy, Phil Keaggy, Scott Krippayne, Kevin Max, Cindy Morgan, Out of the Grey, Ginny Owens, Chris Rice, the 77s, Sixpence None The Richer, Michael Tait, Steve Taylor, and about 2 dozen more.

I think we might need to erect police barricades to keep kids from stuffing his pocket full of demos.

Thoughts From Watching the 80th Academy Awards

A few thoughts from watching the Academy Awards tonight:

  1. Amy Adams singing Happy Working Song alone on stage should win an Oscar for bravery.
  2. George Clooney is the iconic leading man of our era. He’s the heir of Cary Grant and Clark Gable.
  3. How many freeking statues does Jack Nicholson have? Also, does he always get a front row seat?
  4. John Stewart? Funny man. Too bad his humor was (often) too smart for the room. His comment about “staying the course” with Iraq war films had me rolling. I got the sense that most of the people there didn’t realize he was making fun of them.
  5. That guy who waxed the floor in front of the presenter podium is gonna be out of a job come tomorrow morning.
  6. Daniel Day-Lewis could scare the stink off a sewer rat.
  7. I’m glad The Bourne Ultimatum got some recognition for editing and sound. It’s not the kind of move that does well at the Oscars, but man, that was well made flick.
  8. Giving the Oscar for Best Song to that claptrap from Once is nothing but pure indie snobbery.

Anybody else watch?

Our excitement for the day

Guess what my husband just did, like ten minutes ago?  He auditioned for the LA Philharmonic.

Jason in the Green Room, waiting to hear.  He’s assuming he didn’t advance, because they excused him after hearing three excerpts (instead of maybe five).  It was a screened audition on the stage of the Disney Concert Hall, where neither of us have been.

He was the FIRST to audition, out of everybody!

I don’t have any bloggy, thinky thoughts about this.  We are just exchanging phone calls, excited.  I’m home with two kids and a play date, so all of you get to be my friend right now.  :)    (If you don’t care, just pretend, it’ll be good enough for me.)

One thing he did say is “There is no substitute for what I just did.”

Lastly, I’ll be glad to have my husband back (from practicing).

Seth Godin on The Death of the Music Industry

Seth Godin (all-around internet guru guy) wrote an article on things that can be learned, by existing industries, from the slow and agonizing death of the music industry. The quote of the article has to be:

You used to sell plastic and vinyl. Now, you can sell interactivity and souvenirs.

Some of his language is a bit “insider” to the internet marketing world, but you can get past that and still hear what he’s saying. Here’s the article: Music Lessons.

(ht: Matt, the guy who built wordpress)

a little night music

You know how, sometimes, you’re playing prelude music for a wedding, and the bride is running, like 20 minutes late, so you’ve played through all the rep you have prepared, and you start to get adventurous and play things by ear, from memory, and you get 2/3 of the way through “All I Ask Of You” from Phantom of the Opera, and you realize that you don’t actually know the song all that well, so instead you just accidently played the theme from a John Phillip Sousa march?

I hate that.

String We Now Of Christmas

I love writing for strings. Looooooove it. One of my favorite things to do. I love hearing the meshing tones in my head, transposing them to paper, I love closing my eyes and physically mimicking the execution of the passages, to get a feel for bowings and fingerings, checking for potential errors or hidden difficulties that can be smoothed over. I love the range and flexibility of the instruments, the contrast between the dark brooding of the viola and the sonorous projection of a cello across the same range of notes, the athleticism that a good 1st violinist can execute.

I love everything about writing for strings, right up until the moment I hand the printed to parts to actual players, and the bitching begins.

String players are an onerous breed. There is an attitude, a vibe that permeates the culture of string players that makes them, almost uniformly, unpleasant to work with. I think it stems from the fact that they all, deep down, want to play nothing but chamber music for knowledgeable and adoring impresarios at outdoor amphitheaters under the evening stars of Tuscany. They harbor barely repressed violent urges toward you for having the audacity to offer them money to play anything else, and every gig they take reminds them that their career has not yet reached such fabulous heights that they can afford to turn you down.

As a result, when you had a string player a piece of music to play, they wear a look as if you had handed them a page covered with warm spit. They will condescend to play this hackneyed drivel you’ve given them, but they will make sure everyone involved knows that they deserve better.

Here’s the difference: if you hand a guitar player a piece of paper, and it has 95% of what they need in order to play the tune, they’ll figure out the rest and jump into the song, delivering their musical best. They’ll do the same if you hand them a Starbucks receipt with hand-scribbled chords on the back. If what they tried wasn’t what you wanted, they’ll gladly try something else on the next pass. If you did something silly, like writing in a whammy bar part for any guitar built after 1992, they’ll cheerfully try to get the same affect using string bends. If something is musically awkward, they might offer up 2 or 3 alternates, and cheerfully suggest them to you in rehearsal. If you don’t like any of them, they’ll go back to playing the original part.

In short, the guitarist recognizes that you, the arranger, are not a guitarist, and don’t understand the instrument like they do. When your chart asks them to do something, they understand that it will take some interpretation by the actual musician in order to produce a musical effect. They recognize that the printed chart is a map to the music, not the music itself, and that maps vary in their quality and accuracy. They understand that it is the responsibility of the player to find the destination – they’re not some DARPA experiment in robot navigation, they are intelligent and resourceful explorers within the musical terrain. The same is true of wind players, percussionists, pianists, trumpets, tubas, jug-bands, and castrato soloists.

This is not an excuse for poor writing or sloppy notation; it is absolutely the responsibility of the arranger and orchestrator to develop strong musical ideas, and ink out for the musician clear indications in how to execute them. But even the best arrangers, the best orchestrators, rely on the musicality of the performer to find the appropriate interpretation of an imperfect system of written indication.

On the other hand, if you place a piece of paper in front of a string player, and it has 95% of what they need in order to play the tune, you will spend the first 45 minutes of the rehearsal listening to them bitch about the last 5%. If you give them an awkward bowing, rather than trying to figure out what you might be trying to indicate by asking for it, and then figuring out how to deliver that musical effect in a different way, they will bitch that the bowing is awkward. If you do something musically non-standard, like writing the cello in unison with the 1st violin on a counter-melody against the singer, with 2nd violin and viola in harmony beneath the line, they will assume that you bribed your way past Theory 1 instead of learning decent part writing. There will, on no occasion, be any assumption on the part of the string players that they are being asked to apply their own musical instinct to the part, to locate the music to which the printed score is the guide. They are just here killing time until they get the call to fly to Tuscany, at which point they will cheerfully invest all of there passion and creativity into every performance. Your music, on the other hand, will get nothing of the sort.

So, on Christmas Eve-Eve, the Sunday before Christmas, I had a singularly wonderful experience. We booked a string quartet at our church, contracted by my Teaching Assistant, Alex Wen, who continues to use every opportunity to exceed everyone’s expectations. They started unpacking their instruments, they tuned up, ran some scales. Finally, the moment came, I handed them the parts I had written, and held my breath.

They were brilliant. Fantastic. Warm, funny, musically adventurous, willing to embrace the songs. The 1st violin, Gene Wei, was perhaps the best on that instrument that I’ve ever worked with – he was aggressive in his interpretation, which infected the entire quartet. When notation that was unclear, he quickly made decisions for the ensemble, he corrected problems with intonation and voicing between the parts. he improvised lead passages where appropriate, and followed my leading from the piano with decisiveness. In short, he seemed to possess that sort of spirit that seems all too lacking in string players: he recognized that the arranger (me!) was relying on the expertise of the string players to translate my written guide into actual music, and to do it with passion and conviction.

We blew through some arrangements of Christmas Carols for the congregational singing, and then the moment of truth. I had written an original song, “That Night, They Dreamed”, and arranged it for piano and string quartet. The piece asked for some particular things of the players, and I knew that the notation wasn’t as well-prepared as it could have been (the piece having just come into the world 48 hours earlier). If the typical string player vibe-throwing was going to infect the group, it would be here.

Instead, it ranked as one of the must satisfying musical experiences of my life. They responded, beautifully, to the ink. They interpreted musically. Gene, n 1st violin, improvised a passionate and sparkling (and in tune!) cadenza, and led the group through the rubato phrasing in perfect lockstep with my vocal leading.

If any of you are looking for strings in the LA area, and you’re tired of the attitude and vibe-throwing, email me, and I’ll hook you up. I have the phone numbers of 4 who get it.

In my cart so far…

So, it snowed last night…just enough to be pretty (which now, a few hours later, means it’s one giant, sloppy, unpretty mess). The snow reminded me that winter has in fact, just begun. Given that I’m a poster-child for SAD, I’m planning ahead and doing some book shopping so that if (hahahahahah!) or rather, WHEN the dysfunction rears it’s ugly head on day #4 of rain (who am I kidding…I mean day #2!) I will at least have some good reads lying about. Better to bury one’s head in a book than just, ya know, bury it. So here’s what’s in my cart so far:
Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith
I’ve read zero Rob so far…I’m curious…and anything with “repainting” in the title is bound to resonate with me…I repaint often. (Which is another way of saying I paint badly quite often.)

Sadly, that’s the only mommy book I’ve added so far. (Thus, this post.) The only other things in my cart are three children’s books about Thanksgiving. (Thanks Aly…I finally checked out the Squanto book you recommended.) Like I said, I’m planning ahead.

I thought briefly about adding Foucault’s Pendulum as per a recommendation on a friend’s facebook page, but this sentence from the review sent me back to the children’s section: “This complex psychological thriller chronicles the development of a literary joke that plunges its perpetrators into deadly peril.” That is soooo utterly unappealing to me. And I don’t even feel compelled to apologize for my lack of intellectualism. (Mark it down.)

So, who has some reading recommendations for me? I’m aiming for somewhere a bit beyond Squanto for children but below the psychologically thrilling Foucault…it’s a big target…surely some of you can help! Lest my brain moss over in this perpetual winter drizzle, do comment soon! Thanks. (I thought about this and this, but I dunno….I guess I kinda want something more….fun.)

Audio Christmas Card ’07 — Hark This

Well, I told you I’d post it, and here I am a whole week early. In between all the gift giving and receiving and hustle and bustle, we threw this little ditty together to complete our three song homemade gift for family and friends (ya’ll :)

Perhaps you’ve heard about the so-called “War on Christmas.” I, myself, think it’s all a bunch of Christian baiting hype, and I have only one pet peeve, and it’s been going for years and years and years. It’s the fact that when people talk about Christmas Carols, they mean.. Rudolph. Frosty. Sleigh Ride.

Bah Humbug.

What follows, my friends, is a Christmas Carol. This is where theology and poetry intersect with timeless results. It was my hope to draw attention to the staggeringly beautiful lyric while at the same time catapulting the arrangement into another time zone. I’m hoping to clobber you with joy. If you’re hoping for sublime and articulate, I suggest you look elsewhere. :)

Merry Post-Christmas, friends.


Authors note: After many unsuccessful attempts to embed the cool audio thingie in the post without help of the webmaster (who apparantly thinks that it’s alright not to answer his cell phone on Christmas day – BTW, Mike… yeah… that 2nd message, the one where I said I had it figured out… premature) I just did a workaround.

When you read this, Mike… feel free to fix it, delete this, and mock me.

(ed: fixed, snarky comments left intact for posterity)

Oh, and then tell me our track is great.

That Night, They Dreamed

Things move quick around here, kids. Gotta stay on your toes. Remember that poem from yesterday, “That Night” by an unknown author? I had a few hours at the piano today, and got to write a new tune for it.

Chad, I’m sure I’ve borrowed some from your original setting, but I’m not worried about being sued by you, because to do that you would have to find the original, and you swore up and down yesterday that you had no idea where it is. I’m gonna go ahead and call that legal immunity.

Here it is. Since the author is unknown, I felt free to take a few minor liberties with the words, and the title.

“That Night, They Dreamed”

The arrangement for Sunday is piano, vocals, and a string quartet. The interludes you hear are meant to be played by the quartet, and the cadenza solo section will be done by the violinist (Alex, you did get me good players, right?)