Tag Archives: small-groups

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.

My First Time ‘Round (part 1)

With Rod out recovering from surgery for a few weeks, the dean of the school of music asked me to step in and oversee the summer small groups. It’s the first thing I’ve done (like, ever, in my life) that’s more administrative than creative, but I’m happy to do it – it’s my small way of supporting Rod.

But getting up in the mix on this has gotten me thinking often about my own small group experience. Not the spectacular, talent-packed tours of my later years at APU, not the groups that spawned a half-dozen working pros and a group of friends that still hang out and teach each other’s kids dirty words.

No, I’m talking about my first small group experience. My very first. I was a freshman, a week into my college experience, and the School of Music was putting together a few groups to perform during the school year, at local churches on Sunday morning. I auditioned to play piano for one of the groups.

The Audition

The audition was … oh man. It was a hell of a thing. To fully appreciate how awful it was, you have to understand that back in the day, the School of Music was a cult of personality, and the whole program orbited around the gravitational pull of a man we called Doc. He put every small group together by divine fiat, and he did all the auditions himself, in front of a choir of 120, with everyone watching.

He asked me to play Amazing Grace. He asked everyone to play, or sing, Amazing Grace. It was one of his things.

The problem is, with a cult of personality, sometimes a punk kid comes into the orbit of the thing without knowing that you’re supposed to be all awe-struck and weak-kneed in The Presence. The cult sort of relies on everyone knowing that. It’s kinda the point of the cult.

I didn’t know that I was supposed to be in awe of the man – I thought he was a bit of a pompous ass. I decided to show him what a real musician could do.

So, I puffed out my chest and launched into a massive funk piano breakdown on “Amazing Grace”, complete with an intro stolen from a Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto. And in my funktastic version of Amazing Grace, there are 4 beats in every measure. It leaves a little extra room for my awesome piano pyrotechnics.

Imagine a 50-year-old retired Vegas showgirl wearing a bright pink fur coat with dangly plastic flamingo earrings and an orange fake-and-bake tan, still shaking her jiggly bits in a dank nightclub at Primm.

My arrangement of Amazing Grace was kinda like that.

About half-way through the 1st verse, Doc cued the 120 people in the choir to start singing along.

Did I mention my version was in 4/4, not 3/4? Yeah, it was also in minor.

Now picture yourself trying to ballroom dance with that Vegas showgirl.

(continued in part 2)

Groupthink: Send the Songs, My People!

sheetmusic back bOK, kids … everybody know what time it is? That’s right, it’s time for you to help Mr. Michael Lee do his work! For free!

Settle down, kids. No, there are no snacks. No, Timmy, I will not cut you in for points on the backend … Timmy, where did you learn about that kind of thing anyway? Oh, your last name is Mottola. Well, that explains a lot, Timmy.

For the rest of you, here’s the assignment. I need you to help Mr. Lee think of songs for his little singing group to perform. Think big guitars, drums, a very cool band, and 6-part vocal harmony tight enough to peel the lipstick off a pig. No, Timmy, I wasn’t making a joke about your daddy’s ex-wife.

So, if you had that kind of group, heading out on the road to perform concerts for medium-size churches, and also doing some stints as a high-school camp worship band, what kind of rep would you throw at them?

Anything. Anything at all. It doesn’t have to already be arranged for that kind of band + vocals, it can be a song that you think could be arranged well for the lineup.

The floor is open. Hit me.