“Ode to Joy” Part 2

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Photo Credit: © Gregory Briggler

(This is the end of a two-part story. The beginning can be found by clicking here.)

The performance was over. I was in a daze afterward of heightened aesthetic awareness. I remember the shabby blue and green carpet in the house where musicians mixed with the crowd accepting compliments and making plans for the evening. The evening was cool as Laura and I walked arm and arm out of the well-worn concert hall. The patterns of the architecture outside the venue were revealed to me for the first time. Windows, identical and repeating, pulled my gaze up the office building wall across the street. I was so enraptured, as I drove along the interstate, my speed slowed to a crawl. I only came back to speed, apologizing with a smile, after Laura asked me if everything was alright.

The after-concert party was held in a lousy chain restaurant. And yet, as we walked inside, I was aware of the interior design, the deliberate choices made by that anonymous design team. The open walls with plants hanging just-so seemed to frame my friends as we walked in. The food was forgettable, yet the company pleasant. I remember my choir friends, including my quirky, long-time friend Rachel, chattering around the table relieved and excited after the concert.

I was changed by the performance, and now the evening was over. After dinner and goodbyes, I drove Laura through the dark countryside separating Little Rock and Conway, our university town about half an hour away. By the back door of the girl’s dorm, we talked quickly and kissed a passionate kiss. I watched her walk up the stairwell of the dorm to her bed. How I wanted to follow!

I walked back to my room a changed man. Music matured me; performing affected a change that was permanent and profound. And a brief, intense love affair was the catalyst.

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Please Pander!

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Photo Credit: © Larry Beckhardt

Are you programming new music for an orchestra? Are you considering new music? Disappointed with the chilly reception generated by most new music you wish to perform? Here’s an idea: pander!

Give the audience what you think they want. Make sure the standards of the work meet your expectations… then program it. Chances are the audience will either love it or hate it. When you finally find a piece or performer the audience enjoys, then find something that compliments that work!

Pandering will humble you. It will make you realize that your art depends on listening to your audience just as you wish them to listen to the music you make. Pandering can free the impasse between the music programmer and the audience – the audience and the musicians. Music is made better when everyone listens!

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“Ode to Joy” Part 1

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Photo Credit: © Gregory Briggler

I was a boy of nineteen when I first sang in the chorus for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. We performed in Little Rock, the capital of Arkansas, my home state. Each year select university choirs from around the state, including mine, joined forces with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Brahm’s Requiem was the showpiece the year before, and Verdi’s Requiem followed the next year. I was excited to sing again in this grand concert to the crowd sitting in darkness and hidden by the glare of the stage lights. The people who came to see me perform were my parents and my girlfriend Laura.

Laura was petite and very smart. She had sparkling honey colored eyes and wavy dark brown hair. I had met her in concert band; she played clarinet but she was studying chemistry. Many of the other boys were interested in her, but through luck and skill I was the only one who had managed to date her. The affair was new and precarious. The feelings I had for Laura that night were intensified by my experience singing beautiful, powerful music. And the performance was intensified by the affection.

For those of you unfamiliar with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, it begins like all previous symphonies, but something wonderful happens during the final movement. Through snippets of melodies, that movement itself seems to ask many questions, comes to dead ends, and then settles on the main theme which bursts to greater life in song. We had studied the piece through bleary eyes in early morning music theory for the entire spring semester. Inside and out, I knew it better than any music at that point in my life. The symphony is masterful – Fugues! A Turkish March! Soloists! Full Choir! The intimate connection between learning and performing was the highlight of my undergraduate education.

But something happened that night that went beyond study and performance. When the house lights came up, I was changed. It was as pure an aesthetic experience as I have ever had. That performance changed my inner life.

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Government Money : Prog Rock vs. String Quartet

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Photo Credit: © Larry Beckhardt

There are many challenges when American democracy wants to give money to “the Arts”. When a single patron supports a string quartet, they are showing their personal preferences. When a string quartet is given a portion of collective money on behalf of population of three hundred and twenty million, problems arise. Should the Tulsa Ballet get money at the expense of a square dance troupe? The Fort Worth Symphony over the Madison Scouts? A string quartet before a progressive rock band? Who makes these decisions for us?

Committees can give away money on behalf of “us”, but these committees are not elected and not necessarily representative of the nation. Decisions at the National Endowment for the Arts are made based on the cultural or political bias of a cadre of people who are “experts” in their fields before being passed on to The National Council on the Arts. This public face of the endowment, to their credit, is a diverse group of people from all over the country.  However, there is no easy way to find documentation about how the “experts” make their decisions before reaching The National Council.

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Let’s consider a funding death match that could rage between a string quartet and a prog rock band. Naturally, ensembles that are traditionally dependent on the government money such as string quartets are a common sense choice for funding to their supporters. This is a problem. There is no way to justify an individual giving public money to support one over the other.

Both ensembles (both bands?) play complicated music, have four members, and have die-hard fans. One could argue for the “cultural relevance” of either. Although I dare not call myself an “expert” in the wide-open plains of music, I would certainly qualify as well informed and knowledgeable in a number of music styles. Regardless of my personal feelings about the worth of one group over the other, justification is hard to find for choosing one.

In a government for the people,  giving government money for the arts based on “experts” is a problem. A possible solution to make the process more democratic will be offered in a future post.

How Can Free Work For You?

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Photo Credit : © Larry Beckhardt

I am happy to tell you all that I will be moderating an event for Michelle Bogre and the Parsons Institute for Intellectual Property (PIIP) at Parsons School of Design, the New School. February 17 at 6:30, please join me and the panel – musicians and music business insiders – for a discussion about how musicians can make money using free online resources. It will be exciting to talk about how to make a living making music.

Click here for details!

Oysters

I enjoy eating raw oysters. I didn’t begin to eat them until my thirties. They were never an acquired taste for me; I dug them from the beginning. They taste of the ocean. I like the slurp and the chew. They are on my plate as often as I can eat them. Filtering their food from the waters of the ocean, they are an excellent natural source of minerals as well.

Raw oysters are clearly not for everyone. A quality mignonette sauce or lemon juice can be added to calm a brassy finish. Some people add hot sauce only to kill the flavor. Alternatively, oysters can be fried to delicious effect. Some people add them to dressing at Thanksgiving which always seems like a mistake to me.

There are people who will never be convinced to like raw oysters. The taste for some is too briny. Perhaps the texture reminds others of a hawker. Apart from taste and texture, a mouth full of raw seafood may be a hard-shell hard sell.

Those who do not like oysters are not, to me, Phillistines. They do not fall out of bounds of acceptable or correct eating habits. If after trying an oyster, a diner has no more use for the dish, then I can respect their just-as-correct opinion of the bivalves I enjoy.

The same goes for new music. I may love a new composition in its chewy, salty entirety. Not only the sounds but the experience in the concert hall, subway platform or black box. If another listener has her reasons for not liking a new opus, what can we oyster eaters say? It doesn’t even need to be a “good” reason. A plain reason will do for me. My delight in raw oysters does not prove or disprove anything based on someone else’s disgust. Raw music is the same.

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Thank God for Football

What would American wind band playing be like without high school and college football? Bands and football go together like majorettes and sparkly bathing suits. Because of this cultural link which goes back to the beginning of the sport (bands are much older), wind bands have found favor in schools and towns that otherwise would not support them.

Where football programs are cherished, band programs find funding. In the book “Friday Night Lights” the Permian High School English department decries the money that the band receives because of football. I suppose the English department saw music as frivolous, or at the least, not as important as reading and writing. It is hard to see band funding as a bad thing from the point of view of music education whatever the source. In addition, because of strong bands, schools can add more music: choirs and sometimes orchestras.

Without this cultural link between wind bands and football what would happen to large-ensemble music making in schools? I think one need to look no further than any large American city. Band programs, and even cheaper choirs, are struggling without a reason to survive. Why get together and make music for no other reason than making music? This is a difficult thing to justify to a cash-strapped school board or city council.

With football, you need band. Without football, you don’t. Thank God for football.

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Tonal Refraction: Every Gig is the Same

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Photo Credit: © Larry Beckhardt

One of the mysteries of performance is that my part in making the music is the same. Pop, jazz, polka, symphonies or trombone choir, the job is the same. I need to put the right note in the right spot at the right time. I have participated in glowing, ethereal brass section tuning on a packed stage at two in the morning dressed like Freddie Mercury. I learned to push and pull the tempo of a group playing polka upbeats and how to apply that power from the cheap seats of the orchestra (when necessary). Even when “anything goes” making music, I help make it go within a musical structure.

These different groups and genres in which I participate have different ends but the same means – my playing trombone. The ends for some are for art, others for pleasure, and a few for “pure music”. Twelve notes, give or take, are spun into strings and bows and knots of melodies and rhythms and harmonies. The sounds I contribute can bray or sing; inspire or melt into the beer-logged background. If my playing notes and rhythms had a fixed meaning like a word or photograph how could they be heard in so many musical places and moods? However, my contribution is limited to the trombone and to me no matter how large my bag of tricks. So, I play and sometimes consider the sameness of the part I play.

I think about the beautiful refraction of that sameness: music filtered through the prism of me.

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Meaningful Like a Lullabye

In Poetics of Music, Igor Stravinsky states that music has no meaning. He does not argue that music has no effect on people. And neither does he argue that certain types of music do not have meaning for individuals or groups. He simply states that a tone or chord, sounded, is not a word. A Bb major chord is not “cat” or a certain melody does not mean or imply “sword” unless we are told or shown the meaning. This is one of the central mysteries of music: it sounds, it effects, but it does not mean anything.

This mystery makes it difficult to argue for the superiority of one musical style over another. Take the trombone. You might be surprised to find the trombone is the oldest instrument in continuous use. For five hundred years, it has remained fundamentally the same instrument physically. Heinrich Schutz, a seventeenth century composer and contemporary of J.S. Bach, wrote complicated, beautiful music for trombone quartet.

Trombone players have been well represented through the years. Mozart wrote solo music for the Austrian Virtuoso with the funny name Thomas Gschlatt. During the Gilded Age there was probably no player finer than the Sousa band’s Arthur Pryor. He played unhindered by the  supposed superiority of the classical canon or dime-a-dozen cornetists. Band music was popular music, dance music. He played with a facility unsurpassed in his day. “Tricky Sam” Nanton, who played in Duke Ellington’s band, created an amazing “singing” effect using a trumpet mute and the business end of a toilet plunger. Tommy Dorsey played stratospherically high on the instrument; Bill Waterous plays high and fast. Stewart Dempster created his own bag of tricks.

Does the trombone solo from Mahler’s Third Symphony mean more than the trombone solo from Edith Piaf’s Polchinelle? Mahler’s solo is louder, larger scale, longer, but more meaningful? Music well written (or well conceived) and well played is meaningful like a lullabye and not like an argument.

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