Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Explaining Buddy Rich to Middle School Musicians

I teach a jazz band of mostly sixth graders with a sprinkling of a couple of seventh graders and a fifth grader.  Each week, they are assigned a "YouTube Artist of the Week".  This week we explored Buddy Rich.

It is so important to introduce him early to aspiring jazz musicians.  He is tasteful and virtuosic, and has brilliant touch, but he is also exciting, and "plays like his hair is on fire", as he has been described.  He is a prime example of jazz drumming.  There is no shortage of examples of his brilliance on the internet, and the Muppet Show clips are a wonderful bridge to his legacy for young kids.

There also is no shortage of examples of his personality.  His temperament, his "bus tantrums", his demons and struggles: they are all out there too.  I was becoming serious about music as he began his decline.  We all had those fourteenth generation cassette dubs of his rants on the bus after concerts, and giggled at his irrational eruptions.

I feel a responsibility to address that.  If I am going to encourage them to Google the man, I need to be prepared to talk about this side of him.

Buddy's mind, body, and psyche had clearly shown the mileage put on them by years on the road and behind the drums.  In my opinion, this doesn't tell the whole story.

I don't think I have ever read anything to this effect, but Buddy wasn't just trying to keep a music career going.  He, likely against his will, became responsible for the life of an art form and genre of music.  When he first took a big band out in the 1940's, he was one of many successful such groups.  He was a brilliant talent, and deserved to thrive.  Ultimately, he did.  There were not many bands being driven from the drums, but he was doing it.

Little by little, the sheer economics of big bands drove the music business to put their resources behind their smaller and easier to manage alternatives, both in and out of the world of jazz.  By the 1980's, the aging Buddy Rich found himself to be the last of the big bands.  There were others out there, even some fiscally solvent ones.  He was the only one from the old days still leading his group. He was the last survivor.  Basie, Ellington, Goodman, Herman, Shaw, all out making a living as nostalgic recreations of their predecessors.  Buddy was trying to keep it fresh, new, and alive.  I'm sure it appeared to be a losing battle.

Add to this that there was a time that to play with the Buddy Rich band was the peak of one's career.  It was easy to find the best of the best, and staff the band with the best players around, all appreciative of the opportunity to play with greatness.  By the time the 1980's rolled around, things had shifted.  Buddy was still attracting brilliant talent, but the aging legend was less likely to be the career objective of a young cat out of North Texas or Berklee.  He was a resume builder.  Play with Buddy, and you can catapult yourself to greatness on your own.  Was it now that Buddy was pulling a throne up along side a powerful collection of egos that were all ready to use his gravity to slingshot themselves into their own orbits?

So, there he is, aging, failing health, exhaustion, and a band full of smartass kids who all think they know better than he does.  It isn't hard to explain how he flew off the handle so often.  It was the last gasp at an era that was ending with him.  The weight of all of that, his physical deterioration, the erosion of his art form, the aggravation of dealing with amazing young players and their proportionate egos, makes it easy to imagine that he felt backed into a corner, and needed to lash out.

It's been twenty-eight years since his passing.  Nobody deserves to be belittled and abused, as was the Buddy Rich admirer in "Whiplash", which certainly appears to be a direct reference to the same.  I have never felt as though this sort of treatment was a good road to helping someone find music.  It might win trophies and scholarships, but it doesn't create musicians.  I find myself hoping that this explanation of him allows us a clearer path to enjoying his music and that part of his legacy, and not the angry ill-tempered man in decline.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Almost empathetic to Kanye...almost...

I almost get it...

When the first thing you learn about a woman is how talented she is, and maybe not long after realize an attraction, you can easily develop a deep empathy.

Then, you get to see how hard she works, and how much her craft comes from her soul, and the closer your are to that soul, the more her work means.  Maybe you understand it better than most do.

She is brilliant, she is talented, she has worked hard to be able to make this kind of music.  Your admiration for her helps that really shine for you, probably brighter than for anyone else.  You hang on her every note: in performance, in rehearsal, in practice.

When it comes time for others to recognize that work, it is absolutely heart wrenching for you to see it recognized for less than you know it is.  You want to hop up in front of her and confront everyone within earshot that they just don't get it.  How can they possibly see this work as anything but the best that could be?

It is kind of sweet they way you defend her.  I get it.  It might take everything you have not to stand and scream out loud the injustices to which you feel her work was subjected.

The truth is that everyone who is nominated for a Grammy has someone who feels that deeply for them, and knows they have earned that award.  When someone else is chosen to go up to the podium to accept it, that means that neither you or they were, this time.  Almost everyone else in the world who has ever been in this position has graciously let the other person have that moment, at the podium and later in the media.

Not only do you embarrass your loved one by doing so, and ruining the moment for the winner, but you look like a putz.  You look like a putz because you are a putz.  You aren't a putz because you are in love and are compelled to defend her work.  You are a putz because you can't see that they way you do it is wrong.

So, almost, but not quite...almost...

Friday, March 7, 2014

Allan Minkkinen, and the Triumphant Return of Elementary Bands to Andover

When I started in Andover in 2001, I was one of three full time band directors, including Mr. Allan Minkkinen, who had been in Andover at that point for over 30 years.  Allan wrote dozens of cool arrangements, found ways to highlight particularly motivated students, and became a legend in this town.  He and I shared a passion for Civil War history, and enjoyed many discussions about the politics and the tactics surrounding the war.  He also had a very impressive collection of firearms, from antique military to modern sport.  I always imagined that if we were ever invaded by a foreign power, Allan would have possessed the training and equipment to single-handedly defend Ballardvale for a very long time.

Due to significant budget cuts in the Spring of 2002, two of our band positions were cut, among several others.  Allan took over the middle school choruses and kept up a lunchtime elementary band in each building, while I went from two to three middle schools, and added the high school chorus to my schedule.  Allan taught this schedule for one year before retiring in the spring of 2003.

Little changed with the band program until even the lunchtime band, our last foothold in the elementary schools, was done away with in 2009.  This coincided with Allan's failing health and untimely death.  I mentioned his passing at the Peace Concert that year, and dedicated a piece to him, but that's all I could muster in way of a public tribute.  It seemed disingenuous to do more than that where in his final years he had to watch his life's work dwindle down to nothing. I feared it would not be a gesture he really would have appreciated, given the trajectory of the program.

The summer of 2010 brought some new leadership to the Andover schools, and an aspiration to make things whole again.  The only promise made was that it would take a while, and be the result of careful intelligent planning.  The following year brought about a task force that looked into a five-year strategic plan.  That next year, we conducted some research as to how similar districts schedule instrumental music, and made recommendations as to what it would take to make steps in the right direction for Andover.  This past fall, a fine arts coordinator position was restored to the district, as were three full time music positions.

On Tuesday night, for the first time in twelve years, a significant elementary school band will take the Collins Center stage at Andover High School.  The last time this happened, in March of 2002, the band was directed by Allan Minkkinen.  It will be my humble privilege to symbolically resume his hard work in Andover as those seventy five kids play "Montego Bay" and  "Regal March" with what I hope would be the love that Allan would have put into it.  Their performance will be dedicated to his memory.  This is long overdue.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Pencil Equilibrium

I don't want to jinx it, but I have made some real strides with the Andover pencil culture.  It remains an active struggle to get them to have pencils on their stands, and most need to be told to use them, but I believe we have all but killed the outright refusal that had such a stronghold on this town.

The interesting side project in all of this is to what extent I have been willing to provide said pencils.  I have always taken the line that it is their responsibility to have their own pencils, and I did not want to get them used to just living off the land and finding one when they get to band.

I have to admit that this is hardly fair.  I am quite certain that I can recall many times when I dug around under the risers or inside the piano at school so that I'd have one at the ready.  Maybe I don't want them going down the same primrose path on which I tread.

Recently, I broke down and put a mug of pencils on the little shelf next to my podium.  I'm telling you, it works.  It's fascinating.  The rule is: borrow one if you need it, but return it.  If they forget to do it before band, they have to come up in front of me and take one.  Most kids would rather have their own than do that.

After band, I go around and collect pencils left on the stand, and they go in the mug.  Some may have been borrowed and not returned, and some may have just been left and are now community.

There are always a handful of kids who forgot one, and there are always a few left on stands, and at the end of the day, there is always about the same number of pencils in the jar.

Wood Hill Middle School has achieved pencil equilibrium.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Cooper Knapp

I am treated to a lot of inspiration to reflect on my high school music experiences these days for a number of reasons.  I am looking at high school band from the outside for the first time in over a decade for one thing, and my thirtieth high school reunion approaches this summer for another.  Probably the biggest reason is watching my nephew Hunter experience an almost parallel path in his senior year at York High School.  As he lines up his opportunities for studying music in college, I see a lot of the same experiences shaping those decisions.

Hunter's involvement within his school's music program has been prolific and impressive, and of course I applaud that.  I am also encouraged to see how involved he has been in music outside of school, in a variety of camps, ensembles, pick-up groups, and even a little entrepreneurialism.  He and his friends, outside of the agenda of any adults, seem to make a lot of music.  I love that he does that, and think back on how much that sort of activity shaped me and my passion for what I now do.

As I reflect on that, I think back on all the many pick-up basement and garage bands that I played in.  It's funny that there were so many, but involved a relatively limited number of actual personalities.  It's as though a dozen or so of us tried every combination of personnel we could imagine, learned a set or two, and debated a band name over a box for Flo-Dogs and a two liter bottle of Coke.

Choosing who we played with seemed as much about whose company we enjoyed than anything else, and then hope they play well.  That being said, I don't ever recall any of these bands not wanting to be great.  We always enjoyed several months of novelty before individual agendas would start to run against each other as the luster faded, but "that's good enough for this band" was not something I recall being said.

As I ponder this, I perceive that among us were some exceptional musicians with whom I had played, and it occurs to me that York, Maine in the early to mid 80's had an unusually high number of remarkable drummers among us.  I can't recall anything but really capable and musical players behind those enormous Neal Peart inspired sets.  Tim Sorel, Charlie Gnerre, Joe Rogers, Shawn Mitchell, and John Dorizzi are all names that come to mind.  All as soulful and skilled and inspired as the next.  It is tempting to suggest that I have a touch of rose colored hindsight on this, except that I think all of them are still quite active as musicians.

Maybe this is normal, and over my career, as is the case with any instrument, I can name a number of really wonderful drummers who have been students of mine in one way or another, but I can't quite recall a frequency of it like the list above crammed into a five year period or so.

It then hit me that among the forces that encouraged that culture in York,  not the least of which an encouraging high school band director in George Perkins, was Cooper Knapp.  I know so little of Mr. Knapp.  He had three daughters near my age that I knew well in school, all of whom were involved in band.  I knew that he had some difficulty with his hearing, and I knew that he played drums.  I have no recollection of how he made a living, or if drums ever played any role in that.  At first, he was just one of the adults in the percussion section of the summer Town Band, but then when there would be a piece that required a drum set, he sat down and just owned the stage on that kit.

He played with power, but he played with taste.  In my mind, I have trouble separating memories of watching him and seeing videos of Buddy Rich.  They both always played on older style three or four piece sets, and he engulfed it with a drive and yet a musicality that brought us all along for a ride.

It seemed as though it was never to hard to talk him into coming in to play with the HS kids.  He'd agree to play a drum battle with probably any of the above listed high school drummers, and would take them all to school, with less that half of the equipment that my generation insisted on loading into a station wagon every time we were fortunate enough to get booked to play for a middle school dance.  I also have a vivid memory watching the faces of delight of my peers watch him as he took his turn in the battles.

Mr. Knapp is no longer with us, and will always pine for a chance to hear him play again, knowing what I know now about the art form.  Maybe I'm better off.  Maybe the comparison to Buddy is a little charitable, but maybe not.  I actually don't care.  When I was a teenager, this guy was the first person I had ever seen play some serious jazz drums in person, and in my head he remains one of the best.  I prefer that reality, and I am almost sure that my peers would remember him with the same fondness and influence that I remember.  I think he was a huge part of that exceptional drum culture in York.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Seeking to Lessen the Acrimony Surrounding the Festival Audition Process

We are approaching another festival audition this coming weekend.  Every year, as I help my counterparts and the parents of my students work out situations, sometimes difficult ones, I draft this little sentiment in my head, and pledge to put it out ahead of time that following year.  This is the first year I actually did it.

"(Honors) festivals are run by a volunteer corps of area music teachers who operate solely out of a desire to provide these opportunities for the music students of (this area).  The process for fairly, accurately, and efficiently evaluating literally hundreds of young musicians is daunting, complicated, and often almost thankless.  These teachers are always striving to use the district's years of experience, as well as ever-changing and improving technology, to fine tune the process and make the experience more efficient and more valuable.  Please know that there are occasionally anomalies and delays that occur, and that we are all doing our best to make the whole audition and notification process go with as few glitches as we can.  You patience and understanding is much appreciated."

It is my hope that this might provide both parties, each of whom I hold in very high esteem, more resources and empathy to get through such situations more peacefully and productively.

I freely admit that I could stand to reflect on my own behavior and attitude here.  This is as self-aspirational as anything else.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Little Trombonists. Can it work for them?

It just looks like it's too big!

It is a challenge to get elementary kids interested in trombones.  They are not out in the forefront like trumpet, saxophone, or drums.  They certainly don't fit into a locker like flute or clarinet.  Getting a kid to play trombone is almost always a result of changing someone's mind, as opposed to their following a dream, or even a hunch.

Any time I suggest trombone, the reason I am told that they would prefer something else is because it is big and heavy.  It's probably about the median weight for beginning instruments in all truth, but it does make a pretty good sized footprint.

While recruiting them serves to be an issue, I am very much also trying to decide how to best teach them once I've roped them in.  I don't think lung capacity or embouchure are major stumbling blocks, but in terms of the slide, fourth and even fifth graders have a legitimate concern.  There are seven slide positions, and at best, the average elementary school students has access to six of them.  Seventh is too far out there.

For the kids willing to give trombone a shot, there are several ways I have seen over the years in which people try to cope with this:

* Using all kinds of alternative body parts (feet, knees, etc.) to try and extend the geography of the slide.

* Leave out notes that use seventh position all together

* Play those notes in fourth position.  There is a decent  chance that the note you settle on will be in the chord.

* Suplemental equipment that extends the range of the slide, like a handle extension.

* Just play it as far out as you can reach for now.

I've never encouraged the first one, of course, but I think I've tried the last four at some point or another, and I have decided that my go-to is the last one.

There are only two notes in a simple full-range chromatic scale that even use seventh position: a low E, which is the lowest note in the second partial, before you get down to "pedal tones", and low B, which is the lowest in the third partial.  In a vast majority of band music that these kids will play in their first year, there will be very few occurrences of the B and likely none of the E.  If you encourage the player to keep a good posture and embouchure, and do as well as he or she can in reaching seventh position, then yes, those rare B's will be sharp.

Maybe you are in a program where that sharp B is a real problem in the sound of your band, but I think in my situation, more often or not, I have plenty of bigger fish to fry if we are playing in C, G or D major in elementary school, or music chromatic enough to use that note outside of those keys.  I trade that otherwise perfect intonation for a training that helps encourage good muscle memory, proper embouchure and playing position, and quite frankly I imagine that depending on how you handle to topic of the intonation issues, that conversation can be a good teaching opportunity in and of itself.

I am more than interested in hearing your take on this.  One of my goals for growth in the next year or two is improving the low brass culture in the younger grades.  In a later post, I'll talk about my approach to slurring with young trombonists.

Happy New Year to all of you!