Saturday, April 17, 2010

My Two Favorite YouTube Videos...

Just a quick entry for you....

Igor Stravinsky conducts the lullaby and finale from "The Firebird"
An 82 year old Stravinsky conducts the New Philarmonia Orchestra in London in 1965. To see the amazing mind that created this music use his frail body to conduct it is heartwarming, especially as you see him choking back smiles as it hits the climaxes.

Paul Potts' initial audition on "Brittan's Got Talent"
This video remains for me great example of the importance of music, and how its experience and passion can bring a person from one place to another in life. It gives me goosebumps when this unassuming little man wins over an entire audience with none more that the opening notes of his performance. You can almost feel the audience's expectations transform as he sings.

Enjoy! Spread them around!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Twenty-five Infuential Albums - Repost from Facebook

I enjoyed writing this for Facebook (February 19, 2009), and thought I'd repost it here, with a couple of minor edits. It generated some good discussion. These are, unless I rethink this, the 25 most influential albums in my musical life.

I kept it to 25, and restricted myself to one album per artist. I would probably have many Pink Floyd and Beatles albums in this, as well as several other multiples, but I thought it would be a better exercise for me if I stick with this rule. I also resisted the temptation to put a lot of albums that I know should be here, but in all honesty have not played as much of a role in my life as I know they should have, particularly as a musician.

1. “The Wall” – Pink Floyd
It quickly became and has remained my all-time favorite album. I find it aesthetically beautiful, sad, clever, and musical. David Gilmour’s guitar playing has remained a source of inspiration for me it terms of soul and an economy for notes. He plays nothing unless it is a significant improvement on silence. Sam Pilafian, my tuba teacher in graduate school, has a very impressive discography and resume in his career, but his involvement with ‘The Wall’ still captures my imagination.

2. “Abbey Road” – The Beatles
The Beatles broke up just as I was getting old enough to know who they were. By the time I became acquainted with Abbey Road, I had heard many of the songs. My father had bought a used Mercedes that had an eight-track tape deck, and a box of tapes in the trunk that included Abbey Road. That was by far my favorite of the bunch.

3. “Ein Deutches Requiem” – Chicago Symphony (Sir George Solti)
I have decided that this is my favorite classical work. It makes many bold moves. It does not follow the liturgy of the requiem and just uses pensive passages of scripture, it makes German sound mournful and beautiful, and it makes the violins tacit for the first movement, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen elsewhere. I fell in love with it when I played a band transcription of the first movement at music camp before eleventh grade. I bought this recording of it, and played it into the ground.

4. “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme” – Simon and Garfukel
It was a toss-up between this and the “Live in Central Park” album, but I chose this one because it came first both in existence, and in my life. Though the album was fifteen years old by then, my freshman roommate and I played this cassette tape almost every night for the first semester. They really took folk music to an art form in this album. “Central Park” was important because I listened to it all summer in my car driving 60 miles one way to visit my girlfriend almost every weekend during college.

5.“The Cars” – The Cars
This album has remained an important one. I became aware of it as it was my neighbor’s favorite tape, and I bummed a ride to school from him for a good part of my freshman year. I got it myself, and listened to it until I had worn it out. It became the soundtrack of my early adolescence, for sure. I have held it up since as a great example of a well crafted collection of songs that come together as one cohesive work.

6. “Kind of Blue” – Miles Davis
This album belonged to my dad, and until I was most of the way through high school, as far as I knew, my dad was the only person who owned a Miles Davis record. He owned a lot of them, and I liked them. This was my favorite. Miles taught me that music that doesn’t catch you the first time you listen to it isn’t necessarily bad music. It might be great because of that. Miles compels you to want to understand him.

7. “Dream of the Blue Turtles” – Sting
I had been a Police fan before this album, and have been a huge Sting fan since. This particular one is so important because it sounds like it gave Sting some freedom to really explore his various influences and talents.

8. “Rock of the Westies” – Elton John
Elton John is why I wanted to learn piano. He is also why I was disappointed that the eye doctor said I didn’t need glasses. This is an important record because it was the first one I ever bought with my own money. It’s not his best, or most popular, but I loved it, aside from feeling ripped off that “Philadelphia Freedom” wasn’t on it.

9. “West Side Story” – Stan Kenton
This, like the Miles Davis record, is one that my dad introduced me to. It brought both Stan Kenton and the music of West Side Story into my life, and both have become very important. Kenton was my ‘gateway drug’ into the concept of the big band. I listened to a lot of Kenton in college, and since.

10. “Van Halen I” – Van Halen
My sister Julie got me this for my 16th birthday, because I asked her for it. I asked her for it because I found myself drawing their ubiquitous logo on my school book covers despite the fact that I didn’t know any of their music. I really did fall in love with it, and found them to be great players who sounded like they were having a terrific time. Turned out the latter wasn’t always the case. David Lee Roth said of their chemistry that it was a shame they couldn’t work it out. They were better than the sum of their parts. It turns out that they were keeping him from becoming an irrelevant clown, and he was keeping them from becoming “Toto”.

11. “Changesonebowie” - David Bowie
In tenth grade, I had a crush on a girl in high school who loved David Bowie, so I ran out and bought this album because I recognized a couple of songs on it, and wanted to be educated enough on Bowie to discuss him with her. That didn’t really work as I’d hoped, but it did start a lifelong appreciation for Bowie that still goes on. The girl and I ended up friends at least.

12. “Jarreau” – Al Jarreau
My introduction to this album is a funny story. I have a friend who is one of the most passionate musicians I know, and has grown into one of the finest teachers I know. He and I had known each other at music camp, and were now hanging out together at a social gathering during marching band camp my freshman year at UNH. Over the stereo came “Boogie Down”, the first cut on side one. Consumed, he took the floor and danced, and I mean danced. He pantomimed every horn lick, every rim shot, and really gave a spirited performance of Jarreau’s scat solo after the second chorus. The crowd parted and observed him, lost in the groove, with amused disbelief. I wanted to pull him off the floor and away from this social suicide, but I knew he didn’t care. He was into it. I bought the album for myself shortly thereafter, and have gotten lost in it myself many times, but not in front of nearly as many people.

13. “Roger Bobo Plays Tuba” – Roger Bobo
Roger was for many years the tubist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I bought this album at the suggestion of my applied tuba teacher in college, Nic Orovich. He thought it important that I really hear what a tuba is supposed to sound like. This one did just that, and I still listen to it often. This album also fueled my love for the music of Paul Hindemith.

14. “The Stranger” – Billy Joel
Remember when Columbia House used to give you 13 records for a penny if you buy just nine more in the next three years? This was one of my thirteen, when I was in seventh grade, and I think my favorite. I had chosen it because one of my friends has done a report on it for music class in school, and it sounded cool. He slipped in front of Elton John and my favorite singer/songwriter/pianist with this album. The two have been neck and neck since.

15. “Solas” – Solas
Check back with me in a few years, because this one might end up higher on the list. I ran into Solas at the Lowell (MA) Folk Festival in 2001. I’d been to Ireland the previous summer, and was starting to really appreciate Irish (and other forms of Celtic) music. It was this Solas concert, and hence their CD's starting with this one, that I think fueled an ever-growing love for this type of music.

16. “Incredible Journey” – Bob Mintzer
It’s a great album. Terrific compositions, wonderfully performed, and impeccably produced. It was not released in a wide scale, but it’s out there. It was given to me by Mr. Mintzer when he came to play with the Disney Band I was in in 1987. It wasn’t really a gift as much as a desparate plea for me to become better acquainted with the material so the concert wouldn’t be such a disaster. I hope he feels like it worked. I listened to it non-stop in preparation for the gig, and an awful lot since.

17. “On the Line” – Lee Ritenour
This is an odd one on the list, but it is an important album for me. Ritenour is a very capable guitarist who is closely affiliated with pianist/composer Dave Grusin. It is very carefully crafted jazz/fusion, that in retrospect often sounds like music they use to get in and out of commercials during televised coverage of golf tournaments. It’s pretty smooth and antiseptic stuff, but something about this particular record spoke to me. He is very clean and very smart, and I liked it, a lot.

18. “Switched On Bach” – Walter Carlos
Another album that dad had, only this one was on reel-to-reel. It is the first album ever to be recorded using a computer. It is the music of J.S. Bach performed by Walter (now Wendy) Carlos on the Moog synthesizer, which was monophonic, and had to be done with numerous overdubbed tracks. I had no idea of the musical importance or controvoursy at the time. I just knew that when you heard it, Dad was coming to get you, and you were going to get tickled, good!

19. “Take 6” – Take 6
These guys still blow my mind. I learned about them about the time that I graduated from UNH. They are a gospel jazz a cappella group that has as much soul and depth as they do talent and chops. The arrangements are genius, and the performance is flawless, even live. I know each note of this album.

20. “Dire Straits” – Dire Straits
This is one of the few albums that my dad bought while I was old enough to notice. We both loved it, and when I went off to college, I really had to talk him into letting me take it. They’ve done great stuff since, but this, their first effort, might be their best.

21. “Mary Poppins: Motion Picture Soundtrack” – Original Cast
I’ve owned three copies of this. I can’t leave it off. I listened to it incesently when I got my first record player, and my son has done the same. I learned what an “overture” was from this album.

22. “Close To You” – The Carpenters
I admit it…I love me some Carpenters. I always have. This particular album was their first big break-out success, and it was one of the records in my grandparents collection that I could listen to. It is easy to belittle them. They invite it with some very saccharine production, with overdone background vocals and stings, etc., but the songs are well writen, and Karen Carpenter's low and soulful voice is beautiful, and all the more melancholy knowing what she was going through at the time, and how it hastened her untimely demise.

23. “Heaven and Hell” – Joe Jackson
From 1997, I was consumed by this one for a long time. It is a musical exploration of the seven deadly sins, and is wonderfully clever. It uses a unique collection of collaborations, and is somewhat appropriately released on the Sony Classical label. It’s not your run-of-the-mill Joe Jackson album, if there is such a thing.

24. “Purple Rain” – Prince
It is possible that this one is not ranked high enough, but I might be too embarrassed to put it any higher. I think that Prince has all the soul and chops of anyone in pop history. He’s a weird dude, but he knows his music. I think this album saw him keep his libido just enough in check to put out a serious work, almost.

25. “Chicago II” – Chicago
I love Chicago, and had to put one of theirs in there. This is the one I have listened to the most, for sure. I love the “Ballet for a Girl in Bucchanon”, which included “Make Me Smile” and “Color My World”. I was buying Chicago albums as they came out for many years, but stopped at 18.

I'd be intrigued to see your lists as well, or your impressions of mine.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

An interview (and maybe give me a vote?)

I was interviewed for a website called I encourage you to check it out, and if you are so compelled, give the blog a 'thumbs up' vote! Thanks.

Musical Arachnophobia - Divide and Conquer

When the snow melted each spring, there would be this daunting task ahead of me of cleaning up the yard. I would pull into my driveway that was as covered in pine cones as was the whole rest of my one-acre yard. It just seemed so impossible as it lay out in front of me.

When time presented itself, I would often make a decision (conscious or otherwise) to take care of some other task that I knew I could complete in that allotted time. That had to be done as well, and it was a lot less scary and intimidating.

Eventually, I knew I'd have to attack that yard. I would summon every shred of motivation I could, and I'd get started.

That, as it always turned out, was the hard part: getting started.

It would take a little while, but before too terribly long, I would see a decent-sized parcel of my yard begin to look nice. That was very motivating. It made me want to finish, and do it well. I started looking forward to the opportunity to get out there and get it done. I had conquered the fear thrust upon me by this intimidating and seemingly insurmountable task. I would get the muscle memory back, and the flow. Eventually, it was done.

It was in this that I discovered (embarrassingly recently) the concept of what I now call "Musical Arachnophobia": The fear of particularly ink-laden passages full of beams and articulations and accidentals and syncopations and triplets and quintuplets and foreign abbreviations that take on the appearance of spiders on the page. My college wind ensemble director used to call these passages "wags" (wild-ass guesses), in which you just blow and flail your fingers in a hope of creating something akin to the composer's intended effect. I love that expression, and use it too, but the "Arachnophobia" comes into play when you get into the practice room, and get so intimidated by the prospect of learning the passage that you find some way to avoid it for the moment, for as many moments as you can. This can, in many cases, result in a permanent 'wag' each time the student reaches that section, until such a time as someone tells him or her that it's not working.

As it was with my yard work, most of the time it's just a matter of getting started on the process. If you can get them playing just part of the lick, or part of the run, or part of the passage, you have taught them that it can be done, and you have got a little of it done well enough that they will want to finish it, just like the little patch of yard that made me want to make the rest of it look good.

This is a funny metaphor for me, because it goes both ways. Work like you practice music, and vice-versa. I am striving myself to conquer a 'fear of spiders', and encouraging my students to do that same.

I think in the spirit of full disclosure, it's only fair to mention that the real way I have conquered that specific aversion to yard word was to buy a condominium.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Force Will Be With You, Always

A side note: As I wrote this most recent post, my almost-eight-year-old son was standing at my piano in the kitchen (which, by the way, I love that my piano is in my kitchen) for much of that time, trying to play "The Imperial March" from the Star Wars saga by ear in as many different keys as he can figure out.

Hard to find a better example of "a different kind of beautiful" than that!

The Magic Feather - Who Are the Leaders?

So much learning happens from seat to seat in band. The eleventh grader sitting next to the ninth grader in the trumpet section will likely have as much influence on his progress and motivation as I will from the podium. As a facilitator of this learning, I need to be sure to let this happen. It might be collegial, in might be competitive, it might be both. Either way, it's a big motivator.

There is an aspect of this sort of mentorship that I call the "Magic Feather" effect. Some band members make the band better simply because they play well. Others make it better because in addition to playing well, they model things for their sections and speed up the learning. Then there are those that makes everyone play better, just with their presence. Be it their leadership, talent, charisma: whatever it is, just their being there makes everyone play better. They are the Magic Feathers.

In the story "Dumbo" (or at least the Walt Disney take on it. I am not versed enough to cite the original story.), our hero, a baby elephant born into circus captivity with huge ears. As it turns out, these ears make it possible for him to fly. While he always possessed this ability, he lacked the confidence. He was given a feather, told it was magic, and this gave him the courage and initiative to perform to his potential: to fly!

The magic feathers in my bands don't just help lead their sections. They infuse confidence in them. People find their own potentials with more success when those magic feathers are present.

This is a term I have been using for pretty much my entire teaching career. I certainly remember using it in my first job. I like to think I coined its use this way, but who knows if I heard some other music teacher use it, and just don't remember? My apologies to this person if that's the case. Until further notice, I'm taking credit.

When I first started using it, there was almost a negative connotation to it. Timothy Mouse was screaming at Dumbo as the two of them plummeted toward the earth that he never needed it, and that he could fly with out it. That was sort of my use of it as well. The 'magic feather' was absent, and I knew the felt like they needed him or her to play well. I was using that analogy to point out to them that if they can play with the 'feather', they can without as well.

I now extend the image further into what I hope is a more positive one, that they should not just strive to succeed without the 'magic feather', but rather aspire to become one. They should work to become a force that motivates that band to play well, and not be the need for such motivation. I think that has given this image more impact over the years.

I have also used this image to trick myself into a greater level of confidence in aspects of my own life that are outside of my comfort level, such as athletics. It really works.

Thanks to all of you...

It is a real treat to see that the increase of the number of people reading this blog. Let me know what you think, either via comment or e-mail ( If you enjoy it, please spread the word! I am enjoying this a great deal, and love meeting new people as a result of it!