Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Now Available for Download: Ask Seek Knock

Ask Seek Knock can now be downloaded via SoundCloud! (Thanks to Danny Digital for the tip. Why MySpace doesn't allow free downloads of original songs anymore is beyond me.)

Ask Seek Knock by VirginiaBK

Just click the arrow button on the right side of the above audio player and the song is yours to play in your car, transfer to iPod, burn to CD, share, re-post to Facebook or Twitter, wrap as a present and give to your family, what-have-you. (What? I'm just making suggestions.)

Virginia BK - songwriter, producer, lead vocals; Alaska - studio/recording engineer; Mark Corbin of CorbinSound - mix engineer; Matt Gelfer of The New Students - guitars, fiddle, mandolin; Gretchen Poole - tenor back-up vocals; Rachel Zylstra of Rachel Zylstra - alto back-up vocals.

xo
Virginia

Monday, December 20, 2010

My Gift Is My Song and This One's for You

For reading, for following, for answers and listening!
For waiting, for playing, for singing and mixing!
From the isle of Brooklyn to your towns big and small!
Thank you, my friends, thank you each one and all!

Merry Christmas, from Alaska and Virginia BK!

Ask Seek Knock (1999)

(for the love, please listen with good speakers)

BIG FAT SPECIAL THANKS TO Alaska - studio/recording engineer; Mark Corbin of CorbinSound - mix engineer; Matt Gelfer of The New Students - guitars, fiddle, mandolin; Gretchen Poole - tenor back-up vocals; Rachel Zylstra of Rachel Zylstra - alto back-up vocals.


________________________________________
And for those who like a good (Christmas) make-over story, or who would like to look under the hood of the songwriting/recording process: an annotated time-line with audio and visual samples to show the transformation with each stage of the song's production.

December 30, 1999 - Amidst an otherwise boring journal entry about showering etc, a song appears.

ORIGINAL LYRICS (click image to enlarge.)

Summer 2002 -  I don't own/play/havemoneytohire bluegrass instruments so I record this piano/vocal demo on a Sony Multrack Recorder at my apartment in Miami, FL.


AUDIO SAMPLE: PIANO/VOCAL DEMO


April 2010 -  NYU songwriting class culminates in my first performance of an original song. Tired of using my imagination, I decide to finally record one of my jillion songs with proper scoring. Somehow.

Summer 2010 - Start lessons with Mark Baxter, who listens to the above piano/vocal demo and declares my singing too safe, too polished, too guarded, too careful for a songwriter. (He is right.) Begins stripping away the lacquer. Gruesome.

November 2010 - Mult-instrumentalist Matt Gelfer offers to play all of the instruments. (Really??)

December 3, 2010 - Lyrics adjusted for better prosody.

 FINALIZED LYRICS (click image to enlarge)
December 4, 2010 - Guitars (Matt Gelfer), scratch vocals (me), and back-up vocals (Rachel Zylstra and Gretchen Poole) recorded in our basement on a laptop and one mic. (4 hours)

FIRST RECORDING SESSION (guitars, back-ups)


December 7, 2010 - Voice lesson with Mark Baxter via Skype goes something like this: "This isn't a live play, this is a film. You shoot one phrase at a time. Your lead vocal track should take an entire day to record. Unfortunately, your song is great but I don't believe you when you sing it. Stop singing! Stop singing and just talk to me. You have a lot of work NOT to do. Merry Christmas!" (He is still right.)

December 8, 2010 - Matt Gelfer lays down fiddle and mandolin tracks on top of existing tracks. (2 hours)

SECOND RECORDING SESSION (+ mandolin, fiddle)


December 12, 17, 2010 - Lead vocals wrestled, strangled, slurred, stripped, and finally accepted for who/where they are and laid to rest. Dear Mark Baxter, if I wait until my voice is perfect (or perfectly imperfect) none of my songs will ever be heard. My gift is my song and this one's for my friends. (6 hours)

UNMIXED EXPORT OF ALL TRACKS (+ lead vocals)

December 18, 2010 - Mark Corbin of CorbinSound, who offered to mix the song (really??), performs wizardry before my very eyes and ears. The song is finished. (5 hours)

FINAL VERSION AFTER MIXING

Twelve years (seventeen hours) in the making, it turned out all right!
HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO ALL AND TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Photo Tip! Neighborly Cats Record Local Song

 Folding table + laptop and speakers = The Booth.
 
 Alaska, video producer turns sound engineer; Matt Gelfer, plays everything.
All right, y'all. Goes like this...
Indomitably brunette: Rachel Zylstra and Gretchen Poole on back-ups.
Pardon us; just harmonizin'.

We pause for an appointment with our mixologist. But coming soon to a Blogspot near you — a real song. The kind you can hear, even!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

In Which My Feelings Are Best Expressed by One Abigail Breslin


Yesterday, the generously talented Matt Gelfer (of The New Students) slogged down Slope with fiddle in hand, to do the unbelievable. For the first time in my whole life, I heard one of my songs actualized, played by the instruments that have been swirling around only in my imagination all of these years.

For the first time my music was . . . outside . . . of me. All of this said, my feelings are best expressed in a scene from Little Miss Sunshine, played by Abigail Breslin.


Monday, November 29, 2010

Sing It So I Believe It

Parents packed and shipped safely home, Alaska and I declared today a day of rest. So, as the "180 minutes" of ALL THREE football games slowly passed, I propped up my socked feet and hunkered down with a backlog of glossies to see what's sleek in this world of ours.

I didn't travel far before coming across Justin Davidson's New York magazine profile on vocal coach to the opera stars, Steven Blier. Here's the link to the full story entitled "Sing It So I Believe It," nicely done: http://nymag.com/arts/classicaldance/classical/reviews/69638/.

It's interesting to see Blier's philosophies up against those of my own vocal coach. While Mark Baxter is busily stripping away my classical training so that I can deliver the message, Blier seemingly maximizes every last drop of his students' training so they can do the same. Different styles, different venues, but plenty of room for intersection. These snippets were particularly apropos to my latest blogvestigations.

Justin writes:
"Over the past 35 years, Blier has become a guru of song, the man who patiently guides singers past their vulnerabilities, who coaxes them to scrutinize and express some tiny grain of meaning in the text, who homes in pitilessly on glints of fake feeling. A mixture of therapist, teacher, impresario, and pianist-for-hire..." 
(Uh-huh...sounds familiar.)
"What separates the [songs] that interest him from those that don’t is not style, but a nugget of emotional intensity. 'A song is the closest thing I know in waking life to dreaming,' he says. 'It’s a coded version of reality. It’s not like playing a scene from Chekhov, where you’re trying to look like you’re having a tea party or a nervous breakdown. Instead, you’re enacting a coded, ritualized version of that moment, and somehow everyone in the hall is dreaming along with you.'"
(Hmm. Hadn't thought of it that way.)
 “'When I roll onstage, I am the song’s messenger,' he says. 'Maybe some other guy can play it better than I can, but I was given the message, and I have to deliver it.'”
(This one's  MOS DEFinitely going up on the bulletin board.)
"In concert, Blier’s emotional curiosity emerges as good humor and tenderness, but it can startle singers, says Sasha Cooke. 'People open up when they’re around him,' she says. 'You enter the room and all of a sudden everything feels very intimate. But some people don’t want to be figured out.'” 
(Do I want to be figured out??) 
 "Vulnerability and determination are the performing artist’s two contradictory but equally essential tools..."
(Those two specifically? Well, I certainly feel vulnerable enough and will even 80 times so when I brace myself and post that first song in a few weeks. Determination? Against my better judgement, perhaps, yes.)

And, on that note, the basement recording session is set for this Friday at 7PM. AUUUGGGHHHHH!!!!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Ass over Teakettle

As my "About Me" states, and as I've alluded to a bunch of times, I am a marketer by trade. I draw big pictures, I brand, I package, I strategize. I pay attention to what's important to people — artists, presenters, journalists, fans. I help develop and assess what the Word is, who would be most interested in the Word, and then connect with the best places to get the Word out. It's what I do. And I love it. Specifically, I think it's the bee's knees. This is all great and awesome for my career — my fantastic new biz partner and I have announced our joint venture, I am absolutely loving the work I'm doing for my first client, I plan to do a very good job. Et cetera.

But when it comes to my own music-making, it means that I am ass over teakettle. I mean, I am sitting up high on my horse maniacally whipping that cart.




For example, I'm on the train. BAM. A song bolts into my head. Chunks of lyrics, like they're free downloads from some Universal Creativity Bank. Snippets of a melody, maybe the entire chorus, maybe just a solid hook. OOH-RAH.

And then I start scribbling them down, fiddling with the ideas. What about this next? Or this? Yeah, yeah, yeah! The spaces fill in, the words keep flowing through, it's almost finished. HUZZAH.

I sit down at the keyboard and map out the chord progression. (Removes monocle, sets down quill.) I guess in rock they're called changes. Fine. So I "map out the changes." HMMM. I GUESS THEY'LL DO.

GIDDYUP. GIDDYUP. GIDDYUP. GIDDYUP. GIDDYUP. The marketing cart comes tearing in from behind and the next thing I know it's dragging the poor undeveloped song by its ankle. BUMP — FLIP — SMASH — down some old beat up pot-holed country path.

Marketing brain computes in overdrive. Before the song is written, it is given a title, placed on an album, and cover art is envisioned. The album is given a title. A short list of prospective producers, publishers, and record labels has been generated. A venue has been identified for the album release. A band. How the band will be branded. The kind of show we will put on. Does anybody have a beard. What we will wear. (My shoes will be green.) Which bloggers and journalists will be invited based on their interests in X Y Z. Which music supervisors at which ad agencies might be the right fit for a commercial sync. WHAT?!

You must understand, this happens almost instantaneously. This baby can get from songwriting to crazy in about 6 minutes.

OK, I'll be nicer. It's not crazy. It's what I do. And for my clients, that's a damn good thing. But the catch is, the Flash Marketing Storm raises the water level waaayyy to high for me. I'm a pro marketer. But I am a beginner songwriter. And the fact is, I need to splash around ankle deep in a neighborly creek for a while. As in, record one song. Let it be itself. If it's mediocre, who cares? It's just music. Unproduced, unmixed, unmastered. Played by whatever instruments I have on hand, or joined by whatever friends are happy to come over and play. And by "play" I mean for fun.

And so, I am very happy to say that I have found the pause button on marketing brain, and I have also found a mandolin-banjo-guitar-violin friend and a super tech-savvy video-editing and audio-learning husband, who are going to help me record one of the first songs I ever wrote. The plan is to do this in our basement before Christmas.

And the audience? Not music professionals. Not labels or producers or music supervisors or publishers. Just friends and family and friends of friends and sojourning readers and music professionals who happen to also be friends or friends of friends or sojourning readers.

So, who wants a copy? Think of it like an mp3 Christmas card of original music (and I'll try to think of it that way too).

Thursday, November 18, 2010

I've Been Wholly Insincere

Yesterday at a power lunch with an incredibly talented and attractive (he's available, gentleman) publicist friend of mine, we overheard a singer at a nearby table talking to his date about His Voice. (Eyeroll. The brass player comes out in me. Blasted vocalists with their scarves and their hot herbal tea and matching mittens and perfect posture and make-up on their faces. Gag me. )

. . .

So let's talk about My Voice!

Prior to my first lesson with Mark Baxter (has it already been 5 months?!), I sent him a few tracks from a piano-vocal demo I made back when I was living in Miami in 2002, along with one single solitary track of my own music, just to give him a sense of my voice. I told him that, for reasons I couldn't quite articulate, I L-O-V-E to sing but have never liked the sound of my singing voice. I told him that I find it boring, uninteresting. Kind of lame. How to fix this? A gal who loves singing more than just about anything but cayen't stayend the sound of it?

And this is how this dude shot me right between the eyes before I had so much as walked in the studio and unwrapped my scarf (kidding! remember, it was June). He said he had listened to the tracks I sent and wanted to tell me something. (Yes, I think. Fix it. Make it sound Right.) And he spent about 10 minutes talking to me about honesty.

WHAM. OK. Well, that was not what I was expecting. I shall now paraphrase (though I could transcribe the whole thing from that cruel, cruel, disc he makes me bring to each session):

Here's the thing, he said. We are all animals. We have a finely tuned sense of whether or not somebody is being straight with us. The moment a stranger walks into a room we have made an almost instantaneous judgment of them: safe or unsafe, trust or don't trust, real or hiding something? And we do that very same thing when we hear someone sing. Singing is primal. We can all tell (or at least we think we can tell) when somebody means it. If they let down their guard, we let down ours. If they let us in, we let them in. Trust. 

 And here's the blow that won the match before it had started:

When I listen to you sing, what speaks loudest to me is not what you are saying, but how careful you are being. How you are hiding behind all of your training. How all of your defenses are up, ensuring that no vulnerability shows through. You are heavily guarded, shielded. I hear someone who is going through acrobatics to sound correct. If that's what people hear, they won't even bother to pay attention to the words because they won't be interested, they'll be bored, they won't believe you because they won't trust you. Is that what you want people to hear when they listen to you?

Jesus. Well . . . no.

For someone who has, on more than one occasion, been referred to as "honest to a fault," this is pretty much the last lecture I was expecting to receive. I mean, for better or for worse, I can't stand talking to someone whose guard is up and who's only presenting veneer. I consider making conversation to be part of my job and I can definitely do it when I'm "on duty" but I find myself counting the minutes and wishing for the moment when the crap is up and the conversation can finally start. And I'm pretty awful at sustaining any friendship that stalls out in facade territory. Boring. Get real. I surround myself with friends who dig deep. To a large extent I don't think I can help it.

BUT - he's completely, totally, 100% right! I mean, he nailed it. And I felt this huge sense of relief! I didn't realize it, but that is precisely why I haven't liked listening to myself sing. I don't even believe myself! How can I expect anyone else to??

I was always frustrated in voice lessons because every teacher I ever had was training me to be a mezzo soprano with 26 Italian Songs and Arias, coaching me on "Sure on This Shining Night" (OK, I actually really loved that one but wished it was about a fourth lower). Those weren't the kinds of sounds I wanted to be making. I didn't want to wiggle my hand to remind myself to use vibrato. I never wanted a big fat lacquered voice. I just wanted to sing what I was feeling, seeing. I wanted to tell the story as I see it. That's all I still want to do. I have all of these words and melodies and harmonies and stories inside that I want to tell. I want to make songs that people can hear and say "Yes! It's just like that! I see it too!" I want to write a song that somebody can crawl inside and call home the same way Sufjan Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, and Emily Saliers have done for me.

And so, the past few months have been warbly. Unstable. Edgy. I'm making some of the uhg-liest croaking sounds imaginable. I'm flat. I'm sharp. I'm weird. I'm resisting the almost-consuming compulsion to sing like "somebody who knows better." I'm singing "too high" in my chest voice. He assures me the cracking and squawking is no sign of injury, just a sign of a control freak who's refusing to let go of all of her safety nets. Sounds like a hot mess.

But I see signs of progress. There is no correct way to pronounce, to inflect, to phrase. I am discovering the myriad effects a person can get with a single tone. It's endless. It's overwhelming. And each one means something different, totally, slightly. There is no Right. And maybe, so what if my voice cracks?

I don't know. As of now, it doesn't feel like I have any...control...over the sound. As in, how can I convey the feelings behind the words if my voice is bucking around Brooklyn like some freaking startled bronco? I suppose I could only sing songs that are intended to sound haphazard and reckless? Mmm. Still, it's been six months since I started this blog and I ain't let nobody hear nuttin' yet. I mean, if I keep waiting until I sound awesome and everything's perfect then it's never going to happen and everyone's going to lose interest, right?

So many questions. And only two lessons. But I heard Sufjan Stevens's voice almost crack a few times on Monday night and it was heart-breakingly effective. I paid attention because he meant it.

And I mean it. I really really do. I just have to let go and get out of it's way.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Yes, Even Unto the Ends of the Earth and Autotune, Sufjan Stevens

"The mathematician's patterns, like the painter's or the poet's must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colors or the words must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in this world for ugly mathematics." ~ GH Hardy



I was introduced to the songs of Sufjan Stevens as prelude music to Wednesday night "small group" Bible studies when I first moved to New York in 2004. In a Brooklyn apartment that felt oddly like an old farm house, while plain popcorn shook on the stove and assorted teas steeped in mismatched mugs, I'd tell this rather understated crowd how my prior week was (something very much akin to The Devil Wears Prada with more dish-washing and less swag, by the way), as we played squirrel with Sophie-the-dog and waited for the others to get started. All the while, the musical sounds of (it must have been) Seven Swans shushed us from the host's boom box. Once, in exchange for some quality time, Sophie-the-dog made me a mix CD that began and ended with bird calls, and included four yet-unreleased Sufjan tracks: Opie's Funeral Song, What Goes On, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, and Rake. I shall love them forever.

At that point, if you'd asked me about the music of this songwriter friend of theirs, I'd have said "it's quiet."

Monday night, at Sufjan's Beacon Theatre NYC homecoming concert with Alaska and our friends, Lemon Peele, Professor Lime, Daisy, and Jasper, I'd have said it's anything but. It was a balloonèd pop dance party, an autotunèd Martian landing of the numerological kind, a schizophrenic-prophetic journey into prog rock's epic Weird. And yet, it was unmistakably 100% Sufjan.

How is that? At Manhattan Diner, after the the show, Lemon Peele made the comparison: "It's not like when Jewel all of the sudden tried to be Gwen Stefani. He's still himself."

True. If I scoot back through the discs, there have always been dance (folk), mixed meters, electronic effects, programmatic story-telling, the observations and reflections of a spiritually-minded researcher, and something inexplicably off-kilter. With his two latest discs, he just takes it all waaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyy off on a diagonal.

When I listen to Seven Swans, Illinois, or Michigan, I feel like I'm at home. Like Sufjan has somehow tapped into my core desires and made me a nice universe to revel in. In the words of Lemon Peele Liz Lemon, when I hear those albums, "I want to go to there."

Is it nostalgia? Does my heart leap every single time I hear Chicago because I remember that amazing night at BAM with Jenny Bilfield when we sipped cosmos and munched popcorn at Robert Redford's advance screening of Little Miss Sunshine, having no idea what to expect but crying with laughter at the surprise ending? Is it because Sufjan's music feels like my first few years in New York City, those small group meetings of real people talking about real things? Or does it go back to what Mark Baxter (vocal coach) said in my first lesson? We're all looking for music that makes us feel like we are not alone in our hopes, fears, and dreams.  

Maybe it's all of the above. But whatever it is, it has won my loyalty. Yes, even unto the ends of the Earth and Autotune will I follow Sufjan Stevens. And, to be honest, I too hate chemistry but love physics and algebra. (I screamed a little bit during his math monologue.) So there.

"I was in love with the place in my mind, in my mind / I made a lot of mistakes in my mind, in my mind."

More anon.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

laundry (warning: explicit lyrics)

Here's a song I wrote last October (2009). It's called "laundry."

sometimes i like to put his laundry away
it's the least, it's the least, it's the least
to hold his socks, his undershirts
sometimes it's the closest i get to his heart,
his heart
i fold it over my hands, the warmth
nestle it away
when sex isn't enough
his shoes in all their places lined up,
lined up
in his shoes i see all their faces
what he wants
when he tried, when he tried, when he tried
all around

and those girls, some may have loved him and he them
like a man, a man could love whiskey or hate gin
but the clothes he's wearing these days
when a sleeve, tie brushes his face
he's a married man to me

sometimes i put my heels on
just to see what it's like, what it's like
sometimes it's the closest i get to his head,
his head
all i want is his stare
his eyes down my hair
when hope isn't enough
the look of a man who's won,
i'm carried away
and his arms, and his arms, and his arms
in a circle closed in

and those girls some may have loved him, and he them
like a man, a man could love whiskey or hate gin
but he's charmed on talent and poise
and this charm disarms all the noise
he's a married man to me

all the apple pie in the world
can't put me inside, though i've tried
so i make, and i make, and i make
he's the other---man,
i pour some milk
the sweetest there is
toss in some salt
i'm walking away
taking off heels
i'm walking away

but those girls some may have loved him, and he them
like a man, a man could love whiskey or hate gin
but when he goes to bed every night
feeling warm and satisfied
he's a married man to me

- Virginia, 10/12/09

I was listening to a lot of Patty Griffin last fall so this one's pretty raw—acoustic guitar and voice is all. I'm still trying to figure out the musical placement of parts of the verses because they're asymmetrical. I like the way certain songwriters (like Patty) are able to set uneven lines, so I'd rather work on that than make any cuts in the lyrics. But the chorus was settled pretty quickly with no problems.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Step Three: It's Just You and Me

Actually it's been more like just me and me. But soon it will be just you and me, professionally. Well, not "you" specifically, as in second person plural but the "you" does apply to one reader in the second person singular who will be the "you" in the duo of "you and me." And there's also a third (part-time) "you" and a fourth, rather furry and howly "you," who keeps things competitive at tea time. So that's happy.

But for the past couple of months I've been in an extended transition. A monumental limbo as I finish some final projects for my former employer and await the green light from someone else's employer to announce my successor, as I unpack and nest at our new home, and as the aforementioned "you and me" secure arrangements for the new venture. But this week became an unexpected triple dislodging, allowing the River Styx to surge (wait, no. metaphor stops here.) . . . ushering a time of action on all three fronts and ending in a massive Housewarming Party / Wiener Roast** last night. (There's a deadline for ya'.) The apartment is painted, painted, painted, and painted. The wall hangings are up. All shelving needs are met. The liquor cabinets, slim yesterday, are now full of wine from generous houseguests. And, most importantly, the house has been generously full of guests. It's a real home now!

**Important note on throwing a wiener roast in New York City
: You can't just "gather some sticks from the woods out back," home goods stores do not carry anything longer than a street meat stick, and most New Yorkers don't understand why this doesn't suffice. (Have you ever smelled burning forearm hairs?! NO. Stop talking with your dumb suggestions.) Just save yourself some time and unbend a bunch of unpainted, unpapered wire hangers from the dry cleaners. Another note: this will feel "rustic" to some of your guests. (Roll eyes.)

But enough yo gabba gabba. It's time for another progress report. For all of the above reasons, it's a-gonna be slim.

Milestones
~Left full-time office job to create new free-lance life. (OK, that's not so small.)
~Had second voice lesson with Mark Baxter Did not cry.
~Assembled music studio in basement. Rediscovered all those knobs on my Sony multitrack recorder.
~Acquired ukulele, swaddled in birthday wrapping by my dear Alaska. Learned five chords.
~Attended my first poetry reading ever. (There are other people! Who think! Like me!)
~Wrote two poems.
~Recorded the hook of a song I really like and want to develop.
~Had walk-over-the-Brooklyn-Bridge-meeting with composer/songwriter about the whole business of orchestration and arranging.

Next Steps
~Find a composition/counterpoint/arranging/orchestration teacher who gets/appreciates songwriting. PER ABOVE, GETTING CLOSER
~Keep vocalizing with my real voice and get rid of all that awful training. SOUNDS WARBLY AND EDGY AND TERRIBLE BUT FEELS HONEST.
~Buy big ukulele chord chart poster for music studio wall.
~Book voice lesson for November?
~Book horn lesson for November?
~Book horn/piano duet with Pam at PSUMC.
~Continue block-buzzing on horn mouthpiece and work range up to C5. (F4) Practice duets and etudes from July lesson. HAVE NOT PLAYED HORN SINCE AUGUST. WILL HAVE TO START ALL OVER AGAIN. GROAN.

Play Dates
~Play horn and guitar duet with Amy. Try out Ft. Lauderdale First Date song with her nylon string guitar.
~Coordinate Southern gospel trio with Leila and Sarah T.
~Join Pam's poetry collective.
~Follow up with flute, violin, cello, trumpet, oboe, guitar-playing friends to see about playing around in the studio.
~Learn "Tonight You Belong to Me" on uke.
~Arrange a small assortment of tunes for horn, piano, ukulele, recorder, and random African percussion instruments. Record and give to friends and family at Christmas like some kind of ill-imagined fruitcake wreck.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Migdalia 196 (more poetry)

While I was walking to the gym this morning for One Stop Workout (my get-out-of-30 Rock Live-popcorn free pass), I was stopped by an elderly woman on the street. She was terrified.

I did not go to the gym. 

"Migdalia 196"

you are home, Migdalia
(ay Dios mio oh my God)
they didn't leave you, they're only at work
see these pictures, Migdalia?
that's your face, and your niece
no, you can't call your husband anymore
check the numbers, Migdalia
(196? that's my house)
touch your Jesus, remember your couch

you don't work here? -- I'm so sorry
do I live here? -- oh, please help me
I was sleeping and I have to get home

you are home, Migdalia
(oh my God oh my God)
they didn't leave you, they're only at work
see these pictures, Migdalia?
that's your face, and your niece
no, you can't call your husband anymore
check the numbers, Migdalia
(196? that's my house)
touch your Jesus, remember your couch

Alzheimer's is cruel.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

after zumba (poetry)

I wrote this poem tonight while listening to Natalie Merchant sing songs from her new Nonesuch album, Leave Your Sleep, at a Poetry Society of America reading in The Cooper Union's Great Hall. Well, I drafted it there then finished it up just now at Whole Foods, and then downloaded this Blogger-droid App to post it. (Let's see if it works.)

I was thinking about last night's flash hail storm in Brooklyn.

"after zumba"

after zumba, I question: "What?"
the streets are wet but
there was no threat going in
hands in my pockets
I cross the blocks, soft in sneakers
I trick the locks and
close. three. doors.

— silence —

then, as if shaking inside a rogue washing machine
(the sound of grinding homemade ice cream)
through the screen, crunching ice
scrapes against salted bricks, street lights

a city's reckless attempt to scrub clean

the apartment
(still upset)
forgives me all the things I haven't done yet

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Buy Local? Slow Food and Slow Music


A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to exercise my new-found free-lance portability by joining Alaska on a business trip to Sweden. (Why not? I have an Android. They have the internet. I'm in business!)

As I was strolling through Östermalmshallen Market, admiring the labyrinth of Swedish delights—locally grown turnips, house-made lingonberry tarts, Arctic Charr—I noticed a funny juxtaposition. One that I've been meaning to write about for a while: American music.

Exclusively. Everywhere.

Beyoncé in the cafes, Katy Perry (ok, I admit it: she's smokin' hot) in the stores, Taylor Dayne blaring from the speakers of some strange advertising truck (?). In six full days I can't say that I heard a single Swedish (or any non-American) artist. Not even ABBA?, you might ask. Nope, not even ABBA.

Huh. America's #1 export? Behind debt, quite possibly.

I was thinking about this last season (concert season that is, because I measure years September – May) and tweeted about it then. There's this whole Slow Food movement, dedicated to growing, preparing, eating, and enjoying real local food. Shunning the exotic "gas-guzzling" bananas, as Barbara Kingsolver calls them in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Here's a blurb from the "About Us" on Slow Food International's website:

A non-profit member-supported association, Slow Food was founded in 1989 to counter the rise of fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.

I can't help but wonder how this might apply to music. What about the disappearance of local music traditions? What about people's dwindling interest in musicians who don't come pre-prepared and famous? Are we addicted to processed, packaged music? Are we sacrificing the health of home-cooked music-making by importing exotic "gas-guzzling" artists from large urban areas around the world, instead of nurturing those in our own selves, homes, and communities? What would that look like?

Does anyone see a case for, as Timo Andres called it in response to my original tweet, "Slow Music"?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

I know, I know, I know, it's not Fall yet. Still, every year in September, I'll remember the completion of band camp, back to school with new sneakers and new teachers (students), the coming of my birthday, apple-picking, pumpkin carving, hayrides.

I do so love the transitional seasons, especially in Virginia where the year is evenly divided into four distinct three-month chapters: December/January/February = cold and snowy/icy; March/April/May = lion & lamb, green shoots through ice and becomes lavishly floral; June/July/August = hot and lively with bugs, September/October/November = breezy, golden leafy and increasingly crisp. In New York City, it's more like November/December/January/March/April = sweltering radiators inside and cheekbone-aching sleet outside; May = wet and grey; June/July/August = confrontationally hot with the aroma of steamed human feces at any 34th Street station. But then suddenly September/October are boldly cinematic. Yes, Autumn in New York, it's good to live it again.

This year the changing of seasons is acute in the land of Spotsylvania's Marching Knights. In came Labor Day weekend, sweeping away my tenure at Boosey & Hawkes as well as my apartment of the past 3 1/2 years. I awoke this week with a new "job" and a new apartment. Or perhaps it was something to do with that wardrobe I encountered on Thursday night while I was packing.



I didn't think anything of the gaping hole in the back since it came from Alaska's side of the family, where every last drop-cloth is considered an appreciating asset. But its cedar magic is lost on me no longer. The wardrobe has transported me to a garden apartment—the first place Alaska and I have lived together that feels like real home where people go to stay. Our living room is the kind of place you invite friends to, to play Apples to Apples or Taboo, or to watch Young Frankenstein. (Frau Blücher!) It has windows and cross breezes and walls we painted with our own palettes and rollers, it has a back yard with next door neighbors who invited us over for drinks before we'd even moved in, it has a washer and a dryer (!!!) so my clothes won't all be stained permanently after one unfortunate wearing, and, the clincher: it has a finished basement just for making music.

A studio, I tell you! A real room with privacy and doors, separated from any other tenants by two floors. Not since The Year 2000 at JMU have I had access to a private place to make sneaky night-music. This is amazing stuff. Already, just by nature of the ample space, I find myself singing. Singing as I put books away, singing as I arrange the medicine cabinet, singing as I wash the windows with warm soapy water.

Speaking of new homes, you may have noticed some changes around the blog, including the new URL home. As I leap into the great wide open with my PR career, I decided to reserve My Full Name for that professional venture and to use more lively pseudonyms here. Therefore my most honorable husband is now "Alaska" (no, he's not from there) and I am henceforth known as "Virginia" (yes, because I'm from there). We'll see if these stick. There's another name I've had in my back pocket for a while that I may try on for size later.

On the professional front, I should have some more news soon. For now,  guess what? My first client as I transition as a free-lancer is...Boosey & Hawkes! I'll be handling their press writing/relations through early November, when my successor is installed. (I am pleased with the appointment, by the way.)

The clock strikes twelve. Time to go downstairs and play.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

sing a cappella wah-oo-oo

One thing that does not come up often in the course of my NYC life is the fact that I grew up in a congregationalist Christian sect that falls, culturally speaking, somewhere between Mennonite and Independent Baptist. Some of the prime markers of this subculture are attendance at 3 church services a week, lace doilies on the heads of some women, a hemline that falls no higher than the knee, no "mixed bathing" (that's girls and guys swimming together, for the uninitiated), no alcohol, no cigarettes, no swearing, certainly no drugs, no dancing (yes, fine, like Footloose), and, perhaps most significantly for this discussion, no instrumental music in worship. That's right, instrumental use is a derogatory term in this community—a scandalizing accusation even. (About the only worse thing you can call somebody is a Baptist. GASP.)

If your mind is blown, let me spin this around for you: church - sings - a cappella - WAH-OO-OO. If you follow no other link this week, please click this one and allow the group "Acappella" to summarize the doctrine in peppy doo-wop style. (If the churches of Christ had a TV show this would be their theme song.)

Now, I realize that this is most unusual. Let me rephrase that: I realize now that this is most unusual. But when I was 5, it didn't occur to me that all the other kindergartners probably weren't actively singing 4-part a cappella harmony from shape note hymnals on a tri-weekly basis. Eh bien, tant pis. Their loss, really. Looking back, it is no wonder my opportunistic band director all but drop-kicked me into a French horn case in 6th grade. Ears!, he thought. Such magnificent ears! While I don't have perfect pitch, I'm a mean sight-singer with serious pitch memory after all those years of reading hymns. Other less musically-useful skills include the ability to recite the books of the Bible in rapid succession without pause, and the ability to know immediately when someone is misquoting/misattributing any Biblical text to suit their own political purposes.

Still, these are my origins. And I may have become a bleeding-heart moderate with a taste for tequila and a nutso passion for salsa-dancing, but to this day I have found no greater experience this side of heaven than harmonious a cappella singing. A couple of years ago I came across this passage from Julia Cameron's The Artists Way that finally brought everything (literally) home for me:

If the demand to be original still troubles you, remember this: each of us is our own country, an interesting place to visit. It is the accurate mapping out of our own creative interests that invites the term original. We are the origin of our art, its homeland. Viewed this way, originality is the process of remaining true to ourselves.

So I invoke the Alabama church camp where I and hundreds of other preteens sat lakeside in the pitch dark that summer, singing hours of hymns from memory, accompanied only by the mesmerizing chanting of cicadas. And I recall the hayrides and bonfires with churchfolk, where men, women, and children of all ages watched the fire crackle and sang: "Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia."

And on nights like this I open my Hymns for Worship songbook, surround myself with the memory of these voices, and I sing, and I sing, and I sing.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Why I Am Leaving Boosey & Hawkes

It has been a most adventurous 5 1/2 years but Friday, September 3 marks my last day as an employee of classical, jazz, and avant-garde music publisher Boosey & Hawkes.

I don't believe I'll ever find another workplace where CEOs are farewelled with staff productions of Meredith Monk's PANDA CHANT II, where it is decided before singing HAPPY BIRTHDAY in which composer's style it will be performed (Carter! No, Del Tredici!), where upper management consistently supports innovation not only in the artists represented but in its own staff, where I very occasionally get the opportunity to tell Steve Reich what to do and he listens, or where I might routinely mistake a piece of music for hard-hat construction on another floor (usually something from Steven Mackey or the Universal catalogues...).

Perhaps it is for these reasons that I'm not going to another workplace. It has been my long-term goal to go free-lance as a music publicist. At the same time, one thing I learned in my experience at Boosey is that I love collaboration. I mean...LOVE it. Therefore I have decided to team up with another Brooklyn-based publicist who is the yin to my yang. I'll soon be taking on select clients and projects, providing creative strategy and full-service PR to artists and organizations.

I hope this more modular business will also allow me to infuse more time into music-making of my own, rounding out my lifestyle and making me a better everything. (The French horn calls, after all, and so do the pen, the voice, and the piano.)

As I prepare for my departure, I'd like to take a moment to thank my colleagues at B&H for teaching me to listen intelligently and open-mindedly to sounds in order to hear them for what they are rather than for what they are not, and for never responding to crazy ideas by asking Um, why?? but rather by asking Hey, why not?

Good night, composers. Good night, stars. The next adventure awaits; I hope to see you there.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Big Decision Flow Chart

August, die she must?

I've been making some big decisions lately and anybody who's worked with me knows that I love flow charts. Flow charts with bright colors and fun shapes...flow charts that tell you what to do with a press release...flow charts that help you determine the instrumentation of your next piece...flow charts made with imagery inspired by Lucky Charms that tell you whether or not You Have News (sometimes people really don't have news)...so it is only appropriate that in making life's big decisions I would have a corresponding Big Decision Flow Chart.

And here it is:

Virginia's Big Decision Flow Chart
(click image to enlarge)



And as for the news? I have consulted previous flow chart to determine that I Do Have News. More on that soon.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Away with Me

Hey, there.

Alaska and I are on vacation but I promise the blog will roll again when I'm back! For now, if you have some extra time, please check out my singer-songwriter friends Rachel Zylstra and Mary Bragg.

Rachel, in addition to packing a highly verbal punch into every colorful piano-based tune, also runs an advice column called Advice Music. You have a question or concern? Email it to her and she'll reply in the form of a song. No lie. http://advicemusic.blogspot.com

"Songbird" Mary Bragg fronts her uncommonly good band with a voice that wields the earnestness of Patty Griffin and the purity of Alison Krauss. She's also in residence at The Living Room in NYC this month. http://www.marybragg.com

Until later,
Virginia!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Song Alert! "i am a projector"

OK, so I've written a song. Mostly it wrote itself on April 12th, but then I fiddled with parts of it through May and then again tonight. I may still make some changes but in the spirit of making pie then giving people pie, here's some pie:


a noodgy mother in Canada sets her son upon the world
the birds go wild
a natural disaster when she wakes up every day
another story is filed

i am a projector
writing life all over you
be blank be beautiful
whatever else you do

i want the overground life of an affluent New Yorker
a place up in the sky
so I see grand design not brick and mortar
my clothes pressed and dry

i am a projector
showing life all over you
be free be beautiful
whatever else you do

i'll pay good money for a band to set me free
to break my rules, to sing and dance for me
be my dreams and my sexuality
all for a life lived audaciously

i am a projector
i've got my life all over you
be what i'm looking for
whatever else you do



1. Slice it up, give pieces to other people, stick it on your fridge, post it on your wall, or whatever you like. But if you do, be kind and please HYPERLINK!

2. Also, extra blogger points to anyone who identifies the two celebrities referenced in the first four lines of the song.

Thanks for stopping by!
Virginia

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Shabbat Shalom! (Why I Might Steal from Jewish People)

Last night Alaska and I were invited by a friend of mine to a Shabbat BBQ in the Victorian Flatbush section of Brooklyn. It being our first Shabbat anything-at-all, on our drive over Alaska asked, "So...what exactly is a Shabbat dinner?" The best I could guess was, "Well, I think maybe it's just like any other dinner on a Friday night, except that the people hosting it happen to be Jewish?"

Well, maybe not just like any other dinner. For starters, there were at least 20 people there—family, friends, students, friends of friends. People were bustling through the house, dropping off their contributions to the meal, catching up on their travels, hugging each other, and meeting for the first time as if it's perfectly normal to have multiple strangers show up at your house for dinner.

Then came the meal. The host gathered us all to the table, made sure every cup was filled with wine, and said "If you know it, say it. If you don't know it, fake it!," and launched into a Hebrew blessing (Kiddush). Then came Motzi, the blessing over the big fat delicious challah bread, as our host ripped off a piece and passed it around the table. Then there was clapping and singing (more Hebrew) and a prayer over the meal, interrupted by the ringing of the doorbell and the arrival of more guests [laughter... someone shouts "It's Elijah!"... more laughter]. OK, so far not really like the BBQs that Alaska and I throw on our deck.

It turns out the hosts are Messianic Jews, and I gather that the guests for these weekly suppers range from secular and/or observant Jews to Protestant Christians to Israelis to neighbors to basically anybody who shows up. Yep, just your average Friday night dinner. We fill our plates and eat, while everyone goes around the table to say the best thing that happened to them this week. In my case, it's a tie between serving a hand-picked homemade blueberry pie to my in-laws at Lake Chautauqua and the flood of kindness from friends, family, and colleagues following a painful day at work on Wednesday. After we'd eaten (and more people showed up), the host presented the weekly Torah reading and subsequent lesson. The lesson? Oaths. Keeping your word, with wise words from the host: "Anymore, I don't say 'yes' often. And I don't say 'no' often. I just listen."

Following sweet words, the sweets: two kinds of ice cream, cake, watermelon, blueberries, cookies. This gluten-free girl will holla this weekend for partaking of all that amazing challah. (What was I going to do? Turn it away? There were hot melting choc-o-late chips in it.)

And, by the way, the Christian "supper" rituals, compared to the Shabbat dinner, are like artifacts air-lifted out of an ancient culture, removed from context, buffed, and sanitized of their original meaning. Growing up in church, when they "...took bread, and blessed it, and brake it..." and "...took the cup, and gave thanks...," that bread was not bread for eating and that grape juice was not for drinking. It had nothing to do with sharing a meal, rather it was a formal and eerily silent event for private introspection. In that sense, it's like if people in Asia started incorporating American dinner rituals into their religious services:

"And he didst take the remote control, turn off the TV, and say unto his wife: 'This is the take-out menu, given to you.'" [Officiant in suit or robes points token remote control at token TV and waves token take-out menu toward stony congregants.]

But experiencing that ritual in the context that it was intended, as part of a lively meal shared with friends and family, is a whole other thing. Conclusion: Shabbat dinners are awesome and I want them for my very own. In my new family (of two), I've tried instituting a tradition of shared meals—usually Monday night soup nights for friends in the Winter aided hugely by my Mom's gift of a fabulous crock pot (Thanks, Mom!)—but these meals lack the depth of a shared cultural meaning. Still, I'm onto this whole food thing. I'm going to figure it out and it's going to be important.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Mark Baxter Makes Me Cry; Gustave Flaubert Does Not

I often being my work day, while Microsoft Outlook loads its bucket of e-expectations of me from the outside world, by checking composer John Adams's blog, "Hell Mouth." I read it, not only to prepare myself for the possibility of red exclamation point (!) e-mails from around the industry in cases where he has expressed an opinion, but also because he is one of the few writers of music who also writes a window into his creative process. It's fascinating.

So this morning, I logged on to see a post that begins with a question: "How to write a masterpiece?" He does not presume to know the answer. This is possibly what I find most fascinating about the creative process; it remains a mystery even to those who experience it regularly. It does not matter if you've written giants of repertoire or hit tunes, when it comes to writing your next piece you will always be a beginner. John Adams delves into a lengthy exploration of Gustave Flaubert's writing process, the excruciating and isolating obsession with le mot juste, genius, the necessarily slow gestation period of composition. Toward the end of the post is a caution for young composers, "There’s little to be gained by having a big audience of unsophisticated listeners. The tradeoff entails writing to the lowered expectations of your audience."

Well, I think that depends on what you're hoping to gain.

If you've been hanging around my blog for the past month or so (thank you!), you'll know the impetus behind all of this is to develop my own musical voice. Part of this process has been searching for a vocal coach, and I'm happy to say that I had my first lesson with Mark Baxter this past Sunday. I chose him because, in our very first e-mail interaction, he made me cry.

A timely collision of perspectives and values, this is. With his permission, I'm excerpting his response to my initial inquiry:


What you are seeking to do will not be easy - but not because of some standard applied from a discerning public. It is because you used the word 'audacity' to describe the notion that a stranger would find your thoughts and feelings worthy of attention. All your training suggests you've had it drilled into you that beauty is cultivated. That is true for the fine arts but not for popular culture.

Those who would listen to your songs simply want to know if you feel and think like them. They are unable to articulate their condition so they are attracted to songs, books, movies and plays that best represent their lives. Like you and me, these people are not perfect - so they do not relate to perfection in the arts other than to appreciate the dedication to the work involved. What they want most of all is to know they're not alone in their fears, loves, joys and sorrows.

If you're brave enough to share your stories and observations in a manner that's authentic for you - it would amount to an act of kindness. There's a world full of hungry souls out there unable to make sense of things. If a song of yours touched just one person it would be worth the effort. ... Write those songs.

So in popular culture, does that mean le mot juste is simply le mot authentique? Processes, values, and intentions may vary but in the end I'd say I write what I write because I am what I am and I have to.

Don't we all? Perhaps that's the common ground—the search for authenticity? The mystery?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Step Two: There's So Much We Can Do

It's time for another progress report!

Milestones
~Found horn teacher, began lessons, and started process of resetting embouchure.
~Chose a vocal coach, had my first lesson, and cried smack in the middle of it. #yessss
~Played first "new music" gig on horn . . . ever? I successfully played most of the notes as the composer/conductor intended, which, Peter Reit the Wise Horn Teacher says: "Sounds about like playing the horn."
~Stepped in unprepared at the last second and sang a verse-long solo for an NEC-trained countertenor at church. NO. DID NOT LIKE.
~Found 3 people in bands who want some horn. (If you play it, they will come.)


Next Steps
~Find a vocal coach who specializes in working with songwriters.
~Find a patient horn teacher who knows a thing or two about rock/studio gigging.
~Schedule June/July trip to Nashville to record demo of "Ask, Seek, & Knock." POSTPONED UNTIL THE FALL, AFTER SOME VOICE LESSONS.
~Decide whether to attend Berklee's Summer Songwriting Workshop. NO.
~Find a composition/counterpoint/arranging/orchestration teacher who gets/appreciates songwriting. STILL NEED TO DO THIS ONE. SOUNDS HARD.
~Start vocalizing with my real voice and get rid of all that awful training.
~Book voice lesson for July.
~Book horn/piano duet with Pam at PSUMC.
~Follow up with 3 bands-needing-horn.
~Continue block-buzzing on horn mouthpiece and work range up to C5. (F4) Practice duets and etudes for July lesson.

Play Dates
~Play horn and guitar duet with Amy. Try out Ft. Lauderdale First Date song with her nylon string guitar.
~Coordinate Southern gospel trio with Leila and Sarah T.
~Go berry picking (...and sing in the car on the way there?...) and make pies/jam (...while singing...)!!!
~Gather friends for Midsummer Night Swing and Salsa on the Pier.
~Join Pam's poetry collective.

And I admit that, while I had hoped to be Mrs. McIntyre, I did end up being Mrs. Knight and that would've been my second choice. Jordan's not that bad. But Alaska is even better.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Let's Hear It for New York (Concrete Jungle Where Dreams Are Made)

It's been a crazy month thus far. Alaska left June 3 for six days in Chicago, a day and a half after he got back I left for four days in Arkansas, thirty minutes before I landed at Newark he flew to Argentina out of JFK. Meanwhile I woke up at 5 AM today to fly to Atlanta for the League of American Orchestras annual conference—landed in 'Hot' town at 9:30 this morning, launched a long-time work project, and caught a 6:40 PM flight back to New York tonight.

It's not often that my flights come in over Manhattan but when they do, my oh my what a view. The kid from the Bronx seated next to me said he'd been out of town for a month and couldn't wait to get back home. We just stared and took it all in. Alaska's flight arrives from Buenos Aires at 6:05 AM tomorrow and I hope he gets the grand welcome that we did.

New York City at night from above


Let's hear it for New York with "Empire State of Mind."

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Make It, Take It

http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3007/2644044162_7f6ee5113a.jpg

I want to make pies! Intentionally, extravagantly, with complete disregard for how long it takes or whether there is any purpose in doing so.

The urge overtook me last night on the plane back from Arkansas. A magical place it was, where my tour guide and I ate a Sonic breakfast and drove past Toad Suck on our way to the Pig Trail. After almost 6 years in New York City, the smell of honeysuckle brings tears to my eyes. So we drove with the windows down, singing our brains out to the Best of Heart, Ben Folds, and Hall & Oates. ("Won't ya smile a mile for me, Sara[h]?")

I don't think it was just the Hot Springs and delta fare that put me in such a home-makey state of mind, though. I've been thinking a lot about it lately. It seems it's been on Molly Sheridan's Mind, as well. Whose job is it to make life beautiful these days?

I want to shift the balance. More time spent making things, creating and enjoying experiences that enhance the quality of life. Less time achieving, acquiring, and consuming products and services. When I do this my musical creativity soars—never do I sing so joyfully as when I'm making soup or jam.

I want to make music just like I'm making pies. Who cares about perfection? Just a warm plate taken with good company.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Girl Talk, As Narrated by A Disney Princess

This video sets my soul ablaze with fury.




I don't know if if it's the general ignorance of copyright history and policy, the juvenile transcript, the complete disregard for any of the real issues, the childishly uninformed cartoonish caricatures and insipid generalizations drawn about The Entire Music Industry and All of Its Members, the low-budget local car dealership quality sound effects, or the degree of self-gratification dripping from every frame that angers me more.

Congratulations, Brett Gaylor, with this "documentary" you have done absolutely nothing to contribute to the world, except to perpetuate fantastical self-satisfied ignorance. Unfortunately, most people won't know any better than to think this is intelligently researched and approached. May you get a job at Disney and live happily ever after.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

One Flew Out of the Hornists' Nest

Following up my Next Steps from May 12 I have used the magical tool of Twitter to locate a real live professional hornist and teacher. (Thank you to clarinetist and G. Schirmer staffer, Ed Matthew, for the tip!) In addition to already giving me two much-needed tune-up lessons, my new teacher has graciously agreed to answer a few questions. Please join me in welcoming Mr. Peter Reit.

http://www.facebook.com/profile/pic.php?uid=AAAAAQAQBNI9QO5hTsqs_knbjudu1wAAAAo4gXGLk8v_ks2Ao5Lf-BXJ


Virginia: Peter, if my research is correct, you've been in the Phantom of the Opera pit orchestra since the show opened on Broadway in 1988. (Which means that I heard you play on my high school drama club trip to NYC in 1994!) You're also Principal Horn for the Westchester Philharmonic, Greenwich Symphony and Scandia Symphony Orchestras, and Associate Principal Horn with the Stamford Symphony. You've performed with the New York Philharmonic, Orpheus Chamber Ensemble, Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Mel Lewis Big Band, Bob Belden Ensemble, New York City Opera, American Ballet Theater, and toured extensively with American Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. You're also Professor of Horn at Purchase College, State University of New York, and serve on the faculty at the Hartt School of Music, Vassar College and the Music Conservatory of Westchester.

Can you give us a sense of what all of this looks like in any given week/month?

PR: It looks ridiculous!! Last year my schedule without any free lance jobs looked like this:

Mon - SUNY Purchase 11-4, Phantom 8pm
Tues - Vassar 9-3, Phantom 7pm
Wed - SUNY Purchase Student 10-11, Phantom 2pm, Private Student 5:15-6pm, Phantom 8pm
Thurs - SUNY Purchase 9-4, Phantom 8pm
Fri - Hartt School 3-9
Sat - Music Conservatory of Westchester 8-11, Phanton 2pm, Private Student 5-6pm, Phantom 8pm
Sun - Usually completely free only one Sunday per month due to church Jobs, free-lance concerts, recitals, etc.

I had to step down from the Hartt School because the schedule was too demanding to make up when I had to miss for free-lance jobs, so as of now I am no longer at Hartt.

Virginia: You've done a significant amount of studio work as well---radio jingles, television, and movie soundtracks. Anything we might recognize?

PR: Studio work has really really slowed down - I have done TV jingles - some are still out there - Campbell's Soup, Kraft Cheese, all sorts of drugs, themes for shows, HBO movies - nothing that comes to mind as being famous to recognize...nowadays most stuff is electronically done.

Virginia: I personally wanted to play the clarinet (like my sister) in 6th grade but the high school band director said "No, you want to play the French horn." Since he was god, I did it. (I had no earthly idea what a horn was.) What about you? Why the horn?

PR: I chose the drums - then one day my band director (yes - God) said, "Hey, kid, you can't roll. You're smart though - you need to play the French Horn."

"Huh?," I said. And the rest is history...

Virginia: In college I majored in horn and had my horn on my face for somewhere between 3-9 hours a day, counting all rehearsals and practice sessions. Then I quit cold turkey after playing my senior recital 9 years ago and now I have to start all over again. What's the longest you've ever gone without playing? Can real brass players take vacations?

PR: Some of the European Orchestra brass players are known to take off 2 months or so every summer - they have a routine for easing back into their jobs and say that their lips enjoy the break from their heavy workload. I think a few weeks to a month can be great, if your job keeps paying you!! Most players can't afford that much time off - I like to take at least a week to 10 days off in the summer when I can. Everyone is different - many players are not afraid to take some time off. The most I have taken off is just 2 weeks since I have played professionally - my jobs don't pay me not to play! I take weekends and days here and there throughout the year to keep my sanity.

Virginia: What's the prognosis? How long will it take for me to be a solid (OK, just decent) player again?

PR: 6 to 9 months is a good amount of time to let your muscles build - after that you should be able to do more serious practice - there aren't rules or guarantees however!! You are off to a good start though - just the chin - the ol' chin.

Virginia: Thanks, Peter! [Flattens chin, tightens corners down.]

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Ceci n'est pas une pipe

I've been thinking a lot today.

It may seem from recent posts that I've had my head up my horn's bell but I've been advancing on the singing/songwriting front as well. A new song has mostly written itself, though I'm cajoling the third verse into existence. And I've secured a lesson with a vocal coach later this month. One of the questions on his extensive intake forms is "What style of music do you sing?"

Well, good question. And a timely one, too. There's a pretty interesting discussion on The New York Times Arts Beat blog between pop music critic Jon Parales and classical music critic (and opera specialist) Tony Tommasini, regarding Renée Fleming's "this is not a crossover" album. What I find most interesting is that the rules for a singer are completely different from the rules for an instrumentalist.

As a marketer, I completely understand the need to create a brand identity for an artist or band. Faces, fashion, a sonic signature imprinted in the voice. Artists who "cross over" genres are at risk of diluting their brand, confusing the message, or becoming New Shimmer. (It's floor wax AND a dessert topping!)

But as a musician, the implication that a person must choose and commit to one genre description (or "genre-bending!/busting!/defying!" description) for their entire career is absurd. Don't we all come of age in a world full of varying musical styles for different times and occasions? Why should an artist have to pick one? Tons of instrumentalists don't. Mark Stewart, for example, is a founding member of "new music" group Bang On A Can All Stars, and has played with Paul Simon. Is he a (GASP) Crossover Artist?

No, he's a musician. And isn't the voice, like any other instrument, able to be played in any style or genre?

Hypothetically speaking, what if I write a song for bluegrass band and the next song I write happens to be for jazz quintet? (OK, this may not be hypothetical.) Do I have to pick just one musical style to perform? And what if the musical styles pick me?

Because I consider Paul Simon's Rhythm of the Saints and Graceland albums to be the 5th and 9th symphonies of songwriting, I'll go back to him. Instrumentation changes, sonic imprint changes, but somehow his brand became stronger through his explorations. And I don't think anyone associates him with "crossover."

Friday, May 28, 2010

From Times Square to Fresh Air

One of the unintended consequences of taking up the horn again is that I'm now forced to navigate Times Square—the Disney World of the Northeast. It is with very good reason (*hint*) that my New Horn Teacher houses his lessons on 46th Street at Michiko Studios, still it's a strange place to be for someone who lives in NYC. Like the various Civil War museums and battlefields in my hometown, Times Square is only for tourists.

And, by the way, one of the things tourists don't know how to do correctly is walk. In NYC you are your car, your purse/messenger bag is your trunk, and the sidewalk is the freeway. Get it straight and get on your way. It's like people have never had anybody behind them before! Or they've never had to rely on their own bodies to get them where they're going. (More likely in this country.) Therefore Times Square is a pedestrian traffic dis-as-ter.

To a New Yorker (even a transplant like myself), it's as if we drove to suburbia and stopped our Ford Explorer smack in the middle of the mall intersection to ask our kids whether they'd like TGI Fridays or Olive Garden for dinner. Or maybe instead of stopping the SUV, we'd just weave around the road and idle in fits and starts. (Why? Why? Why? Don't these people know I have to get to my horn lesson???) Nah, they're on vacation.

Still, I've only commuted twice now with my horn and it's, shockingly, a total hit. The subway don't-smile-at-strangers-rule has been broken several times, and for that I feel a bit exposed. Especially in regards to the dude yesterday who grinned at me from Atlantic Ave/Pacific Street all the way to Union Square, in hopes of making eye contact. No dice, buddy. I'm neither mentally ill nor selling anything, so let's keep it clean. Less creepy was the elevator interaction with the young Chinese woman who knew enough English to say "That French horn? OSSUM!" with a thoroughly American thumbs up. Numerous people on the street have blurted the name of my instrument to people they're walking with, or even me. This includes the totally datable fellow standing outside The Irish Pub who interrupted his conversation to point at my case and shout "FRENCH HORN!" then congratulated himself for properly identifying it by pointing both thumbs proudly at his chest and shouting "BAM!!"

Guess some dudes find French hornists pretty hot, Alaska. Get the t-shirt or watch out.

On the inside of the industry, however, I feel totally self-conscious. Because my lesson immediately followed yesterday's ASCAP Young Composer Awards ceremony (congrats, guys and gals!), I had to bring my horn to the Times Center. I all but stuffed it up my shirt to conceal it for fear that industry contacts would point and shout "Imposter! Imposter! You're no performer, you're a publicist!" I dropped that baby at coat check so fast, I didn't even have time to hit the ladies room before the 2-hour show.

But today brings a different adventure for the horn. I am heading to a Wild, Wonderful state to stay the long weekend at my parents' recent home—Windy Hill Farm. There I'll celebrate my niece's graduation from high school, splash in the "crick" with the dogs, practice some slurs and long tones, and reunite with the side of the family from which my Native American (Monacan) and Dutch (or is it German? We'll never know) ancestry comes.

For now, good-bye city life! You can have my walkin' shoes while I'm gone.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

My Lips Pressed Up Against ... XXX

One doesn't just lay in a bed for 9 years then suddenly get up and sprint. I recognize this. Still, it does not make it any less of a 'buzz' kill (pun!) to pick up my horn and realize that my once agile face muscles have atrophied to mush.

In my memory and in my mind, I can throw down some decent Hindemith. I am playing 1st horn with Amanda Burton in the Parade of the Ewoks from Star Wars. But in reality, oh sad reality, I have come back to my horn (finally) con gusto but it is only coming back to me poco a poco ma non troppo.

She's decided she's going to commit to this music-making business! She's finding herself some teachers! She's picking up her instruments and . . . she's . . . she's . . . OFF?



"Nope," The New Horn Teacher says. (More on him later.) "You've got some set-up problems."

Let's talk about embouchure (äm-bü-shr). As it turns out, my mouth is ALL WRONG. And before I can do anything useful on the horn, I've got to get my embouchure looking like these sexy specimens. Corners set, chin flat.

http://www.windsongpress.com/video/Embouchure%207.jpg

The prescription? Short bursts. Brief sets of low reps. It's back to the gym for this embouchure, and there's no cheating, even when it burns. And oh, does it burn. Those fine muscles around the chin and mouth are like tiny screaming glutes and abs.

So here I am, having majored in French horn, having taught many an elementary school student how to set their embouchure and buzz, having recently consulted with one of the greatest living composers (who I am employed to promote) on whether a certain section of his Los Angeles Philharmonic piece was playable for the horns, and I've been ordered to blow nothing more than 4 quarter notes on my mouthpiece in 10-minute intervals.

http://www.guitarmusicacademy.com/images/quarternotestrum.jpg

This. Sucks.