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.


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.

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.

This. Sucks.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Let Me Google That for You

Looking for a vocal coach in New York City? Let me Google that for you.

(The handy passive-aggressive link above comes to us via Amanda Ameer via Ronen Givoney.)

This week on Let Me Google That for You (LMGTfY), we are searching for vocal coaches. Those mysterious and often hard to find characters who aren't so much focused on training a person's voice to sound Classical or Jazz or Broadway, as they are focused on finding the healthiest natural expression of a person's voice and style. (I need this.)

Here are the front-runners from my search.

Wendy Parr
Hmm, I do like Nancy Sinatra and Regina Spektor. This teacher doesn't oppose glottal stops, so that's fun.

Mark Baxter

Definitely has the most tricked out website; this man is running a real business. Clients range from Steve Tyler to Aimee Mann, to cast members of RENT.

Don Lawrence
Apparently a veteran who has done loads of work in gospel and R&B. Also a producer, writer, arranger? However, it would appear his contact information is only transferred by secret code whispered at after-parties.

Melissa Cross
Wrote The Zen of Screaming, extremes of the human voice. Um no.

Deb Silver
All I know from visiting her website is that it was designed in 1994 and that she's a jazz singer/pianist from London. That does not tell me anything about her coaching style or clientele.

Greg Drew
Another one who's contact information seems only available to those who've shaken the hand of someone who's shaken the hand of someone who knows him. There was a nice article about him in The New York Times in 1996, and his (former?) clients include Lenny Kravitz and Avril Lavigne.

Bob Marks
He looks nice, and has tons of Broadway credit. But will he coach me to sound too technicolor? I don't want to be all bright vowels and glitzy vibrato. Unsure.

Katie Agresta
So, PM Dawn, Annie Lennox, Queen Latifah, Jethro Tull, and Dave Matthews walk up to 88th St...

This is terrifying. I think more than all of this I need a therapist. Meaning, I need a vocal coach who is also willing to be a therapist. Perhaps they are the same thing.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Step One: We Can Have Lots of Fun

It's time to stop my yakkin' and do some things.

~Performed first original song in public with Rachel & Gretchen on back-up. #WOOT
~Booked horn gigs for June 4 and June 17. #wootwoot
~Subbed as pianist/choir director for PSUMC. Learned 14 pieces in less than 24 hours. #waytosayyes #PANICINDUCEDWOOT

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.
~Find a composition/counterpoint/arranging/orchestration teacher who gets/appreciates songwriting.
~Schedule June/July trip to Nashville to record demo of "Ask, Seek, & Knock."
~Decide whether to attend Berklee's Summer Songwriting Workshop.

Play Dates
~Play horn exercises/long tones along with my favorite albums. Invent horn solos where God never intended them to be.
~Show Alison Krauss & Union Station what that fourth harmony part sounds like.
~Dance to Oscar de Leon (while making candles?).

PS - What's this about NKOTB and Glee? Could it be? (We can have lots of fun, Joe McIntyre.)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Playlist: Quincy Jones

In 2009 at SxSW I heard Quincy Jones deliver the kind of nostalgic 90-minute stream-of-consciousness keynote speech that can only be pulled off by someone who produced Thriller and counted Frank Sinatra as a dear friend ("Q, live every day like it's your last and one day you'll be right."). Amid the stories, the friends ("Now Steve Ross, he was the kind of guy who could see around the corner."), and the inspirational quotes ("We are instruments of a higher power. Music comes through us, it's not about us."), he also dropped a small amount of advice ("Hey, and when it rains? Get wet.").

The most notable for me was a variation on the tidbit "Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal," attributed to Igor Stravinsky (who I am employed to promote, thank you very much FTC blogger guidelines). Quincy said the best thing any musician can do to develop their voice is to put their top ten favorite artists in a playlist on their iPod and listen to that playlist over and over every day. So I did—because I figure Quincy Jones can tell me what to do anytime he wants.

Here it is. I want to sound like all of this smashed together but, at the same time, totally different.

Do you hear any recurring themes?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Separating this from that

I suppose I should state my intentions.

My husband (he shall be called "Alaska"), upon reading my first blog entry, said "Aren't you worried people are going to think this is a blog about your high school marching band?" (I wasn't.) But still, I thought if even he was confused after 3.5 years of sharing an NYC life-cubicle with me, I couldn't expect any more of those readers who may only know me from 140-character proclamations, undergrad, or an occasional social encounter.

So why have I invited you here?

There's a Russian folk tale that I originally came across many years ago, through the gorgeously rich storytelling of Clarissa Pinkola Estés. The gist of the story is familiar: the young girl (Vasalisa) is taken captive by an old hag (Baba Yaga), who threatens to kill her unless she completes a series of impossible tasks. A couple of the tasks demanded by Baba Yaga can be boiled down to "separating this from that." Impossible thises from thats. Like, "If you don't separate this massive mound of poppy seeds from that mountain of dirt by tomorrow morning, I will eat you." (Ringing a bell with any lawyers out there? Sorry, low blow. I'm sure your job is great.)

Anyway, I recently realized that I have been separating THIS from THAT for several years now. It started out in a massive mound of "I like music" in a mountain of "I don't want to be a delusional failure and/or a drain on society" and the bottom line is this: I sing, and I write words and music. I can't help it. I can't stop it. When I ignore it, squish it, or stuff it into my trunk and dump it in the East River, it may go silent for a little while but it just keeps coming back.

And so, this past January I finally said, "Uncle." UNCLE! UNCLE! UNCLE! You win. I surrender. I will take the energy I've used attempting to destroy my greatest desires and talents, and I will use it to fuel them instead. I registered for a songwriting course at NYU, finished it off with the first public performance of one of my songs, and I'm in touch with a reasonably priced demo-producer in Nashville about getting some tracks down. I'm having meetings, I'm investigating the process of producing albums, I'm exploring options for all different kinds of lessons, I'm taking gigs on horn, keys, and voice.

So this is where you come in. The most recent realization that I've come to, that took me more than 15 years to get, is this: what I like about music is the people. I don't like being on a stage alone, I like to make music with people! And I don't like stuffing my songs into boxes full of journals, I want to make music for people! And, wow, when you write the word "people" enough times it starts to look like an alien! (Nevermind.)

Back to stating my intentions: despite every effort to the contrary, I am built to sing and write both words and music. Songs have been writing themselves in my head for years. Now I am moving forward to get the words and music out of my head and into the world; I am finding the place where my "deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." (Hat tip to Rachel Zylstra and Paul Rock for those words this week.) I am not sure whether success or failure is the more frightening possibility, but I now know and (am beginning to) accept that it doesn't matter.

And, PSA, knowing is half the battle.

Monday, May 3, 2010

In the beginning, there was the Word...

...and the Word was with blog and the Word was blog. (No offense.)

Because it is not enough that I am on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and MySpace, I have found yet another way to get into YourFace—Spotsylvania's Marching Knights.

As many of you know, I am from a rural county outside of Fredericksburg, Virginia, named after British Lt. Col. Alexander Spotswood. Largely due to the absence of Wikipedia in my youth, I did not know anything about Spotswood beyond his last name until just now when I Googled it. What I did know was that my father drove me roughly 20 miles on winding country roads to get me to my Monday evening piano lessons—45 minutes in each direction—so that Mrs. Massey could run me through 30 minutes of James Bastien. We used to hang our heads out the car window and "moo" at the cows to pass time. Sometimes we'd sing along with some of my dad's favorite musicians, like David Gates or James Taylor. Usually Mrs. Robinson, wearing her bandana and standing with one fist on her hip, would wave from the porch of her candy store. Every Monday from elementary school through my sophomore year of high school we did this. My father is a kind and patient man.

Another thing that I knew was that anyone who knew anything about where they lived, relied on our high school fight song to spell the name of our county. You could see it on people's mouths at the bank or the DMV, whenever it came time to fill out their address forms: S! P! O! T! S! Y! L!—V-A-N-I-A! If you were on the inside, and you watched closely, you could see people laughing at themselves after habitually mouthing the word "FIGHT!" after chanting the letters— a common and local compulsion.

Marching band was a Big Deal in my world. The very youngest of four children (Girl ... Boy, Boy ... ... ... Girl), almost everything my older siblings did was of epic proportion to me. When Christi played clarinet (or was she a majorette? why do I remember her having a painfully cool baton??) all of the girls seemed so very very with their cigarettes and their band room. And when David played Bugler's Holiday with the veritable boy's club of first trumpets under direction of Mr. Millhouse, my 10-year old mind could not have fathomed a world larger and more powerful than the one compressed into those rotating, expanding, and contracting "boxes" that snapped into exhilarating "company fronts."

Have I lost you yet? Watch this Santa Clara Vanguard action and get nailed at the 7th second:

And so now, decades into my musical journey but only just beginning the expedition into my own musical voice, I launch said expedition with a blog named in honor of where it all started: Spotsylvania's Marching Knights.

I hope you'll stay for the show.