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!

~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


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.


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."