Human, Marketer, Musician

Finding the Opportunity

Finding opportunities out of obligations is about more than the old optimist’s creed of “making lemonade from lemons.”  It’s about efficiency.  It’s about attitude.  It’s about shaping your reality.

Once my dad was told to attend a dinner event 3 hours away to represent the company, accept an award, and shake hands with the governor for a 5 minute photo-op.  My dad’s initial reaction was annoyance – this disrupts my work day and takes me away from home, there’s so many other things that need to be done, why me, and so on.  Then he realized that he was doing this anyways – why not make it an opportunity?  He decided that he’d use those 5 minutes with the governor to draw his attention to a project that wasn’t getting attention.  There’s evidence that those 5 minutes actually contributed to that project’s approval.  He created value out of what could have been a waste of time.

The chorus I sing with is requiring its members to do 9 holiday concerts this year instead of 7.  Like many, my initial reaction was a mixture of panic and disappointment – especially since the news was communicated without fanfare, gratitude, or acknowledgement of the change. How could they do this to us? How much more will this cost our family to ‘volunteer’? And so on.  Then I realized that the holiday concerts have really changed from years ago, when they were perceived by many as a burden, an obligation, a mandatory exercise with a substitute conductor and a high temptation to mail it in. The new approach is to treat each concert like a music-making experience, and the rehearsals and pedagogy associated with them are basically a voice lesson for me every time.  I’ll take two more cheap voice lessons and performances this December, especially given that this may be my last season if I’m not in the chorus after next spring’s re-audition!

Life is more enjoyable when you reframe obligations as opportunities.

Father, Musician, Uncategorized

Metallica

I am not a heavy metal fan.  I rank it just above gangsta rap and country music in my mental list of “least favorite music genres.”  I tend to dismiss the songs as so much noise, much as a connoisseur on the other side of the spectrum would be dismissive of an operatic aria.

Perversely, my 13yo son is now a huge Metallica fan.

It’d be too easy to slip into the role of doddering father, shaking my cane and muttering “turn that crap down” and “kids these days” and “back in my day”, even though technically I’m pretty sure Metallica was “back in my day.” I’ve been humoring his excited explanations of why he liked certain songs. I’ve marveled at his ability during drum practice to capture the patterns of some of his favorites. I’ve been perplexed at his recall of song names, albums, lyrics, band member names as they’ve come and gone… these are from the 80s.  I guess it’s the equivalent of if I had been a teenage fan of alternative 50s music — not Elvis Presley, but perhaps Tony Bennett or Mitch Miller.

(Of course, play a symphonic piece and I can almost certainly name whether it’s from 100, 200, or 300 years ago, if not the composer and the piece itself, but I digress…)

Today he played me “Spit Out the Bone” on the way home from soccer practice.  As I was adjusting to the percussive assault on my brain, he explained the lyrics and the post-apocalyptic man vs robot setting.  He pointed out how Lars Ulrich is achieving those sounds from the drum set, and the different “fills” involved. He mentioned it’s from a recent album rather than something from the 80s.  He noted the patterns and rhythm and how there’s actually some music and chord structure going on. That evening I read up more on the song.  I learned about the philosophy of transhumanism which is, to some degree, advocated by the song’s narrator, implying criticism by the band given that said narrator is trying to convince humans to give themselves over to technology and essentially commit suicide.  It’s commentary on our smart watches and faces buried in iPhones and desire to stay plugged in all the time.  Given that context, the music makes sense, and I understand the emotion behind it.  And suddenly I have a glimpse as to what a lot of heavy metal is about, and why it’s music, and why he likes it.

In short, I got a music lesson from my son.  That was awesome.

Musician, Son

Someone in the audience

No matter what stage you’re on, when you’re performing, there’s always a special joy if you know someone in the audience.  It makes everything more real.  Maybe because there’s a witness.  Someone there to hear the tree fall, so that the noise it makes matters.

A performance isn’t a performance without an audience anyways; otherwise, it’s a dress rehearsal.  Part of the energy generated when performing live is connecting with the audience.  But when you have a connection already–co-workers, classmates, family, those two random elderly ladies you met in the parking garage on the way to the concert–it turns the thrill of performing live up to an 11.  Even if it’s those two elderly ladies who dutifully wave at you from their seats as if they’ve known you for decades.

But having your parents in the audience is always a special treat.

Especially if they drove for 12 hours to get there.

Musician

Finding Triumph in Lord Nelson’s Mass

Cross-posted from my blog about singing, Just Another Bass

Our final choral performance this weekend is Haydn’s Missa in Anguistiis, known more commonly as the Lord Nelson Mass.  Of the 14 different mass settings Haydn composed, this one is considered his greatest — in fact, his biographer calls it “arguably Haydn’s greatest single composition,” though my vote would be for The Creation, which he had just finished writing.

Haydn started writing the “Mass for Troubled Times” at a time of intense fear.  In 1789, the terrified public knew that Napoleon Bonaparte had defeated the Austrian army in four major battles, even crossing the Alps and threatening Vienna itself.  (One effect – his patrons stopped paying for wind players, so he was down to only strings and a few hired trumpets and timpani!)  The opening Kyrie, in a dark D minor, echoes this public mood.  By the time the piece was first performed, however, Britain’s Lord Nelson had dealt Napoleon a stunning defeat – and when the work was performed in Nelson’s honor during his visit in 1800.  Since then, the piece has been more about the triumphant victory over that menacing opening movement, as D minor becomes D major in the later, more celebratory movements.  And with the smaller orchestra, it means that our smaller roster is more than adequate for the sound – we’ve had double this chorus size for pieces like the Mozart Requiem before.

Our conductor for this piece is the 91 year old Herbert Blomstedt.  We can all only hope to be as active as Maestro Blomstedt at that age, given he’s conducting 90 concerts a year. in venues around the world.  His devout lifestyle is all well and good, but as a chorus we wondered coming into the week of on-site rehearsals at Tanglewood: would this be like Boston’s beloved Harry Ellis Dickson conducting Holiday Pops in the twilight of his career (i.e., “don’t watch him, watch the first violinist”) Any concerns we had were quickly abated when he took the podium and immediately began shaping our sound.

Maestro Blomstedt’s strong opinions ran counter to many of our initial musical instincts. For instance, he is vehemently against vibrato in the chorus, especially in the upper voices, making it vocally challenging for our sopranos to hit those high As and Bs. His rationale is that senza vibrato produces stronger harmonies, and allows the soloists to stand out over our tapestry of sound.  He also favors rhythmic intensity over natural melodic lines, urging us to add marcato stresses — for instance, we now heavily break up the syllabic Ky-ri-e-e-le-i-son motif in the first movement rather than the legato shaping we had been rehearsing.  I personally find it harder to maintain the lighter, cleverer sound that one expects with any Haydn classical-era piece when we’re pummeling the rhythm this way, but as basses we’ll continue to fight to be more about rhythmically intensity (and less about elephantine plodding).  Blomstedt has also created great things with special moments in the piece, like taking the chorus way down during the text of cum sancto spiritu so that “the spirit” (a flautist playing a lilting tune) is audible as if it were a flute concerto for about four measures.  He is always about driving the tempo forward, even barking at some BSO second violinists (“TEMPO! KEEP UP!”) at one point in the orchestra rehearsal.

It’s always tempting, for these well-known chestnut pieces that could be sight-read at a summer sing somewhere, to simply sit back, relax, and enjoy the musical ride.  Between conductor James Burton’s prep work, and Blomstedt’s urging, we have the luxury of not having that luxury.  That means we can take it off autopilot and really dig into the music, focus our concentration, bring to bear our copious notes scribbled in our scores, and shape its direction to create a performance that can make an audience sit up and listen.

Musician

Exploring the Pizzetti Requiem

Cross-posted from my blog about singing, Just Another Bass

Our upcoming Friday night Prelude performance at Tanglewood is a pretty spectacular collection of a cappella choral sacred music.  The backbone of the program is Pizzetti’s Messa di Requiem, a hauntingly beautiful setting of chant-like melodies that have been a joy to internalize and sing.

The Choral Scholar’s well-written (and rather exhaustive) analysis of the piece explores more of its historical context, including a lot on Pizzetti’s influences. Born in 1884, Ildebrando Pizzetti’s career was primarily as a conservatory teacher, rather than as a prolific composer, though he was responsible for several choral works. As a frequent music critic, he held disdain for 20th century compositional trends such as those introduced by Stravinsky and Schoenberg, advocating frequently for a return to the Renaissance traditions of great Italian composers.  In 1922 he was commissioned to write this Requiem during a period of personal transition: his wife had died unexpectedly, and his 16-year tenure at the Istituto Musicale in Florence had come to an end.  “I was in such an emotional state,” he reflected later, “that I became overwhelmed by the tremendous immensity of the text,” as he contemplated his beliefs and sought comfort in choral expression.

Given his preferences, the style of the music is described as neo-Renaissance and neo-Medieval; it’s not hard to imagine monks in some forgotten time canonically chanting these plainsong melodies. But unlike most early music, it’s also dramatic and expressive: the dark, gloomy Dies Irae with its hollow theme; the sudden magical appearance of major keys in several places to represent heavenly light or salvation; the glorious expansiveness of the Sanctus; the pleading of the Libera Me.  Coupled with a shifting landscape of counterpoints and imitations — and choral textures ranging from the simplicity of unaccompanied basses to the extravagance of a heavy 12-part three-chorus anthem — and we have our hands full as a chorus trying to capture the soul of this composer.

Each rehearsal we’ve had so far has followed a similar pattern.  When we start out, perhaps with a read-through of one of the movements, I’d confess that the chorus sounds like we’re each strongly representing our own parts.  And then slowly over time, we become less of a collection of individual voice parts and more of an ensemble. Our conductor James Burton has smiled as he points this out: “I can see you listening to each other.”  And we’re getting faster at that; I’d say it took 30-60 minutes during our initial rehearsals last month, and about 15 minutes before we congealed into a unit yesterday.  It’s a tangible difference in our sound and collective approach.

With the vertical harmonies this piece advocates, our ears must continually attune to the chords we’re creating together.  The structure of the music requires constant mental awareness of balance, like a delicate pyramid of circus acrobats.  Often one voice part is clearly the lead actor while the others provide the staging, though dynamically it may only be mezzoforte vs mezzopiano.  Rhythmic intensity is the only way to avoid languishing through the rising and falling chants and losing tempo.  And since we’re unaccompanied, it’s easy to lose pitch on some of these descending lines, so our scores are littered with tiny up-arrows over notes in the greatest danger of going flat.

All this makes it sound like a pain in the butt to sing, but nothing could be further from the truth.  To create this magical sonority is a welcome challenge of not just our individual talents but also our ability to sustain a cohesive purpose in our choral communications to the audience. Throughout James Burton’s tuning of mechanics and technique has been an undercurrent of effort to align our intent behind each moment of the piece.  Capturing glimpses of that in each rehearsal has been nothing short of exhilarating, and I’m very much looking forward to sharing that with a wider audience on Friday.

Human, Musician

Conservation of Creativity

Every once in a while, we can get in a “creativity consumption” kick.  Binge watching a TV series, or getting engrossed in playing a particularly creative video game that tells a story with you as the hero.  It’s not all electronic, either; I know I can easily get sucked into a book series and then be trapped reading til 2 a.m. because I want to inject the whole story directly into my veins like a junkie jonesing for another fix.

At times like that, you’re oddly out of balance.  You’re taking and not giving back.

You fix the balance by adding creativity back to the world.  Making music. Writing a blog post. Crafting, whether it be with Legos, with yarn, with clay, or with that oversized cardboard box from your latest Amazon purchase. Even sitting and thinking can give birth to creative thoughts that restore the balance.

The balance is important because the creativity you consume fuels what you create. You get ideas. You see how things work (or fail). You imitate and improve. You admire and try to get better.

Likewise, the process of creation powers your appreciation for what you later consume. You didn’t really think about how hard it was to write that story until you tried to write your own. Or that watercolor. Or that preternatural soccer move. Or that guitar picking.

The best way to break the cognitive bias of the Dunning-Kruger effect is to develop enough ability to recognize your lack of ability, enough to demolish your illusory superiority and return to a state of childlike awe of those who really are experts.  And, like all children looking up to a role model, strive to be as good as them ‘when you grow up.’

And that means consuming more creative. And creating more for others to consume.

Marketer, Musician

Telepathy

In his magnificent book On Writing, Stephen King describes makes the amusingly accurate claim that writing is basically telepathy.  “All the arts depend on telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation,” he offers.  As an example, he points out that the book is scheduled to be published in late 2000, and that that makes you the reader

…somewhere downstream on the timeline from me… but you’re quite likely in your own far-seeing place, the one where you go to receive telepathic messages.  […]

So let’s assume that you’re in your favorite receiving place just as I am in the place where I do my best transmitting.  WE’ll have to perform our mentalist routine not just over distance but over time as well, yet that presents no real problem; if we can still read Dickens, Shakespeare, and (with the help of a footnote or two) Herodotus, I think we can manage the gap between 1997 and 2000.  And here we go — actual telepathy in action.  You’ll notice I have nothing up my sleeves and that my lips never move.  Neither, most likely, do yours.

He then goes on to prove it by describing a table covered with a red cloth, and a cage on the table with a white rabbit that has a numeral 8 on its back in blue ink, and then dissects how he’s transmitted this image to your brain, even if we fill in our own details.

But by that point I’m already hooked. Telepathy! Who knew? I’m writing thoughts right now at my desk, and they’re being beamed directly into your brain by whatever Black Mirror has commanded your attention right now.  The time-shift doesn’t matter; you are literally able to read my mind.

Writing, for me, is like music; I’d make a career of it if I could, but economic forces and skills with more powerful earning potential have relegated such pursuits to leisure time hobbies. Still, I continue learning more about how to sing, and about how to write… and the best way to excel at either hobby is the same way to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.  This may not be the few thousand words a day that King advises for the serious writer-in-training, but it doesn’t matter — telepathy is an amazing trick, and one I want to keep trying to master.