Thursday, September 27, 2007

The March to Convention…

The biannual Pioneer District Convention is coming up next month, and for the first time, I have a quartet that is set on competing. I'm simultaneously overwhelmed by feelings of excitement and panic.

I've been listening to barbershop music, to one degree of interest or another, all of my life – and I do mean ALL of my life. My father was a barbershopper long before I was a twinkle in his eye, so I caught the bug early, though I didn't realize it until about high school. I remember my dad singing "Wait 'Till the sun Shines, Nellie" when I was little and hearing the late 50's-60's SPEBSQSA Championship recordings playing on the hi-fi most weekends. This (along with my Muppet and Disney records, of course) was the soundtrack of my very early years, before I discovered rock, pop and more modern music. By age 12, I was listening to those records on my own and eagerly attempting to dissect the parts to songs sung by quartets like Mark IV, The Buffalo Bills, Town & Country Four, The Confederates, The Air Fours, and others, and singing along.

Now I'm in my own quartet. I've been in one quartet or another since my second week in the Barbershop Harmony Society (formerly SPEBSQSA). Most of these were good quartets to the average listener, but not much to speak of in barbershop circles. Fun, talented guys, but little attention was paid to the details and nuance of the idiom or stylistic interpretation. We did gigs (usually with good pay or at least free food) and received appreciative applause, but never managed to make it onto the contest stage.

Now I finally have a GOOD quartet by barbershop standards. I'm finally with a group of guys that understand the fundamentals of the idiom, have a good amount of experience, and a strong desire to excel. That ought to be enough, right? WRONG!

Barbershop contests are tricky things. Not only do you have to go out there and sing well, but you have to coordinate the wardrobe, agree on interpretation of the songs, organize rehearsal time to maximize the synchronization of the music, get the proper paperwork in order for registration, and above all – choose a repertoire. It's the latter that's been the primary focus for the past couple weeks and, until last night, the primary obstacle.

Contest rules are very particular regarding choice of music. It has to have a certain amount of homophony, the appropriate subject matter, a minimum ratio of dominant seventh chords, a certain pattern of chord progression, and above all, be legally obtained music, obeying all pertinent copyright laws. That's a lot of ducks to get in a row.

We had originally planned on doing "If The Lord Be Willin' and the Creek Don't Rise", which our chorus has done in contest a few times, and an old barbershop standard, "Darkness on the Delta", a familiar tune with a spectacular introduction, and a song we do quite well. After practicing and polishing "Darkness…" and even getting some coaching from one of the top pedagogues in the activity (Dave Ellis, with some additional advice by his wife, Cindy Hansen) on the tune, we found that it doesn't contain enough homophony to be "contestable". Beyond that, we figured we were good enough to have a chance to make it to finals the next night and therefore needed to decide on what to do for our second round of competition, as repeating the same tunes is generally frowned upon.

So now we had to come up with 3 more tunes, most likely 2 ballads and 1 up-tune. We all presented some suggestions and last night we finalized our choices – with a mere 4-5 practices to get our shit together. Yikes.

"If The Lord Be Willin'…" is a song we've been doing for a while, and while there are parts we need to refine, we know the notes, so getting that one ready shouldn't be too tough. "Zippidy Doo-Dah" is a perky tune and not particularly difficult, so once again, that's mostly a matter of coming to consensus on cut-offs, phrasing, and balance. The part that worries me is the ballads.

After much deliberation, we decided on "I'll Be Seeing You" as our primary ballad. It's a familiar tune with a nice intro section and some great chords. The problem with great chords is that they're usually pretty tight. Intonation and vowel shape will be crucial, and as it's a pretty free-flowing song with little by way of a steady tempo, agreeing on a consistent interpretation we can synch up will be time-consuming. We spent about an hour on it last night and it's progressing well, but I worry that we may not have the time to get it as polished as I'd like. Also, it's a song that's been done recently by the District Representatives to International, so we have a standard to live up to there.

Our 2nd ballad is "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans". We've done that one in Chorus, so again, it's familiar, however it has a bridge that modulates a bit weird and the modulation back to the original key is even trickier. The chords are tight and we'll need to block-and-tackle (lingo for go chord-by-chord) to tune them up right.

Thankfully, I have a great group of guys to work with. All 3 of them are willing to put in the extra time outside of rehearsal to polish up these songs. We also have a gig at Applewood Estates in Flint on Saturday from 12:30-3:30 for the Mott Foundation's annual Fall Harvest Festival (plug, plug, plug), so we'll be able to run these songs down a few times, and with a few more rehearsals we can go into contest confident that we won't suck…

…I hope.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Great Outdoors…

It's no secret…I HATE nature.

Okay, that may be a bit harsh. It's not like I want to pave over the whole world and have everything be glistening white cement while I pick my teeth with a redwood toothpick made of the last tree on Earth, but I'm a man of creature comforts. I don't like being disconnected from the world, I hate bugs, mud, animal crap, slime of undetermined origin, physical exertion related to simple survival, not having a hot shower within 10 minutes of waking, and having to avoid potentially dangerous animals (especially when I'm not sure how dangerous they may be).

My family has never been big on the outdoors. The closest thing to camping I ever did with my family as a child was taking a nice, modernized camper to a fairly sterile and well-kept Jellystone Campground or KOA when I was about 5. We did this a few times when I was very young, occasionally with my grandparents coming along with their camper. We slept in beds, we shat in toilets that flushed, cooked in ovens, and had most all of the comforts of home. It was no big adjustment, just new surroundings and playmates.

My only recollection of really "camping out" is with a church youth group, somewhat akin to a co-ed Boy Scouts for the local Baptist Church, when I was about 8. I enjoyed much of the campout, singing songs and roasting marshmallows, etc., but just before lights out, one of the camp dads told us the legend of the Jersey Devil, a horrifying beast said to eat children and turn milk sour with its foul breath. Kinda the John Ashcroft of its day. As we were camping in the Pine Barrens of Ocean County and in the heart of the legend's locale, he warned us to be vigilant. After lights out, and we had just drifted off to sleep, he proceeded to put on a Halloween mask and jump into our tents growling and snarling.

I was inconsolable for the next 3 hours and skittish for several weeks. Still makes my heart speed up a bit.

Needless to say, this soured me on camping as well as Scouting, and therefore, added some reluctance to my escorting my son to his first Cub Scout campout.

Liam just signed up for Cub Scouts. Being in 2nd grade now, he's only a year behind the starting age for Cub Scouts, entering as a Wolf Scout. I had no qualms about this, aside from some initial hesitance regarding their organizational stance on certain issues and seeming penchant for patriarchy and blind patriotism (hesitance since quelled). He could use the structure and discipline, as well as some reinforcement on the core virtues taught by the organization (i.e. be honest, trustworthy, loyal, kind, obedient {in its proper context}, etc.) Not to mention it provides an additional incentive for him to behave well and earn privileges like campouts and patches.

He's truly excited about this opportunity to strut his stuff, show off how smart, tenacious, and talented he is, and socialize with other kids his age and make a few new friends. I can relate. That's why I joined a fraternity in college. So far, he's taking to it like a duck to water.

I had originally thought I had a quartet gig the date of the campout, and thus, wouldn't be able to attend, much to my initial relief. As it turned out, I had the date of the gig mixed up and had the afternoon available. The first campout was free of charge to newbies and I wasn't working until the evening, so, as Sonya had wanted to make something for the pot luck later that evening and do some additional gathering of materials (tent, blankets, etc.) should they choose to spend the night, I was to take my Mini-Me to the grounds for the first part of the day, with Sonya and Courtney joining us later.

After spending a bit longer than I had anticipated getting up and ready to go, grabbing a bite at McD's, and about an hour's drive to the campsite, we finally arrive at D-Bar-A Scout Ranch, just north of Metamora. Upon our arrival and after stopping at the main cabin to get directions to the campsite and clean up the spilled OJ, we find parents and kids milling about the campfire, running, playing games, and chasing the local rodents. Liam goes down one of the trails with his packmates and I grab my ukulele and plant myself on one of our camp chairs in front of the fire. Liam is able to grab a pack of Pop Tarts from one of the Den Mothers at lunchtime, while I entertain some of the smaller children with a few Disney tunes.

Then comes the event of the afternoon – range shooting with BB guns.

This was an event I was a bit worried about. It wasn't the flashbacks to Ralphie and "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out!" I had no fear of the safety issue. I trusted they would get a LONG and emphatic lecture about gun safety that I would make Liam listen to and regurgitate every word of. My concern was my household's very strong anti-gun stance. Sonya is VERY liberal and anti-gun. I'm very liberal as well, but not so much anti-gun as I'm anti-gun culture and anti-NRA. Before we head out, I give a call to Sonya to be sure she's okay with it and we discuss some ground rules: ONLY targets are okay to shoot at, never aim at anything other than an actual target, there is responsible hunting, but we will NOT be hunting, etc.. All of these he was perfectly fine with and had absolutely no argument with, so, on to the range we went.

After a very picturesque half-mile hike to the shooting range, with the Pack Leader pointing out the myriad points of interest on the way, Liam's anticipation and enthusiasm builds. Strangely enough, so did mine. I have never shot a gun any more dangerous than a ping-pong ball or suction-cup dart gun before, so this was a first for me as well. Granted, this was only an air-pumped BB gun, but I was still rather enthralled by the idea. I was rather good with a bow and arrow in my days at Roeper Summer Day Camp, but never even HELD a gun, let alone shoot one.

He listened rather well to the 15 minute safety speech by the Range Master, excited to use the phrase "Permission to enter the range, Range Master!", then we assumed our positions in spots one and two on the range.

I gotta say, as much as I'm not thrilled with guns, I'm VERY proud of my son's hand/eye coordination. He's a deadeye! Every shot he aimed at the scoring target was a bull's-eye! He did much better than his ol' man and qualified for his patch as well as the youth shooting team (though I doubt we'll be allowing that – we'll see). What really got to me was the quality bonding we got to do. Talking about the safety rules, congratulating each other on great shots, high-fives, and smiles and hugs exchanged all gave me the rare "dad-glow". I was beaming with pride and love for my boy, and best of all, he was beaming with pride and love for me.

After the gun range, I send Liam with the pack to go on a hike and I head back to the camp, talking with one of the other dads along the way. I get back and just sit around the campfire strumming my ukulele, talking with the other parents, and discussing Liam's vegetarianism. To my mild surprise in a group of blue-collar Scout parents, they're not taken at all aback by it and we chat about family, kids, school, and other grown-up type things while I wait for Sonya and Courtney.

The women of my life drive up just as I am ready to head to work. We do a little car junk swapping to make room for her return trip, update each other on the day, and give them both hugs as I head off to work. Sonya plans on staying the night in her brother's borrowed tent with the kids.

Liam apparently didn't do as well in the evening. He didn't eat as much as he should, was over-stimulated, and had a meltdown or two, but was right as rain in the morning. His escapades the night prior, however, may have lost him the next campout. If he can curb his temper from now until then, he may earn it back. Yet another incentive in the perpetual battle of wills between Liam's temper and our law. I really hope he can keep things together. I wanna go camping again!!! Since BB guns were the weapon of choice this time, I wanna try my skills at archery.

Of course, the battle now is who goes: me or Sonya!? We may have to set up a grudge match on this one. Thumb wresting – best 2 out of 3.

Coming up next: The March to Convention...

PS. If you actually READ all of this, you're either WAY to interested in my pithy life or need to find a more interesting job....

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Vague references, with gratitude…

She's adorable and precious. Thank you so much for the picture. You guys are still in my thoughts and prayers. I have nothing but respect for what you guys went through and coming out of it on top. All my love and best wishes to all 6 of you.

And you, sir, I still consider one of my oldest and dearest friends. That can't and won't change.

A long overdue introduction…

In all of my blogs, I refer to my kids, but I haven't said much about them. Allow me to take a minute to introduce my lovely children, Liam Sean and Courtney Teagan…
(photos courtesy of their Aunt Val)

Liam is my first-born.

Liam Being Goofy - as usual

Now 7 years old, he is a bundle of energy and intellect. One often hopes that our children will inherit the best qualities of both parents. Liam has inherited ALL qualities, positive, negative, and conflicting, from both Sonya and I. He is as smart and outspoken as his mother, as creatively and musically driven as both of us, and has his father's ego, extroversion, and yes, temper.

This can lead to problems at times. His highly developed sense of justice from his mother and rather self-absorbed nature from myself can lead to him seeming selfish at times. Along with my rather short temper (which I wasn't able to curb until I was about 14), this can lead to some difficult fights when he doesn't get his way. However, he is not inherently selfish. He is EAGER to share with and to help others, just more so when it doesn't conflict with his own interests. Until more recently, he wasn't good at looking at the bigger picture and to see the consequences of his actions. The more he grows and learns, he is developing healthy coping mechanisms and how to be a better citizen in general. I can almost see the gears turning and the connections being made in his head by the day as he deals with each circumstance, and it simply amazes me.

Liam is feisty and always wants to be the center of attention. As my mother has pointed out, he is the first child of loving parents and the first grandchild of four doting grandparents, thus he has gotten used to being the focus of adoration. Not necessarily the subject of materialistic spoiling, but certainly the focus of adoration.

Being the child of two musicians, he has developed a good musical ear as well. He loves to get up in front of people and sing. He eagerly anticipates the kid's talent show at the Slamka Harmony Hideaway Picnic every year. He even joined me on stage with my quartet a couple of weeks ago, told my friend and lead, Lou, to "step aside" (with all due respect and humor), and sang the tag to Darkness of the Delta with great gusto, ringing the last chord like nobody's business!

He is primed for activities where he can show off. As extracurricular activities like band, choir, sports and the like come into play at school, he is raring to join in and show his stuff. He seems destined to be a star musician, thespian, or athlete. His every endeavor is approached with such zeal and fervor, he quickly masters nearly everything he puts his mind to (once he gets past his initial frustration, anyway).

He can be a handful when he's over stimulated or tired, but his behavior is getting better by the day. That combined with his enthusiasm and talent for academics, the arts, and capacity for overall love and kindness fills me with great pride every day.

Courtney is Liam's polar opposite personality-wise, but every bit as smart and talented.

Courtney Christmas 07

She is the more demure, quiet, and reserved type. When she warms up and gets more comfortable with her surroundings and people, she becomes more outgoing, but generally keeps more to herself. She doesn't seek out people to impress, but is often more content to entertain herself and accomplish things on her own. Rather than self-ostracizing, she seems to derive it more from self-confidence. She doesn't shun people or avoid contact, but doesn't require constant validation.

She's very thoughtful, helpful, and cooperative. I see her becoming the quiet genius. While Liam is very bright and excelling academically, he will likely have other, more dramatic activities he will want to excel in. I see Courtney becoming the honor roll, bookworm type, making her mark with more intellectual pursuits like literature. She has a brilliant imagination and can make up stories about and play with just about anything, turning pens and buttons into princesses and wizards. She will come up with detailed stories and dialogue, much more involved than I would expect from a 3 year old.

She loves to sing, but can be shy about performing. She is a girly-girl – a daddy's girl. She loves pink, ponies, Dora, princesses, dolls, and having her long blond hair in pigtails. She is adorable beyond expression. Her speech still lacks some of the glottal sounds like 'K' and 'G', but it just serves to enhance her adorability. She's working on them, though. I almost hope she doesn't perfect those yet, as it will be one more step toward my baby girl becoming a big girl. I dread the day when she becomes a teenager. Not just for me, but for her. No boy stands a chance of my approval and she'll hate me for it.

These kids fill me with love and pride every minute of every day. Even in their misdeeds, I find aspects to be proud of. I can't help it. I'll scold and/or punish them appropriately for inappropriate actions or behavior, but often in that behavior, I see some aspect of myself. Even if it's a part of me that I'm not very proud of, I still derive some sense of pride that I see myself in them and that we can work on bettering ourselves together, as a family.

The aforementioned predictions of my children's future are simply guesses – maybe hopes – but their future is up to them. I will do my part as a parent to guide them towards their strengths, help them recognize and improve on weaknesses, and above all, help them to be happy and successful at whatever they want to be. Sure, I'd love for Liam to be a great musician and Courtney to be a famous author, etc., but above all, I want them to have every opportunity to be everything they ever want to be. That is my sacred duty, and I couldn't be more proud to execute it for the benefit of these wonderful kids.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Vocal Inflections…

It's been a busy week, vocally, for me. The quartet has been progressing nicely and we've had a few performance opportunities that went fairly well. Last week we performed for our bass's church, a nice Episcopal congregation in Livonia. We did 3 tunes in the service that fit the sermon very well. We started with a rather rapidly learned rendition of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" for a prelude, "I Believe" after the sermon, and the "Irish Blessing" for the benediction. They all went well and we received several compliments afterwards. Following the service, we headed to the fellowship hall to do some more secular stuff for the coffee hour, which didn't sound as good, but was nonetheless, well-received.

This past Tuesday, we had a mid-afternoon rehearsal – a first for us, as we all (now) work – to accommodate a very special guest. Dave Ellis (International Bronze medal tenor from Stormfront) and his wife Cindy (also barbershop bigwig) were in town for a while and we were able to secure Dave to coach us for a couple hours before he headed to Lansing to coach the Capitol City Chorus. This guy got us to ring chords in a way that I never knew possible! For about an hour and a half we only worked the intro to one of our songs. He taught us some tricks with vowel shape and tuning of certain chords that has us rattling windows at the softest volumes! It was absolutely amazing!

Being a tenor, I'm used to just sitting back and listening to the other three parts get all the attention in a coaching session. This is usually because many coaches just don't know what to do with the tenor. Most just assume you'll hear the chord and lock in your note to the overtones (assuming they're actually produced). The trick is, you can hit the right note perfectly in tune, but if it's a certain note within the chord, it needs to be adjusted a certain way. Plus, being mostly falsetto, it's a purer tone so vowel adjustment isn't worked on as much. Not so with Dave! Being a tenor himself, he had TONS of advice for me that made my part lock in so much better. It's no secret that I have a bit of an ego about my ear when singing, but I know I'm nowhere NEAR ready for the international stage. These tiny adjustments to my tuning and position of my soft pallet made a WORLD of difference toward making the entire quartet's chord lock.

Tenor's often considered decoration on the chord and a bit less of a priority on the scheme of the quartet, but after this session, I found that if it's done right, it's the key to making the quartet lock by truly reinforcing the overtones and making a chord ring and sparkle. A good tenor can be the difference between a good quartet and a truly GREAT quartet, while doing so by VERY subtle means!

This was an unbelievably valuable experience for us as a quartet and myself personally as a tenor. We hope to be able to meet with him again a time or two before contest as we narrow down the 2 songs for contest. Cindy emphasized only working of 2 for contest. If we make Saturday night, we could go and do Polecats, but we made the show.

On the non-quartet vocal front, I met with my buddy Paulie B. last night to get a sneak peek at the rough mix of the instrumentals for his new CD. I gotta tell ya, there's some good shit on there! There's a trippy Grateful Dead-ish instrumental track in there that is pure serenity, a folk rock ballad that has some great lyrics and introspective feel, a great pure rock tune that is BEGGING for great stage and light production, and a pure groovin' and cruisin' tune that smacks of the Cars. My job is to help him come up with any backup vocal parts where applicable and coach him to get his vocal skillz (it's rock, so that's skillz with a 'Z') a bit more refined. He's got some GREAT instrumentals laid down and fantastic songs, but a lot can hinge on if the carpet matches the drapes, so to speak.

I'm REALY excited to be helping Paulie on this project. Not just because the music is cool and the sound is inspiring, but because this is so dear to him. It's somewhat akin to being asked to mentor a small child. The future of this precious creation is being entrusted, in part, to my care. While its success is largely in the hands of it's parent and others involved, I've been trusted with helping this project grow and thrive in my own small way. It means a lot to me that he asked me to do this. This is his baby and I have been asked to be an influence on it. That's always a great honor.

Coming up next: Vague references, with gratitude…