If you grew up in Texas like I did, then you’ve likely participated in more than a few holiday performances this time of year: Christmas cantatas, Messiah sing-alongs, or Christmas Pageants.
Our church was a small congregation with a couple of paid pianists and a choir director. The choir usually numbered fewer than ten volunteers, and the choir director was always trying to recruit members so we might do more adventurous (for Southern Baptists anyway) repertoire. The big churches had the forces to mount full-scale productions: the Christmas cantatas and Messiah-sing-alongs (and as I got older, I played timpani on a lot of Messiah gigs). But our small church rarely got to mount a big production.
One year, when I was very young, the time seemed right to do a full-blown theatrical version of The Nativity Story. This was an all-hands-on-deck production with costumes, lights, sets, and dramatic readings with music and action. I was cast (not typecast, mind you) as the Angel Gabriel.
I had two big moments: first was to appear to Mary to tell her that she would bear a child, and then later to announce to the shepherds the birth of the Baby Jesus. My costume was a white robe with cardboard wings and a home-made contraption of coat hangers and silver tinsel to create an uncomfortable but cool-looking halo. It took a while to learn my lines, but I was confident.
Our dress rehearsal was beset with difficulties. A church elder was struggling to deliver his lines, and out of frustration he shouted, “The lights are so dern bright, I can’t see what I’m saying!” My cool halo rig wasn’t going to work with my wings on, so it was decided to simply place the tinsel halo on top of my head—bummer!
The next evening, the performance was going well. Gabriel appeared to Mary saying, “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.” My first line delivered! Then came time to address the shepherds: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
You may see the potential for error here: both lines begin with “fear not.” So, I announced to the shepherds that they were to “bring forth a son.” I caught the mistake just as I heard my friends (the shepherds) snickering beneath their keffiyehs. I stopped mid-sentence and smacked my forehead with a “duh” gesture that knocked my halo askew, then started again. After my soliloquy, the choir sang Angels We have Heard on High, probably wondering if they had heard the angel correctly. I never lived down my revelation to the shepherds, and it is one of my mother’s favorite stories.
Despite that theatrical setback, I have always loved Christmastime. In addition to its importance to my faith, I just enjoy the music. I’ve created a Christmas video for Public Television in Montana, recorded an album titled Good Christmas Vibes, and published several musical arrangements of holiday music.
Every year (until 2020, of course), Iowa Percussion has presented a Holiday Percussion Pops concert that welcomes winter and kicks off the season in Iowa City. Audience members bring a food item for the local food bank, and over the years we’ve collected a few tons of food to help families in our community: University of Iowa faculty, staff, and students doing their bit as angels.
In 2011, I started recording a holiday video each year as a greeting to family and friends. I missed a few years here and there, but then released eight videos in one year from the Good Christmas Vibes recording, so I suppose it all evens out. I thought I would share this story and the 2020 video of my recording of Angels We Have Heard on High to say thanks to all the angels in my life—both human and divine—who watch over me . . . and you.
It’s no secret that I struggled academically throughout high school and into college. By eighth grade, I was so single-minded in my desire to be a musician (or a drummer anyway) that I focused all my energy in the band hall and didn’t pay much attention to the whole “school thing.”
For the greater part of my young life, the people who most influenced me were music teachers—band, orchestra, and choir directors—so it seemed only natural that I follow in their footsteps. Being a band director, however, required going to college which was something I never gave much thought until halfway through senior year. It was also a feat that I had no clue about how to accomplish.
With the help and encouragement of my talented high school classmate Lynn Childers, combined with the shear impulse-of-will of James F. Keene, and certainly some Divine intervention, I found my way to East Texas State University (now Texas A&M University Commerce). Then, once again with Mr. Keene’s help and the support of other influential mentors such as Neil Humfeld, James Deaton, Gene Lockhart, Deanne Gorham, Bob Houston, and others I managed to apply for and receive the Basic Equal Opportunity Grant (the Pell Grant now) that made it possible for me to become a college graduate.
I was not the first person in my family to attend college. My uncle George graduated from the University of Houston and worked for many years with NASA as Chief of Maintenance Control for the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. Neither was I the first to receive a doctorate. As an automobile mechanic, my grandfather was awarded the “Doctor of Motors” degree. The certificate was proudly displayed in our house when I was growing up and I wish I still had it.
At college I threw myself fully into the study of percussion but from an academic standpoint, college would still be a challenge. Almost immediately in the Fall of 1976, HIST: 121 American Heritage became the bane of my existence. After flunking the course that Fall, then again in Spring 1977, I decided to give history a rest because it was clearly not my thing. The 7 a.m. class time might’ve had something to do with my spotty attendance record but who can say for sure?
I just couldn’t get the hang of things academically until two landmark events: the arrival of the blonde-haired clarinet player from Arkansas, who continues to inspire me to do better and be better, and meeting Dr. Frank Barchard, who was not, to my knowledge, a musician but a historian.
Dr. Barchard came to E.T. in 1965 as an Instructor of History, and officially retired as Professor Emeritus in May, 1995. He continued to teach at Texas A&M University Commerce through Spring semester of 2000 and passed away in 2002. He held offices in the Commerce Humane Association and the Rotary Club, and was a regular volunteer for the Presbyterian Hospital Auxiliary.
Dr. Barchard taught European History and was also Assistant Dean of the College of Liberal and Fine Arts. He was the sort of person you never got to meet unless you were a history major or in trouble academically. The latter would be my designation. I was summoned to his office in the Fall of 1980 to try and figure out if I was ever going to be able to graduate. He had a copy of my transcript that he went through line by line, scribbling over the courses and grades that moved me closer to graduation and striking through those that didn’t. At the end, there were too many strike throughs and not enough scribbles, and Dr. Barchard was shaking his head.
On my third attempt I had passed HIST: 121 but HIST: 122 still lay ahead for my last semester. Dr. Barchard finally stopped shaking his head and told me that I was three credits short. Three credits that would prevent me from student teaching and possibly from graduating at all. With my grant running out, along with my resolve, I thought I might never finish school. But to my surprise he said “why don’t you add the 3-credit class I’m teaching this semester?” My response was something like, “let me get this straight, you want me to take an advanced European History course with a roomful of history majors when I can’t even make it through American History I in less than three attempts?” His response? “Yes.”
I joined Dr. Barchard’s, Age of Absolutism and Enlightenment seminar, in about the second or third week of the semester and tried to find my way to the back of the room. I had never been in an academic class with so few people. Hiding in the back wasn’t going to be easy. “I’m in trouble” was my first thought: a premonition that soon turned out to be true.
A few class meetings went by before Dr. Barchard decided to bring me into the conversation, a decision we would both soon regret. “Daniel, tell us what was going on in music during this period?” he asked. Awkward silence. Still he pressed, “you know: symphonies, opera, string quartets. Who were some composers from this period?” Me, thinking to myself: “I got nothing.” He knew I had already taken Music History and Music Literature*, so he tossed me a lifeline. “Well, if we are talking about the Classical Period in music, who were some of those composers?” Now, we’re both looking for the exit.
*It would be a few more years before I would come to fully appreciate what music history and literature professors Bert Davis and Gene Lockhart were trying to get across to me, but that’s another story.
Undeterred, Dr. Barchard continued; “Perhaps you are thinking of Mō… Mō… Mō…?” My brain stalled, churned, then suddenly lurched forward; “Mozart! Yes! Mozart was big! Really big!” Success at last. But while I’m certain everyone appreciated my insightful contribution to the discussion that day, I was just happy I hadn’t said Motown or Motörhead which was not outside the realm of possibilities from that period of my life.
Embarrassing to be sure, but it was a defining moment (certainly an important semester) because I finally began to understand the interconnectedness of Music, Music History, and World History. I thought, “I really should know more about this.” Who knew that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s life and music were so heavily influenced by the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment? Dr. Barchard did, so why didn’t I?
It turns out that the principles of the Age of Absolutism and Enlightenment informed many composers from Haydn to Beethoven. In his opera The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart builds upon the themes from Beaumarchais’s play in which servants play the primary roles rather than simply providing comic relief—to be laughed at or mocked. They were equally as important to the story as the aristocrats.
I began to recognize the importance of knowing more about the music you play than just how to “hit all the right notes.” It also helped me understand why Dr. Davis kept referring to paintings and other great works of art during his Music History lectures, and why Professor Lockhart insisted we recognize the significance of world events in the creation of music. Knowing more about the sociopolitical environment in which composers lived and worked could help performers better understand how to interpret their music. Who knew? Evidently everyone except me.
Because of an evolving attitude about history, I passed Dr. Barchard’s course and then followed up with the second American History course. OK, I got a C, but my transition to a curious scholar didn’t happen overnight! Dr. Barchard’s class was the beginning of a journey that included making the Dean’s list in my final semester at E.T., then earning a 3.83 GPA in Grad School (Wichita State University) and culminating with a 4.0 in the doctorate (University of Kentucky). It also sparked a lifelong interest in learning and appreciating the history of things.
This was all because Dr. Barchard, and the entire faculty of the Music Department at E.T., took an interest in helping me help myself, each in their own inimitable way. The next time we sat down to do the strike throughs and scribbles, Dr. Barchard finished, stood up, shook my hand, and congratulated me on my upcoming commencement.
Unfortunately, Dr. Barchard passed away a few years before I would be honored by Texas A&M University Commerce as a Distinguished Alumnus (2005). I wonder if he saw THAT coming? Even if he hadn’t, I think he would’ve been proud of the part he played in getting me from there to here!
I will always appreciate Dr. Barchard, and remember the day I became a student of history.
Andante from Mozart Piano Sonata No. 16 performed by Dan Moore on marimba.
In previous posts, I have talked about waking up with music in my head. Like most people, this can be from the movie I watched the night before, an earworm heard randomly in the produce aisle of the grocery store, or the theme song from a long-forgotten TV show that inexplicably pops into my ear just as I am waking up.
But along with the insidious sitcom themes and famous B-sides that have taken up permanent residence in my brain, there can also be new music. Ideas for compositions that have been turning over and over in my “resting” mind like a crazed rock tumbler. To some this can be an annoyance, but for a musician/composer it is usually a good thing.
Okay, it can be annoying for a musician too, but when I am working on a new composition or recording project, it is a comfort to my already fragile ego to know that my muse hasn’t forsaken me in favor of bestowing musical inspiration onto someone else that day. Sometimes the music wakes me up: not content to wait for my conscious receptors to be wide awake, ready, and open for business. In such cases, I can either lay there until the alarm clock catches up with my brain or I can just get up and deal with it when the inspiration strikes—usually the sadder but wiser choice. (with apologies to Meredith Willson)
Author and contemporary percussionist cum orchestra conductor, Steven Schick told me that he was once introduced at a performance by the poet Chuck Milton who told the audience that he thought “percussionists and poets were a lot alike because they didn’t know where their art left off and where real life began. That the sort of boundaries that exist in most people’s lives—here’s when I’m on the job and here’s when I’m off the job—just doesn’t exist with us.”
Many are fascinated by this phenomenon. In the film Hitch, lovelorn Albert Brennaman (Kevin James) is trying to make a good impression at a party while chatting up a fashion designer by saying “the receptive nature of the creative facility just astounds me. Anybody want any spring rolls?” Well, fascinated to a point anyway.
If 2020 has underscored one thing, it is that waking early with new ideas far outweighs the inconveniences. Schick went on to say that “It seems to me that one could enforce those boundaries [of on the job or off] but you would lose something so private and so important: so much of the fuel that keeps us going when we’re not sure what we’re doing comes from the fact that it’s not what we do, it’s what we are.”
During the pandemic, coming to terms with “what we are” has been a challenge for creatives who were forced to migrate their efforts from theaters, galleries, and concert halls to the Internet and backyard parties of no-more-than-ten-mask-wearing audience members. The imperative to make art is still there, and creatives have to find outlets for their work, even while putting on a smile and hoping they can pay next month’s rent.
It also feels as though 2020 has been the backdrop for the poignant loss of many great artists. I am always surprised by the number of artists, thinkers, writers, and other creatives we lose every 365 days, especially when I see them compiled into a list at year’s end but somehow it seems more disheartening to lose them during such uncertain times: it’s easier to just blame the pandemic I suppose.
When I learned that Eddie Van Halen and Johnny Nash had died on the same day, October 6, 2020, I thought “well, 2020 strikes again.” The former was 65, the latter was 80 and they both had a profound influence on the musical world in different ways. Van Halen was a rocker and guitar legend, while Johnny was a musician best known for his biggest hit, I Can See Clearly Now, as well as for his mentoring of a young Reggae singer named Bob Marley. But Nash moved away from the limelight and retired to a Horse Ranch in Texas while Eddie continued to tour and record until it was no longer possible due to his long battle with cancer.
At home that evening we watched Eddie’s Eruption guitar solo, and while sitting at the dinner table, sang every word of I Can See Clearly Now. It might as well have been 1972 as the words and music came back to us instantly: one of those earworms locked away in the back of the brain until suddenly thrust into the foreground.
The Caribbean inspired arrangement with janky out-of-tune instruments features a quirky bridge that modulates from the key of D-major to the key of F-major. The sudden upward push gives the lyric a musical lift, as if—you know—the sun is coming out after the rain. Then there is another rise to the key of A-major and a chorus of voices floating on a cloud of reverb before settling back into the original key of D. This is a brilliant bit of composition that helps the singer triumphantly exclaim “look all around, there’s nothing but blue skies.” Coming out of the rain he finds the rainbow that he’d been praying for. Symbolism and metaphors of positivity abound in both music and lyrics.
When I awoke the next morning, I Can See Clearly Now popped into my head right on cue. I sang it as I walked to school and upon arrival, went to the marimba and began playing. I think I played the tune for about an hour, only stopping to double check what I was hearing against the original recording. I’m not sure why I was compelled to play this tune so faithfully, but it was in my head and it had to be dealt with before anything else might be allowed in there.
There is something about the optimism in the lyrics that attracted people to this song nearly 50-years ago. Something that still feels relevant today. For me, it has the perfect sentiment to help us push through this exhausting pandemic. Sure, there is optimism, but we also learn that the singer’s troubles haven’t actually disappeared. The obstacles are still there, only now they can be seen clearly making them, presumably, easier to navigate. It is a lesson to remind us all to appreciate those “bright sunshiny days,” especially when it is raining.
I can see clearly now the rain is gone I can see all obstacles in my way Here is that rainbow I’ve been praying for It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
In 1957, Patsy Cline sang “oh, stop the world and let me off, I’m tired of goin’ round an’ round, I played the game of love and lost, So stop the world and let me off.” A few years later, during his first Nashville recording session, Waylon Jennings squared up the edges of Patsy’s dreamy 1950s “Stroll Dance” version and in 1965, turned Stop theWorld and Let Me Off into a Country Music Classic.
Across the pond, in London’s West End, Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley staged the complex and multi-faceted musical Stop the World: I want to get off before bringing it to Broadway in 1961. The Play focused on the self-centered life of Littlechap from the moment of his birth until his death. Throughout the play, whenever faced with a difficult situation, he exclaims “stop the world, I want to get off,” then turns to address the audience directly: famously breaking the imaginary fourth wall. Though you may not know the play, you might be familiar with its most famous song: What Kind of Fool and I?
And in a darkened movie theater in 1963, Hank Cochran was inspired to write the lyric “make the world go away, get it off of my shoulders, say the things you used to say, and make the world go away.” Make the World Go Away became a hit that has been recorded by everyone from Dean Martin to Elvis, and from Donnie and Marie to Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley. It became a career defining record for Eddie Arnold whose version was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry in 2019, perhaps foreshadowing the events of 2020.
Why were people in the 1960s so interested in stopping the world? The sixties were a tumultuous time: the Vietnam War, the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement, and the death of a president and a Civil Rights Leader. But who has never wanted to tap the brakes—have time to stop and think—to escape the anxiety of current events? A friend recently told me “I just want it all to stop—put Iowa in the rearview mirror and keep driving.”
But it’s not easy to just hit the snooze button because those decisions are usually out of our control. Most folks have responsibilities, commitments, and aspirations that are difficult to walk away from without the imposition of some catastrophic event in our lives. A few months ago, no one could’ve imagined that a worldwide pandemic would indeed stop the world.
In the course of a few weeks, everyone’s plans for 2020 evaporated. People worldwide were affected in some way which is what a pandemic is by definition. Many were forced to transition to an on-line work/school experience or worse—lost their livelihood entirely. Quarantines and lockdowns closed workplaces and changed things, quite possibly, forever.
On March 10, Mat Britain and I were in the middle of a tour, playing concerts and doing workshops with the Britain Moore Duo. We were sitting in the Hilton Garden Lounge in Terre Haute, Indiana having a nightcap and watching the rain when Mat’s phone blew up with messages. It seemed Vanderbilt University, where he directs the steel band, was joining several other colleges to be among the first to cancel face to face instruction, and all concerts, for the remainder of the semester. As would be the case for the next several months, there were more questions than answers.
We were in disbelief, and with three stops remaining on our junket we held out hope that we might at least finish the tour before things got bad. The next day we played a concert at Indiana State University (their last one for the year), and headed to Cincinnati for two more gigs including presentations at the National Society of Steel Band Educators conference (NSSBE). We completed our next engagement in Batesville, Indiana and had dinner at a quaint local restaurant across the street from one of the nation’s largest casket companies (foreshadowing again?).
The NSSBE meeting cancelled as we were turning in for the night so we decided to head home the next morning. Mat and I embraced at the gas pump before going our separate ways. He recalled recently that “it was the last time I hugged someone.”
Stories of “runs” on grocery stores and school cancellations began to fill the radio waves, then reports that baseball had postponed the opening of the 2020 season. I thought “what the heck is going on?”
As I drove, I also started to think about what might happen next.
A year and a half earlier I had begun the process of applying for a sabbatical from the University of Iowa and was only a few weeks into what was supposed to be a coveted semester away from teaching, filled with performances, recording projects, a percussion festival in Thailand, a tour in Japan, and another BMD tour.
During the lockdown, the Voxman Music Building—where all my instruments and recording equipment are housed—was shut down completely for the foreseeable future. After our tour cancelled, Mat and I started a quarantine project in memory of Bill Withers who had recently passed away. We had barely finished recording the audio and video when everything closed for good.
With all of my instruments and equipment locked away, my sabbatical projects were officially kaput.
So, what does happen next? You try to move on and—with any luck—learn something about yourself.
For me—and from what I gather from my students, colleagues, friends, and family—the pandemic unfolded in three stages: paralysis, depression, and adaptation.
Most people are familiar with the concept of Fight or Flight. It is the commonly held belief that there are two choices when facing eminent danger: stand your ground and fight or turn and run away.
“He who fights and runs away May live to fight another day; But he who is in battle slain Can never rise to fight again.”
But there is a third—possibly lesser known—mechanism known as “freeze.” Many in the animal kingdom use this approach: some with great success and others with disastrous consequences. Think “deer in the headlights.”
The constantly changing definition of what was going on and the uncertainty of when (if) the pandemic was ever going to end created a growing sensation that I wasn’t going to be able to finish anything I had planned, so why start? I froze.
Adding to the stress was the thought of being held accountable for not completing the project I had proposed for my sabbatical. I remember a former colleague who was pilloried in the newspaper for getting a sabbatical to study the effectiveness of different types of French horn mouthpieces. It was held up to ridicule—an example of wasted taxpayer dollars—even if the community of hornists worldwide benefitted from the results of his research. I didn’t want to make page two of the Des Moines Register with the headline “Music professor gets paid to work in his garden at tax payer expense.”
I needed to come up with ideas to replace the now quite out of reach project I had proposed some eighteen months earlier. “How hard could it be? You’ve got lots of ideas” I thought to myself. But herein lies the “curse of the creative.” Most who undertake any sort of labor-of-the-mind can go along blissfully unaware of their gift, without a care in the world, enjoying an endless wellspring of ideas until—that is—someone takes notice. Once they call you a “creative person,” prepare yourself for a headlong crash into writer’s block, artistic stagnation, analysis paralysis, stage fright, or a batting slump.
Where paralysis has taken hold, depression can’t be far behind.
Trying to imagine what comes next during a global pandemic is exhausting and debilitating. To a creator, it can be devastating: blocking the childlike wonder that fuels the imagination and feeds the creative spirit. I feel blessed that I have never had a shortage of (dare I say) creative ideas. I’ve had shortages of everything else including time, money, resources, energy, strength, and resolve, but never ideas.
But once the initial shock of something like a pandemic begins to wear off, the creatives get to work. Soon the damnable denizens of Facebook and YouTube began to fill the internet with endless and wonderful projects such as virtual ensemble performances, imaginative low budget music videos, and even a show about nothing more than Some Good News from around the world that broke the internet for several weeks (Thanks, John Krasinski). People were creating new projects and trotting them out daily. “Man, you better get on board or you’ll be left behind.”
Determined not to lose the creativity arms race, I opened my bag of incomplete projects and dumped them out (literally) onto the dining room table. In an effort to not be overcome by paralysis, I now had too many projects. I started (or restarted) a number of ambitious stay-at-home endeavors that would soon begin to collapse under their own weight. The reasons for their demise were as inexplicable as they were varied.
“Behold, I have created depression” sayeth paralysis.
Like most of us, I have been given plenty of opportunities in my life to learn how to adapt but thanks to COVID, this time I was officially stuck.
So, now what? You adapt! Adapt and make a deal!
Recently, I had the opportunity to hear one of my former students speaking about her time at college. She recounted some advice I had given her about finding excellence as a composer. It was an affirmation to hear one of my oft repeated parables coming back to me some 30 years later.
I still tell my students that when facing any type of writer’s block or loss of motivation, observing someone (anyone) who is at the top of their profession be it an Olympic athlete, an actor, a waitress, or a bus driver can inspire you to be a better performer in your own field. If my desire is flagging or I want to find inspiration, I need look no further than the local movie theater, library, or art gallery. The student, Sarah Vowell, went on to a very successful career as a writer, author, voice actor, and radio and television personality—if not a composer.
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell
So, I decided to take my own advice and turned to the Library, Amazon Prime, and once again, YouTube. I took the opportunity to read books I had been promising to get around to and delved deeper into the treasure trove of interesting YouTube channels to watch and learn.
One of the more unique concepts I stumbled upon was of people attempting to recreate the daily routines of famous people such as Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo DaVinci, Ludwig van Beethoven, and others. Guitarist and singer, Mary Spender, attempted to inhabit Beethoven’s daily routine and shared her experiences and takeaways in a popular YouTube video.
But not every routine seemed to work for everyone. DaVinci’s lifestyle was based on a polyphasic sleep pattern, meaning that for every 4-hours awake, he took a 20-minute power nap which provided him 22-hours of work time and a scant two hours of sleep per day. Needless to say, this schedule would be a bit of a challenge for most of us. Spender, however found benefit in following Beethoven’s routine while acknowledging that some adjustments were needed to fit her own lifestyle and workflow.
Comments on her video were interesting and also amusing. One commenter wrote: “Many artists are trying out Van Gogh’s daily routine: wake up in a daze, drink in a haze, isolate from society for days, appreciate nature from a gaze, paint and paint and paint and be amazed… at how you can forget to eat or drink, or love, or hate, or feel anything other than the inter-connectivity of you, your art, and the world it exists in.” And another simply wrote: “I tried Hunter S. Thompson’s daily routine. I died of a cocaine overdose four weeks ago.”
Establishing a good routine is a time-honored technique recommended by many efficiency experts, but as someone whose inspiration can strike in the middle of the night, I have long relied on the freedom to access my studio whenever an idea hits me. Losing that autonomy was a significant blow.
Between 2008 and 2016, I worked in a 750 square foot double-wide FEMA Trailer as a result of the Iowa River Flood of 2008 (an excellent opportunity to learn to adapt). It wasn’t the most acoustically perfect environment for composing and recording music, and occasionally the racoon family living beneath the trailer provided some extra-musical material, but I was able to work completely alone and unfettered during what became one of the most productive periods of my career.
Others know the value of being able to go from zero to creativity at a moment’s notice. I once read that guitarist Carlos Santana kept a crew member on call to make sure his studio and guitar rig were ready to go at all hours. If he got inspired to work in the middle of the night, he only needed to make a phone call and put on some pants (I can’t say for sure about the pants).
The first step toward getting myself back on track was to make a deal.
I made my case to the powers-that-be and assured them that I would sequester in my studio and make every effort to avoid contact with any other humans. They agreed to allow me to work from 1:00 to 5:00 pm Monday through Friday so as to minimize contact with the custodial staff. Not exactly the unlimited access that I was used to, but it was something. The new schedule would require a change in my work habits, but since everyone else was walking a mile in another person’s shoes, I thought why not give it a try?
Multi-tasking—another time-honored technique for productivity—requires the ability to juggle several different projects at once. In our daily lives we are often called upon to keep many plates spinning simultaneously, but multi-tasking doesn’t always work well for me, particularly as I have gotten older. I found myself having to redo tasks to fix a mistake caused by working too quickly or while distracted. Since about 2008, I have tried to become more one-project-at-a-time oriented. I focus my mental energy on one task, project, or part of a project until it is complete before moving on to the next. As this approach often benefited from the aforementioned autonomy, the new routine would take some discipline.
As a result of my restructured work schedule, I needed to pare down the number and scope of my projects, plan daily sessions in advance, and then upon arrival in the studio, immediately get to work on what had to be accomplished that day. No checking the COVID statistics on line, reading the news, or responding to emails.
My take away from the COVID lockdown experience is that the new routine helped me to become more focused and to waste less time in the studio. As a result, I was able to get back on track for the level of productivity I had hoped to achieve during the sabbatical. The projects were different than what I had proposed but they would certainly withstand any scrutiny, and definitely keep me off of page two.
As Summer turned to Fall and the Music Building reopened to prepare for the new school year, I enjoyed the return of unlimited access to my studio. The practical lessons I learned during the lockdown seem to be sticking with me, but the most important lesson was remembering to seize every opportunity to take stock of what’s most important in your life. For me those things include faith, family, and friends, and perhaps the value of stopping—whether you want to or not.
In writing about one of the songs from his latest album, Love is the King, singer/song writer Jeff Tweedy wrote: “At the beginning of the lockdown I started writing country songs to console myself… ‘Guess Again’ is a good example of the success I was having at pushing the world away, counting my blessings—taking stock in my good fortune to have love in my life.”
Tweedy’s approach to stopping the world is slightly different, and perhaps more realistic, than the songwriters of the 1960s, but it feels more applicable to our current situation, and it certainly resonates with me. I tell my students that “every day we are allowed to create music together is a gift that we should take advantage of and cherish.”
Today, I’m back to my more typical look-on-the-bright-side attitude. I know that life will be different—maybe it will never be the same—but I am confident that people will still want to hear music just as much as musicians still want to compose, practice, and perform it.
I also hope to continue to benefit from the lessons learned during the Pandemic: the year the world decided to stop on its own and let us off.
In 1994 we got rid of our TV and unplugged from commercial television for good. No more CNN, Seinfeld, or MTV (back when there was actual “M” on MTV). So, in 2001 we were getting our news from newspapers, radio, and sometimes the internet, which we didn’t even have at home yet. On September 11, 2001, my day started later than usual, so with only a few commitments in the afternoon, we got up late and decided to have lunch at one of our favorite sandwich shops.
At the counter, we placed our order and began to notice everyone seemed subdued. Something was “off.” People were talking quietly and the audio on the now-ubiquitous-restaurant-TV was turned up. Tom Clancy was being interviewed about terrorism and counter intelligence. “How serious could this be if they were interviewing a novelist” we thought” and why was everyone so interested?”
The person making our sandwiches looked a little surprised when we asked what was going on. He said “the Twin Towers have been knocked down.” “Knocked down? What do you mean ‘knocked down?’” Without a word, he glanced up at the TV, then returned to making our lunch. We heard someone say something about “airplanes.” We were still without a clue, but reality began to sink in as we played catchup with the events of the morning. After that day, we could never bring ourselves to go back to that shop, and it soon closed and was replaced by a nail salon or something.
After learning that the Pentagon had also been hit, things got more serious for us. A niece and nephew, both in the Air Force, were recently assigned to the Pentagon, so we tried to reach out to family members on our cool flip phone (why would anyone ever need more than one cell phone per family?). Lines were jammed everywhere and It took a while to get through but we finally learned they were safe and sound, and not even at the Pentagon thanks to a much-needed day off.
The rest of the afternoon was a blur. I went to the Music Building to teach a few lessons and Liesa went home to work in the garden. It was an incredibly beautiful early fall day. I spent some time talking to students and colleagues and learned that the Hawkeye Marching Band momentarily halted their rehearsal to watch Air Force One fly overhead to bring President Bush back to Washington from Offutt Airforce Base in Nebraska. It was the only plane in the sky that afternoon and it was remarkable how noticeably and eerily quiet the firmaments were that afternoon.
The day was also unusual because Bela Fleck and The Flecktones were in town for a concert. I had invited their percussionist, my friend Roy “Futureman” Wooten over for a visit to Iowa Percussion before the concert. Futureman and I, along with Kirby Shelsted and late Nashville percussion luminary, Tom Roady, had played a few gigs together as a group called Digi-jam, and I was excited to have him in town. He had gotten us tickets to the show but there was a lot of discussion about whether to cancel or not. It was finally decided the concert would go on as planned. It made me proud that The University of Iowa would not allow terrorism to define us on that day.
The show opened with Bela reading a short statement prepared by the university followed by a moment of silence. It was real—sincere—heavy silence that was gently broken by Bela playing America the Beautiful. As he continued, each band member entered the stage and joined in on an unforgettable group improvisation on the tune. They ended with a brief pause and a short breath before launching into an energetic performance of Aaron Copland’s Hoedown, that no one there will ever forget. The musicians were inspired and the audience was held spellbound for 90 minutes.
At the end of the show, we went backstage to say hello to Futureman, thank him for the concert, and wish them a safe trip home. It was now late on a Tuesday in Iowa City and the end of a really confusing day, but Roy wanted to go out. He didn’t want to go back to the bus and just be alone with his thoughts, so we decided to hang out a little longer before their bus departed a few hours later. He wanted to know if there was any live music in town. Futureman is always interested in hearing and supporting other artists.
What could possibly be happening on a Tuesday in our sleepy little hamlet—especially today of all days? But there was something: a duo called Mates of State was playing at a low dive known as Gabes. I had only been there a couple of other times and I felt like the average age doubled whenever I walked in, but we decided to go.
We each paid our five-dollar cover and headed upstairs to the music room. The place looked deserted as we joined a handful of others to hear their last brief set before they called it a night. The small audience then shuffled out, but Roy waited and made a point of meeting them. He asked about their music and their work and was genuinely interested in learning about them. He thanked them for their music, bought a CD, and we headed back to the band bus.
I’ve always wondered if they were really aware of who he was or that he was a multi-GRAMMY award winning musician who was genuinely interested in meeting them. We were just three nice (if somewhat eccentric looking) people who came out to their gig, paid fifteen bucks for 20-minutes of music, and bought a CD. At least they might’ve gotten enough from us to pay for breakfast.
9/11 was a powerful day—one I hope we never forget or have to repeat. It changed our country but it also showed me that the USA won’t be bullied and we won’t be terrorized. A few months later Liesa and I made our first visit to China. It was also our first air travel after 9/11. We were not without second thoughts as we boarded the plane, but we were determined not to be made fearful to travel.
September the 11th, 2001 was over by the time we said goodbye to the guys in the band and headed home. It had been a long and emotional day that was made a little better by music, friendship, family, and simple human kindness.
The first thing a person might notice upon entering the music rehearsal room at East Texas State University in 1976 was a large, brightly colored banner proclaiming “It’s a Beautiful Day in Commerce!” Over the years, mystery and lore came to surround the whimsically hand-lettered sign. No one seems to know who created it or how it got there.
Conflicting reports about when the banner first appeared are also in abundance. ETSU Music alumnus Toppy Hill recalls that “the banner first appeared in about 1972.” However, storied Music Professor and most-feared instructor of Music Literature, Gene Lockhart, recalled that his “first ‘intimate’ classes of Arts & Humanities 303 (100 to 150 strong) were taught in the band room in 1969. It was appropriately bedecked with folding chairs, raked seating and ‘The Sign’ on the south wall.”
While there is plenty of intrigue about the three by twenty-foot banner, one thing is certain: how the phrase originated.
Much has changed in Commerce since my college days in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1995 the school name was changed from East Texas State University to Texas A&M University Commerce, and in 2011, the original, well-worn music facility was replaced with a beautiful gateway building overlooking Gee Lake on one side and Memorial Stadium on the other. Then somewhere along the way—after numerous transmogrifications of the old building—the Beautiful Day in Commerce banner faded into memory along with Good Old ET.
In 1957—long before the banner made its debut—Dr. Neill H. Humfeld made his entrance at ETSU where he taught trombone and served as director of bands (1962-1972). A fresh recruit from the Eastman School of Music, he was one of the nation’s top trombonists, an inspired educator, and a remarkable human being by any measure. Many trombonists today would be honored to receive the “Neill Humfeld Award for Excellence in Trombone Teaching” from the International Trombone Association.
In those days, the music faculty at ET took a wholistic approach to education. A major professor guided your development but you might also be coached by the trumpet professor on how to play brushes on a ballad, you could be called out for your etiquette by the clarinet professor, or admonished to learn your scales and chords by your class piano teacher—in the hallway. I shudder to even think about what might happen should you miss too many questions on Lockhart’s Music Lit pop-quizzes. Although I was a percussionist, Dr. Humfeld was my academic advisor during my first few years at ET. Along the way, he kept me out (or got me out) of trouble on numerous occasions.
Chris Clark, trombonist with the “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band, recalled that as a high school student, many of his lessons with Dr. Humfeld began with the phrase “it’s a beautiful day in Commerce.” In fact, anyone who ever knew Dr. Humfeld likely received the same greeting at some point. “It was one of Neill’s favorite sayings” Lockhart added. It was his catch phrase but it was more than that; it was an affirmation intended to remind the hearer that beauty is more about how you perceive things than how they may appear.
In the 1970s, Commerce, Texas—formerly known as Cow Hill—was in decline. What began as an optimistic center of commerce for the East Texas Cotton Industry (thus the name), had long since fallen on hard times. Neither the town nor the university campus were picture postcard destinations by any stretch of the imagination, and many professors began to take flight from Commerce in the late 1980s. Some thought the banner might be an ironic statement about the “beauty” of Commerce itself.
Dr. Humfeld certainly wouldn’t have intended that meaning of the phrase. ETSU professor of clarinet, Dr. James Deaton, Humfeld’s lifelong friend, collaborator, and comedic accomplice, remembers seeing a motto in a colleague’s office that said “‘bloom where you are planted.’ I know that Neill’s ‘beautiful day in commerce’ sign meant the same thing, ‘attitude is important’. It means look for the positive things in life.”
Another apocryphal story I was told as a starry-eyed freshman was that Dr. Humfeld coined the phrase as encouragement to the marching band to keep rehearsing in the rain before a big football game performance. But his daughter Nancy Jo recalled that “it had absolutely nothing to do with the weather—it was about your mindset.” Chris Clark agrees. “Dr. Humfeld’s statement really reflected, to me, his core value as a teacher; to always stay positive, and to teach his students that they were much more than just a musician.”
So, what’s the big deal? It’s just a sign; a stunt perpetrated by one of the music fraternities or sororities, or perhaps by some of those snarky misanthropes who hung out in the student lounge* all day. If that were the case, wouldn’t the banner simply disappear after homecoming or when a new band director took over? It probably should’ve, but still it remained. Dr. Deaton doesn’t remember how or when the sign was made either but he suspects there was some student “help” in the process. He said “I do know that the sign and the attitude it conveys has its own life now.”
*During my time at ET the student lounge was dubbed the “Lizard Lounge” by director of bands, James Keene. One might infer the meaning of the phrase.
The banner and the symbolism seemed to bind us together into the legacy of ETSU, which may account for why many of my generation had a difficult time letting go of Old ET. But to help put things into perspective, a former TAMUC President once told me that there are “far more TAMUC graduates today than there ever were from ET.” Point taken.
The many amazing people who sat under that banner went on to successful careers as leaders in music education, performance, and in many other walks of life. I’m sure this is still the case at TAMUC but perhaps today’s students are connected in different ways—by a new talisman—or could some small trace from the past still remain?
Dr. Humfeld’s affirmation not only inspired several generations of music students, it ultimately transcended the walls of the music building and weaved its way into the fabric of the university. Professor Jimmy Clark, Dr. Humfeld’s former student and successor, wrote that “his quote is still used by a lot of people!”
In 2015, nearly 25-years after Dr. Humfeld’s passing, Dr. Adolfo Benavides, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, announced that TAMUC had been classified as a Research 2 institution*. He went on to say that “to be among the select group of 107 universities in the United States is, indeed, quite an honor. What a fantastic way to begin writing the history of our next 125 years as one of the leaders in Higher Education—yet another beautiful day to be in Commerce, Texas.”
“Well roared, Lion!” as the Bard would say.
*The R2 designation by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education represents the second highest tier of research activity at a Doctoral granting institution.
When I asked about the possible whereabouts of the banner, professor Jimmy Clark exclaimed “I have it! It’s in our son [Chris’s] bedroom.” (Master Gunnery Sergeant Clark didn’t even know that one)
Percussion professor and current Department Chair, Dr. Brian Zator, remembers the banner being in place “until a few years before the move to the new building.” He added “I have a small wooden sign in my new office with the saying.” Well, the more things change, the more they stay the same, I suppose!
Perhaps the current students of A&M Commerce continue to be inspired in some way by Dr. Humfeld after all.
Professor Humfeld never retired from ET. He fought a long and valiant battle with cancer and died in October 1991 while “still on the payroll,” as professor Clark told me, “they hired me as an adjunct to teach for him in late summer but he was not able to start the fall semester.”
Nancy Jo recalled that her father “felt that you should always keep a positive attitude no matter what the weather or your circumstances. It was that mindset that allowed him to live twice as long as someone with his prognosis would have normally.” Dr. Deaton wrote “I know that is what it [the banner] meant to Neill because I remember when he was dying with cancer. He NEVER complained, never lost his sense of humor, and was always concerned about others.”
Dr. Humfeld just wanted to continue to make music for as long as he could. Dr. Deaton noted that despite being in pain “he continued to lead the church choir and never ever cut rehearsals short.” His final performance was a trombone trio with his students Jimmy and Chris Clark at Commerce High School, Deaton remembers, “when he was so ill he couldn’t carry his trombone out to the stage.”
Yes, it is always a beautiful day in Commerce, or Iowa City, or wherever you happen to find yourself, just as long as you have the right attitude and remember to “bloom where you are planted.” Good advice. Thanks for everything Dr. Humfeld!
Dan Moore, Class of 1981
I wonder if there are other stories out there about how the banner inspired you, or if anyone knows more about its origin? I’m sure the statute of limitations has expired.
Do you have a story about Dr. Humfeld? Feel free to leave a comment below. Corrections, annotations, amplifications, or humorous asides are welcome.
Special thanks to the kind folks who contributed to this post: Nancy Jo Humfeld, James Deaton, Gene Lockhart, Jimmy Clark, Chris Clark, Toppy Hill, Sheila Howell Ratcliff, and Brian Zator.
You can get some pretty strange ideas while mindlessly pushing a smoky, sputtering lawn-mower around in the middle of a deep East Texas heat wave. It was the summer of 1972 and I was mowing lawns to earn money to be able to make the scene at the Longview Rollercade that night. As I sculpted ever-shrinking geometric designs into the thick Bermudagrass—like a Michelangelo of Mowing—my mind began to wander and I was deep in thought. On that particular Saturday, I was pondering my future as a musician. Having been a percussionist for nearly three years, I felt that something needed to happen in my musical career this year—something big!
As I stopped to refill the gas tank and wipe the sweat from my eyes, it hit me. I should join the Longview Symphony. At that moment the decision was made, my mind was made up, and I decided to ask my private drum teacher, Mr. Don Lawler, if I could join up.
In 1968, Mr. Lawler and Dr. James Snowden had formed the Longview Symphony Orchestra and Mr. Lawler was principal timpanist. In December 1971, Mr. Lawler had invited me to attend the orchestra’s first *Children’s Concert and dress rehearsal so I could watch him in action. Seeing him on the stage convinced me that playing music was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. (You can also get some pretty strange notions sitting on the front row of an orchestra concert)
*Dr. Snowden recognized very early the importance of Children’s Concerts in the development of both future musicians and audiences. His dissertation from the University of Colorado is titled: The Role of the Symphony Orchestra Youth Concert in Music Education.
So, at my next lesson I made the request and, after a considerable amount of persuading and begging, Mr. Lawler agreed to discuss the matter with my junior high band director, Mr. Jimmy Yancey. After some discussion, they decided that I could probably read music well enough to at least smash a cymbal or bang a bass drum on cue every now and then. After all, smashing and banging is a defining characteristic of all percussionists—right? They, in turn, convinced Dr. Snowden, who was the fledgling orchestra’s conductor, to try me out under two conditions: I must first behave myself and second not do anything stupid, or say anything stupid. It sounded like three conditions to me, but I wasn’t going to argue. I was in the orchestra!
The big night came for my first rehearsal with the Longview Symphony and I was so excited that I arrived two hours early and sat twitching with anticipation on the steps of the high school band hall just waiting for my chance to do some high-class smashing and banging. Eventually, the doors opened, and I and the other, much older, musicians filed in. “Some of these people look really old,” I thought to myself, “they must be in high school or something.”
As I made my way to the back of the room, I didn’t see Mr. Lawler or any other percussionists for that matter. Who would show me the ropes? I didn’t know which of these confusing parts I should play and perhaps most important, I didn’t know that the first hour of rehearsal that night was for strings only! But “I can handle this,” I thought, “I have three years of experience after all.”
The Percussion parts were laid out neatly on a music stand and Dr. Snowden called up the first piece for rehearsal. I grabbed what I considered to be the most interesting part, the “timbales” (Actually, I took that part because it was the only word on any of the pages I recognized). I quickly went to fetch the two small, gleaming chrome drums used commonly for Latin-American dance music, and known to all good percussionists as “timbales.” The percussion music was interesting and had some notation that I had never seen before. It was composed by a person with a funny French-sounding name.
Dr. Snowden gave the downbeat and we were off and running. The strings sawed away passionately to which I added “rrrrap-tap-tappy-tap” on the timbales with a fervor that might have made Ricky Ricardo jealous. Yet try as I might, the two parts just didn’t seem to go together. One at a time, members of the orchestra began to turn around and stare. Older members shook their heads, the younger ones (girls in particular) giggled, and then turned away. “They must be impressed,” I thought, “they can’t believe what a great job I’m doing back here, and at such a tender age.”
Finally, my infernal tapping became too much for Dr. Snowden to bear. He stopped the orchestra and inquired as to what—exactly—I thought I was doing. When I replied that I was playing the timbale part, the entire orchestra erupted in unison laughter. How was I supposed to know that “timbales” was actually French for timpani? You know—timpani—those massive, copper, kettle-shaped bowls that produce the most grand and dramatic sound of the percussion family and even the entire orchestra. Grand and dramatic, not rrrrap-tap-tappy-tap.
That was to be my introduction to the Longview Symphony, and the first of many important lessons I would learn from them. The orchestra ladies took me under their wing and taught me a variety of valuable lessons such as that dark socks are much preferred to white socks when wearing a tuxedo, and how to tell if your cummerbund is on upside-down (after learning what a cummerbund is of course).
A few of the lessons were harder but no less important. I once missed a dress rehearsal for a big concert. When I showed up the night of the concert, Dr. Snowden wouldn’t allow me to play. I sat on the stage throughout the entire concert then stood at the edge of the section whenever the other percussionists played. I watched my parts go by unplayed and hoped that my mother didn’t notice that I wasn’t actually doing anything. It was one of the few concerts she was able to attend, and all I did was stand there. Lesson learned!
I played with the Longview Symphony from ninth-grade through high school and into college; my formative years as well as theirs. I started in the orchestra as “Danny” but by the next season, I had been promoted to “Daniel.” With the LSO I was exposed for the first time to great repertoire such as the Overture to Candide, Academic Festival Overture, Carnival of the Animals, Carmina Burana, and The Pines of Rome, to name just a few, and I got to sit next to musicians who were much better than me which is how you grow as a musician.
The first time I performed Igor Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale was in 1976 as a high school senior. In his dissertation, A History of the Longview Symphony Orchestra of Longview, Texas from 1968-2011, Author Gene H. Moon wrote “The work was performed by first desk players in the orchestra: Betty Grout, violin; Walter Caughey, cello [sic]; Richard Cammack, clarinet; Winnie Voss; bassoon; Gary Jordan, cornet; Lynn Childers, trombone and Danny Moore, percussion.” It was one of the highlights of my senior year even though Dr. Snowden changed my name back to Danny—the name he calls me to this day—in the concert program. Though not known to me at the time, this concert also happened to be a turning point for the orchestra. Writer Suzanne Thomas of the Longview Daily News wrote that “Snowden chose four compositions to comprise possibly the most difficult program yet played by the local musicians.” At the time I had no clue that the little community orchestra was struggling to find its way just like I was.
In the early days, The Longview Symphony always swung for the fences in both repertoire and in guest artists. I had the opportunity to perform with artists such as Eugene Fodor, Gary Karr, James Dick, Ralph Kirshbaum, and others. Those years paved the way for a professional orchestra still operating more than fifty years later.
But perhaps the most important lesson I learned from the LSO—one I would never forget—was the French word for timpani.
Fast forward some twenty-odd years and I find myself in the middle of the biggest exam in my college and professional career; the exhausting two-day comprehensive examination for the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in percussion performance at the University of Kentucky. For part of the exam I had to identify works and composers from a single page of a score. Everything was going well until I came to a page and drew a complete blank. I was tired from the exam and couldn’t think straight, but just as I was about to give up, I happened to notice the word “timbales.” Suddenly, I was transported back to that first night with the Longview Symphony and trying to figure out why this composer with a funny French-sounding name wrote for Ricky Ricardo timbales. The words I needed flowed out like grass from a side-discharge mower. Thanks, Longview Symphony!
Danny Moore is a 1976 graduate of Longview High School where he was a member of the Band, Jazz Band, and was president of the Orchestra. He played percussion with the Concert Choir and for Theater Department productions, and served as a percussionist with the Longview Symphony from 1972 to 1979. He is, however, no longer known as the Michelangelo of Mowing.
Moon, Gene H. A History of the Longview Symphony Orchestra of Longview, Texas from 1968-2011, DMA thesis, University of Oklahoma, 2012
Snowden, James Wyn. The Role of the Symphony Orchestra Youth Concert in Music Education,PhD thesis, The University of Colorado, 1979
Thomas, Suzanne. Longview Morning Journal, “Symphony Shows High Polish Here”, Monday, April 26, 1976.
“Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture
A little of the glory of, well time slips away
And leaves you with nothing mister but
Boring stories of glory days.”
Mostly I write about music and music related things, but I will probably also tell a few stories or share anecdotes that are of interest to me. If you like them and find them interesting or instructional then that’s an added bonus.
I am not a consistent blogger. I write mostly when I have motivation, inspiration, and time; a rare trifecta. I write for the same reason I make music; to lift others up and make the world a better place one note (or word) at a time.