The (not so) Long Winter

Photo by Barry Reeger/AP

Well, It’s Groundhog Day again… and that of course means another post about one of my favorite films, Groundhog Day. The film, starring Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, and Chris Elliott, was released in 1993 and has continued to gain popularity. According to IMDB it is one of the best films of that year, topping Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park in popularity and earning a BAFTA Film award, among other accolades. Many consider it to be one of the best movies of all time. It is certainly an influential one. 

Murray plays Phil Connors, a self-absorbed Pittsburg Weatherman who is insulted by having to cover the Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, PA, and their resident groundhog weatherman, Punxsutawney Phil who shares his name and occupation as a prognosticator of weather. Phil gets caught in a time loop that causes him to relive the same day, February 2nd, over and over.

I first wrote about Groundhog Day in 2022. In that post I compared Phil’s plight to our collective situation due to COVID. I wrote that during the pandemic “I challenged myself to work more on my writing, and I was proud that I was able to create a new blog post every month for more than a year. But life and work can interfere with the best laid plans of mice and men, and I began to notice that while I completed a full list of tasks every day, I wasn’t making progress in other areas that were important to me.”

I went on to say: “Now, two years later it is clear that pandemic fatigue is still affecting me—along with everyone else. It seems there is more learning and adapting to do, but I’m OK with that.” Of course, being OK with something doesn’t mean being happy about it. 

It’s hard to say where we are in 2024. I’ve been a “glass half full” kind of guy most of my life yet I’ll admit that the last several years have been a challenge. But when you stop to think about the fact that this life isn’t supposed to be easy—that you are expected to have trials and tribulations—it seems we are on the right track of doing what we were created to do. Is it easy to become depressed, is it possible to succumb to inertia? Heck yeah!

At the beginning of the film, Phil has the wrong idea about winter. He gives his angry assessment of his situation saying: “You want a prediction about the weather? You’re asking the wrong Phil. I’m going to give you a prediction about this winter. It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be grey and it’s going to last you for the rest of your lives!”

Sometimes you just need to stop for a moment and take stock of your life. Do a puzzle, go to the mall, shovel some snow, or go to your boyfriend’s football game. When you do these things either voluntarily or via mandate, you might begin to see things a bit more clearly in retrospect.

When I look back over past accomplishments, I am reminded that some of the most creative and productive periods of my life took place during difficult times: floods, tornados, pandemics, derechos (didn’t even know what that was before coming to Iowa), and snow disasters all accompanied periods of doubt and depression but also (coincidentally) bursts of creativity. It may take months or years for ideas hatched during difficult times to come together, but the fact is that eventually the best ideas make their way from imagination to reality. Like Phil, you may have to survive a long winter (or two).

Many fans of Groundhog Day believe that it was only after Phil began to feel genuine compassion and concern for others, more than himself, that he could be freed from his (likely) self-imposed entrapment on February 2nd. Maybe that’s true for the pandemic or any other type of setback. I don’t know, but it couldn’t hurt to give that approach a try. 

In the third act, Phil finally gets a new outlook on winter as he completes his final report from Punxsutawney: “When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.”

Today is Groundhog Day and Punxsutawney Phil (the real one) uncharacteristically has predicted an early Spring, something he has done only 21 times since 1887. It’s the fourth time since 2014 Phil has rendered this prediction. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reminds us that “on average, Phil has gotten it right 30% of the time over the past 10 years,” so there is that.

Shadow or no shadow, Phil probably just thought that there’s nothing wrong with giving folks a little hope during these uncertain times. I am OK with that.

Happy Groundhog Day and Happy Winter!

“Sometimes I wish I had a thousand lifetimes. I don’t know, Phil. Maybe it’s not a curse. Just depends on how you look at it.” Rita

More Sunflowers, Robert Johnson, and the Monkees

Art as Transaction

In a previous post, I wrote about the importance of repetition (meaning: practice) in the creation of art. I talked about Vincent Van Gogh and his love of painting sunflowers. One of his most famous paintings is a still life titled Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers of which he created as many as twelve different versions (a large portion of the world today only knows about the one that appears on posters, tote bags, and coffee mugs). Van Gogh painted sunflowers over and over again to gain mastery of color. He wrote to a friend that they were “painted with the three chrome yellows, yellow ochre and Veronese green and nothing else.”

Practice is certainly important but that is not the end of the story. Great art also requires passion, desire, originality, and commitment. Some people might see the Life Artistic as a lazy get-rich-quick scheme, or as Mark Knopfler ironically put it, “money for nothing and your chicks for free.” But once you look deeper you begin to understand that creating art is a lifelong pursuit with no guarantees of success. Thankfully, this fact does little to discourage talented artists from the chase. 

Musicians such as the renowned cellist Pablo Casals or drummer Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones lived their entire lives with the goal of making steady improvement over time. Why? Because they were compelled to do so. It was the journey more than the outcome that motivated them to pick up the cello or the drumsticks every day and put in work.

Guitarist Eddie Van Halen once said that “a lot of people want to be successful so they can go out and party and have fun. But for me, making music IS the fun part.” To Charlie Watts, “success meant being good enough that you would get to play every night.” These musicians clearly made a lot of money playing music yet their passion doesn’t seem to be motivated entirely by financial gain. 

Perhaps one of the most popular stories about achieving musical proficiency is that of Robert Johnson who, as legend held, sold his soul to the devil in return for becoming a great blues player. Guitarist and self-proclaimed musical minister Rory Block says “I never understood the idea that blues was the music of the devil. I think anything that has incredibly deep emotion and resonates with people in a life-changing way is of a spiritual nature.” 

Those who knew him would say that Johnson was not a particularly good blues musician when he first started playing in public. What seems to be missing from the story is the fact that Johnson took two or three years off from performing to study with other musicians and to practice. He returned as a much-improved musician which led one of his former teachers, Son House, to make the off-hand remark that “he must have sold his soul to the devil to be able to do that.” And with that a legend was born, or at least a pretty good movie. But in reality, there was no deal with the devil, no mystery, just good old-fashioned purposeful practice (steady improvement over time). 

“What seems to be missing from the story is the fact that Johnson took two or three years off from performing to study with other musicians and to practice.”

In my opinion, far too often people see music making as transactional. It is the idea that if I practice and get good, fame and fortune must surely follow as long as I play the music that has already been proven successful by someone else. This type of transaction is commonly focused on achieving financial gain or a career objective, rather than on a genuine desire to create originative works of art that stand on their own merit. Dick Schory, the creator of the Percussion Pops Orchestra of the 1960s puts it like this. “The entertainment business is a business of copycats. If something is successful, then everyone thinks that they can be successful, too, by copying it.”

To me, real music making is a lifelong pursuit. It is more marathon than sprint, more failure than success, and more outcome than income. Having the passion to create is just as important as putting in the hours of repetition necessary to build technique. Writer and director, Nicholas Meyer, says that “you can’t teach talent, but you can teach technique.” Sometimes however, lightning will strike when technique combines with desire, is fueled by talent, and graced with a little bit of luck, but there is certainly no implicit guarantee of a successful transaction.

“…real music making is a lifelong pursuit. It is more marathon than sprint, more failure than success, and more outcome than income.”

There is perhaps no better example of this phenomenon than in the story of the Monkees. Theirs is a classic tale of transactional music making yet with a somehow satisfying twist.

The Monkees: Davy Jones, Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, and Peter Tork

If you don’t know about the Monkees, you are either under age 50 or not interested in American pop culture from the 1960s. An oversimplified summary of their story is to say that the Monkees were a manufactured product created for a comedy television show based loosely on The Beatles movie A Hard Day’s Night. They were to be the American answer to the Fab Four. Davy Jones, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork, and Micky Dolenz were chosen from over 400 applicants through purely acting auditions and unconventional job interviews. There was only a passing concern about their ability to play an instrument or sing.

Once assembled, the Monkees had a rather inauspicious start to their collective (music) career. Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork had previous experience as working musicians; Nesmith and Jones had already made a few recordings prior to the Monkees and Davy had done song and dance work as well as some musical theater, most famously in the play Oliver. Micky Dolenz was a child-actor who fronted his own rock band called “Micky and the One-Nighters.” He possessed a classic rock and roll voice but had little to no experience as a drummer—his assigned instrument for the show.

Responsibility for the music came to record producer Don Kirshner who worked with a group of legendary studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew. That group included seasoned studio musicians such as Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, Tommy Tedesco, Julius Wechter, Carol Kaye, Hal Blaine, and others. For the first Monkees single, Last Train to Clarksville, Kirshner turned to the song writing team of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. 

The Wrecking Crew recorded the instrumental tracks while only one member of the Monkees actually appeared on Last Train to Clarksville—Micky Dolenz—who sang lead. It was their first single and it became a hit almost as soon as it was released in 1968 just a short time after the show began airing. The music team quickly followed up with another hit, I’m a Believer, also sung by Dolenz, and everything seemed to be going to plan.

There is much debate as to what drove the success of the Monkees. Was it the music that got people to watch the show or was it the show that sent people to the record store? Either way, it was working, but there was trouble in paradise. The individual Monkees were unhappy that they weren’t allowed to contribute more to the creation of their music. Kirshner fought their involvement because he felt they had a good thing going with the studio musicians, and he didn’t want to change the formula. 

But in the minds of Mike, Peter, Davy, and Micky, they felt uncomfortable being successful “recording artists” without playing on their own records. In the film The Wrecking Crew Dolenz explained: “I think there was a lot of resentment in the recording industry that we’d come out of nowhere, left field, and sort of just shot right to the top without having to kind of go through the ropes.” They felt humiliated that they were a band with hit records yet didn’t actually help create or even play the music. 

This conflict and other issues related to the television production continued to grow and eventually led to the cancellation of the show after the second season. When their feature film, Head, became a box office flop, it looked as though the Monkees were finished. One scene in Head perfectly epitomized their frustration with their reputation as a band that didn’t create or play any of their own hit music.

Frank Zappa, an unlikely champion for the group, befriended the Monkees and appeared on both their television show and in the film. Zappa enjoyed their irreverence if not their musical ability. In the film, Head, Davy Jones performs a polished Hollywood style song and dance production number written by Harry Nilsson and choreographed by Tony Basil. Davy wears a classic tuxedo and tails that switches dizzyingly between all black and all white throughout the montage.

After finishing the possibly photosensitive seizure inducing number, Davy and a group of somnolent teenagers emerge from a sound stage onto a studio back lot alongside a large bull being led by Zappa (metaphors abound). Jones asks “what did you think?” to which Zappa replies “the song was pretty white.” Jones says with a smile, “so am I, what can I tell ya?” 

Zappa’s delivery is more droll than ironic at this point and he continues, “You’ve been working on your dancing, though it doesn’t leave much time for your music. You should keep working on your music. You should spend more time on it because the youth of America depends on you to show the way.” Davy responds with a cheerful and optimistic “Yeah?” as if he’d just been given a compliment. Then Zappa’s voice shifts to sarcasm as he responds, “Yeah.” He leads the bull away with only the doleful sound of the bell around the bull’s neck. Davy then breaks the fourth wall looking into the camera with a bemused expression. 

But the Monkees were determined to prove that they could indeed play and sing by releasing their own albums and touring in various incarnations for many years. Dolenz said in interviews that “it’s like Leonard Nimoy really becoming a Vulcan, we became this band.” Although Peter Tork, Davy Jones, and Michael Nesmith have now passed away, Dolenz continues performing and touring in tribute to his bandmates.

Here’s the twist: the Monkees continued to develop their craft both collectively and as individuals for the rest of their lives. They continued practicing and working at their art in pursuit of excellence. Before his passing, Mike Nesmith and Micky Dolenz doggedly continued to hone their skills as musicians, song writers, and recording artists. Their last project together is called Dolenz Sings Nesmith, on which Dolenz and company created new arrangements for songs penned by Nesmith. It is an enjoyable album that shows how far Dolenz has come as a musician and record producer and how good Nesmith really was as a songwriter. 

Neither gave up their pursuit of music, or the desire to make daily progress. They just kept painting sunflowers. And so should you….

Citations:

Contributors, “Sunflowers,” Vangoghmuseum.ni. https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0031V1962

“Nothing but Sunflowers in a yellow earthenware pot. Painted with the three chrome yellows, yellow ochre and Veronese green and nothing else,” Vincent van Gogh to Arnold Koning, on or about 22 January 1889.

Moore, Daniel Preston, The Impact of Richard L. “Dick” Schory on the Development of the Contemporary Percussion Ensemble, Dissertation, UMI, 2000 

Hey, Hey We’re the Monkees, TV Movie documentary, Alan Boyd, director, Chuck Harter, writer, 1997

The Wrecking Crew!, Documentary, Denny Tedesco, director, 2008

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1185418/

A Parting Shot:

Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart wrote the upbeat and happy sounding Last Train To Clarksville as a protest to the Vietnam War. There is a certain lyrical dissonance as the driving guitar riff is contrasted with lyrics about being drafted and shipped off to war. The train is taking the protagonist somewhere to a military base and he knows that he may die in the war. “I don’t know if I’m ever coming home” is a poignant line set against the upbeat backdrop of the song. In keeping with the spirit of the obvious comparison of the Monkees to the Beatles, Hart wrote the prominent Oh No-No-No, Oh No-No-No” lyrics as a response to the Beatles famous “Yeah Yeah Yeah.”

Here’s a cultural collision. An American percussion group performing an avant-garde influenced version of Last Train To Clarksville, in Argentina! I think the Monkees would’ve loved it.

In Defense of Travel and the Comfort of Strangers

This summer I found myself in the Suvarnabhum Airport in Thailand, at the beginning of a 24-hour travel day back home from an amazing Percussion Festival in Bangkok. As I waited to check in, a story from the New Yorker by Agnes Callard popped up on my Facebook feed. As I was currently in the middle of a long journey, it caught my attention. In her article The Case Against Travel, Callard opined that travel “turns us into the worst version of ourselves while convincing us that we’re at our best.”

“Kind of cheeky” I thought, but after years as a traveling musician, I could sort of see her point. I have witnessed many instances where people exhibit the worst kind of entitled arrogant, and obnoxious behavior anytime there is even the slightest hiccup in their travel plans. I once overhead someone say, “I like to travel; I just don’t like all these foreigners.” [head tilt]

Shakespeare tells us that “the course of true love never did run smooth,” and the same may be said of travel. There are always delays missteps, and all manner of pitfalls for even the savviest sojourner. When that happens, many people will try to bully their way to a desired outcome—a technique that nearly always fails.

My approach to dealing with travel issues is to try and “kill them with kindness” to secure the outcome I want. Of course, there have been numerous occasions when even my syrupy-sweet charm hasn’t helped solve the problem. In that case you just “roll with the punches,” as a friend once advised me. Often though, I am the one who ends up with a hotel voucher or gets bumped up a class to the chagrin of the angry people in the line.

But I don’t think this is the case that Callard is making. She asks “what is the most uninformative statement that people are inclined to make? My nominee would be ‘I love to travel.’ This tells you very little about a person, because nearly everyone likes to travel; and yet people say it, because, for some reason, they pride themselves both on having travelled and on the fact that they look forward to doing so.”

To support her thesis, she enlists some heavy hitters who share her opinion including G.K. Chesterton, who wrote that “travel narrows the mind,” and Ralph Waldo Emerson who called travel “a fool’s paradise.” She even claims that philosophers Socrates and Kant rarely ventured from their respective hometowns of Athens and Königsberg. 

Socrates asked “how can you wonder your travels do you no good, when you carry yourself around with you?” I think most people would interpret that as meaning we can’t escape our problems through travel because they are always within us, or more simply put; “wherever you go; there YOU are.” Besides, who would even want to travel any great distance in an Ox cart or on the back of a donkey?

“Wherever you go, there you are.” Socrates (sort of)

Let me stop here to say that travel isn’t the same thing as a vacation. It is a journey, and as such it is a tiring, arduous, unglamorous, and possibly dangerous undertaking. In many cases there is an implied purpose for such a trip. For me it is self-edification, and to also share what I’ve learned in this life about music with other interested people. If I’m being honest; I rather hate to travel. I enjoy being there but whenever I think about another twelve to fifteen hours in a cramped airplane eating terrible food, and navigating complex itineraries alongside grumpy people, I ask myself, “why am I doing this again?”

But it is Mark Twain who inspires me to, once again, get on that plane, train, boat, bus, taxi, Tuk Tuk, Wiki Wiki, or Buick LeSabre-with-no-back-seatbelts (welcome to China!). Twain wrote that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Twain

I firmly believe this to be true. You can learn a great deal about yourself when you are given the opportunity to see how others live. However, the challenge is in resisting the urge to apply your own standard of living to everyone you meet in every place you visit. Taking a comparative attitude of living conditions and lifestyles, or perhaps what Twain meant by “charitable views of men and things,” might keep you from seeing that most people are happy with their lives and proud of their home and country, and this is always good to experience in person. 

Jack Kerouac I think said it best. “No matter how you travel, how ‘successful’ your tour, or foreshortened, you always earn something and learn to change your thoughts.” In some cases, taking the “charitable view” can also be a benefit when people in other parts of the world (or in your own backyard) are truly in need by any standard. Again, you can always “learn to change your thoughts.”

“No matter how you travel, how ‘successful’ your tour, or foreshortened, you always earn something and learn to change your thoughts.” Kerouac

But there is one common thread that I have experienced many times as a traveler: the aid and comfort of strangers. The experience that I remember most vividly was my first real trip outside the U.S. which took me to Japan in 1990. I was travelling to Kumamoto to perform with a college big band at the invitation of a friend and former student. We were going to play several gigs with a variety of local musicians, so I was traveling with all my own electronic mallet percussion instruments in a large rolling trap case (one that would not go anywhere near a plane today).

Performing with the Cosmic Mind Jazz Orchestra, Kumamoto, Japan (1990)

The trip took me first to Osaka where my connecting flight to Kumamoto was cancelled. At that point I was completely adrift with no plan for the night. I had wandered the airport for hours looking for a place to make a nest and sit and wait until my flight the next day. It was late and I was tired when I learned that I couldn’t stay in the airport overnight in Osaka. I needed to find a corner to stash my giant trap case and then exit the terminal until morning (imagine such a scenario today). 

I was standing near the temporary lockers, head down and lost in thought when I heard a voice ask, “tough day?” Looking up I see a Japanese gentleman also putting his things into a locker. “Yeah” I replied in a daze. He was the first person I had heard speaking English all day. He replied, “Yeah, me too. My flight got cancelled. What are you gonna do?” I said I didn’t know, so he told me that he was going to get a room in the airport hotel which was attached to the terminal, and he asked If I wanted to go there too. Trying to be cool, I said “sure, why not?” I was actually quite terrified. We went to the hotel together where I got a room that was so tiny that I had to leave the case behind the desk in the lobby because there was no floor space large enough for it in the room. 

Performing with my good friend Yuji Hashimoto in Kumamoto, December, 1990. Note the rolling trap case!

My new friend then asked if I wanted to get something to eat. Feeling bold I said of course, so we got a cab and ventured out into Osaka where we ate street food and got to know each other. He was a Japanese Ex patriot who owned a Japanese restaurant in Oakland, California and was coming home to see his dying mother. He hadn’t been in Japan for more than 20 years, so his Japanese was “a bit rusty.” One thing was sure, it was better than mine. 

We enjoyed a warm evening eating hot soup and noodles from a street vendor, walking around, and talking. As we returned to the hotel, he gave me his business card and said if I was ever in Oakland, I should give him a call. I regret never reaching out to him after we got back to the states because he was my Strange Angel that night in Osaka. 

It was this kind of comfort from a stranger that has given me hope for humanity on numerous occasions since. He was certainly my angel that night, but maybe I was his too. As we walked, he talked about his mother and how he regretted not coming home to see her more often now that it was maybe too late. Perhaps he could only say these things to a stranger. I don’t know.

Visiting the Kumamoto Castle in my ubiquitous “Here I am” pose. December 1990

Now, some thirty years later, as we made our way through thousands of fellow travelers in the bustling Bangkok airport, we spotted three young Korean students who had also attended the festival. What a nice surprise. We were excited to see them and said a big hello but we could quickly tell they were nervous and a bit scared. We learned that the passport of one of the students was expiring within the week, and the airline wouldn’t let him get on the plane, even if he was going back home to Korea (strange, but such is the world today).

We stopped and tried to comfort them while one of the other students made arrangements for them on a different airline. By the time I got checked in they had booked another flight for the next day and my friends who were dropping me off, took them back to the hotel in Bangkok. For a moment I thought about my friend in Japan from so long ago and smiled at the thought that the comfort of strangers still prevails.

So, I guess I’ll continue to rely on the words of Jack Kerouac: “the road must eventually lead to the whole world,” which for me means that I will continue to love to hate to travel, and try to be the best version of myself along the way until I have seen as much of the whole world as I can.

33-years later “here I am” in Bangkok, Thailand. Wherever you go, there you are!

Citations:
Callard, Agnes, The Case Against Travel: It turns us into the worst version of ourselves while convincing us that we’re at our best. New Yorker Magazine Online, accessed July 24, 2023

Twain, Mark (Samuel Clemens), The Innocents Abroad, [1869—1st Edition], Project Gutenberg, The Innocents Abroad, Release Date: August 16, 2006 [EBook #3176]

Listening:

Dan Moore Plays the Phantom with the Cosmic Mind Jazz Orchestra in Japan 1990

Hanuman by Jinnawat Mansap performed by Iowa Percussion
Very cool music from Thai composer Jinnawat Mansap beautifully arranged for percussion ensemble by Tanasit Siripanichwattana. One of the perks of travel is finding new music.

A Parting Shot:
In a night club in Argentina, a young woman approached me wearing army boots and wildly-dyed hair (long before such trends were popular) and asked if I was an American, to which I responded a cheerful “yes.” Her next words were shouted emphatically over the sensuous sounds of Tango music; “I f#*%ing hate George Bush!” I had so many questions but since there didn’t seem to be any curiosity in her remark, I simply responded, “OK, I’m going to join my friends now…”

Mark Twain’s suggestion about travel might’ve been a benefit to this person but then again maybe not.

Attempting the Absurd; Achieving the Impossible; and Why Not?

If you are a percussionist, and you think about things way too much, as I apparently do, it might occur to you that the very idea of playing beautiful and compelling music on an amalgam of bits and bobs of wood and metal is something really quite absurd. If you aren’t a percussionist, or even a musician, you might feel the same way, therefore a little explanation might be of help to everyone involved.

Since the beginning of time, humans have desired to make and play musical instruments. Many consider the human voice to be the first musical instrument, yet there are differing opinions. In his book Drumming at the Edge of Magic, Grateful Dead drummer and writer, Mickey Hart gives his theory that “[i]n the beginning was noise. And noise begat rhythm. And rhythm begat everything else.” “Everything” in this scenario includes the rhythmic vibration of the vocal cords that produced speech and eventually singing. He goes on to say that “[t]his is a cosmology a drummer can live with. Strike a membrane with a stick, the ear fills with noise—unmelodic, inharmonic sound. Strike it a second time, a third, you’ve got rhythm.” 

The oldest handmade musical instrument in the world is said to be a 60,000 year old flute made by Neanderthals (who else, would make a flute before a drum?). The National Museum of Slovenia, where it is housed, describes the instrument as being “made from the left thighbone of a young cave bear and has four pierced holes. Musical experiments confirmed findings of archaeological research that the size and the position of the holes cannot be accidental—they were made with the intention of musical expression.” 

But how and why did humans come up with the idea of making music on inanimate objects in the first place? Maybe the people who invented musical instruments did so because they couldn’t sing? Or maybe not. For whatever reason, many of earth’s inhabitants are compelled to make music on instruments, and they search, tirelessly, to find or create the technique or the technology to make that happen. From Ctesibius of Alexandria’s creation of the organ in the third century BC, to Garage Band or Pro Tools today, musicians have looked to technology to help them make music. 

The existential need for music making often compels humans to find ways to make music even in the face of oppression or poverty as in the case of the people of Trinidad and Tobago who created two musical instrument genres; tamboo bamboo, a form of music making using bamboo stalks cut to different lengths to accompany singing; and the National Instrument of Trinidad, the steel pan.

Musicians search for any type of conveyance into the ears (and hearts) of those who might hear their sounds and enjoy them. They hope to free the inner voice that is compelled to find a way to connect with its audience.

Some conveyances, however, connect with their audiences better than others.

In the case of mallet percussion instruments, the notion that repeatedly striking a collection of tuned wooden planks, steel bars, or aluminum slats, with yarn-covered-balls-on-sticks, could create a pleasing musical sound seems ridiculous at best and futile at worst, yet as percussionists, we attempt to do it every day. 

From the humble beginnings of mallet percussion, which includes the xylophones of Africa, the European Strohfiedel, and the marimbas of Central America, mallet players have attempted to amuse, entertain, and move their listeners with these simple instruments. In the 1920s, the xylophone was a novelty instrument that was often referred to by its zen-like nickname, “the woodpile.” Its repertoire was drawn from every type of music that captured the imagination of the performers. Playing music on a pile of wood (the essence of the xylophone) seems outrageous when you think about it. 

Just playing a simple four-part chorale on a marimba is one of the most challenging things to perform, simply because the instrument was never meant to do such things. Attempting to produce the illusion-of-sustain by means of a tremolo (roll) can be a blister-inducing, frustrating, and exhausting experience for a marimba player. 

When you further consider that playing anything on a mallet instrument other than idiomatic music is a stretch to begin with, things get even more dicey. For instance, who among us has the requisite birthright to play Bach? Well, depending on who you ask; practically no one! But we percussionists like to play Bach, as well as many other types of classical and non-classical music, that were never intended for the marimba, such as jazz or popular music.

So, if these things are so difficult to do, why bother? It’s simple; we are driven to do so.

Some are more driven than others I suppose.

It is often said that an instrument finds you, not the other way around. It has been said that you can force a child to choose the piano but very few will be chosen “by” the piano in return. I came to percussion almost completely by accident having fully intended to become the next Herb Alpert (the charismatic trumpet player and band leader of the 1960s). But that is a story for another day. Once an instrument chooses you, it soon becomes your passion to play on it the music that speaks to you—it becomes a musical imperative.

I’m a big fan of instrumental musicians who take on different types of music and recast it in their own image. Musicians such as Bill Frisell, Jake Shimabukuro, Dick Schory and the Percussion Pops Orchestra, and the Ventures (arguably, the best-selling instrumental Rock band in music history) have all inspired me in different ways. 

The Ventures were a guitar based group of the 1960s (and beyond) who were famous for their numerous and varied recordings. When inducting them into the 2008 class of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, presenter John Fogerty said “the Ventures have gone on to record over 250 albums. Now days some of us would be happy to sell 250 albums.”

The Ventures philosophy was that if you were going to do an instrumental cover of someone else’s tune, then you needed to find a way to make it sound like a completely new composition. In their words, it had to be “Venturized.” As much as 90% of the music they recorded were covers of other people’s music. But the covers were so creative, and in many instances so different from the original, that most people thought they were the band’s original compositions. Their biggest hits such as Walk, Don’t RunWipeoutHawaii 5-0, and Pipeline were all covers!

Hawaiian ukulele artist Jake Shimabukuro plays a repertoire that ranges from classic Hawaiian folk songs to his original compositions, and covers of the music he grew up listening to. He famously performs a version of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody on ukulele. Jake also cleverly reimagines music from Michael Jackson, George Harrison, and others, and you can hear in his performances how much he loves and respects this music. He says “my mother taught me three chords on the uke and I was “hooked.” He was chosen by the ukulele. Then, he set out to imbue the music he loved with his own vision. He does things with the ukulele that the ukulele was never meant to do. Right On!

The Britain Moore Duo (BMD), my steel pan and marimba duo of the last 35 years, also tends to work from covers of other people’s music—often against the advice and admonishment of our mentors. We call our covers “BMD Treatments.” One of our most popular covers is of the Gershwin classic Summertime. We used an Afro-Caribbean 12/8 groove and then curiously never played the melody of the tune until the final chorus, which always causes a few head tilts from the audience.

But loving a piece of music and being able to make it sound good on your own instrument can be a problem. How do you know if it will work? Sometimes a performer’s love for a piece of music blinds them to the reality that they are unable to capture the essence of it on their instrument. 

I am lucky to be in a position in my performing career that my repertoire has evolved to include only the music that speaks to me personally. Along the way I have developed a sort-of litmus test to determine if a piece of music I love can be translated to the instruments that have chosen me (those absurd mallet percussion instruments).

The Composer Test:

If a composer were to hear you performing their composition, would they think you were mocking it? Would Mozart be insulted by your performance or would he be inspired to run home and write a new piece for you and your instrument? Think about how you would feel about your version if the composer was sitting in the audience.

What about vaudeville, parody, and humor in music? There are lots of examples of arrangements that are meant to be funny takes or send-ups of otherwise serious music. In this case, you just have to play it flawlessly and then hope that the composer has a good sense of humor.

Inventory:

To begin, a quick inventory of the notes and essential elements will tell you if you have what you need to perform a piece of music that you love. Even if the answer is no, there are ways to make things work. In classical or contemporary music, it is possible to do some note reassignments or octave shifting as long as the general direction of a line is not interrupted by doing so. I personally don’t mind transposing entire pieces (although some of my colleagues take issue with that practice). 

The ukulele version of Jake Shimabukuro’s Bohemian Rhapsody has some pretty cool note reassignments but the inventory of notes and essential elements of the original are all there, lending themselves to the creation of an imaginative rendition of a ubiquitous song.

Listen, hear, and embrace:

It should go without saying that one should always listen to how your music sounds, however, we can get so caught up in the process of invention that we might be listening without really “hearing.” We continue to hold the original version of the music in our heads and not listen critically enough to our own interpretation. 

It can be a difficult admission to realize that we are simply unable to make a particular piece of music sound good—at least not yet. Perhaps a few more years of practice and a little more musical maturity will make the difference the next time around. This has happened to me on many occasions (also a story for another day). But if you try and fail, it’s OK, because as Herb Alpert would say, “the beauty of music making isn’t in attaining perfection because you can never get there. That’s the seductive part of it.”

It is important to embrace the true sound of your instrument which includes both the instrument’s advantages and disadvantages. But this can only be done with honest critical listening to how you and your instrument sound today, and by asking yourself if your arrangement is transcendent.

Does it transcend?

Audiences have different reactions to hearing music performed out of context. If I play a pop song on the marimba or vibes, some in the audience will recognize a familiar tune immediately. If I play a standard song like Moon River, someone might indicate their recognition with a knowing laugh or a soft “ahh.” Others will simply enjoy the arrangement and be attracted to the sound but will come up after the show and ask, “what was the name of that song you played?” Taken out of context and without the words, a good arrangement should transcend the original and become something both familiar and new, just as the Ventures tried to do. Simply put, does your version have its own intrinsic beauty that transcends the original? Does it need the lyrics in order to be meaningful? In many cases, the answer is no. Again Herb Alpert hits it out of the park, when he says “people don’t listen with their ears, they listen with their soul.”

So, I encourage you to continue to pursue the music that is in your head and in your heart regardless of how crazy it may seem because, as M. C. Escher wrote; “Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible.”

Here is a playlist of  some of the covers that I’ve enjoyed creating:

Citations:

Drumming at the Edge of Magic: a Journey into the Spirit of Percussion
Mickey Hart with Jay Stevens and Fredric Lieberman, Harper Collins, 1990

National Museum of Slovenia
https://www.nms.si/en/collections/highlights/343-Neanderthal-flute

Classic History: The History of the Pipe Organ,
http://www.classichistory.net/archives/organ

Herb Alpert Is (documentary film)
https://www.herbalpertis.com

Time Signatures for Drummers: by the Pernicious Prognosticator of Percussion

Today, I have asked my good friend, the Pernicious Prognosticator of Percussion (P3), to write a guest blog explaining the importance of time signatures in drumming, and to provide us with helpful tips on using them to full advantage.

Time Signatures for Drummers by P3 :

In this blog entry, I will try once again to explain time signatures, or—as insiders know them—drum signatures. Drum signatures are two or more numbers typically found in the left most corner of the music staff. These indications are used only by drummers, as they are most often completely disregarded by musicians.
[Editor’s Note: “other” musicians] 

First, the top number simply tells you how many times to strike the bass drum in each measure. In 4/4 drum signature, for example, one would play the bass drum a total of four times in each measure, 3/4 equals three bops per bar, and 2/4 calls for two bomb drops somewhere between the lines. 

Important note: it doesn’t matter where you place these important notes (note also that the notes are just as important as the important notes are important to note, if you see what I mean).

Of course, some people try to spread these notes out evenly, but there is no reason to get all “avant-garde” about it. Use of the bass drum is totally up to how you are feeling on that particular day, how many people are watching you at the moment, and how much you are getting paid.

Now, the bottom number is where things get really interesting. This number determines how many times one would play the snare drum in each measure. This can get very exciting in drum signatures such as 5/4 (of which only Joe Morello could play) and in 7/8 (which no one ever uses any more because it is far too complicated). 6/8 can be pretty neat but it hasn’t been used since John Phillip Sousa and Meredith Willson back in the 1600s. 

At this point you are ready for the most advanced concept in understanding drum signatures. Multiplying the top and bottom numbers will give you the total number of notes to be played in a fill. In 2/4 for example, you get 8 fill notes, in 4/4 there are 16, and in 9/8 you get something like 73 or 74, so I say “make’em count,” because you probably aren’t getting paid enough for this type of gig anyway.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, drum fills must occur based on the drum signature. In 4/4, one should always play a fill every four bars. In 3/4, every third bar should have a fill, especially when backing a singer on standards such as My Favorite Things or Some Day my Prints Will Come. Please note that the fill rule must be STRICTLY observed or you run the risk of being labeled a “singer’s” drummer.

This covers just about every drum signature except what they call “cut time.”  Playing in cut time is quite dangerous and should be avoided at all costs since it means that the gig will probably be cut short and you will be receiving less pay than originally expected.

I hope you find this information helpful in working all your upcoming pool party, casual, cover band, and Calypso gigs. Join me for my next lesson titled: What Key Signatures Mean to Drummers. 

The Pernicious Prognosticator of Percussion has played literally dozens of gigs. He took an online music theory course (half semester) and he has watched more than 200,000 YouTube drumming videos. Palso provided candid and helpful comments on each video, and therefore has advised some of the greatest drummers of our generation. He has attended over three drumset clinics that were “not so great,” and he has written one guest blog for a little known percussion professor in Iowa. Paspires to become a professional drum clinician and influencer as soon as he finishes his first YouTube video and plays more than once with the same band.

Oh, and Happy April Fool’s Day!

Hey! Where’d the Blog Go? — Philosophers, Writers, and Steel Band Directors

During the Pandemic Days of 2020, I upgraded my original website (powered by iWeb) and decided to start a blog. The idea was to challenge myself to write more, but also to perhaps share my thoughts and experiences on subjects ranging from serious to silly—primarily on the subjects of music, art, culture, education, and of course my East Texas heritage. Hedging my bets, I added the following disclaimer to the first post:

“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.”

I added that little caveat because I know me. 

“Know thyself” is an ancient Greek aphorism whose meaning has been debated for centuries, but to me it simply means that it is important to recognize who you are; the unvarnished you, including the good, the bad, and the well intentioned. Of course, it was 20th century philosopher Ron Popeil* who said, “but wait, there’s more.” And there IS more because “know thyself” is only the first of three apothegms inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. The other two being “nothing to excess” and “certainty brings ruin.”

*According to his website, Ron Popeil was a famed American inventor, pitchman, television star, and the creator of the television “infomercial.”

Archaeological Site of Delphi (Greece) Author: Christelle Alix

This little triptych of ingeniously terse maxims pretty well sums up my lack of regularity in blogging. I was “certain” that I could keep up the pace with blogging, but I also knew my propensity toward “excess” in taking on new projects. Perhaps I know myself even better today.

My blog started out with a bang. In 2020, I published eight posts, in 2021 there were six, and in 2022 there were only four. As this is the first entry of 2023, you can see the work is clearly falling off. In my defense, there are a couple of reasons for this situation. First, I found that during the pandemic, I had much more time to fine tune my posts. 

Because I live in a town where just about everybody you know is an accomplished writer, I like to make sure that I have carefully researched, edited, and honed anything I put out to the world. Add to that being a compulsive wordsmith with completion anxiety issues, and everything takes longer—even a casual email. 

It is impressive to me how some people can churn out thoroughly researched and finely limned essays on a monthly, weekly, and sometimes daily basis. Blogs that I enjoy like those from professor of percussion at Arizona State University, Michael Compitello, are impressive and fascinating to read. He clearly does his research with each post but you wonder where he finds the hours in the day. It must have something to do with the Mountain Standard Time Zone. 

The second reason could be attributed to the fact that for the last 16 months or so, I’ve been making plans to host the annual conference of the National Society of Steel Band Educators (NSSBE) here at the University of Iowa. Hosting a professional conference is rewarding and also a lot of work, but I was not alone in this endeavor. I was working closely, and meeting regularly with, a group of steelpan educators who are dedicated to the advancement of the steel band in the USA. By all accounts, the conference, which was held on February 24-25, 2023, was a great success. And now… exhale!

Our conference committee was led by Mike Greer, and members included Kayleen Justus, John Willmarth, and Obe Quarless—all dedicated steelpan players and teachers. We hosted some incredible guest artists including Victor Provost, the Northern Illinois University Steel Band, Joy Lapps and Larnell Lewis, and an amazing group of musicians from Toronto. More than 50 Steel Band Educators met for two days to discuss all things pan, and it was a great experience for my students and me. I was honored to present a steel pan recording workshop with my colleague James Edel of the UI Recording studios, and my duo partner Mat Britain. 

Mat and I began our relationship with NSSBE in the Spring of 2020. The Britain Moore Duo was slated to be featured artists for the March 2020 Conference in Cincinnati, OH. In fact, we were already in town at the precise moment the world shut down. There is more to that story in my blog post: Stop the World and Let Me Off

A year later, Mat and I participated in the 2021 conference via a prerecorded performance over Zoom. The next year, I proposed that the meeting take place in Iowa City. President Chris Tanner, and Board Members, Tom Miller and Brandon Haskett agreed to have the meeting in Iowa in 2023 and the rest is NSSBE history.

Now, perhaps I can get back to the myriad other projects that have been wanting my attention. Rest assured that my original goal for the blog hasn’t changed; “to lift others up and make the world a better place one note (or word) at a time.” I am hopeful about future projects, but not certain, because I know myself all too well! 

That should be carved into a wall somewhere…

Notes and Citations:

Iowa City, UNESCO City of Literature
https://www.iowacityofliterature.org

Ron Popeil
https://www.ronpopeil.com/#about-ron

Michael Compitello
https://michaelcompitello.com/about-mike

National Society of Steel Band Educators (NSSBE)
https://weteachpan.org

Enjoy this highlight reel from the 2023 NSSBE Conference!

A parting shot: I have a friend who is a philosophy professor who once told me that philosophy is the only field that you could leave for four-thousand years and upon your return, still be completely up-to-date. “Just set it and forget it,” as Ron would say…

Some People Have No Imagination

It seems that folks now days have no imagination when it comes to expressing themselves. As a musician, educator, and kind of a big deal, I believe it is important that I be able to convey my thoughts in an originative manner. But I’m afraid what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate our own ideas without resorting to hackneyed lines from old movies, obscure song lyrics, and arcane television programs that nobody remembers or has ever seen. 

Using someone else’s words from over four-hundred years ago may seem like a good way to appear clever or smart; it may be for the purpose of wasting other people’s time. Maybe you want to prove that you have many leather-bound books and that your apartment smells of rich mahogany, but this type of behavior is inconceivable to me (if that word means what I think it does). Some might even say that “the constable is too cunning to be understood” (whatever that means!). If you think to yourself, “having the perfect Shakespeare quote for any situation would make me beloved;” It’s surprisingly unhelpful. 

This is a complex issue that is further complicated by those poor misguided souls who (more often than not) misquote the very lines they claim to love. This is particularly bothersome when it comes to classic phrases from the likes of William Shakespeare, Jane Austin, Oscar Wilde, or Elaine May (Oh, she wrote A New Leaf, The Birdcage, she did an uncredited rewrite on Tootsie).

When in a causal conversation with co-workers, how often have you found yourself saying, “thou art not for the fashion of these times, where none will sweat but for promotion,” or “I’m the guy who does his job, you must be the other guy?” If this sounds familiar, then you could be suffering from what I call quotation-dependency. If you didn’t notice that the two phrases above have totally opposite meanings, then you might also be a misquoter—an even more troubling malady. 

Here’s an example. In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, young Hamlet is visited by his father’s ghost, who commands him to avenge his murder. Hamlet replies, “by Grabthar’s hammer, by the sons of Warvan, you shall be avenged,” but the line is frequently misquoted as “let come what comes, I’ll be revenged most thoroughly for my father.” It’s really quite elementary my dear. What son would not grant his father’s request? Now that’s what I call a close encounter.

Misquoting is a common mistake of the quote-user-abuser, and we all know that some mistakes you never stop paying for. When crashing through a window, you may say to yourself, “this is me; I think it’s apparent that I need to rethink my life a little bit.” If so, you better fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.

To the person who wishes to compose an eloquent sonnet for the object of their affection, I say go for it. Carpe diem. You know, seize the day boys; make your lives extraordinary by coming up with something original. After all, that’s the stuff that dreams are made of. By doing so, you could become someone’s Huckleberry, their Girl Friday, or even their Density. Or, you might just as easily end up a bum who could’ve had class; could’ve been a contender; could’ve been somebody. You could end up living in a dingy, dismal, shabby, dinky apartment.

Remember, it’s what you do right now that makes a difference. It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do. Of course, you would know that if you were an Army Ranger or had any sense or sensibility whatsoever.

If you tried just a little harder to find the right words—your own words—you could have others saying, “you’re the best one in your row” or “I’ll have what she’s having.” You might also be thinking that failure is not an option, and if so, why try at all? Well, nobody’s perfect. But if love means never having to say you’re sorry, you’ve got nothing to lose. After all, tomorrow is another day. But if you should try to be original and fail, don’t worry, you have five minutes to wallow in the delicious misery. Enjoy it, embrace it, discard it. And proceed. Don’t cry about it; there’s no crying! 

In baseball, and other sports, there is no try. I think it was Yogi Berra who once said, “do or do not, failure, the greatest teacher is”—or something like that. So, for now, snap out of it! I mean, what is your damage? Like most people, you can’t handle the truth when it comes to criticism, but deep down, everyone knows that the bitterest truth is better than the sweetest lie. And unless you are content to sit upon a throne of lies, how hard can it be to come up with an appropriate zinger or the perfect response to an insult on your own?

If someone says “you can’t sit with us,” don’t just say “as if,” or “eat my shorts” or “why don’t you make like a tree, and get out of here?” Use your imagination. Come up with something erudite like “you don’t know the difference between a Mouton Rothschild and a California twist-top red,” or “In the whole vast configuration of things, I’d say you were nothing but a scurvy little spider!”—if you’re not into the whole brevity thing—or how about something musical sounding like, “you clinking, clanking, clattering collection of caliginous junk!” That’s the kind of comeback you really need to put a worthy adversary in their place! You see, it’s not that difficult to come up with something original and unexpected if you try.

I don’t know what it is that makes people want to co-op song lyrics from bands like the Beatles, Journey, or even Toto. I have a feeling we aren’t in Kansas when it comes to originality, and that raises the question, “how did we get here?” Some unimaginative thinker might say “I led you here, sir, for I am Spartacus,” but that would be a silly thing to do. I’ve always prided myself on having the ability to come up with a unique bon mot, should I have the need. 

The need for speed in these situations is, of course, critical. Life moves pretty fast, so if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. Maybe that’s why we cast about so much when under pressure to say something witty or profound. But I have hope, Rosebud. A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship. But it is not this day. The sun’ll come out tomorrow—I’ll bet a nickel (a dime is the limit)!

Well—as the poet once said—I could do this all day, but I think you see my point about the importance of independent thinking in speech and writing, or even getting into Harvard Law (what, like it’s hard?). It’s not that I’m the king of the world or like I have ESPN or something. I’m just trying to help you become the clever conversationalist I know you can be—to perhaps choose wisely—when in social settings. But to do that, you’ve got to ask yourself one important question: “do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk? If so, go ahead—make my day.*

*Quoted from a speech given by President Ronald Reagan while speaking out against the threat of tax increases at the 1985 American Business Conference.

More importantly though, don’t forget that a laugh can be a very powerful thing. Why, sometimes in life, it’s the only weapon we have. I hope the ironic nature of this post is clear, but if not, I can only say that surely you can’t be serious! This little etude is dedicated to all Quixotic Quoters (“Quixotic”? Dude, that’s like, a thousand points), and to the clever creators of the following motion pictures who unwittingly contributed. And with particular apologies to William Shakespeare—my favorite to (mis) quote. 

“A laugh can be a very powerful thing. Why, sometimes in life, it’s the only weapon we have.”

How many did you get? How many of these films have you seen? Power user tip: Try reading the text aloud using the voice of the actor who said it!

Paragraph 1: Anchorman (2004) Cool Hand Luke (1967) or Major Payne (1995), Paragraph 2: Anchorman (2004) An Ideal Husband (1999) The Princess Bride (1987) Much Ado About Nothing (1993) The Rewrite (2014), Paragraph 3: The Rewrite (2014), Paragraph 4: As You Like It (2006) The Departed (2006), Paragraph 5: Galaxy Quest (1999) Hamlet (1996) The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1929) Independence Day (1996), Paragraph 6: The Natural (1984) Ratatouille (2007) All About Eve (1950), Paragraph 7: Dead Poets Society (1989) The Maltese Falcon (1941) Tombstone (1993) His Girl Friday (1940) Back to the Future (1985) On the Waterfront (1954) Joe vs. the Volcano (1990), Paragraph 8: Black Hawk Down (2001) Sense and Sensibility (1995), Paragraph 9: Ghostbusters (1984) When Harry Met Sally (1989) Apollo 13 (1995) Some Like it Hot (1959) or Independence Day (1996) Love Story (1970) Gone with the Wind (1939) Elizabethtown (2005) A League of Their Own (1992), Paragraph 10: Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Star Wars: Episode VIII—The Last Jedi (2017) Moonstruck (1987) Heathers (1988) A Few Good Men (1992) Men in Black 3 (2012) Elf (2003), Paragraph 11: Mean Girls (2004) Clueless (1995) The Breakfast Club (1985) Back to the Future (1985) Bottle Shock (2008) It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) The Big Lebowski (1998) Wizard of OZ (1939) Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) or The Big Lebowski with added expletive (1998), Paragraph 12: The Wizard of OZ (1939) That Thing You Do (1996) Top Gun (1986), Paragraph 13: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) Citizen Kane (1941) Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King (2003) Annie (1982) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Paragraph 14: Captain America: Civil War (2016) Legally Blonde (2003) Titanic (1987) Mean Girls (2004) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) Dirty Harry (1971) Sudden Impact (1983), Paragraph 15: Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) Airplane (1980) Tenure (2008)

Did I mention that I love movies and movie quotes? Here’s a little throwback to my days of electronic explorations!

Sunflowers, Fastballs, and Rock ‘n Roll

The Art Institute of Chicago once presented an exhibition titled Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South (2001-2002) which provided a fascinating look into the lives and paintings of influential artists, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh loved to paint sunflowers, and since we plant sunflowers in our yard every summer—sometimes with help from the squirrels—we were excited for the opportunity to see one of Van Gogh’s most famous works, Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers.

To our surprise there were two versions of Sunflowers on display (Arles, December 1888 and late January 1889). We learned that there are as many as twelve versions of this painting. Van Gogh wrote that he created them all “with the three chrome yellows, yellow ochre and Veronese green and nothing else.” The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam states that “in this way, he demonstrated that it was possible to create an image with numerous variations of a single colour, without any loss of eloquence.” 

The Studio of the South show resonated with me. Here was a clear example of the importance of repetition (by that I mean practice) in the creation of art. The commonly held notion that creatives are naturally gifted people whose great works are the simple result of a spontaneous release of creative energy, is a myth. While there are the occasional one-hit-wonders and happy accidents, more true art comes from repetition, failure, rejection, study, more repetition, and more failure, than comes from the proverbial bolt of lightning. American painter Jackson Pollock famously said “I don’t use the accident; I deny the accident.” 

“I don’t use the accident; I deny the accident.”
—Jackson Pollock

To me, this was further confirmation of the artistic imperative that drives creatives in every discipline to improve their skills through repetition. Like many artists, Van Gogh was not celebrated during his lifetime, but he still painted every day for the same reason musicians practice, and composers, authors, playwrights, and poets write, because they are driven to do so. 

Art is a lifelong pursuit that offers no guarantees of success, yet creatives continue the chase. One of the most popular music memes that regularly circulates through social media is from renowned Spanish cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973). There are a number of variations of this quote but essentially Casals is asked why (at his age) a master cellist such as himself continues to practice every day. “Because I think I’m making progress” was his meme-worthy response.

“I think I’m making progress.” —Pablo Casals

Casals used variations of this quote throughout his life, adapting it as he grew older, but there is more to the story. It began in a 1946 New York Times article titled Casals at 70: Great Spanish Cellist Waits for Country’s Liberation. In the article, cellist and Julliard professor, Maurice Eisenberg quoted from a letter Casals had written to him at the end of World War II. 

“Now that the enemy has been forced to leave, I have resumed my practicing and you will be pleased to know that I feel that I am making daily progress.” To Casals, improvement was a daily pursuit that continued throughout his life. It is an important distinction to note that he believed he was making progress rather than trying to achieve perfection or to become famous. He was already famous when he decided to put his career on hold for more than a decade in order to advocate for democracy in his native Spain. To most creatives, attaining perfection or becoming successful is only part of the equation. Success means different things to different people. 

One of the most successful bands in history is The Rolling Stones. But when asked what success meant to him, drummer Charlie Watts—who passed away on August 24, 2021, at the age of 80—said that “success meant being good enough that you would get to play every night.”

“…to me, success meant being good enough that you would get to play every night.” —Charlie Watts

For more than 60 years, Charlie and the Stones did just that. And by that measure alone, The Rolling Stones were successful, yet Watts believed that they were also still improving. He said “I think The Rolling Stones have gotten a lot better. An awful lot better. A lot of people don’t, but I think they have, and to me that’s gratifying.”

And what about achieving perfection? Measurable improvement over time is a healthy and sustainable approach to making art, but true creatives also know that becoming obsessed with perfection can lead to self-doubt and paralyzing fear. If the only measure of success is perfection, then why bother at all if it is unattainable? On the other hand, what would happen if one day an artist does achieve perfection; then what?  

What would a baseball pitcher do after throwing a Perfect Game? In baseball, a perfect game is considered to be a complete game pitched without a runner reaching base. It is one of the rarest feats in baseball and according to Major League Baseball.com there have been only 23 true perfect games since Lee Richmond pitched the first one for the Worcester Ruby Legs on June 12, 1880. 

To celebrate the start of Baseball season, here is a melancholy little re-harm of Take Me Out to the Ballgame which was inspired by a version played by the great pianist Larry Goldings.

For a musician, a perfect performance is even more rare—like Unicorn rare. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a musician (seriously) say that they’ve given a perfect performance. There may have been a few musicians throughout history who have performed flawlessly, but for most, there’s always something that could’ve been played better, performed more expressively, artistically, or effortlessly, and if nothing else, faster!

After throwing a perfect game, or even a no-hitter (a subset of the perfect game in which a pitcher allows no hits but batters still reach base), every pitcher knows that the next day they might just as easily give up ten homeruns (or more likely get benched after two). Regardless, they return to the ballpark the next day to try to do it again; to see some improvement­­; to paint another sunflower. 

For a true creative, the journey is more important than the destination. Satisfaction is more valued than success, and the ability to stir the emotions of others is far more meaningful than achieving perfection. Such dichotomies make it easy to lose sight of why we make art in the first place. For me, being a musician means making someone’s life a little brighter and their burdens a little lighter with music and laughter. Many artists throughout history have shared that same mission.

After completing perhaps his most significant work, Die Schöpfung (The Creation), Joseph Haydn wrote “[a] secret voice whispered to me: There are in this world so few happy and contented people; sorrow and grief follow them everywhere; perhaps your labor will become a source where the man bowed down by care or burdened by business matters will find peace and rest.”

“Perhaps your labor will become a source where the man bowed down by care or burdened by business matters will find peace and rest.” —Joseph Haydn

So, I continue to practice, compose, and perform daily because, like Casals and Watts, I believe that I’m making progress too. And like Van Gogh and Haydn, I plan to keep painting sunflowers and attempting to lighten the load of others for as long as I can—in hope of somehow lifting up those who are bowed down by care and burden. Of course, pitching a perfect game, like Lee Richmond, would be cool too but I’m not holding my breath.

Listening:

Not painting sunflowers, but playing music about sunflowers with the Britain Moore Duo


Citations:

Contributors. “Sunflowers.” Vangoghmuseum.ni. https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0031V1962
(Accessed February 20, 2022)

Art Institute of Chicago, “The Studio of the South: Van Gogh and Gauguin.” Chicago. September 2001-January 2002. https://www.artic.edu/exhibitions/2835/van-gogh-and-gauguin-the-studio-of-the-south

Thanks to the Quote Investigator for providing insight on the Casals quote.
https://quoteinvestigator.com

Eisenberg, Maurice. “Casals at 70: Great Spanish Cellist Waits for Country’s Liberation.” New York Times. Arts and Leisure, Page 45, Column 8, New York. December 29, 1946

Contributors. “Perfect Games in Baseball History.” Major League Baseball. com. https://www.mlb.com/team/photos/perfect-games.
(Accessed February 20, 2022)

Mangum, John. “Joseph Haydn: Die Schöpfung (The Creation).” Los Angeles Philharmonic Program Note, Gustavo Dudamel, conductor, https://www.laphil.com/musicdb/pieces/1543/die-schopfung-the-creation.
(Accessed September 18, 2021)

Come Sunday: Labels, Critics, and Narrow Bandwidths

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974) is one of the best known names in jazz of the 20th Century, but he didn’t particularly like being called a jazz musician. Professor C. Michael Hawn, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music of the SMU Perkins School of Theology, writes that Ellington “resisted the designation of ‘jazz’ as too narrow for his compositions and preferred that his works be known just as ‘music.’”

Many musicians take issue with musical categories, particularly those surrounding the word jazz. While speaking to a meeting of  the Society for Neuroscience in a session titled “Dialogues between Neuroscience and Society,” guitarist and master musician Pat Metheny noted that “basically, my job description is professional improvisor, and while the word ‘jazz’ has some utility as a kind of shorthand to invoke a certain broad cultural tradition—within the community of musicians that I am lucky to be a part of, we’re mostly unlikely to use that word as having any singular meaning beyond those cultural connotations.”

But consumers seem to prefer labels; they like to put music into tidy bins that were created years ago at record stores or CD shops, for awards shows, for grant applications, and now on Spotify, YouTube, and other streaming platforms. These categories help consumers quickly locate the music they like and to just as quickly dismiss anything they don’t (or at least think they don’t) want to hear. Heaven-forbid discovering something new by accident. 

Metheny adds that “most people have a very limited bandwidth of what they are willing to consume as music listeners.” And that is perhaps the most unfortunate thing about labels. Metheny continues; “It regularly happens that people are brought to my concerts—most of them against their will, and then they come up afterwards and tell me that they had no idea that this music existed.” Sigh…

I too consider myself an improvising musician, but I am happily not attached to any musical genre, which is what makes collaborations with other likewise unaffiliated musicians so much fun. For many years, I have improvised with Swedish mallet artist, Anders Åstrand. We have a special bond because we both trade in classical, contemporary, popular, folk, and jazz influenced currencies, and we enjoy collecting and trading them with each other. When we are improvising, we can be inspired by classical music one minute then channeling jazz the next. Minimal, comical, or just plain kooky—nothing is out of bounds.

Any place, anytime; improvising with Anders at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention.

The problem is that most people conflate the words jazz and improvisation. Think of it like this; while jazz music is often improvised, not all improvised music is jazz. [I’ll wait…]

Nothing was out of bounds for Ellington either, which brings us to the composition Come Sunday. In 1942 Ellington and his orchestra were engaged for a Carnegie Hall concert that his manager had set up only a month prior. This caused Ellington to quip; “I don’t need time—I need a deadline!” Ellington met that deadline with an extensive new composition titled Black, Brown, and Beige. Each color represents a period of black history in America using what Ellington described as “tone parallels” for each period. According to JazzStandards.com, “Come Sunday is what is now known as the 32-bar, AABA-form song (which Ellington wrote for alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges), but originally it was part of a 12-minute portion of the first section, ‘Black.’”

And what did the critics think? Well, they hated it. They thought that Ellington had “deserted” jazz in favor of “serious” (meaning classical) music, and on the other side, classical music critics didn’t think Black, Brown, and Beige rose to the level of good “serious” music. 

K. J. McElrath, musicologist for JazzStandards.com writes: “Caught in the cross-fire, Ellington was clearly upset and soon after began to utilize the term ‘beyond category’ for his music rather than using the word jazz. It’s clear in retrospect that neither critical camp understood what Duke was attempting, and he was so disturbed by the turn of events that it would be several years before he would attempt anything similar.”

Such is the result of labels, critics, and those with narrow bandwidths.  

As a song, Come Sunday has been sung, played, and recorded by many artists. This is partly because it is a great tune with a beautiful message. Professor Hawn writes: “Ellington once said, ‘By and large, jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.’ Yet, this master of jazz has a hymn in the United Methodist Hymnal!” 

Ellington was indeed beyond category. He didn’t like labels—musical or otherwise. He once said, “I don’t believe in categories of any kind, and when you speak of problems between blacks and whites in the U.S.A., you are referring to categories again.’”

Come Sunday has now become a standard in the repertoire that beautifully evokes the Black spiritual on both a musical and emotional level. Mahalia Jackson recorded a version with lyrics, and today both instrumental and vocal versions are still popular among diverse audiences.

The words of Come Sunday also provide a measure of hope and assurance during this time of angst, unrest, and evil in the world. Dr. Hawn writes that “the song is ultimately about the providence of God in all our lives. The refrain addresses God directly, ‘Lord, dear Lord above, God Almighty, God of love,’ and then makes a petition, ‘please look down and see my people through.’ The stanzas point to hope and heaven, concluding that ‘With God’s blessing we can make it through eternity.’”

And as we reach the second anniversary of the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdowns, we would do well to take Mr. Ellington’s words to heart. 

Lord, dear Lord above, God almighty
God of love, please look down and see my people through

Lord, dear Lord above, God almighty
God of love, please look down and see my people through

I believe that God put sun and moon up in the sky
I don’t mind the gray skies
‘cause they’re just clouds passing by

Lord, dear Lord above, God almighty
God of love, please look down and see my people through

References:

Hawn, C. Michael. “Come Sunday” reflects Duke Ellington’s faith & sacred jazz tradition. History of Hymns. (Accessed February 27, 2022)
https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-come-sunday-reflects

McElrath, K. J. Come Sunday. JazzStandards.com. (Accessed February 27, 2022) https://www.jazzstandards.com/compositions-1/comesunday.htm

Metheny, Pat. Dialogues between Neuroscience and Society. Society for Neuroscience: Music and the Brain with Pat Metheny, 2018. (Accessed February 27, 2022) https://youtu.be/yhAbNv1gJT8 

Listening:

Dan Moore and Peter Grubisich perform Duke Ellington’s Come Sunday
Dan Moore and Anders Åstrand in Patagonia, Argentina
Ben Webster and Oscar Peterson. One of my favorite versions.

Well, It’s Groundhog Day… Again

In our house, it is a February tradition to watch the Harold Ramis film Groundhog Day. The film, starring Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, and Chris Elliott, was released in 1993 and has continued to gain popularity. According to IMDB it is one of the best films of that year, topping Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park in popularity and earning a BAFTA Film award, among other accolades. Many consider it to be one of the best movies of all time. 

Murray plays Phil Connors, a self-absorbed Pittsburg Weather Man who is insulted by having to cover the Groundhog Day festival in Punxsutawney, PA, and their resident groundhog weather man, Punxsutawney Phil. He fears that if someone sees him interviewing a groundhog they might think he “doesn’t have a future.” Soon, he will learn that no one knows their own future.

“Come on, all the long distance lines are down? What about the satellite? is it snowing in space? Don’t you have some kind of a line that you keep open for emergencies or for celebrities? . . . I’m both. I’m a celebrity in an emergency.” — Phil

The film influenced popular culture by helping to coin the phrase “Groundhog Day,” which refers to a repetitive or monotonous task or situation. Phil gets caught in a time loop that causes him to relive the same day, February 2nd, over and over. The movie has also spawned a contemporary phenomenon on social media and in text messages of engaging friends in arcane-quote-battles (or so I’ve heard).

“You want a prediction about the weather? You’re asking the wrong Phil. I’m going to give you a prediction about this winter? It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be grey and it’s going to last you for the rest of your lives!” — Phil

Religious groups, psychoanalysts, economists, and even the military have embraced the film as an allegory for their particular beliefs. It is said that Murray and Ramis argued over the tone of the film but as often-is-the-case, great films often transcend (thankfully) the people who create them. A film maker friend once told me that most creators don’t think about subtext when they are making a film because they are just focused on getting it done. He said, “it’s the movie goers and the critics who come up with what a film ‘means.’”

“I peg you as a glass half empty kind of guy.” — Gus

But we’ve all been stuck in a time loop since 2020, haven’t we? Everyone keeps hoping that one day someone will declare that the pandemic is over and we can all get on with our lives. But just as Phil Connors can’t be certain if tomorrow will be Groundhog Day or if it will finally be February 3, we’ll just have to wait and see. 

We won’t know for sure until after that clock-radio flips over to 6:00 am and the sound of Sonny and Cher fills the air for the final time. Of course, many fans of the film say that it was only after Phil began to feel genuine compassion and concern for others, more than himself, that he could be freed from his (likely) self-imposed time loop. Maybe that’s true for the pandemic as well. I don’t know, but it couldn’t hurt to try.

“When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.” — Phil

Lately, I’ve been in my own little Groundhog Day which was put into perspective for me by an automobile. On New Year’s Day, the clock in our car got stuck on January 1, 2022 at 1:00. After some clever fiddling with the system software, we now have it stuck on January 1, 2022—at 3:00. An internet search revealed that the navigation systems on certain car models have a glitch that may—or may not—correct itself sometime in August 2022. In the meantime, we are stuck just like Phil. 

“What if there is no tomorrow; there wasn’t one today.” — Phil

In 2020, I challenged myself to work more on my writing, and I was proud that I was able to create a new blog post every month for more than a year. But life and work can interfere with the best laid plans of mice and men, and I began to notice that while I completed a full list of tasks every day, I wasn’t making progress in other areas that were important to me.

I wrote a blog in September 2020 titled Stop the World (and let me off) Lessons Learned from a Pandemic. It was about how creatives were dealing with the isolation and challenges of the pandemic. Now, two years later it is clear that pandemic fatigue is still affecting me—along with everyone else. It seems there is more learning and adapting to do, but I’m OK with that.

In the end, Phil finally figures it out: The best way to get out of a rut is to focus on the people in your life and look for ways to be a better you—for them!

“Sometimes I wish I had a thousand lifetimes. I don’t know, Phil. Maybe it’s not a curse. Just depends on how you look at it.” — Rita

PS: There is also some really great music in this film, particularly the main theme. Weatherman was written by George Fenton and Harold Ramis, and sung by Delbert McClinton.