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

East Texas Recollectus: James F. Keene and the Impulse of Will 

On June 27, 2022, James F. Keene (1948-2022), one of my most important mentors, passed away from acute myeloid leukemia. The onset was sudden and shocking. I got a message from Alice, his wife of 48 years, just two days before he died saying that they “were going to fight this battle aggressively.” I would’ve expected no less from either of them. In fact, it was the second time in his life that Jim Keene faced his own mortality and stared it down.

It has taken nearly a year to organize my thoughts about this amazing man, to try to process this loss, and put into words the influence he had (and still has) on my life. Whatever follows will no doubt be insufficient in achieving that goal.

When we first met, Mr. Keene was the new Director of Bands at East Texas State University (now Texas A&M Commerce), and although his tenure at ET was just a small blip on the timeline of his journey to the top of the band world, the imprint he made on the lucky few of us in his band cannot be overstated.

He spent just a few short years in Commerce (1975-1980), before moving on to the University of Arizona (1980-1985) and then to the University of Illinois where he became the school’s fourth Director of Bands and the Brownfield Distinguished Professor of Music (1985-2008). Even though he was with us for such a short time at ET, Keene (as most called him) is still revered and celebrated by our cadre of East Texas kids who he inspired to achieve excellence beyond anyone’s expectations (including our own).

In short, he lived a full life after leaving Texas; a life that had its share of successes and setbacks. But in the end, it was Texas where the native Michigander chose to retire. He once said to me that “at five o’clock on my last day at Illinois, the moving truck will be backed up to our house, and we are heading to Texas.” And that’s exactly what they did. He and Alice made a happy home in San Antonio that featured a putting green in the back yard, a few harps, and many visits from his two granddaughters.

Putting green in the back yard of the Keene’s San Antonio home. 

Although he spent only five years as a fulltime band director in Texas, Jim Keene had a profound impact on Texas bands. He was among the first to bring corps style marching concepts to Texas and he hosted drum corps like Phantom Regiment, the Blue Stars, and others on the East Texas campus, to rehearse and do exhibitions. The corps sought him out for his astute and candid assessment of their programs. I was fortunate that he brought me along to teach drumline and percussion at many of his marching clinics throughout Texas, often with Alice teaching colorguard, and others from his inner circle of student assistants.

One of the many clinics we did together but unfortunately, I didn’t make the Harlingen, TX newspaper article!
Here’s the photo of the Harlingen clinic that I guess was too steamy for the newspaper.

As a result of his many contributions to bands in Texas, Mr. Keene became the sixth person to receive an honorary lifetime membership in the Texas Bandmasters Association (today there are 15 renowned band conductors who hold that honor). According to their website, “TBA Honorary Life Members are chosen in gratitude for a lifetime of support and service to the world of music.” 

I knew James F. Keene for 46 years, 1 month, and 3 days. We met on May 24, 1976. That date stands out because it was the final concert of my senior year of high school. I was loading equipment into the Longview High School Band Van (the only transportation I had in high school), when Mr. Keene suddenly appeared at the rear door of the van, thrust his hand toward mine and said, “I need you to come to school at East Texas State University; let me know if there is anything I can do to help you.” I later came to realize that that hand shake was uncharacteristic for him, as were hugs or other physical signs of affection. He wasn’t fond of shaking hands and I don’t recall shaking his hand at any other time. He also never used the word “goodbye,” which was first pointed out to me by saxophone virtuoso and Professor of Music at the University of Michigan, Donald Sinta. He didn’t like the notion of seeing someone for the last time—relationships with him were nuanced and ongoing—it was understood that it was always “until we meet again.”

Mr. Keene was ostensibly in Longview that night to try and recruit my friend and high school classmate Lynn Childers—a talented trombonist that many schools were trying to attract. I was just a bonus because of my ability as a truck loader and (I suppose) drummer, as both skills were on display that night.

At the time, Lynn was planning a visit to Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, and he and his dad had invited me to tag along. Lynn and I spent several summers at the SFA Summer Band Camp, and since our high school band director, John “Piccolo Pete” Kunkel—who we revered—was an SFA grad, it just seemed logical that we would go there too.

SFA Summer Band Camp Symphonic Band 1971 with fading autograph of respected band conductor and composer, Dr. W. Francis McBeth (or “Mack Beth,” as we called him in Texas).

Here I was, a senior in high school with no real prospects—or even a clue—for getting into college. It was Lynn who casually asked me one day if I needed a ride to take the SAT that Saturday? I had no idea what the Scholastic Aptitude Test was, but Lynn assured me that I needed it if I intended to go to college. Who knew? 

After the visit to SFA, however, we both felt that our reception there was rather cool. We thought that “maybe they didn’t need us as much as that ETSU guy,” so we planned a trip to Commerce, Texas for what turned out to be a life changing visit. Mr. Keene greeted us warmly and while Lynn visited with legendary trombone professor, Dr. Neill Humfeld, Mr. Keene escorted me to the financial aid office to begin paperwork for the Basic Equal Opportunity Grant (BEOG), now known as the Pell Grant. That grant would make it possible for me to become a first-generation college graduate. 

We were treated like honored guests, which turned out to be another of Mr. Keene’s unique talents—making people feel special. He could remember any person’s name upon hearing it once, and he had an uncanny ability to say something nice—share a little detail—about each person when introducing them to one other. We decided that day we were going to be roommates at ET. The Lions are coming.

Of course, Lynn and I weren’t the only ones to receive this treatment. There were many others—a whole band as it turns out—who were attracted to him by his sheer impulse of will.

In her important textbook, The Modern Conductor, Elizabeth A. H. Green describes Nicolai Malko’s concept of “the will of the conductor.” She wrote; “The conductor must will certain things to happen. If he can will his hand to make the right gesture, the orchestra will read it correctly.” It has also been described as “hearing the desired sound in the inner ear, believing, and executing, thus initiating a confident response from the ensemble.”

It was clear that Mr. Keene believed in his vision for us and in his ability to execute that vision, even if he was less confident about certain aspects of his own skills. One example is that although Mr. Keene had an excellent ear, he never mounted the podium in those early days without his trusty Stroboconn model 6T-5 tuner. In the first years that I knew him, he was constantly double checking himself against the strobe. I know this for a fact because I was the one who set it up for him before every rehearsal (but that’s getting ahead of the story). In later years the tuner disappeared, as by the time he reached Illinois, his impulse of will was fully formed.

Keene was an amazing conductor from both a musical and technical standpoint. He knew how he wanted the band to sound and pursued it doggedly. I recall his impulse of will being on full display during a memorable rehearsal in which the band was struggling to execute a rhythmically challenging moment. Some sections of the band had rhythms in groupings of three while others played in groupings of two. He stopped and told one section of the ensemble to watch his left hand while everyone else was to watch his right hand, then he started again. To our amazement, he “willed” us to play the section perfectly by effortlessly executing an elegant 3 against 2 conducting pattern. When we stopped, the band spontaneously applauded him. I’ve never seen that sort of awed response to a conductor in a rehearsal before or since.

As a young man (barely 10-years older than me and many of his students), Mr. Keene could be quite charming, yet he could also be brutal and relentlessly demanding of his students and colleagues. ET was his first university teaching job after completing a stint as a teaching assistant for the mercurial band leader, William D. Revelli, at the University of Michigan, but he had ambitions that would not allow him to remain at a small regional school such as ours for more than the five years it took to develop an unlikely hotbed of band activity. 

From Fall 1976 until his departure from ET, I was Keene’s student, equipment manager, percussion arranger, section leader, truck driver, gopher, and (according to him) a constant source of frustration. He taught me to be organized, demanded reliability and integrity, and showed me that success and respect were privileges that had to be earned every single day. There are many stories about my experiences at ET and with Mr. Keene—some true and some apocryphal—but none that will be told here. Well, maybe one I suppose… 

Whenever I would do something wrong, Keene would flash his trademark grin and say, “Daniel Moore, did your mother have any children who lived?” It broke the tension but was also a reminder that I needed to think, to do better, to be better. He teased me with it many times over the years, and I can even remember the last time he asked me that question (well, one of the last times). I was probably 40 years old and a fellow professor of music at a Big-10 university, with a DMA in percussion, and he was introducing me—on the megaphone—to the entire University of Illinois Marching Band! Thanks Mr. Keene!

Mr. Keene and his trusty megaphone.

Among many other things, Mr. Keene is credited with bringing the love of my life from Arkansas to Texas, for which he was quite proud. He was also rather fond of reminding me that if not for him, I might’ve ended up working at a gas station in deep East Texas, or worse—in prison. It was always tough love from Mr. Keene—the kind that cannot be meted out today—but genuine love none the less. 

The last time we were together, Keene shared his concern about some short-term memory loss, and he told me of his experience with a recent memory test. It made him feel anxious and without control over the situation. For him, this was a feeling in which he was unaccustomed, and that he did not like. I had seen some of those memory slips, but at the same time, he could still remember the name of “that kid from Mesquite who played bass clarinet in the ET band in 1977.” 

We had a nice lunch that day and when he picked up the check, I said “you don’t need to do that.” His response was delivered in the trademark gruff tone that instantly transported me back to 1976; “don’t tell me what I can do Daniel P. Moore!” 

Well, I guess “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” to quote Mr. Keene. In fact, there are many famous quotations from Mr. Keene that live rent-free in my brain to this day, such as: “I suspicion, that you are playing a wrong note,” “what’s a half-step between friends?” “that band can’t play Come to Jesus in double dotted whole notes,” “you turkey,” and of course “it’s a Beautiful Day in Commerce.” (The ironic version).

Read more about Neill Humfeld and It’s A Beautiful Day in Commerce.

I am thankful that I had the opportunity to tell him how much he meant to me, both in person and in writing over the years. As a young man, I once wrote him a letter that said (as near as I can recall) “I appreciate you now for all the times I hated you most.” The fact is that I never really hated Mr. Keene. What I was trying so inelegantly to say was that he saw through me and cared enough to tell me the cold hard truth about myself, and sometimes that smarted. He had high expectations for me and was disappointed when I didn’t reach them. As an adult, I loved him for his candor, his loyalty, his advice, and for setting me on the path to responsibility and success. But most of all I owe him for altering the course of my life by means of his impulse of will.

It was an honor to be part of Mr. Keene’s memorable East Texas blip. He will be missed.

Teacher and mentor 2015.

The ET Wind Ensemble on a tour (and a side trip to Matamoras, Mexico). Two college professors along with a few future college professors, some composers, a member of the Marine Band, a member of the Dallas Symphony, a bunch of band directors and music teachers (including an honor band director), a police officer, a city councilor, a handful of jazzers, an entrepreneur or two, a flight attendant, an IT specialist, and that’s the ones that I know about for sure.

Citations:

Contributors, Texas Bandmasters Association, Honorary Life Members

The Modern Conductor (7th Edition), Elizabeth A. H. Green & Mark Gibson, published by Pearson, 2003

ISBN 10: 0131826565ISBN 13: 9780131826564

Contributors, Jim Cathey’s Crap. Stoboconn 

http://formicapeak.com/~jimc/stroboconn

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…

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)

J.C. Combs and the Wisdom of Words and Wrestlers

In 1983, as one door closed to me, another opened in a most unlikely place, Wichita, Kansas. I won’t tell you how long it took me to be able to effortlessly spell “Wichita,” but it was there that I came under the tutelage of Dr. J.C. Combs—one of the blessings of my life. 

At the time I entered Wichita State University as a graduate student, Dr. Combs was enjoying a successful academic and performing career. But like a lucky few of his kind, J.C. was conflicted. He had one foot in the classical world and the other in the avant-garde. If he had more than two feet, they’d have been dipped equally into jazz, vaudeville, country, Elvis, and Bootsy Collins.

As a college percussion professor and a certified cut-up, J.C. despised playing percussion ensemble concerts to mostly empty houses. He thought that much of the contemporary repertoire for percussion was of little interest to the average concertgoer, so he began to create over-the-top percussion events to attract larger audiences. He used theatrical lighting, staging, video projections, actors, dancers, singers, poets, smoke and mirrors, you name it. His collaborations resulted in compositions for percussionists performing with pinball machines, bowlers, cloggers, jugglers, Gospel choirs, a “Velcro” tap dancer (a story for another day), and wrestlers (well, maybe not the kind you would find in Iowa).

“I haven’t seen Iowa people get so excited since the night Frank Gotch and Strangular Lewis lay on the mat for three and a half hours without moving a muscle!”

Mayor Shinn, from The Music Man

Yes, wrestlers. The Wichita Symphony (for which J.C. served as principal timpanist) rehearsed at the Century II Performing Arts and Convention Center in one corner of the building, and in the other corner (so to speak) were professional wrestling matches. There, in the backstage area, he met some of the wrestlers and began hatching a plan for his next big event. They suggested he get in contact with National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) promotor and referee Bob Geigel in Kansas City. J.C. floated his idea about a collaboration to Geigel (a former University of Iowa wrestler and football player) and the project took off from there.

The 1948 University of Iowa Wrestling Team. Bob Geigel back row third from left.

Somehow J.C. persuaded his colleague, Dr. Walter Mays, to compose a work for large percussion ensemble and wrestlers. Combs and Mays had already collaborated successfully on Six Invocations to the Svara Mandala, for which Mays won the Percussive Arts Society Composition Contest (1974), and a Naumburg Recording Award (1975). He had just been nominated for a Pulitzer for his oratorio Voices of the Fiery Wind, but his next major (and most infamous) work was War Games for Extended Percussion and Professional Wrestlers.

In addition to a large battery of standard percussion instruments, the work called for jack hammers, piano played with carpet-covered 2X4s, two drum sets without cymbals, a regulation fight ring, two wrestlers, and a referee. The now legendary work was presented at the 1983 Percussive Arts Society International Convention in Knoxville, Tennessee, and I was a performer on that memorable concert. Even in the huge ballroom, the audience was standing room only, and from my position in the ensemble I could see influential percussion teacher and PAS Hall of Fame member Haskell W. Harr, at age 89, standing up from his wheelchair to be able to watch the entire performance. The crowd went wild. It was the talk of PASIC that year, and of many years to come. The 30th Anniversary of PASIC Commemorative Program Book includes a photo of our performance.

Thirty Years of PASIC Commemorative Program Book.

That performance garnered both praise and criticism (cheers and boos in wrestling parlance) but it also secured J.C.’s reputation as “a cross between John Cage and P.T. Barnum,” a characterization made by Dave Samuels. 

One assessment of which J.C. is particularly proud came as the result of a chance encounter with a musician who was well known for his musical opinions. J.C. tells the story of a visit he made to New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen around the time of the production of War Games. While strolling around the city, he happened to hear the familiar sounds of a percussion ensemble wafting from an upstairs rehearsal hall. Never a shrinking violet, J.C. talked his way inside to see what was happening, and found himself in the company of Frank Zappa. 

When the mercurial Zappa learned that J.C. was a university percussion teacher, he asked what sort of things he did with the ensemble. Expecting to hear of music by John Cage, Lou Harrison, or—Zappa’s idol—Edgard Varèse, he was surprised when J.C. described the wrestler piece in full detail. When he finished, Zappa said, “That’s the outest [stuff] I’ve ever heard of.”  J.C. knew that if Frank Zappa thought he was “out,” then he must be doing something right. 

“That’s the outest [stuff] I’ve ever heard of.” 

Frank Zappa

In a recent phone conversation with J.C., I told him what a profound experience it was to be with him at WSU during that memorable time: with all the cool, one-of-a-kind projects we did, and how his positive and creative energy led us to so many amazing and memorable experiences. 

But he turned it around on me. To J.C., it was the energy he felt from his students that motivated him. When he got an idea, he was emboldened to pursue it because his students always “took the ball and ran with it.” They not only embraced his (often outrageous) schemes, they added their own ideas along the way. They became part of the creative process. It was this positive energy loop that was responsible for many of the creative projects accomplished by J.C. and his students. 

He said, “I was just plugging into my student’s creativity; the excitement of kids running the show.” That’s when I reminded him of the time one of those “kids” drove a golf cart onto the stage as part of a bit before the ragtime marimba band played. They tested the cart and the stopping distance on the stage (without passengers) but with the full complement of the marimba band on board, the stop was a little too close for comfort for audience members in the first few rows. He laughed and said, “Creative things aren’t always without risk.” He recalled that others were concerned about his productions as well. “I once had a dean ask me if I knew what I was doing? I just said ‘yes’, he said ‘OK,’ and that was it.”

“Creative things aren’t always without risk.”

Creative projects require tremendous physical and mental energy, but possessing that energy doesn’t necessarily promise success if the possessor remains inactive. There must also be a catalyst to set things in motion.  J.C. was the catalyst that jump-started our energy. When participants get excited and on board with the creative process, it tends to self-perpetuate. By definition, this is synergy.

Synergy, a buzzword frequently dismissed today as business jargon, is the sharing of creative ideas that amplifies energy in unpredictable ways. The old saying that the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is a classic illustration of the word synergy.

So, it wasn’t energy alone that was the driving force behind most of J.C.’s wild ideas, it was the synergy created when everyone became part of the process and felt empowered to contribute. There are many teachers and creatives who have a lot of energy, or who push their students to do great things, but do they generate, and perpetuate, synergy? Are they a catalyst?

J.C. was the catalyst that jump-started our energy.

Dr. Combs told me that when he would visit other schools as a clinician, he often found an energetic teacher full of creative ideas, but he didn’t always sense the same enthusiasm from the students. “Everything was flowing one-way: from the teacher to the students. There was just dead energy, and I thought, why don’t teachers just get out of the way of their student’s creativity?” A catalyst can quickly become an inhibitor if energy can’t be turned into synergy. 

Without synergy, students may only go as fast or as far as they are pushed (or dragged in some cases) and when that external pressure is removed, inertia sets in and nothing else happens. Some teachers believe it isn’t their responsibility to get students to “buy in,” but creating something worth buying in to is an important first step toward developing a perpetual culture of creativity. 

One energetic person acting alone can certainly bring a project to a successful conclusion, but it is difficult to sustain that energy if you have to pull the creativity wagon alone. It is much easier—and way more fun—to engage the creativity of others.

I consider myself lucky to have experienced energy and synergy both as a student and as a teacher. Thanks Dr. Combs!

Mentor and Student, Wichita, Kansas, 2019.

Dear Dave Samuels, thank you for. . .

Yesterday marked the second year of the passing of my mentor and friend Dave Samuels, and since Facebook Notes have gone the way of the dodo, I thought I would update and repost this remembrance to my new blog page.

Not long after receiving a text from Mat Britain that Dave had passed away, I began to see the many condolences and remembrances of him appearing on social media. And even though he had been in decline for several years and was no longer in the public eye, it still came as a shock. I guess these things always do. 

The last time I spoke to Dave, I couldn’t be sure if he really knew who I was, but at the same time he still retained the same dry wit and mordant humor that endeared him to (or sometimes alienated him from) people. I considered the possibility that this moment might be the last I would share with him. That fear was later confirmed to me by his longtime friend and duo partner David Friedman.

One of the most heartwarming developments in the weeks following his passing was seeing all the photos of Dave posted online. In every shot he graciously stood there smiling sincerely, arm in arm with mallet players both accomplished and amateur, and with fans from around the world. Everyone, it seems, had a picture of themselves with Dave Samuels. Why; because he was a talented and respected musician who performed a lot, played on many excellent recordings, won a couple of GRAMMYs, gave countless clinics and masterclasses, wrote beautifully crafted music, and inspired more than a few generations of vibes/marimba players? Yes, but it was more than that. He always took time to meet people, talk to them, make them laugh, advise them, or just pose for a picture, and here were the stories and photos to prove it. 

Two of my most influential mentors: Mike Mainieri and Dave Samuels at PASIC 2013.

I always admired Dave for taking the marimba to the big stage of popular, jazz, and Latin music; first with Spyro Gyra, then with the Caribbean Jazz Project along with Andy Narell and Paquito D’Rivera. In 1979, Spyro Gyra’s Morning Dance was a Top 40 Hit and a #1 Hit on the Adult Contemporary Chart. The recording featured a marimba solo and a steel pan both played by Samuels (a detail that Andy Narell never let Dave forget). With Spyro Gyra, Dave Samuels brought the marimba to perhaps its largest audience. He was—pardon the expression—a Rock Star. 

Morning Dance in tribute to Dave Samuels.

Mat and I once met Dave for dinner before a Spyro Gyra concert. We ate, talked, heard his latest jokes, and had a great visit. When we picked him up at the hotel he told us that he hadn’t actually been to the venue yet. As concert time approached he didn’t seem terribly concerned about getting to the hall. Finally, we headed to the concert arriving just minutes before showtime. We walked in the stage door and Dave casually glanced out to see the vibes and marimba set up with mallets carefully laid out and everything ready for him. We thought: “This is the big time; the kind of thing marimba players could only dream about.” Later we laughed about it—and aspired. He was one cool cat!

You may be cool, but you will never be jazz-vibes-player-on-a-cigarette-add cool! Not as cool now as it was then, but you get the idea.

With their originative group Double Image, Dave Samuels and David Friedman defined the marimba/vibraphone duo genre. They showed us that you could, and should, be able to play both instruments well and that they are perfect foils for each other in creating rhythmic, expressive, and compelling music. They remained friends their entire adult lives and played together around the world, even into the last years of Dave’s life.

Double Image: Dave Samuels and David Friedman.

I took my first lesson with Dave Samuels in 1984 then continued to study with him off and on for about the next ten or more years (longer than with any other of my important teachers and mentors). I listened to his recordings, performed his music, transcribed him, wrote papers about him, composed music for him, and consulted him on some of my life’s biggest decisions. During a memorable visit to Iowa City in 2000 he advised my wife and me, at length, on the ins and outs of buying a house. He loved giving financial advice.

Dave was a demanding teacher who had little patience for anyone who wasn’t serious about learning. “Stop right now” he would interrupt; “what chord are you on?” “C minor 7” [replying sheepishly]. “No, you are in the turn-around and it’s a G7.” He knew I was faking it and that aggravated him. “Come on man,” he would say in frustration. “It’s just the same [stuff] over and over again.” But he could also be incredibly patient. If I asked him to show me a lick, he would stop and break it down slowly to help me understand exactly what he was doing.

Funny the things you hang on to. Mat Britain had this from one of our lessons with Dave.

Whenever possible I would sit, practically at his feet, with my eyes and ears positioned as close to the bars as possible (without getting hit by a flying DS-18 mallet). I was trying to absorb as much music from him as I could by any means possible including osmosis if necessary. I’ve watched him from the wings of Spyro Gyra shows, Double Image concerts, and in many other settings including once with a surreal combo of hempen homespuns playing jazz standards in a Cowboy Bar in Livingston, Montana. True story. Over the years we played together both privately and publicly and I always learned something new every time.

Here is a fun photo of Dave Samuels and me jamming together on a piece I wrote for him. These were the times I learned the most — standing beside him and getting schooled. That’s also Mat Britain working the timbales back there . . . Wichita State University, 1984.

When the Britain Moore Duo was just starting out, Dave and steel pan artist Andy Narell became encouraging and supportive mentors. We had many memorable Duo lessons with Dave that helped shape the BMD. On one particular occasion, Mat and I infamously hauled our marimba and pans into the lobby after a Spyro Gyra concert to have a lesson with him. We played our hearts out while the crew noisily broke down the band’s gear. We worked until the stage grew dark and quiet then he stopped suddenly, glanced at his watch, said “later cats” with his familiar droll inflection, and disappeared into the tour bus that was waiting just outside the theater doors. No goodbye, no hugs or handshakes, just an implicit promise that we would indeed meet again—later.

By the time the bus door closed behind him with a final “cussshh,” it was well past midnight and pouring rain. As they pulled away, we were left standing agog in the lobby and with the theater staff telling us to get our stuff and get out! We didn’t sleep much that night as we tried to dry out our instruments and process everything that had happened over the course of one weird, wet, and memorable evening. We wanted to remember everything he told us to work on and make it better by the next time “later” rolled around.

But in all that time, over all those years, and given many opportunities, Dave never once told me “good job.” That just wasn’t his way. To study with Dave, you had to bring your own self-confidence, no matter how paper thin it was. He never let on that you were on the right track. You had to know that if he didn’t think you were worth his time and effort, he simply wouldn’t continue to teach you. After a particularly frustrating lesson I asked him: “Am I going to make it?” He snapped back; “I can’t tell you that; nobody can.” Speaking about his students in an interview for Modern Percussionist Magazine he said “[t]hey’ve got to teach themselves. Ultimately you are really a guide more than you are a teacher. I feel responsible for showing my students ‘how to,’ but I don’t feel responsible for how far their innate abilities may take them” (Mattingly 11). Well, I can attest to that. It was up to me to figure out—using the same logic—that neither could anyone predict that I wouldn’t make it!

There were however, subtle hints that you were in the hunt. If he complained to you that someone else’s performance “wasn’t so nice” or that their clinic “didn’t tell me anything new” then you knew his expectations for you were higher. There was an assumption that you had reached a certain level but it was never spoken.

When Mat and I started gaining traction as the Britain Moore Duo, we ended up on the bill with Dave on several Day of Percussion events. After one such event, Dave and I talked late into the night about how disappointed he was in his own performance that evening. Opening up to me in that rare unguarded moment allowed me to know that he respected my musicianship enough to reveal this to me. I remember thinking that “if this is how hard he is on himself, then how could I expect him to let me get by with substandard playing?” It made me want to work even harder.

When I stopped studying with Dave, it wasn’t because he never complimented me, but because someone else did. After a Britain Moore Duo concert, an audience member approached me and gushed; “Man! You sound great (the words every musician loves to hear). He continued, “you play just like Dave Samuels!” (cue sad trombone sound) That was the end of my lessons with Dave; or at least it was the beginning of the end.

One reoccurring theme in my interactions with Samuels was the importance of finding one’s own musical voice. He didn’t want the Britain Moore Duo to play the music of Gary Burton and Chick Corea (a lesson we never quite learned*), or Double Image, or any other established group. He would say “you don’t want direct comparisons with players like that.” It stung a bit but we—at least mostly—got the point. He encouraged us to write our own music and to use it to mark our musical territory. Being told that I sounded like Dave was a compliment to be sure, but it pushed me toward the realization that I needed to focus more on creating my own sound; my own voice.

*Some Lessons You Never Learn: Maybe That’s OK—Chick Corea (1941-2021)

Since Dave’s passing, I will be teaching a lesson, and find my thoughts returning to him. I hadn’t realized before how many of his pedagogical concepts I use every day. I’ll be working on improvisation with a student when a Dave-ism finds its way into the conversation. My teaching style today though is different than Dave’s. I have found value in both criticizing and complimenting. Maybe it’s emblematic of the times we live in or maybe it’s just my style, I don’t know, but I always encourage my future educators and band leaders to “start by saying something positive before moving on to criticism.” 

I still get perturbed when my students don’t do their best and I don’t hesitate to let them hear about it. The best thing that can happen as a student is to reach a point when the teacher becomes comfortable enough to transcend the “niceness” of someone who is clearly trying to avoid hurting your feelings. Honest constructive criticism is the only thing, outside of your own desire, that can help you be a better musician. Samuels’ approach during our early lessons was to say little or nothing meaningful. But when we finally got to know each other well enough, and he decided I was serious, the gloves came off and he began to tell me what he really thought—often at the expense of my bruised ego—and that’s when we began having the most productive sessions. 

Compliments you can get from your friends, family, and adoring fans but genuine helpful criticism can only come from a teacher who cares enough to give you the feedback you really need to hear at the moment you need it most. But for that to happen, you must be willing to allow your self-esteem to lose some steam.

Maybe Dave’s teaching style worked for me because I was not going to be deterred from my musical goals by anyone. But it did work, and I am grateful for that. I should’ve told him this before he left us, but I didn’t, and that I regret. So, if he were alive today I would sit down and write a letter that might begin: “Dear Dave Samuels, thank you for never telling me ‘good job.’”

In Memory of Dave Samuels
October 9, 1948 – April 22, 2019

Works Cited:
Mattingly, Rick. Modern Percussionist. Vol III Number 1, 1986-87.

Update: Since Dave’s passing, his archives have been donated to the Berklee College of Music and to the Center for Mallet Percussion Research in Kutztown, PA. Before the Pandemic lockdowns, I began working through the 10 banker’s boxes of music, 4 boxes of framed posters, album art, and awards, and other materials given to the Center for Mallet Percussion Research. It has been fascinating and enlightening to see many of Dave’s works in different stages of development and in manuscript form. Look for more about the Samuels collection at the CMPR in the future.

Some Lessons You Never Learn: Maybe That’s OK— Chick Corea (1941-2021)

Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea died on February 9, 2021. He was a musician’s musician, an inspired composer, a dynamic entertainer, and a warm human being. Chick mastered many different forms of music from classical to be-bop, and helped pioneer the jazz-rock movement of the 1960s and 70s, among many other musical milestones.

(photo credit: chickcorea.com)

In the early 1980s, Chick Corea was going strong while I — a die-hard-drummer-to-the-bone — was pursuing my passion for marching percussion as the drumline TA for the Wichita State University Marching Band. Mastering the mallet instruments was not on my agenda, but my percussion professor, Dr. J.C. Combs, had other plans. 

Dr. Combs showed me that you could be both a drummer and a mallet player, because that’s exactly what he was. Add to his resume entrepreneur, impresario, emcee, composer, conductor, and civic leader, and you begin to get a clearer picture of J.C. Combs. He is also one of the wittiest and most creative individuals I’ve ever known, and a treasured mentor to me and many others. My classmates at WSU comprise a long list of successful and creative musicians, composers, and educators that includes life-long friends such as composer Paul Elwood, drummer Matt Wilson, and my duo partner, Mat Britain. 

During a memorable vibes lesson, J.C. casually handed me a record, saying, “You might like this.” The album cover was a photo of a city skyline at night with the title, in simple typewriter print, Chick Corea and Gary Burton in Concert, Zurich, October 28, 1979

The next day, I asked Mat Britain if he had heard the album and he responded with an emphatic “Yes! but I thought I had the turntable on the wrong speed at first.” Indeed, the recording of Señor Mouse was so fast that it seemed to be playing at 45 rpms rather than 33 1/3 (something that could easily happen back in turntable days).

Though the album was minimalist and unpretentious on the outside, the music inside was embellished and bold. The double LP recording featured live versions of nine Chick Corea compositions previously released on their earlier studio albums Crystal Silence and Duet, and included a nearly twelve-minute version of Crystal Silence, which became one of my favorites of his works. Those three recordings set in motion my journey with Chick Corea’s music. 

Mat and I explored the Corea songbook together, banging our heads against tunes like Crystal SilenceSea JourneyThe Children’s SongsLa FiestaOpen Your Eyes You Can Fly, and many others. 

Then, when Mat and I heard Andy Narell and Dave Samuels perform for the first time as a steel pan/marimba duo at the 1983 Percussive Arts Society International Convention, the idea for the Britain Moore Duo was hatched. Adding to the significance of that moment for us was that they played a Steve Swallow composition that Chick and Gary Burton had recorded (which was another big influence on us). Andy later told me they chose Falling Grace because “it was the only tune we both knew.”

I began studying with Dave Samuels soon after that PASIC performance. He became an early mentor of the Britain Moore Duo who coached us, advised us, and admonished us NOT to play Chick Corea tunes, especially the ones Chick and Gary Burton had made famous. Dave told us, “You don’t want direct comparisons with players like that.” Ouch! 

But this was the one lesson of Dave’s we never learned. The pull of Chick’s music was just too strong. 

Chick Corea was a kindred spirit of percussionists, partly because he was a drummer in his younger days, but also because he just loved the vibes and marimba. We were fortunate to host Chick at The University of Iowa on several occasions, and during a Burton Corea duo tour, I got a call that they wanted a marimba for their performance. Sure, no problem. 

When the marimba arrived, Chick seemed more excited than Gary, who barely even looked at the instrument. Chick fawned over our Yamaha five-octave marimba as he told me that most venues on their tours couldn’t come up with one, so this was a real treat. I thought he was just being nice. At concert time, Chick bounced onto the stage clutching a pair of marimba mallets, wrapped in a towel and held tightly to his chest. He slid onto the piano bench and discreetly deposited them inside the piano where they remained hidden, and the marimba untouched, for the next 90-minutes. Near the end of their program, they launched into Armando’s Rumba and suddenly Chick retrieved the mallets from their hiding place and burst from the piano to join Gary in a spirited marimba vibes duet. He was having the time of his life, and so was the audience.

After the concert, Chick told me he was “really only practicing the marimba these days” and that he had a similar Yamaha marimba at home. He loved the marimba and enjoyed pushing himself in new musical directions. 

Chick performed often as a soloist but I think that he much preferred making music with others. Here are the final thoughts he shared with his many friends and fans from around the world.

“I want to thank all of those along my journey who have helped keep the music fires burning bright. It is my hope that those who have an inkling to play, write, perform or otherwise, do so. If not for yourself then for the rest of us. It’s not only that the world needs more artists, it’s also just a lot of fun.

And to my amazing musician friends who have been like family to me as long as I’ve known you: it has been a blessing and an honor learning from and playing with all of you. My mission has always been to bring the joy of creating anywhere I could, and to have done so with all the artists that I admire so dearly—this has been the richness of my life.”

I still have a great fondness for the mountain of incredible music Chick Corea left us. I will continue to enjoy learning and playing it, and letting it add to the richness of my life. 

 Some lessons you just never learn, and I’m OK with that.

Here is a recording of Crystal Silence made from the light booth at the 10th Patagonia Percussion Festival in Argentina, 2012. My tribute to Chick Corea.

East Texas Recollectus: The Day I became a Student of History

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. 

Mentor and student some thirty-years later. Dan and James F. Keene, 2015.

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. 

At the end, there were too many strike throughs and not enough scribbles

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.

Recommended Listening:

Andante from Mozart Piano Sonata No. 16 performed by Dan Moore on marimba.

Music in My Head (Part II) Bright Sunshiny Days

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

lyric by Johnny Nash

Listening:

I Can See Clearly Now, Dan Moore cover

Eruption (Guitar solo) by Eddie Van Halen

I Can See Clearly Now by Johnny Nash