July 2, 2014
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July Jive

July stands out to most of us because of Independence Day, July 4th.  It has its own feels and smells and sounds associated with the day.  The music is mostly patriotic, which I have always liked, especially the marches by John Philip Sousa.  They are stirring and very distinctive and built around a band that is marching while playing them.  That very straight, incessant beat is also probably the beginning of the pounding disco beat, but who knew? The smells are mostly flowers on the graves of our deceased ancestors and the fallen military.  A very distinctive scent in this context.  The smells are also from the millions of grills set up to barbecue steaks and burgers and hot dogs.  Also very distinctive. And the feeling of the day is mixed.  Joy combined with patriotism combined with sorrow and love.  The family get-together.

July seems to be a month sometimes dedicated to families uniting in picnics or reunions or an excuse for a vacation to come together to reminisce and talk about days gone by, whether good old days or not so good.  If we didn’t do this, we might never see each other or the kids or the grand kids.  So this gives purpose to the whole month.  My own family in its younger years was filled with sunny days and dark days.  Like most families.  Unfortunately our memories seem to get clogged with the darker events which crowd out the really good times.  You would think that the opposite would happen, that the good times would crowd out the storms and floods.  In my younger days in the 40′s and 50′s they come through dark and cloudy.  Maybe that is why I seem to crave rain and dark cloudy days and a cave-like atmosphere.

This period of time, and July itself, also reminds me of my uncles.  All three of them served in World War II.  I know very little about their service other than the fact that they survived.  A miracle in itself.  My dad’s two brothers were both marines, and my mother’s brother was in the army. My father didn’t serve because of a severe burn across his chest. All are now deceased. The only factual information I have is a newspaper report of one uncle in Hawaii during the attack on Pearl harbor.  It said that he was on the tarmac firing his rifle at planes as they flew over.  I’m not sure what the effect was, but he survived the event.  Many did not.  He never talked about it.  My mother’s brother was stationed in Japan after the war.  I know this only from the few pictures that I have of him there in uniform.  He also never talked about this time.  This is another example of memories crowding out other memories.  I’m sure that the sunny days were overcome by the clouds and fumes and gun smoke of the time. No one talked about PTSD then.  They just knew that there was a lot of trouble with the military readjusting to a society which had also changed while they were gone.

My memories of my paternal uncles were of them being loud and curt and under the influence.  They scared the hell out of me.  Nothing was logical or even made any sense. I was young and trying to grow.  They were trying to assimilate.  Nothing was working smoothly.  It has taken many decades to work out these feelings.  Somewhere in the many books I have read about this period of time there started to be a glimmer of understanding.  But how do you begin to understand someone else’s pain and how they deal with it or how it destroys them?  There is a movie from 1946 called “The Best Years of Our Lives” that deals with this problem in a dramatic way that, I’m sure, helped many people of that time to understand.  It must have been popular, it won 8 academy awards including best picture.

I also have a friend from high school who served multiple terms in Viet Nam.  He also survived, but he is in a very different place now.  Survival is a relative term.  The people that were so against the war at that time mistakenly blamed the individual soldier.  In many cases this made re-entering the society of that time to be virtually impossible.  I really hope that we are re-discovering duty and honor and love of our country and the worship of a loving God. When we forget these, we become a mere shell of the country we used to be.  This needs to be reversed.  And the best way is to teach respect to our young.  They need to learn to sing (respectfully), The Star Spangled Banner and God Bless America and many other songs of America that are in danger of being ignored or lost.  It has been said that freedom isn’t free.  We ALL need to work at it.

 

June 2, 2014
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June Nights

When I think of June, now that I am a bit older (conservatively speaking), I think of all of the nights I spent playing trombone in bands, combos, night clubs and arenas of all kinds.  Hundreds & hundreds of jobs concentrated over a ten year period of time. And most all of them enjoyable from a playing aspect.  Not much thought usually went into what to wear, it was usually my gig suit, which was a black tux with a black bow tie and a white shirt.   The kind of suit that you could stand in a corner by itself after a while. The other option was wearing one of the jackets from whatever band I was playing with. Either way, not much thought went into my apparel.

The playing also didn’t take much thought.  I would open the book of music (charts), numbered from 1 to whatever,  and get up 3 or 4 songs which someone would count off, and play that way for usually 3 or 4 hours.  Now this involves being able to read music well and sight read even better.  Any player walks into a gig not knowing what exactly what he will play, only that it needs to be played well.  Keys, meters, solos, small ensembles (dixieland), etc. are all part of the experience.  There is a bit of excitement and a bit of risk involved whenever you open the book of music.  A little like contemplating Pandora’s box.  You have to be ready for anything.

As enjoyable as this was, there were hazards to the situations I was in.  Mainly booze and drugs.  A lot of very good musicians fell by the wayside because of these hazards.  They are ubiquitous and, sometimes, your participation is almost expected.  Peer pressure is a very strong influence.  Thank goodness that my interest was not in these impediments, but in the music itself.  It saved me. Also watching others under the influence play with a lesser quality under the influence when they felt that they were playing better than ever was a deterrent.  Such is the seduction of substances that play games with your mind.

Nights in June in the midwest were usually mild, warm, slightly humid, but usually pleasant.  Inside was not always comfortable, especially when there was no air conditioning.  Outside, however, could be cooler and breezier, but with the wind to contend with. Never play in a group outside without clothespins to hold your music!  (This was in a time when there were clothespins practically everywhere).  The wind can be devastating when you are trying to read music at night with a dim music stand light and pages that are blowing up & down.  Some very creative sounds can emerge from the band at that time.

The smell of the outside is also something I remember.  The combined essence of flowers, plants and trees can be exhilarating when you are inhaling deeply in order to sustain long phrases.  (Sometimes you take in air through your mouth when playing, and sometimes through your nose).  This is a personal choice and usually determined by the situation, but circular breathing is always through the nose.  This makes it possible to sustain notes indefinitely, and comes in very handy when playing long phrases in music by Wagner or Sibelius.  (It involves breathing in quickly through your nose while forcing air from your cheeks to sustain the tone).  It takes some practice to be able to use it.

One more memory of playing outside on those June Nights is the incessant sound of insects.  This sound combines with everything else that happens:  music, conversation, or just the silence that would take over if there were no other sound.  This is memorable to me because of the tinnitus that I carry with me.  Neverending, and just nestled there with my memories.

May 1, 2014
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May Muddle

In my experience, May has always been an unsettled month.  The push toward the end of the school year, graduations, holidays.  All of these interrupt normal schedules and routines. Also weather that is unsettled.  Sometimes bright and sunny, sometimes dark and stormy, but usually warm and even hot.

Warmer weather means more outdoor games and sports.  When I was young this meant scouting activities like hiking, camping and scout camp, work on merit badges, campfires and exploring in a woods somewhere out of town.  Boy scouts helped me through some difficult times when I was young.  It became almost a surrogate family experience.  Challenges without judgment or recrimination, striving, learning, growing, being shown how to lead and how to follow.  All of these were a great help later in life, especially in music and bands and choirs.

The month of May always makes me think of parades.  Throughout my school years I participated in parades in many places and in many aspects such as Boy Scouts, marching bands, drum & bugle corps, etc.  They were always long & hot with crowds of people, other bands, floats, various motor vehicles, and always ended at a cemetery with a program of speeches and inspirational messages – also hot, and usually with an assortment of bugs, especially if you were sitting on or near a grassy area.  After taps, when the program finished, we always hunted for the graves and headstones of deceased relatives and close family members. A yearly ritual.  Then a picnic.

The cemetery became a favorite place for me and a few friends to play through grammar school.  It was close to home, quiet, contained mysterious places to explore, and small ponds with weird creatures, algae, and multicolored bugs and insects. The varied sizes and shapes of the headstones made games like hide & seek and tag more fun than usual because of the expansive territory. Best of all, we were never bothered by anyone in charge.  We just climbed the chain link fence and took advantage of our freedom to roam unfettered.  These were times I could think and dream, make up melodies and imagine the instruments that might someday play them.  Beginning arranging & composing. This could go on until either dinnertime which one never missed or twilight (depending on the time of year), which changed the whole dynamic. You DO NOT want to be caught in a cemetery when it is getting dark!  The imagination tends to run wild with bizarre images.  Best not to go there.

May was always a muddle or jumble of activities, but still seemed exciting and refreshing after a harsh winter.  Definitely a time for music and rejoicing and happiness whether it was raining or sunny.  We heard songs that ranged from the sweetness of Mother’s Day to the marches and hymns of Memorial Day.  Styles may change a lot, but the original intent & purpose remain the same:   highlight the day or the moment or the occasion or the season with meaningful words set to musical sounds which move our emotions to a higher plane.

Music helps us to express the inexpressible.  There are many songs that come to mind on these occasions.  But if there isn’t anything that works when you need it, then make one up!  It doesn’t have to be elaborate or complicated or long.  But first, you must turn off your TV, iPod, stereo, boom box, or at least remove your earbuds.  Let the dust settle a bit.  And then invite the appropriate words & sounds to your consciousness.  Creativity usually likes a clean slate and…….quiet……..good luck!

April 2, 2014
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April spring songs

April usually means that winter is gone and spring has at least started the new growth of life that in expected during this time of year.  Not always, but usually this is so.  There is a greening and a flowering and a collection of smells that have been absent for many months.  There is also a rainy spell that accompanies the new growth and makes it possible.  This is the part I most enjoy.    Rain in any form:   rain on a tin roof, rain on a tent, rain on a car roof, even rain on a raincoat when you are safely inside and dry. All of these are inspiring and invigorating to me.

Conversely, I am disappointed when the rain does not appear.  If a drought occurs, it also occurs in me, and I tend to dry out and wither in my psyche unless I find rain or somehow conjure it up.  When desperate,  I do this with movies containing rain scenes, or books that talk about rain.  Or I just imagine situations in which I am soaking wet or at least hearing he sound of rain.  Recordings of rain sort of work, but they become predictable, and rain is always unpredictable.  The rain in any form, I hope, keeps me sane.

The month of April also, normally, contains Holy Week and Easter.  I never thought much about this until I began directing choirs. These holy days are filled with music which reflects the Resurrection, and new life, and hope and love and a lot of other themes throughout the season which ends with Pentecost.  This is actually the easy part.  The difficult part is all of the preparation and rehearsal of the music to be used.  This is also, to me, the exciting part.  Not only finding music that is appropriate and works, but also composing and arranging new music when I can’t find anything published that works for us. But, this always becomes the challenge, and, though I tend to grouse a bit, I look forward to it every year.

April also becomes the end of the first quarter of the year, and this, to me, means that I am looking ahead once again to getting through the summer and into the fall, which is my favorite season of all.  It helps to have something to always look forward to, and when you are planning ahead, this is always the case.  The downside is that the year seems to shrink, and go faster and faster each succeeding year.  These cycles are a part of life itself, and must be either enjoyed or ignored.  I choose to enjoy them.

And after Easter, when everything slows down a bit and relaxes, I find that I can read more books and think a lot clearer and begin to vegetate and gather more ideas for original music and songs. And sometimes these ideas develop well and give me a feeling of satisfaction, and I am marginally content.  And sometimes this leads to happiness.   I tend to play the percentages…

 

March 1, 2014
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March Muse

March is sometimes characterized as “in like a lion and out like a lamb,” or vice versa. Either the end of winter or the beginning of spring.  I’ve always thought that this inherent indecisiveness signaled the perfect time to read books.  Lots of books!  And not just the average sized book.  I’ve always preferred large books with very small print which give you a chance to enjoy the environment within the book.  Some of my favorite authors have been: James Fenimore Cooper, Joseph Conrad, Ayn Rand, Alexander Solzhenitsin, Allen Eckart, etc.  All other books e.g. mysteries, spy novels, etc, are fillers between to provide a break or diversion; an abrupt change of mood, scene and environment; a sort of refresher before the next big adventure. This has been a pattern for most of my life, an attempt at order, organization, control, and even sanity when real life intrudes upon the creative process.

There is an exception, however.  The science fiction genre stretches the limits of reason and order and reality, and sometimes pushes the creative process into overdrive.  This is necessary in order to keep from getting bogged down in the past, which is a nice place to visit.  All of the really great science fiction writers have now passed on into the extrapolations of their own work.  Names like Arthur Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Van Vogt, Heinlein, Bradbury, etc. They all expanded the consciousness of many of their readers who have since caused the improbable to become probable or even realized.  Most of the new writing in this genre is fantasy, and it doesn’t serve the same purpose or have the same impact that the original science fiction provided.

The newest science fiction seems to be virtual reality (for the moment), and is still being developed, and our global society is assisting in this development.  But keep in mind that it was the great writers that made this leap ahead possible by expanding our collective consciousness, and it was done for the most part without illegal drugs which are debilitating and ultimately self-defeating. Think of some of the great “druggies” and their accomplishments, and realize how much more they could have accomplished with a fresh and active reality without the illusions provided by the drug of choice. Many of these innovators were and are musicians, writers, and artists of exceptional abilities who became limited either by their choices or their addictions. Both ways are unfortunate.

Creativity is a gift.  It is not to be abused.   Its muse is fickle.  When its door is open, the artist must recognize that it is open and proceed accordingly.  Most of the time there is only one opportunity.  The creative mind must take nothing for granted –  selectively absorbing, like a sponge, that which furthers the art, and, always, always, learning the new songs of life.

 

February 3, 2014
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February Fugue

February contains two holidays – Valentine’s Day and President’s Day, and, other than a monday vacation in honor of former presidents, Valentine’s Day is by far the most enjoyable.  The theme is love.  Wife, girlfriend, or just fellow world travelers, this love can be expressed in many ways.  Cards of all sizes and shapes, gifts of jewelry or candy (especially chocolate – which I personally dislike), and many other ways in which love can be expressed.  Taking my loved one to dinner is my favorite, usually with a card and a meaningful gift.  (she already gets all of the chocolate that might appear).  Watching a favorite Valentine movie also works – either in a theater or at home.  I never think of flowers (since I dislike them) – they die fairly quickly, so the significance is totally lost for me. But all of these tend to brighten up the month and make life worth living.

February is also midwinter.  When I was young it was always dark and gray and gloomy most of the time, and cold with unpredictable weather. Definitely a month to “get through” as quickly as possible and on into spring.  Whether at school or at work, it is hard to dredge up the energy to focus on projects that take a lot of thought.  An overactive imagination helps, but it can also blur your focus when dealing with the mundane.  A fine line to deal with in February.

In southern California it is supposed to be the rainy season.  Sometimes “it” doesn’t know this and we have a drought, like now.  It can also get very dry also with the low humidity and become a dangerous fire season.  The dry brush just waiting for a spark to appear from anywhere.  When this happens we have thousands of acres waiting to erupt in flames that become out of control almost immediately and then it becomes necessary to pour water on them or some kind of fire retardant so that homes don’t get reduced to ashes.  The whole water problem seems ridiculous to me because we are located right beside an ocean.  Water is plentiful in an ocean.  The only problem is that it is “salt water.”  But we have had many decades to figure out how to economically remove the salt from the water so it can be used on land, and this hasn’t happened.  There must be other priorities or agendae that have made this not happen.  We also need to figure out a more efficient way to put out fires on a mass scale.  Believe it or not, there is still much work to do in our society.

The other side of this coin is mudslides which happen after the fires have removed all of the vegetation, at which time we have heavy and extended rainfall which becomes raging streams of water that urgently seek the ocean, carrying everything in its path.  We seem to be an area of extremes.

Musically, February has always seemed to be a time of planning.  There is Easter and the summer months ahead with all of the festivities that require music which needs to be found, and arranged or composed for the groups that play for these events. For an instrumentalist all of these different groups and events become like a fugue of interwoven events where you change hats, or coats to fit the occasion.  It is what makes “live” music exciting, and we love it!

January 5, 2014
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January Jangle

January – the first month of the New Year!  I spent my first 30 odd years of life in the cold and unpredictable winters of Ohio, and the next 30 plus years in the mild winters of Southern California.  There is a huge contrast between the two areas.

My memories of Ohio in winter:  cold, snow, freezing temps, iced-over car windows, car won’t start, won’t even turn over, need a second car in the garage to start the first car, jumper cables, treacherous roads, black ice, bridges freeze first, snow tires, chains, salt, salt trucks on the roads and highways, stopped at a red light on an icy hill and my car starts sliding –  panic over no control whatsoever, scrapers for icy windshield;  icy steps, layers of clothing, a topcoat, gloves, hat, scarf and rubber boots; snowballs, ice balls, icicles – dripping, melting, falling, melting snow and ice, slush, icy tree branches in the wind – crackling, breaking from the excess weight and falling heavily and breaking power lines also frozen and iced, sleet, ice storms and blizzards, driving sideways on a highway, doing a 360 on an icy road; car door frozen shut – hoping my hot breath will thaw it enough for the key to enter and open the door – then hoping that the car will start. Brrrrrr…

Thinking of these things during a particularly harsh winter in Ohio in January, then moving to L.A. in June:

Fog at the beach, and sometimes rumors of earthquakes (it took me ten years to have the actual experience), rain and mudslides – occasionally –  mostly drought conditions (it’s a desert), water shortages (we live beside an ocean – why do we have water shortages?) and no one in this area has figured out how to desalinate the plentiful ocean water; desert winds that blow in from the hot, dry inland areas, humidity down to 10% or less making the air quality bad and  hot and dry with static electricity; but during the winter holidays we can have 70 to 80 degree temps while watching weather reports from the East with conditions already described. I left all of that aforementioned weather behind in Ohio for the mild conditions in Southern California – especially at the beaches, where: you wonder if you’ll get to wear that new sweater or jacket this year, you are bored with the same T-shirt-jean combination you wear every day in 70 degree weather, you ask yourself if you should get a car wash or is it going to sprinkle for 3 minutes and mess it up, roads collect dust and oil so that when they do get sprinkled on they can get very slippery (but your car door will still open).

Conclusion:  January in Southern California is just about the best place in the country to be at anytime, and, the second day of January is the celebration of our wedding anniversary – another best.  And, the best song of all for the best twenty-one years of my life is: …(Ta Daaaaa)… “Our Love is Here to Stay!”

 

December 3, 2013
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December Carols

December is a month that is full of contrasts.   Even when I was young, these same contrasts were evident, starting with extreme highs and extreme lows.  A lot of us, both then and now, seem to have trouble dealing with and expressing our happiness overtly and celebrating, in general, the season because of these contrasts.

First there is the original reason for the season, the birth of Jesus, contrasted with the comparatively recent advent of Santa Claus and the resulting rise of advertising and rampant commercialism.  These are almost polar opposites that are forced together in the space of one overcrowded month.  This can be a very confusing time, especially if you are already a little unbalanced.  If you are shopping, then you are acquiring presents to give to others, implying that, in contrast, you will be receiving presents. We are supposed to learn this when we are young.  Sometimes we do.  When we have completed our list of presents, we must wrap them, implying decisions like ribbons or bows. In contrast, when we receive, the only task is to remove the wrappings that were so painstakingly applied.

Next there are decorations to contend with, both inside and out.  The outside decorations are large, meant to be seen from a distance, contrasted with the inside decorations that are for small tables and other flat surfaces.  The tree is a study in contrasts with either colored lights or all white lights, and ornaments of all different shapes and sizes and themes.  There also used to be fads such as angel hair, tinsel (too much or too little), and flocking.  Lights can also either be sparse or very dense, blinking or non blinking and of course, too many could cause a fuse to blow causing all of the lights to go out.  And the absolute height of possible light problems is the light strand that is in series.  If one light goes out, they ALL go out.  This problem can be faced even today.  Avoid it!

The month also is a study in contrasts of weather. Going east, west, north or south, if you travel you will probably feel the effects of the local weather. It may be nice in LA, but if you are flying to the east coast or Chicago or Cleveland,  you may face flight diversions or cancellations that can drastically change your plans with no warning.  Depending on where you live, you may even face snow or ice or slush or rain, sometimes in a relatively short time. Sometimes combined. This contrast also causes a change in wardrobe from coast to coast or state to state, and even more luggage.

All of these contrasts can cause us (the haves & have nots) or us (the happy & unhappy) to have violent mood swings in many directions, which brings me to the salvation of the whole month and even our sanity – MUSIC!  Our favorite Christmas songs and movies that contain our favorite scenes and songs that we have watched and heard over and over for many years are like an anchor, grounding us against the many and varied contrasts contained in the month of December. Embrace the music, the standards and the carols and you will reach the New Year with your sanity intact.  Think of your radio & your iPod & your CD collection as therapy, as a hedge against the unknown. Inhale it with your ears and even your pores and you will survive.  Think of music as your friend, your new found friend. (there are some suggestions contained in this web site)…

Good luck, and have a Merry Christmas!

November 3, 2013
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Autumn Memories

November was always my favorite month in autumn.  (I always considered December to be winter).  It had a tendency to be dreary from the cold, wet rain blanketing all of the fallen leaves, and I always liked the feeling that this generated in me. It was invigorating.  Energizing.  The trees were less mysterious.  Since they had no leaves, there were no secrets hidden within, and so there was no point in my climbing up to hide in what used to be a secure place,  silent and protected from the stress of the world outside.  And, there were no longer any fruits to pick: apples, pears, plums, peaches…just droplets of water which would now fall whenever a branch was jiggled.  Stark and gray. Smooth and slippery.

So being outside, in November, took on a different meaning.  Dark clouds took on the role of security blanket, and rain falling became a friendly presence, whether it was a gentle touch or vigorously pelting everything with a loud white noise.  To me this was an enjoyable and delicious escape.  The exception was marching with my trombone in uniform in the mud.  Especially as the weather turned colder.  The trick for survival was layering clothing under my uniform and putting extra socks on inside my shoes to produce the illusion of comfort. (what we go through for our art)…

At night when it was cold and wet, I always liked the way the lights from signs and store windows would take on a halo effect, giving the surroundings a fictional feeling.  I would use this opportunity to invent stories and scenarios that took me into different places and even distant worlds.  This was at a time when I read a lot of science fiction.  I read a lot of everything, but I preferred science fiction.  It was also the heyday of this genre. All of the great writers were in their prime. Names like Asimov, Heinlein, Dick, Van Vogt, Bradbury, and many more were creating material that stirred my mind and stretched it like a large sponge.  These writers were inventing things then that we now use and  take for granted.  Even more intriguing is that many of these things have yet to be realized. A sobering thought.

In most cases this is probably a good thing.  We have enough to deal with right now and in the coming years in our own reality.  So, for now let’s all just enjoy this autumn, a season that in our much too infrequent quiet  moments brings back so many memories.

October 9, 2013
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October Scary Music Fest

My favorite Octobers of the past were wet and rainy.  Leaves of many fall colors were falling from trees turning gray, and on the ground, they provided a damp cushion for anyone walking on a sidewalk.  Sound in general was a bit softer and not so abrasive, making it easier to think and more comfortable to walk.  Remember when we used to walk a lot?  To various stores, to the downtown, to school, to lessons, to the nearest market.  This gave us a lot more time to think about life in general.  To philosophize on what ever level we happened to be in at that moment.  I think that this was healthy, and I miss it.

The change of seasons also brought with it a change in input to our senses.  The drastic and abrupt change in colors in vegetation from greens and browns to a whole spectrum of fall colors was invigorating, until they change yet again to deeper browns and grays. And the smells that we experienced when walking also changed from sweet and pungent to the moist and musty smell of decaying vegetation.  And these changes combined to lead us into our scariest October festival – Halloween.  The whole month still actually turns into a prelude to Halloween.  Darkness appears earlier each day, bringing shadows and an air of mystery.  And with the grayness comes the commercial colors of black and orange.  All of this adds up to our anticipation being drawn out over the entire month, which can make the holiday itself anticlimactic, it being over so quickly.  I still remember that slight feeling of claustrophobia when fully costumed, and the musty, gluey smell of the mask when walking from house to house croaking “trick or treat!”

Marching band was always a lot more comfortable because the heavy uniforms, stifling in the end of summer heat, worked much better with the cooler weather. Especially at night.  However, as the grass that was recently so comfortable turned brown and all but disappeared, the replacement was either hard earth or mud with the occasional pothole to contend with.  Try holding on to a note while stepping into a pothole, and maybe also losing a shoe in the process.  Also scary!

Besides the scary songs of Halloween, there are also always the songs of Octoberfest.  Lively, Germanic, and bringing  new sensory inputs of schnitzel, sauerkraut, beer and pretzels among other goodies.  The last great harvest festival before winter sets in.  The oom pah sound of the tuba and the clarinet, trumpet, trombone, accordian and drums ring cheerfully throughout the whole month. Enjoy!