In Praise of the Adult Amateur and Non-Pro Musician

I attended the first-ever Chicago Clarinet Symposium this weekend at Northeastern Illinois University. It was two days filled with everything clarinet: master classes, concerts, vendor displays and sample instruments. I enjoyed my time there. I took lots of notes, discovered new-to-me repertoire, heard amazing performances, and met some nice (and talented) people. I even met my bass clarinet hero. We were all kindred spirits in our love of the clarinet.

One thing that became clear to me, however, was that I was not part of the target audience for this event. I am not a college student, professor, or full-time professional performer. I have a Bachelor of Music in Theory and Composition, a Master of Library Science, and work as a cataloger for a public library.

Me performing "The Old Grumbly Bear" with the Crystal Lake Community Band, July 2015

Me performing “The Old Grumbly Bear” with the Crystal Lake Community Band, July 2015

I do cobble together some of my income from music. I teach private clarinet and piano lessons to middle and high school students, sell my compositions and arrangements at Sheet Music Plus, and sometimes get paid for performing. I consider myself a semi-pro musician in that I do make money from music, but it is not my primary income (and as of yet, does not come remotely close to matching my primary income).

I felt some inkling of not-really-belonging as I registered, as the master class performance options were nearly full already. Once I arrived and saw my fellow conference-goers, it seemed even more clear that I was an outlier. On the second day, I appeared to have completely flummoxed one woman I was chatting with in that I didn’t fit any preconceived notions about The Attendees beyond the fact that I played clarinet (and even that seemed to stump her when I said my degree was in theory/comp, not clarinet performance). She seemed surprised that I’d even heard about the event, much less had the interest and inclination to attend.

I do want to reiterate here that I did enjoy myself. I may not have been part of the target audience, but I still gained immense value by attending. Besides, I’m actually kind of used to being the odd duck and a bit of a loner, so I wasn’t uncomfortable by any means. I also know that a couple of my peers would have liked to attend, but the scheduling just didn’t work out for them this time.

But this did get me to thinking about so many of us musicians who are my true kindred spirits: those of us who took the practical route after getting our BMus degrees (or didn’t pursue music degrees at all); those of us who earn most or all of our income through non-music careers; those of us who still want to participate even if we’re not the ones taking center stage at a prestigious concert.

Those of us who still want to learn. We are in community bands, teach private lessons, have jam sessions with friends, play the local pit orchestras, and participate in any number of other musical activities. We’re out there.Just because we’re not full pros or still in our youth doesn’t mean that we are done learning. Click To Tweet

Just because we’re not full pros or still in our youth doesn’t mean that we are done learning. In fact, some of us finally have the resources (and some time) to put toward that goal. I have felt a pull toward taking lessons again myself, though finding a college-level teacher when you’re not in college anymore is a challenge. It’s hard to know where to start, how to discover who is willing to take on a middle-aged clarinetist who isn’t working toward landing a symphony job, how to work lessons and practice time into an already-crammed adult life schedule. And I don’t even have kids that I’m shuttling back and forth to their own numerous activities.

(Of course, this also leads to examination of the past, and how much time I could/should have spent practicing and networking, but didn’t. For a variety of reasons. But that subject will have to wait for another post.)

What, then, can we do to encourage and include the adult amateur and semi-pro? I believe there are large numbers of us. Do we start our own conference? Do we speak up to event organizers to see if they will include some tidbits for us? Some sports have pro-am events—can we incorporate this idea into our music world? Or do things like this already exist? I’m not sure, and I’m just starting to really mull all this over.

Knock on Wood rehearsal, January 2017

Knock on Wood clarinet choir rehearsal, January 2017

I am the founder and organizer of Knock on Wood, a clarinet choir based in McHenry County, Illinois. We are a community group of over twenty musicians. We range in age from teenagers to octogenarians and range in clarinets from the itty-bitty E-flat sopranino to the ginormous contrabass. We play in this group because we love the clarinet family and the gorgeous music that can happen when you get large numbers of us together. We want to sound good. We want to improve ourselves. We want to simply enjoy playing our favorite instrument with fellow clarinerds. (And we’d love for you to stop by our Facebook page to see what we’re about).

We’ve discussed having our own Clarinet Day, with a few master classes and a mass choir that invites those who don’t regularly play with us to join us for the day. While yes, we want to encourage our high school (and even middle school) players to come to the event and participate, I want to make sure we still give opportunities to our adult players.

This is still in the very early planning stages. We have things to consider since we’re not affiliated with a university, namely the budget. We also have a challenge that we’re “way out” in McHenry County and not closer to the city of Chicago (that said, I’ll mention again that we have over twenty clarinetists on our roster, with more who would join us if their schedules could fit with ours. People are out here and interested). I do feel that an event like this would add great value to our community of musicians, though, and we can make it happen.We exist, we want to learn, and we want to be included. Click To Tweet

But until we get this event off the ground, I want to encourage those who are beyond the status of amateur to remember that we’re here. We exist, we want to learn, and we want to be included.

 

What’s playing at Tonal Diversions – June 2016

It’s the end of June already! How did that happen? Time for another segment of “What’s playing?”

(Time for the disclaimer: I don’t have any affiliation with these artists or authors. I checked the albums and book out from my library and want to chat about them)

“Hamilton” by Lin-Manuel Miranda

It’s the musical everyone’s talking about: “Hamilton.” While I haven’t seen the show, I did check out the cast album. I’m not usually a big fan of hip hop/rap, but it really does work with this show. Unsurprisingly, though, a couple of my favorites on the album were more traditional Broadway-style songs. I listened to this in the car and was essentially flying blind in that I didn’t have a song list, lyrics, or synopsis to prep me for anything. Due to that, “You’ll Be Back” (sung by Jonathan Groff) cracked me up when I realized just what the song was about. At the other end of the emotional scale, “Burn” (sung by Phillipa Soo) broke my heart.

If you haven’t seen James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke,” I recommend his Broadway version (especially the Les Mis section at the end!)

“Violet” by Jeanine Tesori

I’m a fan of both Jeanine Tesori and Sutton Foster. I first heard mention of the show “Violet” when I got to hear Sutton Foster in concert in Chicago a few years ago. Foster’s album “Wish” has a solo version of the song “On My Way,” which is from “Violet.” That show got a Broadway revival in 2014, and I finally got my hands on the full album. I really enjoyed it. Of course I liked “On My Way,” and I was really impressed with the actress who played young Violet. One of the other standout songs for me is “Luck of the Draw.”

Here’s a clip of the cast singing on the Today show.

“Phone Power” by They Might Be Giants

Ah, TMBG, how fun you are! They’ve still got it. Like with Hamilton, I was flying blind on this one in terms of titles and lyrics. This time it was the song “Shape Shifter” that gave me a good chuckle, especially since I hadn’t known the title beforehand. “I Love You for Psychological Reasons” is catchy and fun. Two songs in particular (“I Am Alone” and “Sold My Mind to the Kremlin”) feel like the embodiment of TMBG.

“Why You Love Music” by John Powell

Now we’ll switch gears to print media. This title came across my desk at work and I knew I had to check it out. I’m about halfway through and have found it very interesting. Powell talks about how music interacts with our brains. Some of this I’ve known (or suspected, even if I couldn’t articulate it) and some took me by surprise (how music can affect how we perceive wine to taste, or even which wine we buy). I’m looking forward to the rest of the book.

Lori with most of her summer band gear

Lori with her usual summer band gear

Part of what caught my attention when I first saw the book was the top lines of the back cover: “Did you know that… carrying a musical instrument makes you more attractive?” I had to laugh, because they must be talking about guitars or something. I’m not sure that being in my summer band polo shirt, hair in a ponytail, with a bass clarinet case strapped to my back and carrying a drum stool and a bag of music really ups my attractiveness level. I have a concert on Sunday– maybe I’ll have someone get a pic of me and let my readers decide 😉

That’s what I’ve been listening to and reading lately. Have a good summer and I’ll see you again soon!

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The Flim Flam Cider Song by Daniel Ingram

Seeing that the grand day of silliness is upon us again, I had to take a quick trip back to Equestria for this post. This time we’ll listen to “The Flim Flam Cider Song,” music by Daniel Ingram, lyrics by Ingram and M.A. Larson, and orchestration by Steffan Andrews. We hear this song in season 2, episode 15 of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic (“The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000”).

I’m not going to do a second-by-second analysis for this one. Instead, I’d like to talk a bit about how this song relates to the song it pays homage to: “Ya Got Trouble” from The Music Man (music and lyrics by Meredith Willson). The Music Man is a classic Broadway show and one of my favorites, so I recognized immediately that that’s what the MLP folks were going for.

 


First of all, the setting: Both versions deal with fast-talking traveling salesmen visiting a small town. They try to hoodwink the townspeople (or ponies) into their respective scams. For Professor Harold Hill, it’s buying instruments and uniforms for a boys’ band. For Flim and Flam, it’s a contraption meant for speeding up the process of making apple cider.

Now, the songs: The primary similarity is that they’re both patter songs. In a nutshell, a patter song is a type of song that relies on lots of words at a high speed. “Ya Got Trouble” is one of the most well-known, along with the “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” by Gilbert and Sullivan. Rock bands have had fun with patter songs as well. I’m a fan of “One Week” by Barenaked Ladies (though I’m now feeling old because that song came out almost 20 years ago – yikes!)

The Flim Flam brothers, traveling salesponies

The Flim Flam brothers, traveling salesponies

Notice also how the lead singers interact with the crowds and how the crowd joins in the song. In the “Cider” song, the ponies sing along with the melody, whereas in “Trouble” they act as an echo. So while it’s slightly different, it leads to the same effect of getting swept up in the swindlers’ spiels.

The “Cider” song makes sure to include a nod to the most iconic part of “Trouble” – the chant. The townsfolk are so enamored by the stranger they start chanting, egging the stranger on. Others have paid homage to this sequence, most notably the Simpsons and their monorail song.

What are your favorite patter songs? Have you heard any other tributes to “Ya Got Trouble”? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear from you!

Have fun and enjoy the frivolity of today! See you next time on Tonal Diversions.

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What’s playing at Tonal Diversions – December 2015

I hope everyone had an enjoyable holiday. I had a wonderful time visiting family in Ohio. The trip felt too short, but it was great to see everyone.

(Time for the disclaimer: I don’t have any affiliation with these artists. I checked the albums out from my library and want to chat about them)

“That Would Be Me” by Harry Connick, Jr.


I’ve been a fan of Harry’s for a long time. I’ll admit I haven’t followed his career quite as closely in recent years, but when I found out he had a new album I had to listen to it. I really enjoyed it. It’s not the big band jazz of albums past, but I wouldn’t fully call it pop, either, despite it being classified that way on a few sites. There are elements of funk and jazz, and he makes good use of brass and strings. I think my favorite song of the album is the first one: “(I Like It When You) Smile,” followed by “(I Think I) Love You A Little Bit.” I just realized that Target has an exclusive edition with bonus tracks. Since I wanted to buy the album anyway, I think I’ll just have to mosey on to Target to get my copy.

“Come Fly With Me” by Herb Alpert


I’ll admit, I had no idea Herb was still out and about. I, and probably most people, only remember him from his Tijuana Brass days (“Spanish Flea”, anyone? 😀 ) But the 80-year-old has had a comeback in the last few years – good for him! Overall I liked the new album, though sometimes the accompaniments end up sounding rather like the presets on a keyboard. The strength of this album lies in his re-imagining of tunes we know, such as “Take the A Train” with a Latin beat. I like the cover of the Beatles’ “Something,” and he pairs “Blue Skies” with a style I wasn’t expecting.

“Departures” by the United States Air Force Band


This came across my desk at the library, naturally I had to check it out, being the band geek that I am. It’s a nice mix of classics and newer works. I was happy to see “Danzon No. 2” on here, as I recently played it in community band and loved it. The “Ender’s Game” suite is not the recent movie score, but rather a piece by Christopher Caliendo based on Card’s book, similar to the “Lord of the Rings Symphony” by de Meij that I’ve discussed on the blog. I do recommend this album and I’m looking forward to listening more to the new-to-me pieces on it.

So that’s what I’ve been listening to lately. Happy New Year to all! I do want to say thank you to those who have subscribed to my blog – I truly appreciate it. I hope 2015 closes on a high note for everyone, and I’ll see you in 2016!

Loving classical music – unabashedly

I just stumbled across this new-to-me article from The Guardian by Armando Iannucci. I highly encourage you to read it before going on with my post.

This article resonated with me, and touches on why I write this blog. I’ve loved classical since I was a kid; it’s always been a part of me. I still don’t know most rock or pop singers/bands, except in passing and knowing that there are a few things out there I like. My MP3 player is filled with classical, showtunes, some jazz, and a tiny bit of rock. I know I’m an oddball in that sense compared to my peers, but I don’t care. One of my favorite quotes is from Gretchen Rubin (The Happiness Project): “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.” I like performing, listening to, and composing/arranging classical music*. No apologies made or necessary.

(*Yes, I use the term “classical music” in the broad sense of the term, not just limited to music written between 1750-1820. To the more pedantic readers out there – deal with it.)

This quote from the article sums it up nicely:

“Classical music has been, for me, the single most inspiring, most moving, most magical thread running though my whole cultural experience. It’s the art form in whose presence I feel most comfortable, most myself.”

I started piano lessons in either kindergarten or first grade. My sister (3 years older) started flute the next year or so and, given that she had dreams of being a teacher, decided that she needed to teach me to play flute as well. At least that’s how I remember it – she might have another version. A couple years after that, I went along to hear her play at a solo and ensemble contest, and that’s where I saw it: a clarinet. I was immediately smitten, and knew that was the instrument I wanted to play when I started band.

The blogger at a piano lesson (~1983)

The blogger at a piano lesson (~1983)

I did have a brief fling with oboe in seventh and eighth grade due to boredom (and extreme band geekiness), but returned to my true love my freshman year. In college, I finally got to play bass clarinet and had a taste of contra, cementing my allegiance to the “dark side” (the low clarinets). While I still love to play the noodling-doodling lines in regular clarinet, there’s something about the power of the low beasts that’s quite satisfying.

Because of my love for music, it does pain me when people dismiss classical out of hand. Yes, it can be pretentious. Yes, it can be boring. Yes, it can be difficult to know where to start. No one will love every single piece of music. But there’s so much out there that to not give any of it a shot because of the couple of “boring songs” you heard makes me sad.

“I’m aware that it’s easy to fall back on quasi-mystical, pretentious language when trying to talk about one’s experience of classical music, but that shouldn’t stop us trying. We don’t talk about music enough. As someone who’s never felt he’s had the technical language at his fingertips, I feel all I can do is talk about it in whatever English I have at my command. I want to emote about how I feel.”

This is another quote that spoke to me, and it goes the heart of why I do this blog. I try to talk about pieces in a way that anyone can get, even someone who has never had any formal training in music. I just want people to hear the awesome sounds that happen in classical music and maybe nudge someone to explore more of the genre. I want to share my love for music with anyone who’s willing to listen. I don’t care that you don’t know a clarinet from a trombone, just that you have an interest in music. You don’t have to know the name of something in order to like it.

“I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but I find I can’t listen to Mozart. I don’t dislike him, I’m just unmoved by him. I realise I’m in a minority and I’m intrigued as to why this is. I broadcast a Radio 3 interval talk about this a few months ago, and the controller, Roger Wright, rather mischievously scheduled it in the middle of a live relay of The Marriage of Figaro. I received the biggest response to anything I’ve ever done. Buckets of letters and emails. None of them hostile. One or two confessing they agreed with me. But many more patiently, movingly, explaining why they loved Mozart.”

Brahms is my homeboy

Brahms is my homeboy – visit Wacketees on Cafe Press for more!

*looks around furtively* I’m not big on Mozart, either. Similar to Iannucci, it’s not that I don’t like him, there are just other composers that do more for me. Bring on Brahms, Ives, Arnold, Copland, Bernstein! I’m sure someone out there would love to revoke my Classical Musician Card™ due to my apathy toward Mozart, oh well. Let them try. Like I said earlier, there’s so much out there – we don’t all have to like the same thing or agree on everything. I once looked at one of the many Facebook groups for classical music. They made no bones about being elitist and had a list of Good and Bad composers. While I could understand quite a few of their choices, the fact that they had such a hard and fast list completely turned me off to wanting to join the group (and the fact that they seemed perfectly willing to ridicule anyone who disagreed with their list). Unfortunately, I believe those types of attitudes are what most non-musicians think of when they hear the term “classical music,” and further causes people to not even try listening to classical.
I'm sure someone ... would love to revoke my Classical Musician Card™ due to my apathy toward Mozart Click To Tweet

I hope my rambling today has made some sense. The TL;DR version would be “give classical a shot.” Ask me questions, even if you’re afraid they’re “stupid.” I’ll answer to the best of my ability. Check out local concerts by community groups. Even if we are far from perfect in our performance, we’re excited about what we do. Maybe we can excite you as well. Encourage your kids to take up an instrument or singing. Swing by the classical CDs on your next trip to the library or look for a classical genre on your preferred streaming service. Just give it a chance!

(I couldn’t leave without linking to some piece of music, so here’s a recent performance by me on bass clarinet. Enjoy!)