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Measures Of Rest

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Tuesday night I finished another year stint playing with the Metro State Community Concert Band. Although the band is considered a class for students who don’t make it into one of the audition-based ensembles, it is also an open opportunity for members of the community to join in, thus filling out the ranks with wind players, many of whom don’t have any other outlet for reading and performing music.

Despite the odd combination of young collegians, working age adults, middle agers, and a handful of geriatrics, it works in a charming way. Some are better than others, so the quality can be inconsistent, but we have a good time reading. Our director is a hoot to work with and picks music that is challenging and entertaining. Twice each semester we perform in the King Center on campus.

The other tuba player is an octogenarian named Virgil, the oldest tuba player in Denver as noted at a recent Tuba Christmas event, and he is a collector of rare instruments, an enthusiast of Civil War era music, leader of the Denver Ophicleide Association, a fine woodworker, and a music historian among other things. He’s a delight to play alongside, even though he’s more a tuba hobbyist than a player (he told me once his principal instrument is the clarinet).

This semester, Virgil put together an ensemble of hurdy gurdy players and commissioned an arrangement to have them play with the band at our end of year concert. It was called “Hurdy Gurdy Fantasy,” but I referred to it simply as Measures Of Rest.

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Measures Of Rest is a collection of folk tunes meant to invoke the spirit of the lirnyky buskers of 19th century Eastern Europe, so naturally our performance would have been incomplete without folk dancers, slide whistles, funny hats, wood blocks, and other silly shenanigans—not to mention the almost-but-never-quite-completely-in-tune droning of the hurdy gurdys themelves. It was an odd performance and a trial to sit through.

Perhaps I would have enjoyed it better had there actually been something to play. Instead, it was an exercise in patience as I counted out measure after measure after measure of rests.

In fact, it was customary for me to tweet about Measures Of Rest while we were in the middle of performing it, as there was not much else to do. One time, I actually worked out the finer details:

* There are 229 measures of music, none of them up-tempo.
* I actually play for 20 of them, broken up over three sections that are nowhere near each other.
* At its longest stretch, I have 116 measures of rest in a row where section G repeats three times (prime time for tweeting).
* By the end my participation equaled a staggering 8.7%, meaning I was doing nothing for 91.3% of the piece.

Measures_of_rest

[Please wait one more minute before continuing. Feel free to use this time to check your e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and catch up on the news.]
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I’d like to be able to say I used this time to ponder the mysteries of the universe and its message about patience, the importance of slowing down to smell the roses, or some such psychobabble, but the hard truth is I spent it being bored. Heck, it was all I could do to stop myself from tweeting a photo of the concert while we were in the middle of the song. I can’t even find a way to tie it into its deeper meaning and broader implications in this very intellectual blog post.

And to top it off, with Virgil playing hurdy gurdy mastermind, he wasn’t able to play tuba, which left me as the only tuba player for the entire evening. Sure, I was happy to show off my new Jupiter (for our fun finale song, the tuba section—in this case only me—had to stand and play for a minute), but it felt awfully lonely.

Still, the concert was another fun romp with the concert-band-that-could, and I hope I’m able to make it out next year, even if there are more measures of rest.

[Please wait one more minute for the rousing ending to this story.]
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Oh, there is no rousing ending to this story. Like the hurdy gurdy tune, it just sort of … ends. Oh well!

 

One Tuba in a Sea of Guitars: DSE California 2011

Just returned last week from attending the Durango Songwriter’s Expo in Santa Ynez Valley, California (just N of Santa Barbara). At this expo, 150-200 songwriters gather together to mingle with each other, network with industry professionals and get direct feedback on material, write more songs, jam endlessly into the wee hours, and perform in front of the group if chosen for a showcase slot.

The DSE is held twice annually, once in California during February and again outside of Denver in October. This was the fourth in a row that Melissa Axel and I have attended, and it was the best one yet.

What exactly does a tuba player do at a songwriter’s expo? Well, play tuba, of course!

Apart from playing the kick-off party open mic the night before the expo began, Melissa was also chosen for a showcase performance during the opening night festivities. We played her song “The Worth Of Things,” which went over quite well—happy to have had the opportunity! It’s always an interesting experience for me when I play into a mic, but the sound in the room was great. (For lack of a piano, she was relegated to playing on a weighted keyboard. If only they’d move the lobby piano into the hall and onto the stage!)

The second night, singer-songwriter Andy Ard asked fellow musician Tage Plantell and me to sit in for his showcase performance, and the three of us had a hoot playing Andy’s “Here Comes Another Good Time” to the audience. He’s also asked me to play on this song when he records it later this year.

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After the showcases there’s an open mic which we’d wander in and out of. In addition, there were plenty of impromptu jams in the resort lobby, as well as packed song circles in crowded hotel rooms. The advantage to being the only tuba player at an expo overrun by guitarist singer/songwriters is that they are usually more than happy to have a tubist sit in and play with them. (Special props to Ron Gozzo who brought out his sax!)

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Ultimately, the driving force of the expo is the listening session: basically, twenty or so songwriters sit in a room, each plays a demo or finished recording of a song for a couple of industry professionals, and everyone takes note of their feedback and suggestions (pictured below). Pros come in all shapes and sizes, but many of them are music supervisors, label execs, successful hit songwriters, publishers, and management. This time, we were sharing nearly completed recordings from Melissa Axel’s debut album, and it was exciting to see a lot of these folks really impressed with the songs. There are also panel discussions on various music industry topics, and we attended the ones on Film & TV Placement (pictured below) and DIY.

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Overall, we had a great time seeing old friends and making new ones. Can’t wait for the next one this October!

 

Once upon a time.

It should come as no big surprise to anyone reading this blog that I play the tuba, but to this day I still find myself quite surprised to be doing so.

I don’t one hundred percent know why I chose the tuba or why I continue to pursue it. It must be one of those enigmatic “it chose me” situations, because I don’t recall sitting down and plotting it out back in 1985.

Here’s what I did know: 
  • My father was a professional drummer for a while in the ’60s. By the time I came along, it was just a hobby he pursued in our den, playing along to records or just pounding out some solo Samba or Jazz or Rock rhythms. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him perform with any kind of group.
  • My older brother (3.5 years my senior) tried learning the clarinet in middle school for a year—and seemed to hate every second of it, though nowadays he says otherwise. I’m certain it was a very harrowing year. It was for my ears, at the very least.
  • My musical interests were mostly rooted in the top forty ’80s tunes played on the radio: The Human League, The Police, Thomas Dolby, and scores of synthy hits like “The Safety Dance” and “Mr. Roboto.”
So the tuba? Really?

None of my history prior to the sixth grade seemed to musically add up the tuba. To me, the only “heavy metal” I was interested in by that point was a new Quiet Riot or Twisted Sister song, and those don’t even really count as heavy metal.

But then one day I found myself in the middle school band director’s office, faced with the most terrifying question: “So, what instrument do you want to play?”

Believe it or not, I hadn’t really thought about it.

Furthermore, I was already two weeks behind. I only transferred into the class because my two best friends were in it. They were already learning notes and sounds on their chosen instruments, playing hardcore tunes like “Hot Cross Buns” and “Mary Had A Little Lamb” from their super professional looking music books. How could I possibly catch up?

I was practically frozen with indecision. Should I choose the sax so I could wail like that guy in Huey Lewis and the News? No, my friend had chosen that one already. What about the drums? But could I ever live up to my dad’s expectations? I’d already lived through my brother’s squeaky attempts at ear torture, so clarinet was out. There were already too many boys with trumpets, flute was too girly, the trombone was too weird looking, the French horn was too French, and were oboes even real instruments?

The music teacher was a large, sweaty, and very bearded Italian man with round glasses, and he was becoming increasingly impatient. The moment had come, it was time to choose.

And then there it was, sitting on the floor just a few feet behind him, a giant horn clad in gleaming silver. I remember thinking, “Well, it is larger than a trumpet.” A quick panicked look to the band floor revealed an ensemble full of every kind of brass, woodwind, and percussion player possible, chomping at the bit to make music—except for one major instrument.

Swallowing hard, I looked back at the band director and stammered out, “The … tuba?”

Seconds later I had a giant hunk of heavy cold metal in my hands and was being ushered out of the office to my place near the back row.

So, was it divine revelation or just the result of a very complex series of subconscious decisions by a ten year old boy just looking to fit in? Sometimes answers come to you in the most unexpected ways, and I guess along the way you’ve just gotta learn to stop questioning them, lest you spoil the magic.

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[Pictured: ModernTuba, circa 1987, two years playing by this point]