A Funny Thing About Choirs

Community Choirs – you gotta love them. The people you see every day on the street, in the grocery, cutting your hair, cleaning your teeth, hauling your trash and fixing your car. They’re your neighbors, friends, enemies, distant cousins and the good and bad drivers on the highway during your morning commute. Folks from all walks of life getting together to share their love for music. I love community choirs and I play for them regularly. Usually it’s in a small orchestra performing some classical work for choir and orchestra. But last night it was in a trio – piano, bass, drums – performing gospel and jazz. Summer choir – tends to be more on the pop side. Lighter works.

It was certainly fun and the audience very enthusiastic. But I think I’ve finally figured out a behavioral pattern that seems to apply to every community chorus I’ve worked with. Have you ever noticed how a choir makes their entrance into the performance hall? It seems to work one of two ways with occasional variations. They usually either come down the center aisle in side-by-side pairs, splitting at the stage to come on stage from opposite sides. Or they come down the outer aisles in single files filling the stage from opposite sides. In some halls they’ll enter from the wings of the stage. But the important thing to watch is the spacing. I think choirs pride themselves on keeping equal spacing between bodies and moving at the same speed. Somehow I suspect they spend quite a bit of time practicing this so that you never see bunched up bodies anywhere along the way. It’s always a solemn, dignified, well organized entrance. This seems to bear no relationship to the quality of the musical performance but is an art in and of itself. The unfortunate thing I have discovered is that this march formation appears to be hard wired into every chorister and nothing – NOTHING – may interfere with it. Last night I needed to make an instrument change from acoustic bass to electric bass at the conclusion of the jazz portion of the program which was performed by a solo singer. The choir was joining us again on stage during this transition. Because of the small stage size I needed to move the acoustic bass off stage, walk back on, retrieve the electric bass from a different place and return to my spot on stage, retrieve a chair, plug in and tune the electric bass. All of this could easily have been accomplished before the chorus completed it’s long procession onto the stage (two single files from the back of the hall coming up the outer aisles) had I been able to actually get off and on stage. That was not to be the case. Sit at any unmarked traffic intersection and eventually some friendly motorist will slow his or her pace and allow you to join the flow. But not a chorister bent on keeping his/her proper spacing. You would think that a person with a very large instrument standing by the marching line of singers only wanting to cross to the other side of the line would eventually elicit some sympathy and someone would slow their pace enough to allow him to cross in front. I finally had to practically leap in front of a singer which the frown on her face told me instantly that I had made a bad move. I still had 3 more crossings of the line to make and after one more brush with soprano wrath I decided to just wait until they were fully on the stage. At that point the conductor raised her arms to begin the piece and I hadn’t even reached my chair yet, no less plug in and tune my instrument so I had to whisper loudly “WAIT!!!” and hastily tuned my instrument.

Everything went fine after that but I’ve finally learned my lesson and in the future will negotiate all necessary moves about the stage area ahead of time with the conductor which I’m sure will necessitate a complete reprogramming of the choir members and possibly extra rehearsal time.

Oh, by the way – the Chapel Hill Community Chorus gave a wonderful performance, as did the outstanding jazz vocalist Susan Reeves.

Hearing Inner Voices

I’m not talking about “listening to your inner bark” here (although perhaps some of the same listening techniques could be employed). I’m talking about what I’ve previously referred to as “the notes that nobody else wanted” or “those messy inner parts”. Think second violin or second soprano. Altos and violas. As an “outer voice” player (bass line and/or melody) I never really had to deal much with the stuff in the middle. It’s sometimes nice to listen to, it occasionally adds spice or life to the music, but I’ve never really paid it much attention. This past weekend I had the challenge of playing tenor viol (an instrument I’ve performed on exactly once before), reading my least favorite clef (alto), and playing 2nd and 3rd parts (really inner voices) in works by 16th/17th century composers John Bennet, John Bull, Orlando Gibbons, and Anthony Holborne. The event was part of the Centenary United Methodist Church in Richmond, Virginia Classics music series conducted by Stan Baker.

After getting over the usual “what clef is this?” “what instrument is this?” confusion I settled into trying to wrap my mind around these cast off notes. That’s really what they seemed like at first. The notes nobody else wanted. In music of this period there are not a lot of parallel harmonies. A part that follows the melody a third away I can hear. No – these parts seem to occupy their own little space in the universe – a place I’ve never been before. I kept trying to play the notes I THOUGHT should be there but my intuition was almost always wrong. Much of the time I was doubling singers but I found that I had trouble hearing the singer I was doubling because my ear kept going to the person singing the bass or lowest part – or the person singing the highest part. This gave me new appreciation of those people who play and sing the middle parts as part of their daily lives – second violinists and violists – what a different way to hear the music – from the inside out! It does truly take listening deeper to appreciate these parts.

By concert time I was finally able to hear my way around the music – I finally found my partners in the chorus and began to hear the odd but beautiful melodies that made up these middle parts. To hear only the outer voices is like a skeleton with a beautiful face – no substance, no body. I will make a point of listening for those juicy inner parts in the future.

I should add that I did get to play some “outer voices”. The program ended with the Handel Jubilate for the Peace of Utrecht. I played violone – the Duff Dawg , built by John Pringle and on generous loan from Duff (thanks!!!). Mr. Handel really knew how to write a bass line and bassists of all types and inclinations would do well to study his lines many of which could stand alone as melodies.

Man fined for using biofuel

You might not have seen this article – it was on the obituary page of our paper. A Charlotte, NC man is fined $1000 for using veggie oil in his car. He is theatened with further federal fines and told to get a permit to use biofuel he has to put up a $2500 bond. OK – so our laws have not kept up with the times once again. And while I agree that if we’re going to fund our roads with fuel taxes then everyone needs to contribute their share – I think the state needs to back off and stop harassing these people until they get the system figured out and let everyone know what the rules are.
News and Observer article HERE (obsolete link)
and an interesting Slashdot discussion HERE.

Cello Friday

It’s a cello Friday and the music of the Scots. I’ll be playing this evening with fiddler Mara Shea who is quickly becoming one of my favorite music partners. I’m not a big fan of Scottish fiddle music but it’s one of Mara’s specialties and we’ve played for a few dances together. It’ll be fun and I’m learning to love the music. Mara’s great at it and it’s a treat just to be able to hear her. It’s just a short program outdoors around the campfire (if it doesn’t rain, otherwise indoors) so bring your bug repellent or have that big garlic dinner you’ve been wanting. 7:00 – 8:00 PM at the Durant Nature Park. Here’s a Google Map link.

Exceptional Teachers – Exceptional Students

Two events last weekend by organizations that I’ve been involved with for a very long time reminded me of the importance of dedicated teachers in the arts. The Duke University Pre-Collegiate String School (or DUSS), founded by Dorothy Kitchen, celebrated it’s 40th anniversary Saturday. I’ve had the privilege of working with Dorothy for almost 25 years now and have witnessed her transform/mold/empower/encourage the lives of so many young people. Through an era of schools cutting back on music ensembles she kept string playing alive and well in the Triangle. In a world that rewards cheating and cutting corners she gives her students the permission to work toward perfection and helps them find the rewards and joys of putting your heart and soul and sweat and tears into making beautiful music happen. That she has done this for so many years, and continues to do it with a grueling teaching schedule in addition to being a wife, mother, grandmother and a person with many, many other interests in the world is a tribute to her dedication to making real, quality music-making a possibility for every young person who wants it.

Another wonderful person making the arts a reality for young people is Gene Medler, founder and director of the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble. I played (in a jazz trio) for NCYTE’s Spring Concert last weekend. First off, this is NOT your average children’s tap group. NCYTE is THE standard for youth tap across the country. The NCYTE approach reminds me of the Suzuki teaching approach. The company performs many of the same pieces year to year along with some newly choreographed works and reworked older ones. The older kids teach the dances to the younger kids. There is a lot of one-on-one between the students with very little intervention on the part of the teacher. Guest artists/teachers from the professional world of tap as well as former students drop in to round out the mix. There is a real sense of community there as well as some friendly competition. But all are working together for the good of the company.

The DUSS approach is much more top-down which is understandable given that the process involves private lessons with a teacher and orchestras with a conductor. But as I said – both methods yield excellent results. Gene Medler and Dorothy Kitchen’s approaches to teaching are probably miles apart but the result is the same – young people with a very high degree of artistic excellence and enthusiasm.

Seeing/hearing the young people in performance is the reward for the rest of us. I highly recommend you keep an eye out for upcoming performances by these groups.


Bad Memories

From time to time I get sudden flashbacks to some bad or embarrassing scene from the past. They make me shudder or exhale or sometimes even mutter something to try and make the thought pass on. They are nothing big and I don’t know why they plague me decades later but they live on in my body somewhere. One of the most frequent visitors is from college days – freshmen orientation, to be exact. It was the only time in my life I asked a total, absolute stranger for a date. We’d hardly had 20 words together before I asked her out. She declined, of course, but it was the gaping moment of silence that preceded that jabs me in the gut every now and then. I doubt she was stunned. I think she just wanted to see me squirm for a bit before she replied – give me time to regret. It worked.

But the memory that caught me off guard this morning is one that I’d forgotten for many years. It was third grade. Spring. The teacher told us to write a poem about Spring. I wrote the first thing that came to mind which was a song we’d learned to sing in second grade. It went like this:

“Robin, Robin, singing in the rain
Robin, Robin, Spring has come again”

and finished with something like:

“Pretty little Robin in the apple tree”

The teacher liked it so much (perhaps it had that familiar ring to it) that she sent it off to a children’s literary magazine who published it. I knew none of this until it was printed. My parents had signed a waiver to allow the publication, I might have even received some money, I don’t remember. I just remember being horrified that I would be found out – I had stolen this poem from our second grade sing-a-long book. I seem to remember trying to tell my mom that I hadn’t written this poem but I don’t remember her reaction or if she even understood what I was telling her.

I guess this all came back because it’s Spring – the robins are here. I can’t remember the third line of the song (and there were other verses but I only used the first one). If you know the rest or where it comes from let me know. The tune (on cello) is below if you want to listen.


Thanks to the wonders of the internet – a total stranger found this post and sent me the song:

“Robin, Robin, singing in the rain,
  Robin, Robin, Spring has come again,
  Robin, Robin, sing a song for me,
  Pretty little robin in the apple tree.”
(sung at P.S.193, Brooklyn NY in the 1940’s) 

Many thanks to Linda Kelso!


And Sally writes:

“I have a good memory of my brother, now 59, singing the song about the robin. It has been in my head these past few days and I Googled what I remembered of the lyrics and came upon your post. My sister and I remember it as happy rather than pretty robin! Shared these memories and your post with a friend named Robin whose birthday is today. Thanks for sharing your memory of this song.

I am from Indiana. I think my grandmother, who was from Northern Indiana, or my aunt, who was a first grade teacher, also in Northern Indiana, taught my brother the song. He is now almost 59, so would have learned it in the late ’50s or early ’60s. He also remembers as happy/rather than pretty robin, and singing in the tree/rather than rain.”


And here’s the tune as I remember it:

Trio in the Rough

I’ve been playing music with guitarist Bernie Petteway on and off for many years. We had a quartet, The Wasabi Brothers, for several years playing electric/eclectic jazz-sort-of. For the last few years we’ve been playing sporadically with drummer Ed Butler as the Bernie Petteway Trio.Bernie Petteway Trio

I’m reluctant to call this a “jazz trio” though we do play jazz. It’s more than that so let’s just say we’re an “improvising ensemble” using a wide array of material from the jazz, popular, and folk traditions as a spring board. This is a fun ensemble to play with and while we tend to draw out of the same pool of tunes from one performance to the next, everything that happens is pretty spontaneous. We play well together.

You can hear us almost every 1st Thursday of the month at the General Store Cafe in downtown Pittsboro, NC – just off the traffic circle. The food there is great and there are wonderful crafts scattered around the restaurant making it a very interesting place visually.

We’ll be there this coming Thursday, February 1st, at 8:00 PM for 2 hours of good music for our friends. Hope you’ll come! 

UPDATE: Gig canceled due to bad weather. The General Store Cafe will be closed tonight.

UPDATE 2: – In March we’ll be performing on the 15th, not the 1st.


the sound of no hands clapping

What if they gave a concert and no one came?

It’s a running joke/sad truth amongst musicians about the shows where the band outnumbers the audience. I’ve been there. It doesn’t matter if it’s an eighty piece orchestra with fifty people in the audience or a quintet with an audience of three. It feels bad either way. But it can be good. I played in Dana Auditorium in Greensboro, NC, once. It’s a large concert hall. There were four of us. Well – the audience did outnumber the band but not by much – I think there were 15 of them. We put chairs on stage so they would be right up next to us and it was great – like a living room concert. I think they even had a sofa up there that was a prop for some theater piece. The audience loved the intimacy and we got to play acoustically just like playing at home.

But it’s never happened before to me that simply not one person showed up for the gig until last Tuesday in Rocky Mount, NC. The Imperial Centre is Rocky Mount’s new arts and science complex. It was built with FEMA money (Rocky Mount was badly flooded during huricane Floyd) and private donations. It’s a beautiful performance space – looks like it seats around 800. Nice facilities, good acoustics. I believe it opened early this year and they’ve had some theater productions in there. According to the tech guy ours was the first music performance in the new space. I was playing bass with the David D. Trio – David DiGiuseppe on accordion, and Beverly Botsford, percussion. Sound check went quickly and well – excellent staff there at the Imperial (that name really bothers me, though). It seemed that there had been no advance ticket sales and I jokingly suggested we round up some folding chairs to put on stage in case we only had 10 listeners. But by showtime it was clear that it was no joke – not one person had shown up. Our host assured us we would have “a small audience” and by 8:15 a group of 12 people walked in and we scoured the dressing rooms for folding chairs. Our audience was a tap dance class that had been meeting in another part of the complex and been drafted to be our audience. They were augmented by a few staff members dragged out of their offices. 

This story could have had a sad ending – us packing up and driving home without playing a note but I think I enjoyed it even more than if we’d had a crowd of hundreds. Our new friends were ecstatic with the music they had no idea they were going to be hearing. They got to ask questions during the performance, we were much more relaxed than we would have been playing across the void between stage and rows of plush seats, and a very good time was had by all.

And in the great tradition of bureaucratic organizations – the check is in the mail……