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Monday, March 28, 2016

Everybody Wants to go to Heaven, but Nobody Wants to Die

I'm blogging again! Quite a hiatus, and I see my last entry was also Easter 2 years ago. It seems Easter often provides me with good fodder. Not only is it one of the best paying gigs of the year, it is also one of the most demanding to play, and emotionally and spiritually moving as well. Lots to tell - plenty to write.

Any savy brass player looking for work will have multiple Easter gigs lined up. In addition to Easter Sunday worship services, the Catholics and Episcopals have Easter Vigil saturday night. I lost the Easter Vigil gig I've had for five years, so I called a friend to see if I could play with him for Easter Vigil. He had asked me in the past when I was already booked, and was thrilled I was available.

I had noticed his voice sounded funny on the phone, and assumed he was getting over a cold. However when I got to rehearsal it was very evident that he had something more than a cold. Steve is an energetic, sharp musician who drives the piano fast. He leaves room for improvisation, but you had better get on his train when it leaves the station. The man who ran rehearsal was a shadow of that man. He had gained maybe 20 pounds, and his beard was much shaggier and rugged looking. His quick sure step had become a shuffle. His cheek had a bruise on it - from a fall?

It was shocking for me to see my friend like this. The story I learned later is that after some trouble seeing, he went to the eye doctor. The doctor told him to immediately go to the emergency room and that he had a brain tumor. The tumor was removed, and since then his vision has suffered and his prognosis isn't good. During rehearsal, the singers needed to go over a section they weren't getting. Steve struggled to read the simple notes and play the melody. One woman sat next to him on the piano bench and quietly offered to play to melody for him. The room was thick with tender sensitivity towards Steve's needs. It was wonderful.

About a week before the service Steve had a seizure - his third - and those are tough to recover from. The same tenderness for Steve was everywhere as his community held him up so he could play his last Easter. It was fascinating for me to hear him and play with him. One of the best skills we develop as a musician is learning how to fake it. We can drop the less important parts and nail the hard parts. Steve did pretty good. While his playing is no where near what it used to be, I think most of the parishioners worshiping didn't know much different.

One of the funnest things for me, and I think Steve, is how I improvise on hymns. There were a couple times when the music needed to be extended to fill time while someone was traveling, or setting up communion. Steve looked over at me and yelled "Fred! Improvise!" We would take off together through a hymn with no sense of strict form. It was beautiful, and I loved it. After the service, I went to wish him well and thank him. He said he knows my name isn't Fred, but that he used to play with a trumpet player named Fred. As I walked away, he then exclaimed "Eric!" I'm so glad my other Easter Vigil fell through.

As I was driving to play the Easter Vigil, I heard an NPR interview with Loretta Lynn, and a clip of her singing Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. How appropriate for Easter.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Eggs after Easter

Right now I'm prepping two gigs that require totally different skills - Friday night I'll play Mozart with choir and orchestra, and then next week I start a 24 show run of Wicked. It's like getting ready to figure skate and follow it with a hockey tournament. Different equipment, different challenges, different highs. 

Playing Mozart looks so simple. I have probably five or six different pitches in the whole piece, and trumpet parts usually just double the timpani. It's incredible exposed and delicate. It's like the pursuit of the perfect over-easy egg; keep the shell out, and don't cook it too much or too little. Figuring out how loud or soft to play, and how much accent to put in is a trick. 

Practicing Wicked is more like making an omelette. A little shell in the mix doesn't matter as long as I have lots of ham and cheese. The picture above is my setup for practicing wicked. Two horns, five mutes, and a laptop with video of the conductor. Today until the show starts I'll try and run half of the show so I'm ready without being burnt out.

I haven't practiced as much as I hoped for Wicked. The music isn't the problem - it's familiar to me from last time - it's just very physically demanding and I hoped I'd have more chops by now. Since last time, I did buy a new mouthpiece which will make it a little easier. 
Hopefully there's not too much egg on my face once we start performing.
I want to be eggcelent.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Community Helper

I had two gigs yesterday, and both reminded me why I'm a musician.

The first was playing for my son's 2nd grade classroom. The project the kids are working on is an updated inclusive version of "What do you want to be when you grow up?" The teacher asked "Which community helper would you like to be?" She gave an open invitation to the parents to come in and talk about their role in the community.

Early in the process the teacher had the kids naming community helpers they see.
"Police Officer!"
"Oh no, musicians aren't community helpers!" she said. I don't know quite what definition she had in mind, but needless to say, I was a little fired up, and eager to be a parent volunteer.

I showed up for my time in my full tux and tails with two trumpets. After playing a couple short songs, I opened it up for questions, and they were great! "Do you know my dad who plays drums in this band?" "Where did you go to school?" "How long have you been playing?" and then this question "How are you a community helper?"

I said there are two ways I'm a community helper; one is that I teach. I help people get better at music and help them enjoy playing trumpet. The second way is that I offer music to the community, often at some of the most special times in their life. A wedding, a funeral, a worship service. And then a kid raised his hand and said "There's a third way - you provide entertainment!"

As my closer I played this version of Amazing Grace by Ronald Romm. (I added a fast verse after the slow intro) and it was lots of fun. Lots of trumpet growls and shakes.

And then a kid asked "Why do you play trumpet?" My answer came easy in that moment. "I love making the sounds you just heard - didn't you love hearing it?" The room was full of the happy energy of kids getting an unexpected treat late in a school day. They all loved it. So did I.

That night I had a unique symphony gig. We played at a hotel for an intimate concert for about 100 people while they dined on food paired to go with the music. This is one of the few gigs I've had where the musicians weren't invited to raid the kitchen. The food looked really good!

The music was light - West Side Story, Sound of Music, Star Wars, Rodeo by Copland. We closed with Sing, Sing, Sing and in addition to the raging drum solo, I got to blow a little. I played well, and of course the drums brought down the house.

As I walked out, a couple that had been there stopped me for a second time to say how much they enjoyed the concert. More than that, that it really mattered to them and had changed them. "I feel enlivened." one said.

Me too.