Friday, February 25, 2011

Oh, Johnny, oh Johnny, how you can love.

One December, long long ago. I was sad. I'd been sad for a very long time. I remember riding in a car. Outside, the world was covered in snow. The sun was setting and Christmas Lights were starting to glow. The air was filled with the smells of warm cozy fires in warm cozy fireplaces. Before I could stop myself, I sang, "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas," and all the passengers in the car exhaled. You see I didn't realize how my sadness had caused my babies to in-effect hold their breath.

To a child, a mother's voice is the most beautiful thing in the world, not because the notes are on pitch -- or the vibrato is just so -- but because it means mother is happy. I've known this for a long time now, and I can even remember thinking something similar as a child. (O.k. it was more like, "I don't know why mom complains about her voice, I like it.")

The nice thing about a blog is that it helps you verbalize those things that maybe you don't remember or that you didn't "put together" right away.

Tuesday night, I came home from work wondering what I was going to do for the rest of the evening. Naji announced that his third grade swap meet was the next day and he needed us (meaning me) to bead him some more bracelets. How exciting, I had something to do. I plugged my external hard drive into my TV and selected some music to listen to while I worked. I fell upon a folder of 150 songs by the Andrew Sisters and figured that would keep me busy for a while.  Many of the songs were tunes I recognized and many were new to me. I didn't get my aha moment, however, until I heard, "Oh, Johnny, Oh." I'd heard that song before, but where?

For those of you who haven't heard the song, the refrain begins, "Oh, Johnny, oh Johnny, how you can love." And that was the part I was very familiar with. Suddenly I remembered my father singing it to my baby brother, Jon, when he was tiny.

You see, I know that the reason my Ol' Lady Band is playing "Jambalaya" is cause my dad liked it. And my whole family knows my dad liked "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You". He used to sing it to my mother. But what I didn't realize is that my Dad sang all the time. You family members that are reading this, remember "Cool Water" -- that was one of his go-to songs as well. Those of you who are not family members, my dad couldn't sing. He acknowledged that he couldn't carry a tune ("in a bucket" was the phrase back then).

But aren't I so very glad that he did sing. I find myself appreciating the very songs that I thought were bleck back then ("Hey Good Looking -- What's You Got Cooking" -- was so much better than asking what's for dinner.)

This Sunday as I was driving home from church, my eldest announced, "We got to sing 'I am Like a Star' in Primary today!" My eldest is 24 and teaches the 8 year olds. "I LOVE that song," she said. I should hope she does. I used to sing her to sleep with it when she was very tiny. When I told her that, we had a good laugh. There is no possible way she could remember that, but somewhere in her hidden memories, it's there.

My dad once told me kids don't get interesting until they're about 6. Isn't it nice that parents are interesting from the get go :)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Ukulele Loving from the 12 year old within

The Young Women (at our house we call them Young Lemons, because they get pretty sassy and sour at that age) had an activity last night. Each girl was to invite a grandma or someone of that age to come to Young Lemons and share what their life was like at 12. I went with Bobo, because I am old enough to be a grandmother. And thank goodness i am not.

It was funny thinking back at my life at 12. It's really not that different. I loved messing with the ukuleles, even though I wasn't any good. I loved Kermit the Frog (still do) and I was writing C.C. Otter (Just finished up another rewrite).

The big question is why am I playing the ukulele again? It started a couple of years ago. I was sharing an office with a colleague who was running the Utah History Grant. This is a grant that helps fourth and fifth grade teachers develop quality instruction for history. My colleague brought in a ukulele to demonstrate how to teach WW I and WWII. She was having trouble tuning it.

I tuned it for her, and then my hands remembered. They remembered how to get sound out of that little instrument. I could tell I was driving her crazy, and she wanted her instrument back, but I wanted more than anything to keep playing. After work, I swung by a music store and purchased a ukulele of my own. Two years later, it hasn't lost it's luster -- well the music hasn't the ukulele is somewhere in Mexico with Macey. I have enough ukulele's now that all my kids (and their friends) can play along with me.

But when I tell people I play the ukulele, it's almost as bad as when I tell them I play the organ. (Some people think big-note rhythm machine when they hear the word "organ") Worse, they think "Tiny Tim" when I say ukulele. Today i am going to share some of my favorite ukulele artists.

I love Bella Hemming. She seems to be greatly unappreciated, but I think that will change. Her song, "Play Guitar" was one that I had to learn just a soon as I heard it. And while I was practicing, Bobo heard it and insisted on learning it too. We played it for Macey at his "Farewell Concert"

Bella credits the style of her video to Charlie McDonnell. He has a wonderful video called "Duet With Myself". While I love this video, I love even more his Doctor Who based music. He has a song called "Blink" which is intense, but I super duper love "The Big Bang 2"

These are great little folk songs that a "regular person" can learn to play, but check out the virtuosos online. If you haven't seen Jake Shimakuburo play "My Guitar Gently Weeps", you should check it out here. But my favorite of the maestros is James Hill. He is an educator and grew up in Canada where they teach ukulele instead of recorders in the elementary schools. He is in the forefront of developing curriculum that can teach students linear, chordal, and ensemble playing. And he made sense out of a song that never made sense to me. This is his interpretation of "Billie Jean". (Man, can he play)

And then of course there is the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Their arrangements make me feel inadequate at every level. Here is an interpretation of Handel -- and then some.

I hope I haven't over shared. I read a comment someone made about the ukulele being just the right size to fit in a web cam -- thus promoting its popularity right now. That might be some of it. But some of it has got to be a happy backlash against some of the more maudlin, overproduced songs of the last three decades.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Making Arrangements

It's the twiddly bits that make a song. Those are the parts I love. Like the "hep, hep" in Island in the Sun or the C7sus4 in Paperback Writer. I like to call this chord "Beatle Bling" because when played on the ukulele it sounds like the sustained chord in Hard Day's Night.

But how do you come up with an arrangement that will interpret the emotion of the song and provide enough interest to keep an audience engaged? What may seem perfect for one song is just distracting for another.

Several weeks ago I downloaded the manual to the organ at church. I have been spending some of my practice time loading more presets and really trying to understand the timbre of the available stops. This has allowed me more flexibility and variety when playing the hymns. Judy once told me that she plays each verse of the hymns using different stops. I've decided at the point I am at in my organ playing, I will try to use at least two settings and alternate between the two (one setting on the great and one on the swell). I've chosen a memory track that has heretofore been unused and I have assigned my own settings to each of the 10 memories.

Today, however, I was feeling quite conservative and for the sacrament hymn decided I would use my old standard setting from the public track. The greats were familiar with their very subtle flutes. However, when I switched to the swell settings, someone had added every 8 inch pipe available including the gavotte. This gave me a very noticeable and obnoxious reed sound. Needless to say, I played the rest of the song on the greats (all seven verses). Appropriate, but boring -- much like this story.

Last night (at home) I decided to experiment with an arrangement for the song Jambalaya which my kids claim is very boring because it just has two chords. I try to tell them that a song like Jambalaya is not about the chords, it is about the instrumentation, improvisation and enthusiasm. I was able to convince Sam to lay down a guitar track for me. He didn't take the bait when I told him I loved the way he plays guitar. He didn't even do it because I asked him to "do it for your mom." Finally he did it because I told him it would keep me busy all night.

I added ukulele, accordion and incidental percussion. Joe added a bass line. And at last I added several vocal tracks. None of this was done from sheet music, it is all improv. So some of it is off as I miss a pitch or a note, but in the end I think I expressed my enthusiasm for this song.

Bobo should have done an animation for it so I could add it to the innumerable versions of the song on YouTube, but she was sleeping. In fact she slept all day and all night (recovering from a friday night slumber-birthday party) so I had to make my own video. To do so, I "appropriated" some footage from Judea's computer. I had originally wanted to find some "bayoo" type imagery -- but then I decided nothing says "backwoods" like the northern plains. If you have a hard time following the story -- Iktomi is so hungry, he tries to catch some buzzards by pretending to be a dead buffalo. When the buzzard he catches with his bum gets away, Ikto curses him with a bald head forever.

The rest of the video is turtle on the warpath -- walking to war. My next project (fingers crossed) will be a sing-a-ma-jig concerto. The obstacle right now is all our sing-a-ma-jigs are tuned to Db major (stupid key)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Playing for Change

How do I feel about my kids and their musical tastes? I was asked that this week. And that same day I ran into an old colleague from the school district who was passing along a comment made to her by a stake leader who also works at the district office. The main concern about getting Macey off on his mission was his love for music -- more precisely his love for punk music.

When I was a teen, I tried to share a favorite song with my mother. She wisely told me that my music was designed for my generation and if it were to appeal to her generation it would lose its purpose. I have tried to keep that in mind with my children. If our musical tastes were to be Venn Diagrammed, the set of what I like and what they like would be substantial -- but not all encompassing.

How do I feel about the music with which my kids choose to express themselves? I'm ok with it. Mostly, their music expresses the need for change and the belief that music is a tool for change. That idea has been propagated throughout the centuries. Even Rock-a-bye Baby's "when the wind blows" was talking about change. Closer to our century, Woody Guthry believed in music as social change. He wrote "This machine kills fascists" on his guitar. When John Lennon penned "Imagine" he was motivating change. The music my kids listen to motivates them to find their place in the world, it motivates them to "Do Stuff" and learn to do things themselves. And it motivates them to want to make the world a better place.

One of the organizations that inspires both me and my kids is "Playing for Change". Their videos show a world that can work together in harmony. For those of you who are playing with beginning bands, the PFC rendition of Stand by Me is outstanding. It is a four chord song utilizing one of the most standard progressions out there (C_Am_F_G7) If a musician learns this progression,they've just learned 100 songs. The strum to Stand By Me, for beginning musicians, can be broken down to slap up, slap up. It gives the song a very cool reggae beat.

Another of my favorites that Playing for Change does is Chanda Mama. This is an Indian Lullaby (Translated it means Uncle Moon).

This week Playing for Change released a couple more videos. The song that hit me hardest was their rendition of Redemption Song. This is a song that Macey sings. In fact, one of the families he home taught while he was living in St George asked him to sing a song for them. This is the song he sang. As a parent, I just don't see why I should feel that music has led my kids astray, when this is what they choose to sing.

(Another reason I love this rendition is that it features a Shamisam in the intro. This is one of the world instruments that Sammy has collected. It is fun to see it used in this manner.)

The next instrument on Sam's "gotta get" list is a charrango. One of the stores in town is selling one. Auntie Judy's stock went up when Sam learned she plays one. And our stock at the music store went up when we correctly identified their new instrument. Sam said it is tuned just like a ukulele, but with an extra E. I am looking forward to seeing what he does with it.

Joe was also thrilled to watch the Redemption Song video. The clip of Bob Marley shows him playing an Ovation guitar -- just like Joe's. (It's the little things that make us happy)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

How to Lose a Sunday -- Guiro Edition

My most popular post to date is "I'm Tired, I'm Pooped, I want to go home." I imagine that is because Judy's video is so awesome that it is hard to top. (Hint, Hint maybe other people should send me videos) Last week Judea (Judy's namesake) helped me put together a music video. I made the music and she edited together some footage to distract the audience.

This week I asked Joe if he would compose a guiro concerto for my blog. Actually I asked Bobo if she would do a guest blog for me, but she declined. Then I asked Joe if he would compose a guiro concerto (because we have an extensive collection of these little Puerto Rican percussian instruments). The challenge intrigued him.

He used four guiro's of varying pitch as well as a thumb piano, a tambourine, a rain stick, and djembe. Bobo and I then went to work to animate the instruments he used. I had thought to animate them outside, but the rain forest effect of his composition gave a unique feel to the music room and I thought the tambourine rising like a midday sun would be a nice image.

Usually I edit on Adobe Premiere, but Judea just got me a new computer and I don't have everything set up on it yet, so I had to learn how to use MovieMaker Live.

All this technical information leads into my musical thoughts for today. I started a new job. And in an effort to get to know me better, one of the professors asked me if I had any hobbies. This is a funny question to ask someone like me. I spend my days and nights burying myself in creation and activity. Sometimes I worry that coping with life in this way is just as bad as living in a fantasy world -- if not worse because I drag those around me into this world of make believe.

I don't leave my hobbies to "whims of inspiration". I push myself to write enough each week that I am not mocked to tears by my weekly writers group. I try to get my self to the church at least once a week to practice the organ. I now have band practice every Thursday. And I am trying to keep a commitment of blogging once a week. What would happen if one week I didn't have any pages to read? Or that I skipped the writing group? What would happen if I canceled band practice or didn't blog? Nothing. Nothing would happen.

The world wouldn't end. I wouldn't get kicked out of the band. The writers wouldn't boot me off the island or even talk behind my back. And my name would not fall out of the blog-o-sphere.

Last Thursday, I was exhausted. I didn't get home from work until 5:40, leaving me 20 minutes to pick up the house before band practice. I was very tempted to cancel. I could barely keep my eyes open. I just wanted to lie on the couch and watch TV. But I kept my commitment. Jenna showed up with her mother and her little sister. Bobo and Tessa sang soprano with their pure and innocent little girl voices. We older altos were able to add layers of harmony. Jenna's mom plays the guitar so well, Jenna was able to focus on bass and I was able to stick to the ukulele.

Yes, if I had canceled. Nothing would have happened, but I am so glad something did. Two hours later when band practice was over I felt rested, rejuvenated, and full of hope.

Do I have hobbies. Yes I do. But they are more than hobbies, they are the variety and joy in my life.

As a side note. I didn't think JoJo was going to be able to submit a composition into the Southern Utah Performing Arts Festival. But at the last moment, opportunity knocked (in this case opportunity rang the phone). Below is this years contender.