Flashing is popular again

 

More and more musicians are doing it.

Apparently there were over 40 reported incidents worldwide in 2013.

Fortunately, many of them were caught on camera.

Which of the following incidents from the past few years are worthy of international attention, and which are lucky not to find themselves in the Establishment’s penal custody for flashing in public?

I’ll tell you my fave if you tell me yours! Share your thoughts and your favorites in the comments below…

1.

 

2.

 

3.

 

4.

Haven’t reached my favourite one, yet! Remember – I’m a percussionist at heart…

5.

 

6.

 

7.

Er, yeah. That’ll be it. Love it! What a welcome off the commute train 🙂

8.

Share your thoughts below, as well as links to any other of your favorite orchestra flashmobs

I have to say, though, it was tough limiting this to orchestral music – there are so many dance and singing flashmobs I thoroughly enjoy, especially the original train station one of the Sound of Music that started the modern public movement, quickly heading to 30m views!

(Of course, this was, in turn, inspired by the 2001 prison “Thriller” flashmob, now on 53m views: http://youtu.be/hMnk7lh9M3o)

Back to Choral Roots

A couple of months ago I was appointed Conductor of the 40+ year old Clearwater Chorus. It’s an ensemble of people who like to sing, and encourages adults of varying ages and abilities to make and share music together.

At least, that’s what it is now.

The Clearwater Chorus

Although not titled a “Director” that is effectively my role and as a result, I’ve grabbed hold of the reins and am guiding the ensemble through a new perspective: who we have and what we do now is what we are, and as long as we work together to share music, we’ll be doing something of value to the world.

[Click here: I’m giving away four tickets to our concert on Dec 22!]

Why is this so new? Because like so many institutions that are founded and/or led by an individual for so long (in this case, Arthur Goetze who directed the group from 1975-2005), its members can become entrenched in “the way things were.” This is also a very typical perspective of older generations, especially those who have worked their whole lives and are now enjoying a few special comforts in retirement: they expect things to stay the way they know them. But that is so rarely beneficial for anyone, and certainly not how the world spins.

So whilst respecting the past and honoring those who have gained far more experience with this ensemble than I ever hope to, it is now time to focus not on what we don’t have but on what we do…

Doesn’t this pertain to life in general?

For example, over the past 12 years I have mourned the loss of an active performing and teaching career founded in music, something I have known to be a primary part of my existence since I was in single digits. My music career after moving to the USA has been patchy, fraught with unconfidence, some expensive decisions, and a distinct lack of industry contacts that don’t label me an outsider.

But this current appointment has, unexpectedly, brought me right back to square one – the roots from which my fascination with music grew.

British American Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown began his musical life as a choir boy in Cuxton Church

The Anglo Saxon village church in Cuxton UK, where I was a choir boy

I was 7 years old when I began playing the piano, but that was after I began singing in my English village church choir. I remember joining the village Junior School choir around the same time, as well, but by the time I had moved to my UK secondary school at age 11, I was fully immersed in singing, piano and clarinet. It wasn’t until just before I moved to the USA the first time that I showed any interest in percussion (and if you know me, it was an incredible 4 years of percussion playing that got me into college at 17 years old! More on that another time, perhaps).

During my college years a budding-conductor buddy of mine, Chris Kiver now a Choral Professor at Penn State University, and I would organize “Scratch” singing sessions in which anyone who wanted to play and sing the repertoire we had planned could do so. Of course we did much recruiting, but giving solo parts to multiple singers throughout each piece enabled them to get much needed experience, and Chris and I to learn many differing needs of accompaniment.

In the years that followed college I conducted various ensembles such as the Ealing Choral Society (thanks to the late great James Gaddarn), the Yalding Choral Society, the Medway Community College Singers, and a whole host of other one-off groups. Four highlights in particular were:

  • Conducting Handel’s complete Messiah with 5 days’ notice when the conductor who was booked fell ill,
  • Conducting a “Marathon Singing Session” in which almost 1,000 teenagers sang hymns, easy listening songs and some chart songs,
  • Conducting the European Premiere of Dawn Mantras (outside, at sunrise) by Australian composer Ross Edwards during the UK’s year-long Millennium Festival in 2000, and
  • Singing for John Rutter at Carnegie Hall in his own composition Magnificat.
British American Conductor Composer sang at Carnegie Hall for John Rutter

Melissa and I hanging out with John Rutter in NYC

In addition, I played timpani or percussion for countless choral societies around the UK in more pieces of music than I can remember – hundreds. And, being a percussionist usually with lots of time not actually playing, I got to listen to conductors rehearse their choirs, listen to the choir members mutter under their breath, and have choir members (usually altos) unsolicitally (?!) share their awe about how anyone could actually play the timpani: “I never knew they had pedals like that!”

Interestingly, only a handful of these choral activities “made the cut” onto my resume, so when most folk read my history of musical performance, they see “instrumental conductor” or even just “music teacher.” It’s quite annoying, really, because although conductors in the UK and Europe are trained to be teachers (hence the general reference to them as “Maestro“) in all genres of “formal” music – orchestral, choral, opera, musicals, some concert/wind band and maybe even ballet – in the USA conductors are labelled at a young age and ‘specialize’ not in leadership or motivation, but as a topical expert in just one of those genres. It’s such a pity.

Of course there are exceptions such as James Levine. Kind of. And the incomparable Leonard Bernstein. But generally, conductors in the USA are rarely recognized as even “capable” of conducting well in more than one musical genre. You can tell when a choral conductor has an orchestra in front of them, and you can tell when an orchestral conductor now has to deal with a choir, too. I’m quite proud of the fact that I was taught and expected to work with both, so now that I’m working with the Clearwater Chorus (this links to our Facebook page – please Like it!), not only do I feel comfortable and confident that I can help produce a good sound, help the singers sing together, and focus on sharing good stories and music with others (including the audience), but it is also bringing me back to my roots in music – as that little angelic Church of England choir boy in my village.

For your entertainment: This is one of my favourite Bernstein performances of showmanship, especially around the 5 minute mark. It’s even more engaging because of the video/ audio mis-synching!

#PsalmQuest 10 – Mirror 2 for solo harp

Writing this piece of music was probably one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve ever done. Perhaps that’s why it turned out to be a good one.

The harp can be a daunting instrument: it is large yet delicate, piano-like but not a piano, strings plucked with four fingers per hand not hammers hit by five fingers.

However, the learning process about harp technique was made considerably easier by Jacqueline Pollauf, who has kindly posted a list of guidelines online.

Anna Kate Mackle, Florida Orchestra

Anna Kate Mackle, Principal Harpist of the Florida Orchestra

But I must admit, I also cheated a little – I asked Anna Kate Mackle, Principal Harpist of the Florida Orchestra, for some input. Back in the mid 80s, Anna Kate and I were both in the New Jersey Youth Symphony and also attended the same summer camp in North Carolina, the Eastern Music Festival. It was such a terrific six weeks of intense music activity that we hardly saw each other, and when I moved back to the UK a few years later we lost touch until I moved to Tampa Bay some 20 years later. (EMF was so good, Anna Kate now teaches there every Summer).

Anyway, Anna Kate enthusiastically shared her perspective on a couple of corners during the creation of Mirror 2 and so I couldn’t resist but dedicate the piece to both her and Jacqueline. I do hope they’ll both find occasions to play the piece at some point (Maybe during next year’s Festival of Psalms).

Perhaps another reason this piece turned out so well is that I have a kind of fondness for the harp. Whilst in college in London I dated a harpist and spent a lot of time carrying and transporting her harp all over London and Kent. She attended the Royal College of Music and I attended Trinity College of Music, but we didn’t let that rivalry get in the way as we were both members of the Kent County Youth Orchestra (upper age limit 21), and my mom & her dad worked together at Kent Music School!

(Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure being a percussionist very used to carting about large and heavy instruments came in pretty handy during that relationship!)

Stephen P Brown has a history with the harpAnyway, in the past month or so I’ve learned a great deal more about the harp than I already knew (such as multiple note harmonics per hand) and tackled this composition with a different kind of energy. As one independent industry reviewer commented, the piece is “beautifully haunting.”

Mirror 2 is based on psalm 38 which is structured in 5 sections, namely A, B, C, then B again and finally A again. To me, that’s a mirror image. I don’t know if there’s a formal musical structure out there that imitates a mirror, but I’m not bothered about that – I’m calling it a Mirror in the same way that many pieces are called Sonata or Rondo based on the music’s structure.

By now you know that my compositions, although currently rooted in a more traditional Russian Romantic idiom, are far from normal. Typically we associate the harp with angels, prettiness, light cotton candy, beautiful sweeps and whooshes, and happy weddings.

So this piece is dark, low, deeply emotional and far from angelic! Each of the five sections of Psalm 38 are about Prayer or Pain. See Longman & Garland’s commentary for more details.

Use the Reverbnation player below to listen to the piece (it starts quietly) and then see if you agree with George’s assessment below. Let me know in the comments what you think.

I’m giving the sheet music for this piece away for free for an entire week, so if you know any harp players, be sure to send them this post using the share buttons below so they can download it and try it out. Both you and I would love to know what they think of it, right?!

Listen here:

Click here to get your copy of the sheet music.

So, do you agree with George?

George Algozzina likes Mirror 2 by Stephen P Brown

George Algozzina is, amongst other things, a tenor in the Clearwater Chorus

“My life has been truly affected and enriched this morning when listening to Stephen’s new song, ‘Mirror 2.’ It was wonderful to awaken and experience an entire day’s worth of feelings and emotions in just a few minutes through a truly amazing and beautiful musical composition. I do not know the emotional reaches or spiritual intentions Stephen has for his piece, but it took me from an ominous (almost hopeless) place…to one of acceptance…and then to one of self-awakening and the chance of peace, tranquility, and hopefulness. Thank you, Stephen, for making a difference in this moment and in my life!”

– George Algozzina

 

Add your own thoughts below…

 

How I compose 3 – Chords

Guitar chords

How to play a chord on a 6-string guitar

“A chord in music is any harmonic set of three or more notes that is heard as if sounding simultaneously.” (Wikipedia, accessed August 7, 2013)

To me, chords form the shell of a piece of music – the walls and roof of a house, so to speak. For me, this is the most difficult part of composing and always has been. Possibly because I’m a percussionist and therefore spent a lot of time focusing on rhythmic patterns and combinations rather than harmonic.

Harmony?

“Harmony is the use of simultaneous pitches (tones, notes), or chords. The study of harmony involves chords and their construction and chord progressions and the principles of connection that govern them. Harmony is often said to refer to the ‘vertical’ aspect of music, as distinguished from melodic line, or the ‘horizontal’ aspect.” (Good old Wikipedia again, accessed August 7, 2013)

Many composers, particularly song-writers such as Lady Gaga [despite her marketing style she really is a very good song-writer. My friend in NYC who knew her on the circuits before the fame will attest to that as well] start with a melody and work from there. I’ve done that sometimes, but as I know harmony is a weakness of mine I’m focusing on that first.

Chords are like a building's frame

Chords form the musical walls within the predetermined structure.

So, when composing a piece of music, I need to establish what the walls and roof are made of. This is the harmony, which is made up of chords. The content of the psalm or story always influences the harmony, particularly if the piece is to be in a minor key (sad-like) or a major key (happier than minor).

Outside my composition, administration, booked activity time, I’m studying various harmony books to build on what I learned many years ago. Over the past few years I revisited the ABRSM music theory guides (awesome material, by the way) and looked through many of my high school and college notes and texts, including Walter Piston‘s mammoth treatise. Now I’m fascinated by Tchaikovsky‘s guide and Rimsky-Korsakov‘s manual.

Next I’ll be delving into Schoenberg‘s “Fundamentals” and after that, will take a more serious approach to Walter Piston’s and dive into Persichetti‘s 20th Century Harmony. The plan is that by the end of Year 2 of this project I’ll have a pretty firm grasp on traditional harmony.

Enough context – how do I actually compose? Once I’ve got my ‘mood’ (happy or sad) I then consider the instrumentation. Some instruments are more sonorous in some keys rather than other. In addition, the keys themselves have characteristics, even colour (a form of synesthesia).

Once the key is established, I play around with various chord progressions: “Does chord I sound better after chord V (we use Roman Numerals a lot in Western music)? Or would chord II sound better? Hmm. But if I follow it with chord III, II doesn’t sound that great in this key. I’d better stick to chord I.”

“Unless I go to chord V again…”

This way I could end up with a pattern of chords that last 4, 8, 12, 16, 20 or any other number of ‘bars’ or ‘measures’. How do I know what a bar or measure is? That works in tandem with choosing the chords:

This is a medley/mixture of waltzes (3 beats) and marches (2 or 4 beats), as well as a rather talented trombonist @ 7mins

A happy dance might be grouped in 3 little beats (think of a waltz by Strauss) whereas a march would definitely be grouped in 4 steady beats. Sometimes the story is not that obvious and 4, 5 or even 2 beats grouped together sound better. At what speed? Again, depends on both the story and the chord progression.

I’m exhausted. You?! Next article in this series will demonstrate how I get a tune (or melody) out of the chord progression. To me, melodies are like a journey through the house, moving from room to room or dancing/ sitting in one spot.

When to say no

Last night I performed at an awards ceremony. It was a great show directed by a great showman Peter Stark (the former American ballet dancer, not the English conductor).

One of the musical highlights for me was conducting a special arrangement of “Kashmir” made famous by Led Zeppelin, and more recently by the electric string quartet “Escala“. Our arrangement was for full orchestra, rock band, vocal soloist and two choirs – love it.

 

 

But also on the programme was a peppy little number I wrote myself – the last movement of my Marimba Concerto 1. I led a performance of the whole piece earlier this week with Glenda Lopez as the soloist, so back when it was suggested we use a shortened version for the awards ceremony, I was thrilled to have it played twice in the same week!

As time went by my paranoia for the little details (or maybe it’s OCD… who knows?) got the better of me and I inquired as to whether or not anyone had checked with Glenda to see if she was also available to perform the second concert. Good job, too – she wasn’t.

A frantic search began to find a marimba soloist. At one point it was suggested “Stephen – you’re a percussionist! Why don’t you play it?!” To me, that’s kind of like asking the cookware frontman George Foreman to box again. Or Nadia Comaneci to balance on the beams again – I’m not convinced she’d achieve another perfect “10” at any modern Olympics.

So the search continued.

But it was proving difficult to find someone – even the local music schools and universities had finished and the majority of marimba students were heading home or off to summer camps before the awards ceremony. So yes, you know where this story is going…

I gave in and said “OK. I’ll do it.”

Unfortunately, during last night’s performance I made some mistakes whilst playing my own composition (not being able to warm-up and driving for several hours not long before probably didn’t help, either). The vast majority of the audience probably didn’t notice: they even cheered during the applause. And almost no-one in that audience had heard the piece before so they were probably not able to determine what was a mistake and what wasn’t. Perhaps the novelty factor of the marimba overshadowed the musical dodginess of the performance?

But the musicians in the audience & orchestra, my peers and several local community experts… Maybe they were being nice in complimenting me afterwards, but it’s not a contemporary piece: it’s a fun, peppy, tonal, predictable little melody, so I’m sure those “in the know” noticed. I’m just pleased I’ve learned how to ‘perform’ well and not let little errors get in the way of the audience’ enjoyment.

(Here’s a computer rendition of what the shortened last movement should sound like)

[ca_audio url=”https://www.stephenpbrown.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Marimba-Concerto-1_mvt3short.mp3″ width=”300″ height=”30″ css_class=”codeart-google-mp3-player” autoplay=”false”]

 

I felt and still feel awful that a has-been percussionist couldn’t give an outstanding performance, whether or not anyone agrees.

Conclusion?

I should have said “no.”

I should not have agreed to play the piece, and worked harder to help find a suitable soloist. Or even changed the repertoire. With either of these two solutions the audience would have been treated to an amazing performance and I would have shined doing what I do best – encouraging other musicians to give THEIR best (i.e. Conducting).

Am I alone?

Do you sometimes make judgments to help out whilst knowing deep inside it’s not the best solution?

Has there been a time you SHOULD have said “no” to doing something?

Please do share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below, where the best action and learning always happens, and then share this post using the buttons below: the more people we have commenting the more we can learn from each other.