Dublin School Residency – Day 24: A Super-Fun Show

I don’t know just what it’s been: settling into a new practice routine with a long and gentle warm up (running variations on a single phrase through eleven different drill orders, about forty five minutes in all before starting to work on tunes); returning to a familiar sequence of light weights three times a week, toning upper body as well as shoulder and trunk stabilization exercises (there are times when it certainly is convenient to have a brother who is a physical therapist); or delving back into The Self Hypnosis Apothecary, a set of hypnotic inductions around different themes – deep relaxation, improving confidence and performance, unlocking creativity, that sort of thing, recorded by Dr. Steven Gurgevitch. What ever it’s been, some combination of these perhaps, mixed with other, less tangible elements: meeting the subtle carpet and wood polish smells of the recital hall each morning before breakfast; recalling the touch and sound of that piano from when I was fourteen and sharing my own music, a song “Lonely Daydream”, for the first time on a Walden composer’s forum; breathing mountain air each day, be it sunny or snowy (we’ve had some of each since I’ve been here); or even, dare I say, each moment’s unique positioning and alignment of celestial bodies; whatever it’s been, the piano and improvisational flow have really awakened in me these past few weeks.

Being sick last weekend slowed things down a bit: fever, chills, a few restless nights, the works, and for a while there I was concerned about having enough energy to pull through; but the rhythm of the week quickly took hold, with all energies focused on Friday, and before I knew it I was welcoming the band onto campus. Weldon (trombone) drove up on Wednesday, one of those snowy days, parking his rig in the day student lot. And Chip (guitar) flew up on Thursday, shuttled from Manchester by Seth Brenzel, Walden School’s fearless leader; it was good to have these guys on this campus, rehearsing and sound-checking around Thursday afternoon’s power outage, cutting dinner on campus to drive into Peterborough for some black bean soup at Harlow’s, and doing some improv workshops with my Friday classes.

The kids were really looking forward to having class with The Band. For C block, we did a workshop on the nature and structure of the blues, exploring tonic-subdominant-dominant relationships of seventh chords, and then getting down with the blues scale. With E block, we returned to free improvisation with perfect fourths and major thirds, following an overall shape: starting quietly, gradually growing, and then letting the intensity subside. We did this three times, without discussion (thank you Pat for teaching me that trick; not only is it a good way to practice improvisation, it also simplifies the lesson plan tremendously), and then paused to share any “noticings”. Among these was finding that when we don’t pick a mood in advance, there is more expressive freedom for us each to connect with our own emotional experience of the present and to bring that to the improvisation. On the other hand, it can also be harder, because there is less direction as to what kinds of things to play; the first time jumping in, I got the sense that if I didn’t start with something, we’d be sitting waiting for those first notes with prolonged anticipation. Chip and Weldon were quite intrigued, saying afterward “Man, I wish I’d had a class like this when I was first learning music.”

And Friday night, we got to play for a packed hall. I occasionally get asked if I ever get nervous before a show. The answer is yes, not that I ever get nervous, but that I always get nervous. Being the most public part of my residency here, Friday’s concert was surely no exception; yet nervousness and excitement are much akin, and playing a concert of some of my favorite tunes with some of my favorite people, for an audience who is engaged and motivated to get with the music, is an exciting time indeed. And though a week’s worth of congestion was making hearing unexpectedly tricky (leading to some informal negotiations in one of the early numbers as to where, precisely, the downbeat was) and though the need arose to interject a quick break half way through, under the guise of it being “rather warm in the hall, and maybe let’s pause for three minutes to get some water and fresh air” (if the musician’s first rule is “Never be boring”, the second rule must surely be “Never embark upon a ballad with a full bladder.”); it was still a remarkably fun show to play.

In recent years, I’ve developed the habit of telling some kind of story before each tune, as a way of inviting the audience more deeply into a shared experience of the music. Before the blues near the end, a tune of mine called “Outta my Head” (interpret as you will), I described the age-old jazz player’s gambit of weaving references to other melodies into an improvised solo, posing this as a game for the listener: what do I recognize and where is it from? Making appearances on this particular performance were insinuations of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” (an inside joke for my buddies on the crew team); themes from Jeopardy, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Super Mario Brothers (this was a bargain made with a Dublin student, that somewhere in the concert I would include the Mario theme, and that it was his job to notice when I did), Ellington’s “Duke’s Place” and Joplin’s “The Entertainer”; Blue Monk (which Ben has fondly nicknamed “Cookies and Milk”); allusions to “Route 66”, “Nighttrain”, and perhaps even “Help me Ronda” (honestly, I don’t truly remember about that one – I know it came up a few times while practicing); and, snuck in beneath the guitar solo, the opening bassoon line from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It’s a fun game to play, and a useful way to give the students something specific to listen for. The challenge for the musicians of course is to explore incorporating and/or varying existing melodies without interrupting the coherence and continuity of the solo, which is a good challenge, to be sure.

And, all evidence suggests, we were very well received. The kids here have a pretty structured life during the week, with very little free time between classes, meals, sports, extra-curricular activities, and study hall. I get the sense that by the end of the week, they’re generally pretty thoroughly worn out. This week seemed to be the exception. One faculty member commented to me after “I’ve never seen this community so energized and focused on a Friday evening!” The students were asking great questions during the Q and A, like wondering how much the presence of the listening audience impacts what we’re doing on stage, and several came up to me afterwards with more questions and ample expressions of enthusiasm. Jess reported to me later that, just after the show, all of the practice rooms downstairs were suddenly full, the various musicians on campus wanting to get hot with their own playing; there is no better compliment for a music teacher than this. Capping it off, Brad said to me during the reception that it had been one of the three most exciting evenings of his year. I think it’s been a successful residency!

My day ended falling asleep around midnight listening to music, waking up again around 4:30 wanting to listen some more. By 7:00, I was letting myself back into the science building for my newly found warm up: phrase variations through eleven drill orders – it being May now, all drill orders start on G. We saw Chip off not long after. (Dublin School even gave him money to tip the taxi driver; how’s that for being treated well as guests?) I got to have breakfast with Seth at Audrey’s, getting my first ever ride in a convertible with the top rolled down (invoking lyrics from Tom Petty’s “Running Down a Dream”). Weldon and I met up later, spending a few hours sharing reflections about the concert, as well as life, the universe, and Kimble’s ice cream; I figured I’d get him out for some highlights of the local culture: maple walnut, the kiddy size of course, this being Kimble’s, and sugar free. (In spite of Wednesday’s snow, Saturday was comfortably in the 70’s, and wanting ice cream was no stretch.) The rest of the weekend has been luxuriously low-key. On the whole, I’d say it’s been a good week.