15 April, 2014
Rat Fink

Today’s the day, fiends. Rather, tonight’s the night.

At 9 p.m. EST, two charter buses pull out of the high school parking lot for a 10-hour ride to the big city. While it’s not as much of a “vacation” for me as it is for my students (104 people, my responsibility, very little sleep), I absolutely love watching their reactions and hearing their stories. Of the 105 going, fewer than 10 have been to New York. Out of that number, only three students have been. So this will be fun.

First up when we arrive tomorrow morning (Wednesday) is breakfast at Cucina, then out for a stroll around Rockefeller Plaza so the kids can have a look at NBC’s Today show. After that, it’s one of the high points for me: the performance at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. After the gig…the party begins. :-D

I’ll try to update you every day with photos and silly stories. But for now…gotta finish getting the war paint on and getting out the door.

Into the snow. Oy.

Happy day — I’ll see you on the other side!

Preflight observations

11 April, 2014
Rat Fink

Four days and counting until I report to the school house at 7 p.m. as well as 7 a.m., so we can board the charter buses and blast off to NYC.

  1. It’s surprising how many people think I’m nuts for doing this. I hear it quite often. You’re taking a hundred people to New York? Whoa. Have fun with that. Well, thanks. I will. Ninety-nine percent of the people going have never been to the #1 tourist destination in the US, and I love seeing and hearing their reactions as I experience it with them.
  2. Although I don’t sleep much at all, it’s still fun. You’d think that after enduring the 10-hour bus rides at night, the risky weather, the worry about obvious big-city safety issues, the Lincoln Tunnel traffic, seeing Phantom on Broadway, Times Square, Grand Central Terminal, Little Italy, Central Park, Rockefeller Plaza, or Medieval Times in Lyndhurst — all for the umpteenth time — I’d be sick of the whole mess. But that’s never the case.
  3. Performing in our venue is unforgettable. Many choral directors do the “workshop” type thing when they take their choirs to NYC. Those are great and educational and fun, but they’ve never been my style — probably because of my decades-long, iron-fisted death grip on control. I’d rather schedule a place for my singers to perform, do the gig as early as possible, then get to the partyin’. I can’t think of a more beautiful venue to sing in NYC than the Cathedral Church of St. John, the DivineAwesome place, in the most literal sense of the word, as folks are truly in awe when they first walk in.
  4. The memories are truly special. I’d need several hands to count how many times I’ve seen and heard former students talk about what a life-changing experience choir tour was. That has to be one of the best feelings for me about the whole thing. I once became a bit upset during a performance at St. John because I looked up to the back row while conducting and saw a couple of basses (both great kids, leaders in the section, beautiful voices) grinning, ear-to-ear: peculiar and basically unacceptable behavior while singing Lenten music. They immediately sought me out after the gig and said, “We are sorry, Jax, but we were just blown away by our sound in this place. We couldn’t believe it.” I’ll take that.

I’m always “on” my choirs about professionalism, behavior, class, respecting the music, recognizing the beauty in things, and being a blessing to people. Sometimes I forget how much of a blessing (in good times and bad — especially the times when they want to see me take the long walk off a short pier…like, you know, now) they are to me. Tour usually brings that to bear in many good ways.

And that’s all the nicey-nicey I got this morning. Coffee, the shower, the road, the school house, in that order. TGI flippin’ Friday.

Have a great day, fiends!

Off center

8 April, 2014
Rat Fink

Somethin’ ain’t right.

J’ever have one of those days? Yesterday didn’t feel right at all, and today feels even wronger. Maybe it’s the weather forecast for my upcoming New York tour. Eight days out, and it’s not looking too good for the home team: 50s and rain. Hmm. Matches my mood.

Maybe it’s the piling up of as-yet-unlearned spring music, on account of tour taking up most of my rehearsal time for the last three months. Six weeks remain till the spring concert. We can do it, but it’ll be close.

However, listen to this. One of my high school choir students was seriously injured while cutting wood last weekend, and ended up with a severe head injury. He spent a week in the hospital and is now home. Last Monday, I asked the choir if they might be willing to donate 50 cents or a dollar towards a gift card for the boy, as he is an avid hunter and would probably love to spend some time at a nearby outdoor sportsman’s store after he recuperated. Three days later, I had enough for a $100 gift card for him. How cool is that? Someone bought an enormous get-well card, and they all signed it. One of the kids delivered it last night. I hope it brightened the boy’s day, because it certainly brightened mine. Once again, I’m convinced that teenagers get a bad rap a lot of the time. And here, I’ve restored some of your faith in the youth of today. You’re welcome; please pay me in chocolate.

And yet…somethin’ still ain’t right. I like to put names on things; if I can label what’s wrong, I think I cope better. The devil you know, and all that. How do you handle stuff like this? I know I should just hit the treadmill and walk it out. Surprisingly, it often helps to clear the cobwebs.

But for now…the coffee, the shower, and the road to the school house. Happy Tunesday!


Ain’t that somethin’…

5 April, 2014
Rat Fink

Again, many thanks to awesome RtB fiend Ross for the great guest post yesterday. I loved it, because it got me thinking about lots of songs from my past, and indeed, music in general, and its mysterious power to affect heart and soul far more than any spoken word.

Isn’t it something how music can evoke such strong, associative memories, as if the events just happened recently? For instance, I can’t listen to Elvis’s gospel music without thinking of my mother, even though it was in the early 70s that she and I were in the same room with those records. I can’t hear the old close-harmony male quartets of the 1950s without thinking of Dad, and how he’d let me play his Suddenly it’s the Hi-Lo’s (before I ever knew what a Gene Puerling was) and The Four Lads Sing Frank Loesser albums over and over and over without ever saying Turn that stuff down!, like he did when I played my Beatles, Monkees, Al Green, Jackson Five and Rod Stewart records.

I can’t hear songs from The Sound of MusicThe King and I or My Fair Lady without being transported back to my living room floor as a 14-year-old, sitting in front of the enormous stereo that looked like this and memorizing every note of every tune, wishing that I could play the King of Siam or Henry Higgins on Broadway, because men got the best songs. (To this day, I can recite the completely mean-spirited — but delicious — Why Can’t the English?, verbatim.)

But the nostalgia isn’t all that gets me about listening to music. Cripes, I could write a dissertation on this. Being a singer, I’m unsurprisingly partial to the places songs take me (the definition of “song” being poetry set to music, therefore sung, as opposed to a sonata or symphony or concerto, which is instrumental). Regardless of the subject matter, some songs resonate with me for years; decades, even, and the connection is largely emotional. If you were to do a study (and I’m certain someone has, somewhere, sometime) on the psychological effects of the chromatic-fourth descending bass line in modern song, I’m sure you would find important links to certain emotions — mostly, melancholy or outright sadness. Get out your guitar or piano and play these changes in a slow four:

F# dim

That progression, present in dozens of songs I can think of, and probably a hundred more, dictates a definite set of emotions. Consider just a few songs in which it’s used exactly as above, or pretty darn close:

Everything Must Change (Bernard Ighner – recorded by countless artists)
A Song for You (Leon Russell – recorded by countless artists)
Chim-Chim Cher-ee (Richard & Robert Sherman - Mary Poppins)
Hotel California (The Eagles)
Michelle (The Beatles)
My Funny Valentine (written by tortured genius Lorenz Hart)
This Masquerade (Leon Russell)

I can’t think of many (any?) “happy,” chirpy songs in which that device is employed, though they may exist. And I don’t think it’s entirely because there are few happy songs in minor keys. It’s a musical trick, designed to elicit the same emotional results every time: disquietude, nostalgia, sadness, loss, loneliness, uncertainty. And for me, it works, without fail.

I could go on for hours, but I have to get stuff done. So how about you? What music is transcendent and intensely meaningful for you? I’ll bet you can think of quite a few examples.

Adventures with Another’s iPod

4 April, 2014

"Ugh what track now?"

Today’s post is written by my online writing Yoda — a talented (and published) writer, who has inspired and encouraged me since our chance email meeting back in 2008, after I read one of his “5 things” articles in one of the many magazines for which he freelances. Anything he writes is interesting to me. I admire his style, his attitude and his sense of humor, and I’m proud to call him friend and mentor, even though we’ve never met face-to-face. It’s my pleasure to have RtB pal Ross guest-post for us today. Enjoy his take on some musical stew.

Thanks for the space and the patience, Fink. I had another idea for this guest spot, but felt it was too morose. So I’m going with this, which, I warn you, lacks a satisfying ending.

Here it is: I lose things. Of low to intermediate value. Often. I don’t lose expensive things, and I don’t lose worthless things. My camera? I always know where it is. Every note ever given to me in high school? Still got ‘em. Every pair of sunglasses? Gone, all of them. If I started the day with a note of each denomination from $1 to $100, by the end of the day I would be at a loss as to where the $10 went.itouch

A couple months ago my cracked iTouch (pictured right, not sure why I took a picture of it in the first place) went missing. Unlike times before, this time it didn’t come back. My wife, being the sweet person she is, gave me her 3rd generation iPod, saying she didn’t like the user interface and preferred her iPod shuffle anyway.

Our musical tastes are like middle schoolers in a slow dance: they touch one another but the gap between them is enormous.

On top of that, my iTunes library is not shuffle-friendly. Setting it to shuffle means hearing random symphonic movements and two minute recitatifs. But my wife’s iPod isn’t burdened like that. So I started setting it to shuffle, and heard a few choice cuts along the way:

Mash-up: In da Club vs Stayin’ Alive

70s skatersI’m currently having a mid-life crisis, which involves playing ice hockey again. In order to get back into shape, I’ve had to skate around our townhome complex in roller blades. Well one afternoon I was doing just that when shuffle delivered this 50 Cent / Bee Gees mash up. Unexpectedly hearing disco music while rollerblading, well suddenly I understood the decade of the 1970′s. Tube socks, sweatbands, shoot the duck, disco-grooving-white-guy-on-wheels with all the rhythm in the world. It made sense to me.

Bryan Adams: Summer of ’69

People think I exaggerate this story, I do not: I went to Dublin, Ireland in 2008 as part of a media junket for the 250th anniversary of Guinness. The group consisted of a couple writers and some magazine editors and we went out to pubs or bars every night. On one of the last nights as we were returning to our hotel we came upon a crowd big enough to clog the street. A fight? We’d seen a few, but no. We get closer, and there’s a homeless-looking street musician playing Summer of ’69 on a nylon string acoustic guitar … and everybody was singing along. They were singing like it was Auld Lang Syne on New Year’s Eve, drowning in emotion, arms around one another belting it out.Jim

Then it hit me. “Hey, this happened at the pub tonight. Last night too. And at the restaurant our first night here. And–”

Every time this song came over the sound system in Dublin—radio, in-house DJ, cover band, no matter, every time—life stopped so that each and every person could sing along at the tops of their lungs. Every. Single. Time.

The Beatles: Two of Us

There are at least four tracks laid down in this world that take both my wife and me back to a profound loss, and this is one of them. When this came on Shuffle I scrambled to hit the advance button. My wife says, “My iPod is the iPod of a happy person.” Not all the time sweetheart and you know it.

Toto: Africa

I was 11 or 12 when this song came out, and it become that song, the song the lyrics of which I was wrong about for years. The line is “There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do.” I sang, “There’s nothing that a hundred men on Mars could ever do.” I remember exactly where I was when I was corrected: outside my friend’s mother’s condo lit up by a streetlamp, watching friends Cori and Kevin howl at me. At any rate, the harmony on that chorus does not get old.

Eminem: My Darling

Here’s an artist my wife and I agree on, one hundred percent: We are huge fans. I always knew he’d flunked the 9th grade, but not until I read his bio over at Rolling Stone did I learn he flunked it three times. As his class is wrapping up their junior year, he’s failing out of freshman year, again. Can you imagine what you’d have thought of that kid? I know what I would have thought.


Slowly I began adding my own music. One day I was looking through the alphabetical list of songs trying to find one called “Enter Tragedy” by the melodic death metal band In Flames. Found it, played it. With shuffle off, when it was over the next thing I heard was Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption.” And then—Vladimir Horowitz playing Moritz Moszkowski’s Etude in F (Op 72).

To be chronological about it, I played Horowitz again, first this time, followed by Van Halen. Are there similarities? Yes, but they’re something of a stretch:

  • Virtuoso, mercurial musicians whose fame and influence far exceeded their peers.
  • Horowitz’s audiences were often filled with fellow pianists, craning to see his other-worldly technique, his sonority and thunder with almost no pedal. The New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg believed that Horowitz possessed the greatest technique in the history of the piano, and postulated that he was likely the highest paid musician in history; he’d make outrageous demands to play a concert, and they would inevitably be met.
  • The great Les Paul marveled at Eddie Van Halen’s innovative finger tapping and vibrato work, and every guitar player from the late 1970s on can tell you where they were when they first heard “Eruption”. Guitar players flocked to Van Halen shows trying to see how he did what he did, and they would go home and fail at it. He sounded, played and composed like no one before him.  Steve Vai hit the right note when he said that “it is only the most elite of elite musicians whose unconventional approach becomes convention.”

Of course, Horowitz’s playing style is simply impossible to copy. Who would teach their student to keep their hands so flat, or to curl up their left pinkie the way he did? Here Horowitz smokes through the Etude, afterwards marginalizing it as no better than “an after dinner mint.”

It’s impossible to find footage of Eddie playing “Eruption” as it is on the 1978 album, so here it is played brilliantly by a 14 year-old:

So the adventures are done, I’ve taken over the iPod and made it my own. Here’s where I say “Y’know, looking back, I think I kinda miss that ol’ shuffle…” but I don’t. I miss Dublin and I miss who Two of Us is about, but I’ll use the World Clock before I use Shuffle again.