Wednesday, August 14, 2013

My Musical History, Part One.

Hello folks,
First of all, I apologize for not writing in a few months.  I remember when I was student teaching, my supervising teacher had a handheld recording device, and occasionally, he would whip it out and utter something into it.  Something he needed to remember later.  I share that little story because I'll bet there have been about twenty times in the past few months where I had random thoughts of blog topics, only to either forget them, or just never get to them.  Middle age must be setting in!

I've decided to document the events of my musical life.  Perhaps so that, if in another decade, or two, I have trouble remembering which things happened when, I can revert to this document.  Hopefully, some of you find it at least moderately interesting.  One thing is for sure.  There are a few key events/occurrences in this story.  Things that if they had not happened, I would NOT be where I am today.  I suppose that's true with everyone, but I hope you enjoy mine.  Here we go!

As far back as I can remember, I have been fascinated by music.  Drawn to it, really.  I remember receiving my first transistor radio in 1973, at the age of six.  I enjoyed listening to WLS out of Chicago, and their Top 40 format.  Shortly after this, I began asking for records for Christmas and birthdays.  I was a big fan of the K-Tel compilations and I probably own twenty or more (still have them, too).  This was also the time I started listening to Barry Manilow with more interest.  I acquired about four or five of his albums during my elementary years.  I also remember really enjoying Disco music in the mid 70s.  I have to attribute that to the fact that it's incessantly simple beat (bass drum on all four beats) was easy for my young brain to latch onto.

It must have been in about fourth grade when I learned that in order to play drums in middle school band (and that's what EVERYONE wanted to play) you needed to take piano lessons.  So, I started lessons with Tim Oonk when I was in the fifth grade.  I believe he was a Freshman in college at the time.  I was a terrible piano student.  Basically, I started lessons much too late.  By this time I had already written my first song and was learning how to figure out songs by ear.  Being forced to slow down and read the notes, was incredibly frustrating and far from musically rewarding for me.  Today, I cringe at the thought that I quit lessons after only one year.

Sixth grade came and during the first week, anyone interested in band was to sit down and chat with Mr. Brouwer for a bit and be "fitted" with an instrument.  When he asked what I WANTED to play, I, of course, replied with, "DRUMS!"  I remember him asking about piano, but he must not have heard my reply clearly, because I believe he was under the impression that I had no (or, not enough) piano to play drums.  So, he said, "we'll put you down for trumpet, and we'll write 'drums' really small over here in the corner."  I left feeling confused (I was eleven).  When the schedule was posted, I was determined to attend percussion class and not brass class!  After the first brass class met, some of my friends told me that my name was called and that Mr. Brouwer wondered why I wasn't there.  I went to see him later and was given a Cornet to take home.  When I got home I spoke with my mother and she knew I was extremely disappointed. Here's when one of those key moments happened.  I inherit my non-combativeness from my mother.  Yet, she went to school the next day and spoke with Mr. Brouwer to make sure he understood that I had taken piano lessons, and, as a result of her conversation with him, I was allowed to be in percussion class!!  I played percussion in band until graduating from high school.

Middle school is also when one of my best friends introduced me to the band Journey (those close to me know this to be my all time favorite band).  He had an older brother who was into music and knew what was good as well as what was cool.  My first memory of Journey was hearing Lovin' Touchin' Squeezin' on the radio which was actually Steve Perry's second album with the band.  I remember saying to my buddy, "I thought their singer was a girl."  My friend pointed out to me some TV shows (Saturday Night Live, Midnight Special) where Journey was playing.  I tuned in and immediately fell in love with the band and have been a fan ever since.  I remember trying to sing along with their material, and because it was so high, I needed to use falsetto (a high, breathy sound often used for effect by men, but rarely used for regular performance. Exceptions are Frankie Valli and the Bee Gees).  Because of singing in falsetto a lot, that part of my voice really strengthened and I ended up using it a great deal singing the high harmony parts in the bands I played in later in life.

 In high school, I continued to play drums in band, particularly enjoying marching band, where the drummers were often showcased.  I enjoyed both field and street marching, but felt that marching in parades was the most fun because of all the people.  It made you feel like a mini rock star for an hour!  In the tenth grade, a class called Jazz Band appeared on my radar.  The cool thing about Jazz Band was that the drummers played a DRUM SET!  Problem:  I did not own a drum set on which to practice.  I saved up and purchased my first set.  A used Sonar kit from Jim Ritenour, a guy who sold drums out of the screened in porch in his home in Allegan (Jim would later go on to found RIT Music with several stores in the West MI area.  There is still one in Holland).  I went on to play drum set in Jazz Band in both the eleventh and twelfth grades.  Jazz Band was easily my favorite class as a Junior in high school, but it would ultimately become tied for that rank my senior year.  In the fall of my eleventh grade year, our band director, Mr. Ritsema, picked out a song for Jazz Band that had a vocal (here comes another one of those pivotal moments in my life).  The song was Flashdance/What a Feeling from the movie Flashdance.  After giving us the music, he looked right at me and asked, "Cos, do you want to try the vocal solo?"  He had my mother as a student and knew she was a great singer who sang Climb Ev'ry Mountain (from The Sound of Music) at her high school graduation.  In hindsight, I can't believe I didn't respond with, "well, I don't want to go FIRST!"  But, I didn't.  I got up, grabbed the microphone and sang.  Scared to death!  The class was made up of mostly seniors, which made it even more scary, given that I was a junior.  Surprisingly, more than half the class ended up auditioning that morning, but I was ultimately awarded the solo.  I will never forget the first public performance of that piece.  It was in the cafeteria of the middle school where I currently teach.  The middle school that I attended a couple years prior.  The engagement was during lunch and was a Jazz Band tradition.  I remember most of the instrumental songs going well.  Some of the middle school audience seemed attentive but, as is typical with middle schoolers, there was not a great deal of focus on the performance.  That is, until we did the song with a vocal.  Apparently, I sang pretty well because I will never forget the applause afterwards.  Specifically, the screams from the girls.  That was a turning point for me, and a huge confidence boost (and another one of those pivotal moments).  Later that school year, I pointed out to Mr. Ritsema that the Sergio Mendez song, Never Gonna Let You Go, that we were already performing as an instrumental, would also work well with a vocal.  He allowed me to give it a try and I ended up performing it as a vocal duet with a female member of the band.  If you remember that song, the final chorus goes way up.  This gave me a chance to use that falsetto that Steve Perry helped me start building about four years prior.  We were rehearsing on stage for a concert later that evening, when Mr. Ritsema said, "wait a minute you guys," and left the room.  He returned with Mr. DeBoer, the choir director, sat him down and said, "listen to this!"  We performed the song again and at the conclusion of class, Mr. DeBoer called me over.  We chatted a bit and he walked me into the choir room, sat down at the piano, played, and had me sing some scales followed by My Country Tis of Thee.  He then said, "Well, the audition results for Madrigals (the top vocal group in the school) will be on my door in the morning.  You might want to come take a look."  I walked out completely bewildered and said to myself, "I think I just auditioned for Madrigals." (That was another REALLY pivotal moment)

As fate would have it, I was on the list for the 1984-85 roster for the Zeeland High Madrigal Singers (another one of those life changing moments)!  I had NO idea what to expect, having never sang in a choir and I have to admit, it was challenging at first.  I hadn't really played a pitched instrument since piano lessons (the girls always played the mallet parts in percussion), so learning to read vocal music was tricky at first, but I eventually got better.  I had a great time in "Mads" my senior year and earned several solos throughout the year.  Looking back, I wonder if I offended some of the long-time choir students.  I wonder if they thought, "Who is this new guy coming in and getting all the solos?"  Today, I am very thankful that they accepted me as one of their own and extremely thankful to Mr. James DeBoer for taking the initiative in my audition process.

Near the end of the first semester of my senior year, I was really not getting much from the computer class in which I was enrolled.  The bulk of the class was BASIC programming.  Very tedious and not for me.  I must have whined about my situation to Mr. Ritsema because he suggested I become a practicum (teacher's assistant) for Freshman Band, second semester, which I did by dropping Computers.  That raised my schedule to FOUR music classes!  I had to promise my guidance counselor that I was planning to major in music in college, in order for him to allow the addition of a fourth music class.

The musical highlight of my senior year occurred at the Tulip Time Salute.  The Salute was an event held at the Holland Civic Center (a 2500 seat venue) during Tulip Time.  A professional sound and lighting company was brought in to make it look, and feel, very professional.  The performers were all the local high schools' top groups.  That year, I had a drum solo with Jazz Band, a vocal solo with Madrigals on the song God Bless the U.S.A. (the first time it was a hit), a solo with the mass/combined choir, and my barbershop quartet brought the house down with Goodbye My Coney Island Baby (I had the high, falsetto note in the end!).  At the conclusion of my senior year, I was voted Most Talented, in the senior elections.

As a middle school music teacher today, I feel compelled to add the following as I have had several students, over the years, who struggle with the issue of "sports vs. music."
During ALL OF THE ABOVE (until very late in my high school career) my dream was to be a professional athlete.  Such a common dream for youngsters (boys especially, it seems).  It wasn't until near the end of my high school years that I realized music could, and would, take me MUCH further than sports could.