Saturday, December 13, 2008

Lip-Syncing for Percussionists 101

'Tis the season for musicians to be inundated with holiday gigs. Wait, that makes it sound like a bad thing. Don't get me wrong...a little extra cash is always welcome at this time of the year. It just makes for a rather busy schedule.

I had a particularly amusing experience with one of these holiday gigs this year. I was hired to play timpani & percussion (along with 10 string players) for a Christian rock concert at Greensboro Coliseum, featuring headliners Casting Crowns, Natalie Grant, and Avalon. Because I was hired by the local symphony to play the gig, they provided the instruments for me. However, there was apparently a discrepancy between the list of needed instruments and the music itself, so I was left scrambling 30 minutes before rehearsal to track down a set of orchestra bells and wind chimes. Found orchestra bells pretty quickly and was about to run around to find wind chimes when one of the band members stopped me just outside the arena. The conversation went something like this:

Band member: "If you're missing an instrument or two, don't worry about it."
Me: "But the bass player just told me that I definitely need to have wind chimes."
Band member: "Look, you're really just for visuals."
Me: "Ummm, what do you mean?"
Band member: "There are no microphones on you, so you're just eye candy up there. Make it look good. Make it look like you know what you're doing."
Me: "Wow. Okay. Easy enough."

Walking away, I felt a little deflated and maybe even a little used. I climbed back on stage to my rickety, elevated set-up (consisting of 2 timpani, a set of bells, suspended cymbal, crash cymbals, and 2 egg shakers) next to the bass player, who reinforced what the other band member had just told me. Why he couldn't have told me this when he saw me running around looking for instruments, I don't know. Anyway, I started mentally preparing for what would be my very first experience "lip-syncing" for a gig. That might be overstating. I did actually play. It's not like I was air drumming or anything. Nonetheless, here's how I would (and did) approach it:

1) Look very engaged, even when not playing (which was a lot for me on this concert). This involved a bit of head-bobbing, toe-tapping, and closing my eyes every now and then.

2) Don't look around in awe of the spectacle around you. We (the string players & I) did not rehearse with any of the bands before the concert, so there was a lot to take in once the concert did start.

3) Pick up sticks/mallets several bars before you play and get in position to play. Then, give many prep strokes above the instruments to try to refocus attention on you. Not once were the strings or I featured on the 2 huge screens on either side of the stage, so you do what you have to. It's all about ego, right?

4) Timpani and cymbal rolls should end in a flourish with mallets up in the air. Similarly, crash cymbals should end up out and in the air after crashes.

5) When playing egg shakers, since they're so small, you may choose not to even pick them up. Just put your hand in the air as if you're holding them and shake. I did actually pick them up. I didn't want to go 100% Milli Vanilli for the gig.

5) I was directly behind and above the drummer for the entirety of the show. Whenever the drummer was taking a solo, I would twirl one of my timpani mallets above my head while pointing at the drummer with the other mallet. OK, that one's a lie.

I've run out. I followed these directions for the first half of the show, meaning I was on my best behavior. However, when I realized no one was looking at me at all during the second half, I might have taken out my iPhone and taken some on-stage pictures.

Casting Crowns with Natalie Grant in the middle

I think I realized why they don't amplify the local musicians that play with them on their tour. After the concert was over and we were packing up, the bass player shakes my hand and tells me I was the first percussionist on their entire tour to play everything correctly. Not that in mattered, but yikes!

So, that was my Friday night and my first experience as lip-syncing eye candy.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Yuletide Recording Session #2 & Wrap-Up

I am sorely behind with updating this blog that is supposed to be a source of up-to-date news. Especially since the 2nd and final recording session for my Christmas CD happened exactly 2 weeks ago. I have excuses though (don't we all?):

#1 - I spent the entire next day editing & mastering the CD with my audio engineer.

#2 - My best friend from TX arrived the following day.

#3 - I ran my first half marathon the following day.

(This was about 9 miles into the race)

#4 - Vegging on the couch for 2 days straight to recover from said half marathon.

Anyway, the CD project....

The 2nd recording session went well but was fraught with a cacophony of sounds from several sources: cars, trucks, motorcycles, planes, trains, church bells, lawnmowers, leaf blowers, and even a shopping cart being rolled noisily down a hallway. I am not a fan of recording in a dry-sounding studio and adding reverb/ambient sound post-production. I would much prefer find a place with great acoustics that records well. In this case, I used a church sanctuary here in Greensboro that is located on a well-traveled road at an intersection with a stoplight, which explains most of the vehicular noises I mentioned. When I booked the space, they neglected to tell me Wednesday was lawn mowing day, so we side-stepped those noises with a well-placed lunch break.

The first half of the session was a blast. I was joined by a phenomenal hand drummer (and orchestral percussionist) from the area for two of the tracks on the album – God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen & Deck the Halls. When neither of us showed up to the session with a metronome to check tempi, I turned to my trusty iPhone, searched the App Store, and had downloaded a free metronome to my phone within 2 minutes. Thank you, Apple.

(Pics from the two recording sessions)

The latter half of the session left me all alone with my marimba and recording engineer for what ended up being a VERY stressful 4 hours. But we got it all and I'm very happy with the sound we ended up with. The CD shipment arrives Monday 11/3, so if you want to buy one (or 50), GO HERE.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Yuletide Recording Session #1

Hands down, recording is one of my least favorite aspects of performing. Whether it is the cursed expectation of perfection from future listeners (or myself) or the knowledge I only have a limited amount of time to achieve this "perfection," I do not know. Either way, I knew going into the first of two recording sessions for my Christmas CD this morning that I needed to check my aversion at the door. I remember recording this guy playing a solo clarinet piece I wrote back in my grad school days. He told me how much he loved recording ... that he actually found it fun and liberating. Me, I must have looked at him (and probably looked at him) as if he were nuts. Anyway, it was helpful to look back on how cool and collected he was as I mentally prepared for today, hopefully channeling his positive energy.

The purpose of today's recording session was to record the four marimba quartet arrangements that will be appearing on the album: God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen, Silent Night, Deck the Halls, and A Winter Postlude (Jingle Bells). I was surrounded by some of the best marimba players in Greensboro. With their consistency, accuracy, and musicianship, they certainly helped me to have fun and take my mind off the fact that we were surrounded by microphones and that the recording engineer kept pressing that blessed "Record" button.

After the quartets went off without a hitch, I was feeling confident (and we had time to spare), so I recorded a couple of the solo tracks: A Winter Prelude (Jingle Bells) and Carol of the Bells. I was joined by one of the quartet members on the latter of the two pieces on orchestra bells. Here's a sneak preview (read: unedited & raw) of that piece. I'm really happy with how all has gone so far.

The second session is all set for Wednesday morning and I have my work cut out for me. Here's the remaining solo track list:

God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen (w/ djembe)
Deck the Halls (w/ dumbek)
Silent Night
O Holy Night
What Child Is This?
In the Bleak Midwinter
Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella

Ugh ... hands are starting to sweat ... having trouble breathing. And the process starts all over again.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Yuletide CD Project

Apparently all it took to inspire my latest CD project was the confusion of one of my running group friends over my last blog entry. She thought that I actually had a CD filled with the Christmas marimba arrangements in my new book. I was planning to do lesser quality recordings of each tune for demo purposes, but if I'm going to spend time doing that, I might as well do it right. However, with it being October and all, I have had to fast-track the entire project in order to have it ready for sale at PASIC and just generally out in time for the holidays.

It will feature the 8 solo marimba arrangements from The Yuletide Marimbist, plus a short opening and closing track (based on Jingle Bells), and my three Christmas marimba quartet arrangements. I'm excited to have some first-rate guest artists playing with me on the album. Here's the current track listing:

1. A Winter Prelude (Jingle Bells)
2. Silent Night
3. God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen (w/ tabla)
4. O Holy Night
5. Carol of the Bells
6. Deck the Halls (w/ congas)
7. What Child Is This?
8. In the Bleak Midwinter
9. Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella
10. Silent Night (quartet)
11. God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen (quartet)
12. Deck the Halls (quartet)
13. A Winter Postlude (quartet)

Should be released by the first week in November. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Christmas in September?

Anyone like to celebrate Christmas all year round? I've had the pleasure of doing so whilst writing a new collection of Christmas arrangements for solo marimba! I've been chipping away at it since November of 2007. Actually, I arranged two tunes (Silent Night & God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen) and stopped for about 7 months. Here's a YouTube performance of "God Rest" at a clinic I gave in Salem, OR back in December. Please excuse the less-than stellar audio quality (and the wrong note at the end).

I started back up in July, planning to do a total of 6 arrangements for the collection until two of my always helpful colleagues (read: opinionated) told me that I needed to do 8 so that the book would be thicker (and therefore more marketable). I just finished the eighth and final arrangement and the collection is now reaching the final stages of the publication process. Here's the list of tunes and the beautiful cover designed by Ed Morgan of navyblue design.

Silent Night

God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen

O Holy Night

Carol of the Bells

What Child Is This?

In the Bleak Midwinter

Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella

Deck the Halls

Needless to say, I'm pretty excited about the release of this one. It'll be available from my publisher in mid-October, just in time for people to pick it up and learn some festive tunes for Christmas.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Hodge-Podge of New Publications

So, it's that time of year again ... that time when I get to see how truly productive (or unproductive) I was in my little world of composing. Turns out I was maybe a little lazy this year. I have 5 new publications plus a handful of piano reductions and orchestrations I did for other composers' works. Here's the list in alphabetical order:

The Celtic Xylophone (Book 2)
This is the second book (duh) of Irish tunes I have arranged for solo xylophone and marimba trio. The idea behind these arrangements was to provide and alternative to popular xylophone rage by using similar instrumentation and maintaining the virtuosic qualities of the solo xylophone. Any of the arrangements in Book 1 or 2 would work great as encores. In this collection are Echo from Leinster, The Foggy Dew, and Comes Haste to the Wedding. Click on the links to hear recordings of each.
More Info

Edge of the World
After being commissioned to write a marimba/vibraphone duet for former students and current friends Michael & Sara Wood, I decided to write a second piece for them as a wedding gift. Based on a story/vignette of the same title by Brian Andreas of StoryPeople fame, the piece has a very sweet and romantic quality to it, capturing the lush qualities of both instruments. Listen here.

Here's the story by Brian Andreas:
they came to sit and dangle their feet off
the edge of the world and after awhile
they forgot everything but
the good and true things
they would do someday

The Foggy Dew
This is simply the Irish ballad I arranged for The Celtic Xylophone (Book 2) set for solo xylophone and concert band (Gr.III). Listen here, but understand this is an electronic MIDI recording and leaves quite a bit to be desired.

Legend of the Sword
In the spring of 2007, a good friend of mine called me up in a pinch and asked me to write an opener for his high school marching band show. I had the unfortunate task of creating a piece of music to fit into an Asian-themed show (rather broad and generalized, but OK). Not wanting this piece to go to waste after marching season had ended, I decided to modify it slightly to make it appropriate for the stage rather than the football field. Listen here.

Rock House Creek
Commissioned by Michael and Sara Wood, Rock House Creek is infused with the progressive bluegrass sounds that have emerged out of the last 10-15 years from such players as Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, and Mike Marshall. What resulted was a duet for marimba and vibraphone with the option of adding standard bluegrass to the mix if desired.

Listen to the duo version

Watch the duo version w/ added bluegrass instruments