In a Twinkle

111215074920-santas-rielly-horizontal-large-galleryJuly has become a natural time for me to think about Christmas. I, as do many, absolutely adore the Christmas season, and I begin to long for it in the hot month of July for so many reasons. So why not?

I’m a believer.

When there is inadequate evidence to support something I want to believe–something which enriches my life in some way–I often choose to believe it anyway.  I’m good with Bigfoot, psychic powers, magic, aliens, ghosts, and God. Most adults believe in at least one of these. But what about Santa Claus?

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Fake Cigarette

s-l300I believe it’s accurate to say that I had a reputation for being straight-laced in high school.  If I showed up at your party (rare), and you were thinking of bringing out booze or some illicit substance, you might ask your friend,

“Do you know that guy?”

“Who? Oh, that Burns twin? David?”

“Will he be cool if I bring this out?”

“David? Uhhhhh…better wait until he’s gone.”

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I’m Bruce Wayne

glass-of-apple-juice-on-placemat_mediumI’ve written extensively of my memories of Lonoke, Arkansas and Norman, Oklahoma, but my memory goes further back to Texas. In fact, my first memory is around one-and-a-half years old, and it involved Batman in a small way. We lived in a trailer home somewhere near Houston. One summer evening, my mother had some friends over for coffee. My twin and I were riding down the gravel drive of the trailer on little plastic scooters. No peddles, just powered by our sandaled feet. Mine was green and it was a nominally akin to a tractor.  My mother had cut the rubber head of a toy tom-tom drum into a mask just like Robin’s from Batman. I recall coming in from the humid night air to have her retie it for me a couple of times. This tells you how deep my roots with the Batman franchise grows.

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Lower-Middle Class Preppy

I grew up at a time when the brand of your clothes you wore was a major factor in you determining social status. Polo, Izod, Gant, OP, Jams, Guess, Reebok–it didn’t matter if the off-brand clothing item was identical; without the brand, it was absolute TRASH and you were better off not even trying.

I learned this in my days of middle school in Norman.  I moved from a small farm town in Arkansas where I was aware of name brands, but so many of us were poor and I think we were more forgiving about clothes.  In that town, Lee jeans were the standard. You looked for that genuine cowhide patch with “Lee” branded on it. They weren’t expensive. They didn’t promise any kind of status. We just liked them. But Lee was not cool in 1984 Norman. I was set straight very soon at Whittier Middle School.  In a panic, I begged my mom to buy me a couple pairs of Levis, but I had to wait.

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Upchuck Angel

When we marry, we bring with us our own scripts, experiences, preferences, and needs. It may take quite of few years before a couple can come to a place of sufficient understanding of each other. We may not even know our own needs at first, but marriage is a great platform for self-discovery as well. We also come into a marriage thinking the way we grew up was normal. We may learn, however, that we all grow up with some peculiarities and biases.

That brings us to the topic of throwing up. I grew up believing that throwing up was a private matter. In order to protect one another’s dignity, my family of origin left each other alone to suffer through the event–saving each other from embarrassment. There is no dignity in the way I and other members of my family upchuck. It’s like listening to an exorcism.

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Band President: The Beginning of a Lifelong Love Affair

tubafluteOnce in a while, my wife and I get asked how we met. We both love to tell it. It shares themes with many love stories–politics, prestige, perseverance, admiration, and hearts that went pitter-patter.

Our story begins with music. Jennifer and I both played instruments in the band at West Mid-High in Norman, Oklahoma. She played the flute and I played the tuba. She sat on the front row and me on the back row. Ninth grade passed without any interaction that I remember. Other, she was just one of the nameless gaggle of giggly flute players on the front row.

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The Good Cop or the Good Black Dude

This Sunday’s lectionary was the most famous parable, The Good Samaritan.  It is so ubiquitous that people from any age, any race, and any religion is likely to have heard of it.  As a response to the Pharisee’s question, “Ok, then who is my neighbor?” so that he could know who he was expected to have to love, Jesus tells this story.

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

What many do not realize is that part of the story is the the Samaritans were persona non grata for the Jews.  They practiced a different form of  Judaism.  And so that the Samaritan was the one who helped and therefor was righteous in the law subverts the expectations of the questioner.  The priest and the Levite, considered to be the most righteous, were sinners and false.  That must have been a bitter pill to swallow.

And the same time this scripture was read all over the world, our country was embroiled in race and police issues.  And so I’m going to consider the story from those perspectives.

We’re going to plug in two scenarios.

1.) The beaten man is a black man, the first person on the road was a white liberal, the second person was a black person, the third person was a white cop

2.) The

Going Big

Once a year, I go big with my choir.  We do a kind of choral work called a Christmas cantata.  One of the most famous Christmas cantatas is the first section of Handel’s Messiah, for example.  Cantatas originate in the 17th century.  Cantata means “sung” and usually includes some form of narration and is accompanied by an instrumental ensemble.  It’s a series of songs that comprise a single work.  This year was my sixth cantata at Goodrich.

We do a brand new cantata every year.  This year, I wanted to do something very different. My son taught me something about the construction of a joke once.  We laugh because the punchline subverts our expectations.  That’s what I wanted to do this year, except instead of getting a laugh, I wanted to get a dynamic worship response from the congregation.  Our punchline, so to speak, was African American gospel music.  My choir does gospel music once and awhile and they do it very well.  The congregation loves it.  But we’d never done a full on gospel cantata.  In fact, I’d never even heard of a gospel Christmas cantata.  Joel Raney’s composition, Joy, may be a one of a kind.

Every June, I choose the cantata from the best new cantatas of the season, and there were many good ones, but this was a stand out.  It was something I could subvert expectations with.  But I knew that I could not go about it like I had previous years.

In listening to the demo, I nearly turned it away.  I knew Raney had black gospel in mind, but there was nothing like a black gospel sound to the singers.  When I say that, it is not really about race.  It’s about a style that originates in the African American community, and these studio demo folks just didn’t get it.  It sounded like a very good 1980s white high school show choir.  Does that bring a sound to mind?  Cheesy is the best word for it, actually.  But as I listened, I heard something in the score.  Joel Raney understands the fundamentals of black gospel music.  The chords were there.  The rhythm was there.  And, as much as possible with a 4 part SATB score, the voicing was there.  Everything I needed to start something new was there.  We just needed to steer clear of the demo recording.

Now understand, there is absolutely no failure on Raney’s end.  Taking a kind of music that is taught by rote (not sheet music), and notating it onto paper is challenging.  You can’t take the music that’s in your head, put it onto paper, and expect what was in your head to come out of a choir of primarily white United Methodists.  What I wanted to do is imagine what Raney had in mind and bring it to life.  If Raney is Geppetto and his score is Pinnochio, then what I wanted to do is make into a real boy.  Joel, if you’re reading, I don’t mean to sound unflattering;  I’ve just worked with gospel scores and arrangements enough to have a good idea of the challenges and you’ve given us everything we needed to make something really special!  It would take the right group of musicians to do this.

I didn’t hire church musicians because they’re all engaged on Sunday morning.  Instead, I went to the local music scene to find a pianist, drummer, percussionist, and bass player.  I sat down with the pianist in July.  He would essentially be the band leader.  And we imagined for awhile.  We imagined a presentation of the music in its most possible authentic form.  The only musician I couldn’t find to do it was a gospel music organist.  They are a rare breed and all very busy.  But the pianist would handle all of the flare that the organist would have done.  We imagined an augmented version that would ring true.  I told him if you help me with the band, I’ll see what I could do with the choir.

He may have thought I was a little nuts (spoiler alert:  I am).  Maybe he thought I didn’t know what I was talking about.  I don’t know.  Ok, so you’re going to take a group of musicians who have never played together (or in a church for that matter) to take a written score and turn it into something different than the written score and you’re going to do it in 5 rehearsals?

Yes!  That’s what I wanted to do!  I think he may have been a little hesitant, but intrigued enough to throw in with me.  We sat down the next week and looked at it.  He was prodigious beyond what I expected and I was really excited.  It was summer.  I told him that we would start in October and perform it in December.

I knew it would work.  It was one of those Holy Spirit things.  I could see it all so clearly in my head.  I would give them CDs to learn their parts and a score to the pianist.  Most of these musicians would be learning by ear.  They would learn it in a few weeks and have fun doing it.  We would find our sound;  our interpretation.  They would join with the choir in December and we would present it on the 18th.

Every August, I hold a choir retreat in which we play a game or two, look at some new fall material, have a potluck lunch, and look at the cantata for the first time. We all look forward to it.   The choir had the same response to the demo as I did, but they trusted me so we had a good consensus on it.  And so the work began.  I knew from the beginning that rhythm and style would be the hardest elements and I was right.  Challenging music.

What I wanted for them was not their regular traditional choral sound.  I wanted something brighter, yell-ier, and freer, adding style that is not written down.  There were no complaints.  I spend a good deal of our rehearsal time trying to prevent them from doing that anyway.  Black gospel music singing is very different than what anglo-centric choirs do.  It requires a chestier sound.  That means we take our speaking/yelling voices and take it on up to our higher register instead of flipping over into head voice all of the time.   That requires some technique and I didn’t expect everyone to get it.  Plus, there were a lot of legit soprano parts that wouldn’t allow for that.  But I wanted us to do our best at sounding like a gospel choir, at least where it really counted.

In the end, it turned out that the biggest challenge was balancing the volume between the band and the choir.  Our second to last rehearsal was disastrous.  It was the first time we all got together and the singers were screaming trying to sing over the drums.  Not good.  Mutiny in their eyes, I concocted a plan to dampen the drums and amplify the choir.  I prayed and prayed and when the dress rehearsal came I had nailed it.  It was good.

All that was left was to worship.  That is number one for me.  Yes, it’s a great show worthy of a concert, but my plan from the beginning was to subvert expectations with the goal of a more spontaneous kind of worship.  And I believe we accomplished that.  There were amens, people wanting to move (and not really knowing how to), tears, and spontaneous clapping.  Never had our program had such a profound effect.  It was recorded and has been shared throughout the community.  And the mandate was clear, more of this kind of music at Goodrich.

Afterwards, the pianist wrote about the importance of white people understanding and performing black music…and I added black sacred music.  It’s an American original.  It needs to be embraced by churches like mine with music directors who are willing to give it their best shot.  And I gave it my best shot and went big.

Halloween Mask Surprise

cyclopsIt’s a little early to think about Halloween, but this story is ultimately about growing up with an extraordinary father.

Eighth grade is a weird time for Halloween. Eight-graders are caught between childhood and adolescence. They want to enjoy all the fun of a childhood Halloween and also enjoy the teenage and adult age fun of parties. It was the last year I tried to trick-or-treat.  Over the summer, I’d become a six-foot-tall bass-baritone. I wondered if I could still pull it off one last time.  I blew what little money I had on a hobo mask. Yes, this was a day when dressing like a homeless person for Halloween was acceptable. The mask was replete with a tattered cigar protruding from a weather-worn, unshaven rubber face.

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Tea and Halibut

allergyI don’t know if this is even a story, but it somehow represents my life in a small way. I’ve struggled with a stuffy nose since college. Medicines help a little. Nose sprays, over-the-counter pills, saline snorting–yeah, I could do all that. The stuffiness would be no big deal except that it does affect my singing voice which is important to me.  Depending on the style of music, I sometimes have to go on Sudafed for a few days before singing to get everything in tip-top condition. If I need a lot of resonance, a stuffy nose can hold me back. It can also drip down on my vocal cords and give me a little laryngitis.  It’s a whole big thing.

A few summers ago, I took the Wilson-Burns family to Orlando for a week of Universal and Disney fun. Read all about at Wally World or Bust. As the week progressed in balmy Florida, my nose cleared up. I noticed while singing in the shower one morning. Everything was just easier. I had the kind of control and ease I had lost over the last few years.  Ah HA!  There must be something in Oklahoma that is causing this!

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