Thursday, May 21, 2009

A New Take on "Old Home Week"

I've been a jazz musician for a long time now. And while my teaching at both the college and in the public schools involves jazz and classical in various ratios, the sum total of my (sparse) compositional output since grad school has been in the jazz genre. That's why tonight was so fun.

Long story short: One of the high schools where I teach privately, led by a director who's been a friend since college, played a band composition of mine that I wrote in high school, guest-directed by a friend who was the drum major of said high school band the last time it was performed. It was quite enjoyable.

Short story long: Before I got to UNT and became bitten by the jazz bug rather quickly, I used to write a lot of band music. As noted in Fun Facts (#26, to be precise), I won the Reflections Contest all the way up through the state level with one of my compositions in eighth grade, and we got to march to another one of my pieces (Fun Fact #27) in the high school football playoffs in the Astrodome. It's the latter composition that is the subject of tonight's post.

When I was in high school, I spent three summers at the Midwestern Music and Art Camp (now known as the Midwestern Music Academy) at the University of Kansas. At the time, the camp was a month-long affair, and it proved to be a great prelude to college (living in the dorm, eating dorm food, walking to class every morning) as well as my first experience playing in a jazz band.

While at the camp, I took some of my afternoon break that wasn't devoted to practice and set myself up in the hall, working on a march that I had originally started in seventh grade. As the weeks went on, friends would come by and give me advice on instrument ranges and so on ("No, Kev, you can't write the French horn that high and expect it to sound good!"), and with over a week left to go, it was done. It was written for my high school band back home, but hey--if it was already finished, could I get it played here?

Even though the director--a great man--requested that, before having the band read my composition, I should have it proofread by one of their composition professors--a very cranky man--to make sure it was read-worthy. Having a strong desire to have it played, I endured a good 15 minutes (which seemed longer) of the cranky guy griping that I was doing things that Sousa or Fillmore would never have done (duh--I was 17 at the time. Cut me a break, sir!), but we did agree that the intro was way too long, and it was shortened to its current form at that time (thus obliterating the last remaining section of the piece I'd started in seventh grade). From there, it was off to that day's rehearsal, where they read it, the director liked it, and we played it on the final concert (the one time, unfortunately, that my parents couldn't come up to attend).

As i said, the piece was written for my high school band, so we played it there as well, in the Astrodome during the playoffs as noted above. I also helped design the drill for that show, but to this day, I have no idea what the PA announcer said about me, due to the speakers-in-the-round layout of the Dome. It was a very cool experience to have my composition played in a venue like that.

After high school (when, before graduating, I would receive my first rejection letter from a publisher, thanks to a connection made at camp), I cleaned up the march a little bit (my four semesters of undergrad music theory would help me write smoother harmony parts), but, other than being recorded for me a time or two, it had not been played again until tonight (unless my old high school busted it out since then without my knowledge; there should still be a copy in their library).

So fast forward through "lo, these many years" to now. My old high school drum major ended up being a band parent at one of the schools where I teach. This particular school has a silent-auction fundraiser every year, and one of the auctioned items is the chance to direct one of the bands in the spring concert, and my ex-drum major friend has won this item for pretty much the duration of both his kids' tenure in the band. Not long after I ran into him at the Region Band concert this year, I had a crazy idea: Would he like to direct my march in the concert? Both he and the band director were on board with the idea, and I was advised to have the parts ready sometime after concert and sightreading contest in mid-April.

Now fast forward just a little bit more, to the week of that contest, which was also the week I had my accident. As I was emailing the various directors to advise them of the time of my return, this director added an aside: "Since we're done with contest, I'll need to pass out those parts tomorrow or Monday." Guess who hadn't even started on the parts yet. (It was my intention to do everything over using computer notation software, since I didn't want the kids to have to read my chicken-scratch manuscript on march-sized paper.) So I learned how to use Finale NotePad pretty quickly, and, thanks to my not really going anywhere over the weekend, I had the majority of parts done for the following week.

Since I teach at that school a few times during the week, I was able to drop in on the rehearsals a few times, and I liked the little things the director did in terms of orchestration (it's fairly common to have different groups of instruments lay out while others are emphasized during marches, since nearly every section repeats). I didn't get to see my friend direct it, but I knew he'd do fine.

And sure enough, things went well. It was cool to hear something of mine performed for the first time since high school, not to mention having the opportunity for people to hear a concert work by me, since the entirety of my output in the area of composition and arrangement since the end of undergrad school has been in the jazz area. And it was quite cool to hear the director tell the entire backstory of how my friend and I, not to mention the director himself and I, were connected for all these years. (He even got the chance to poke fun at my gimpiness after asking me to stand up when the performance was done; the funny quote from him was: "So the lesson we've learned is that, if you find yourself falling down the stairs on your rear, just enjoy the ride." If only I'd been that lucky...)

This post has gone on very long, but tonight was sort of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; I'm glad that my upcoming surgery didn't happen in time to interfere with this in any way.

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