Barb Caffrey's Blog

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Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

My Teacher and Mentor, Tim Bell, dies at 75

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Folks, it is with profound sadness that I write this blog. Just yesterday, I wrote about how Tim Bell, my teacher and mentor for many years, was going to play very difficult and challenging parts for the Racine Concert Band on one rehearsal, and that I was sure he’d do well, after our normal first-chair clarinetist could not play due to an unexpected and unfortunate event.

And Tim did just that. He was brilliant on the Surinach. He was phenomenal on the Copland. And he sounded great on the other three pieces we played, too.

Then today, Tim died of a heart attack. He was seventy-five, and he lived the way he’d wanted to live, and he played music at a high level until the very end of his life. (All of that is good, and true, and real…but I wish I hadn’t had to write them just yet.)

Plus, Tim was the type of guy who’d do anything for anyone. (I’m so upset, I nearly wrote that the other way around. Tim would’ve laughed at that and told me not to worry about it, no doubt.)

After I started playing again in 2011, I reconnected with Tim. We played in the RCB together, though he almost always played clarinet and I almost always played the alto sax. (Note that I also play clarinet and oboe, and Tim played all the saxes plus clarinet and, I believe, a bit of flute. Though he didn’t necessarily feel confident with his flute playing.) And Tim knew what I was going through, as a too-young widow with health issues, and that I’d felt I’d wasted my time and wasted my talents.

Tim told me more than once that I hadn’t failed. No matter what it looked like, I hadn’t failed. I did what I could. I got my Master’s, against long odds. I found the right man and married him, again against long odds. And that so much had gone wrong, that so much had been difficult, that it was impossible for me to play for years after Michael died as I was too sad to even look at the instruments…well, Tim told me the important thing was to keep going, and keep doing. And that I still had the skills, and he was glad I was using them to my fullest.

Even last night, Tim told me I played well. As I was playing the second parts again, and most of the time no one cares when you play the second part, I was a little surprised. But if anyone could tell when I was playing and when I wasn’t, it would be Tim…he was my teacher for almost three years after I returned to get a Bachelor’s, and after I got it, for the rest of my life he was my admired mentor and friend.

(Yes, I told Tim he played well. He did, too. He sounded great, and he covered the parts he’d learned as if he’d been playing them all along. He was uncomfortable when I told him he played well, too, just saying a gruff “Thank you” and then turning the conversation aside. That was Tim’s way.)

Tim was a music educator, played jazz and classical music, and could do anything at all as a musician that was needed. He was smart, funny, sometimes acerbic, enjoyed going to have drinks after concerts with the band (whenever I went, I was always charmed by Tim and Tim’s stories, too; he had the best ones), and was a genuinely good and caring person.

Tim was full of life, and full of music. I thought the world of him, and enjoyed learning about music and life from him. He was a phenomenal teacher, who never forgot his students and always tried to encourage them, even years after he’d last seen them.

I don’t know of any better epitaph than that.

If you knew Tim, or want to talk about other admired mentors, teachers, or good friends who’ve passed on, go ahead and leave a comment. I’ll appreciate that. (And if anyone can come up with a good way to help Tim’s name and talents live on with the next generation of Southeastern Wisconsin’s musicians, I’d appreciate hearing that, too. Something has to be done.)

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Written by Barb Caffrey

October 18, 2017 at 7:09 pm

Concerts and Life

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Folks, I’m preparing right now for a concert later this evening with the Racine Concert Band. We’re playing at 7 PM at Park High School in Racine, a joint concert with the Park High School band…and I have a few things to say about concerts and life.

First, sometimes you prepare for something, and it doesn’t happen. But that preparation is still a good thing to do, because it might help you down the line with something else.

In an immediate sense, we had this happen last night in our dress rehearsal with the RCB. Our first-chair clarinetist was unable to play for a very good reason, and her husband brought the folder in so someone else could play her parts.

So, what happened? One of the other clarinetists moved up to play the parts instead. That clarinetist is my former teacher from my college days, Tim Bell…if anyone can play a concert on one rehearsal, it’s Tim.

But Tim had prepared the second parts. He didn’t really want to move. And he would’ve preferred playing the parts he already had, with the first-chair player being healthy enough to play. (I think we all would prefer that, as the first-chair player is a beacon of light whenever she’s around.)

Still, he was called upon, and he answered the call. And he did very well. (Come to the concert tonight and see just how well he did, learning the parts in one rehearsal.)

Second, as is seen by what happened to the first-chair clarinetist, you can do everything in your power to do everything right, and something out of the blue happens so you can’t perform. This is incredibly frustrating, and it’s not easy to deal with whatsoever.

All you can do in such situations is your best. That seems trite to say, but it’s the absolute truth.

Right now, for the first-chair player, rest is what she needs. She’d rather be playing, but she can’t right now. So all she can do is rest, recover fully, and get back to being that positive presence she’s always been down the line.

That’s the winning strategy, now that life dealt her a bad hand. But because she’s a mature and thoughtful soul, she realizes that bad hand is temporary.

Third, while concerts are ephemeral, music itself isn’t. Music can last forever, even though the pieces we play will sound a little different every time we try, as we learn and change and grow and become wiser (and hopefully, just a bit better, too).

This is why music is important. The players may change, sometimes through no fault of their own. The pieces change, too. And the audiences definitely change, something no musician can ever predict…nor would we want to in advance, as that’s half the fun of playing, in my not-so-humble opinion.

Anyway, that’s why I think concerts are interesting. They are a microcosm of life, in their own weird way, and as such, the preparation for the actual event may — or may not — match what ends up happening.

But no matter what, the music will endure. And the Racine Concert Band shall do its best to play it with passion, vigor, and authenticity, later tonight at Park High School.

Written by Barb Caffrey

October 17, 2017 at 2:44 pm

Mozart, and Persistence

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Folks, what comes to mind when you think about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?

Is it the fact that he was a gifted composer?

Is it that he was considered a virtuoso before the age of fifteen or so?

Is it that his father, Leopold, was also a composer and conductor?

Or is it that Mozart, like every other creative person on the face of this Earth (past or present), had to struggle at times, and not everyone liked what he was doing, or cared about it either?

Yes, Mozart was famous during his own lifetime. But he had struggles, too. (My conductor for the Racine Concert Band, Mark Eichner, pointed this out earlier this evening during his remarks.) For example, Mozart desperately wanted to break into the Paris opera scene; it was considered the “happening place,” back in the 1770s or so, and every composer who was anyone wanted to be known there.

So, he went to Paris. Taught some students, probably played some gigs here and there (as Mozart played any number of instruments, though he was known most for strings and piano), and managed to get a gig composing an overture for a ballet, “La Petite Riens.” (We played this piece tonight, hence Mr. Eichner’s remarks about Mozart. But I digress.) He thought that this would be his big break, as anyone who heard his music tended to adore it…but when he read the papers the next day after the ballet was premiered, he found out that his name wasn’t mentioned in the review. Nor was it mentioned in the concert’s program…

Yes, even W. A. Mozart could get treated badly, folks.

Anyway, the point here is that Mozart didn’t give up on his dreams after this setback. (It must’ve really smarted, too, considering.) He kept going. While it must’ve felt like a retreat, he went back to Germany, then to Italy, and elsewhere in Europe, and did what he needed to do in order to get his music played and published.

It may seem odd, that Mozart — the great Mozart — ran into problems. (This wasn’t his only problem, mind. He suffered money woes, health problems, problems with his kids and their health, difficulties with his wife’s family, and goodness knows what else.) But he was a human being, and as such, he had to deal with the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” like anyone else.

And it’s not like the man couldn’t compose. Anyone who’s heard any of his symphonies, or better yet, any of “The Magic Flute” (perhaps his best-known opera), knows that Mozart was an incredibly gifted and prolific composer…the large amount of music Mozart left behind, considering he died before the age of forty, testifies to that.

So, if you’ve run into problems with your creative pursuits, because you don’t think anyone cares, or you wonder what the point is, or you even wonder why you try so hard for so little of a result, remember what happened to Mozart.

Whatever has gone wrong this time, it is temporary. It doesn’t have to stop you if you refuse to let it do so.

So, remember this story…and don’t give up.

Written by Barb Caffrey

July 31, 2017 at 12:08 am

Concert Over…

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Folks, I’m glad to report that I played my sax solo reasonably well last night, and the preparation that went into that worked out.

I am mostly writing this follow-up blog because of a comment I received from a fellow musician on Facebook. He isn’t aware of all of the various issues that went into me playing this solo, or even wanting to play a solo at all, and that reminded me that not everyone has read my blog for years.

And if you haven’t, you’re maybe not going to know exactly what did go into the persistent effort to play well enough to ask for a solo…much less anything else.

For longtime blog readers, this is going to be old hat to you, so if you want to skip over this post, feel free…but for the rest of you, here we go.

When my husband died in 2004, I was so devastated, I wasn’t able to do much of anything for years. Because I’d already been battling carpal tunnel syndrome (or what I thought was that, at the time), my hands became so stiff and sore, they were almost unusable — at least, when it came to playing a musical instrument. (I could still type, with effort, but I also saw problems even there.)

Then, for several years, I just didn’t play. I looked at my instruments, and grew frustrated; I’d gone through so much to get my two degrees, and now, I couldn’t do anything whatsoever?

In 2011, I finally felt able to talk with my old band director, Mark Eichner. He was still at UW-Parkside, and hadn’t yet retired; he told me when the Parkside Community Band was going to start rehearsing for their winter concert, and so, I rejoined the band. I played a solo there, within the band rather than standing up in front of it (as I did yesterday), which was difficult but worthwhile.

And not long after that, in 2012, I rejoined the Racine Concert Band as a saxophonist. They needed someone to play the second part, you see…and occasionally, I could play tenor sax or clarinet as needed. I knew playing every week in the summer, where I’d battle against my asthma as well as my hand issues, was going to be a challenge, but I appreciated being able to play again.

In a way, it took a few more years for my ego as a musician to reassert itself. (Ego is not necessarily a bad thing, mind.) By this point, I wanted to play a solo. So I asked for one, preferably on clarinet.

My conductor (again Mark Eichner, who also conducts the RCB) gave me a sax solo instead.

Note that my friend Vivian is the saxophone section leader. I’ve known Vivian for years. She’s a great person, she plays well, and she makes going to rehearsal fun. I did ask her if she had any problem whatsoever with me wanting to play a solo, and she basically said, “Of course not. Don’t be silly!”

(And she was the first person to congratulate me, too, last night. Just saying.)

So, I hope that fills in a few blanks.

As for why I said things the way I did before? It’s because I am a human being, fallible and mortal, and I really do struggle sometimes depending on what types of parts are written for the sax. (Many times, Vivian doesn’t have a good part, either. Nor does any other sax player in the section. It really depends on the arranger how well the sax section is used and/or exploited.) I have an easier time playing second clarinet or even third clarinet than I do second alto sax, because the clarinet parts in a band are based off the violin part in an orchestra — meaning that usually those parts are more interesting, or at least can be, than the second alto part. (And oft-times, they’re more interesting in my opinion than the first alto part, too. But that’s probably just me.)

I’m glad I feel well enough to play, and that I was able to do a good job last night. (And that my section leader, Vivian, puts up with me. Because I’m like anyone else — sometimes I can be a major pain in the buttinsky.)

Written by Barb Caffrey

July 17, 2017 at 8:21 pm

Concert Prep for Sax Solo, 7/16/17

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Folks, a while back I wrote a blog about how frustrated I was that I couldn’t seem to do what I used to do, as a musical performer. I’ve mostly played the second part, since I started playing again five or six years ago, and that’s really tough on the ego; furthermore, because they’re lower parts that mostly blend in, only the other musicians and the conductor tend to even know I’m there at all.

I was always a soloist, you see. Trained as an oboist, played in bands and orchestras, had musical scholarships, then picked up the saxophone in high school because I wanted to play in jazz band. I picked up the clarinet as a senior in high school because I wanted to play the doubled parts in jazz band (sometimes, the sax parts also have a small clarinet part, where you “double” during the piece and play both instruments), and in every case, I ended up playing more solo parts than anything else.

So, to go from first chair anything to second parts has been very difficult. And while “we also serve who stand and wait” (only slightly mangling that phrase), I like playing things that actually showcase my abilities now and again.

Fortunately, when I asked my conductor for the Racine Concert Band, Mark Eichner, for a solo, he gave me one. And I’m playing it tomorrow, on July 16, 2017…the first solo where I’ve stood before the band that I’ve played in twenty-one years.

What’s the piece, you ask? It’s Isaac Albeniz’s “Tango,” for alto saxophone soloist and band. (Yes, it’s an arrangement. But it works.)

I’m not the only soloist tomorrow, mind you. Eric Weiss, a very fine trumpeter, will be playing Clifton Williams’s “Dramatic Essay.” And a master illusionist, Pinkerton Xyloma, will be also helping to entertain the crowd during four of our band pieces.

So, since I put “concert prep” in the title, you might be wondering what that entails. (I hope so, ’cause I’m going to tell you anyway.)

Mostly, what preparation means, in this case, is to be prepared to play the piece. This includes physical preparation (repetition, playing it many times), mental preparation, trying to get rest, eating well, and also trying not to stress out over it all.

And I have done all of this.

My hope is that if you live in Southeastern Wisconsin or Northern Illinois, that you’ll come down to the Racine Zoo tomorrow night and hear the band play. It’s a free concert; the show starts at 7:30 p.m., but the doors open about an hour ahead of time. (Park on August Street, or on Goold. The main doors are not open for the Zoo during RCB performances.)

If you do, be sure to listen hard to my solo, and come up and say “hello.”

Written by Barb Caffrey

July 15, 2017 at 8:36 pm

Music and Writing — Do They Mix?

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Folks, as you know, I’m a musician and a writer. And sometimes I’ve wondered…do writing and music really mix?

I think they do. Being able to hear words as a symphony sometimes helps. It gives you an idea of cadence, measure, tone, tempo…even counterpoint.

But there are times when it can be easier for me to say things with music rather than words. I even know why this is; I trained for a career as a musician from the time I was ten years old.

That doesn’t mean I can’t say it in words, mind. I can. Still, it’s as my late husband put it: there are times where it’s like I’m converting what I see from music to words. Because music was my first language in many senses; I trust that more.

Even so, when both can be combined, it works well. (Check out my novel CHANGING FACES if you don’t believe me.)

At any rate, in a few weeks, I’ll be able to tell you about a new piece of writing I think combines writing and music well — and no, it’s not my own, though it is from one of my writer-friends. (I wish I could say something now, mind, but…better wait.)

Enjoy your weekend, folks. And if you’re in Racine looking for something to do on Sunday night, come down to the Zoo at 7:30 p.m. and listen to the Racine Concert Band’s first free concert of the year — we’ll be playing patriotic songs in honor of the Fourth of July. (And did I mention it’s absolutely, positively free?)

Written by Barb Caffrey

June 29, 2017 at 5:01 pm

Posted in Music, Writing

Preparation Is Key

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Folks, I recently played a concert with the Racine Concert Band, and I was struck by the difference good mental preparation made in my performance.

When I was younger, I never thought about this at all…I figured if I’d done the work, learned the pieces, my instrument was in good repair and I had a good reed, that’s all I needed to do. But preparation doesn’t stop with the mechanics of playing music; it actually starts there.

Because I have hand problems now, I have to think a great deal more about what I’m going to do, whether it’s with music, writing, or anything else. And what I’ve found is that if I put myself into a calmer frame of mind and tell myself I’m going to do the best I can, and not beat myself up beforehand because I can’t do what I once was so easily able to do, I come pretty close to being able to do what I used to do so effortlessly.

Now, I did prepare for big moments on stage, of course. I mentally played through solos, recitals, various high-profile gigs…so this mindset is not totally alien to me.

I’d never thought about it with a run-of-the-mill concert before, though.

So, as I was thinking about this, I wondered if it might help my writing, to stay in that same mindset as best I can. Just the belief that I can do it may make a difference on a bad day…and we all need that, whether we realize it or not.

Granted, I write on different days for different reasons. Sometimes I am writing an intensely emotional scene and I need to be able to feel that. Staying detached under such a circumstance won’t work.

But the belief that I can affect my own outcome a little…that is worth having.

You see, the biggest threat to creativity is the belief that it doesn’t matter. That who you are, that what you create, won’t ever make a difference to anyone.

We creative types have to have at least a small bit of an ego to take up a creative profession; otherwise, we’d get ground to powder quickly, as creating against strong headwinds is not for the faint of heart.

So, just for today, I want you — and me — to believe one thing:

It does matter.

What you do, what you create, what you are, all matters.

Don’t let anyone tell you different. And keep doing whatever you need to do, in order to be your best self.

Written by Barb Caffrey

May 25, 2017 at 10:36 am