Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Posts Tagged ‘classical music

The Transformative Power of Music

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Folks, this is the first in a three-part series. All will start with “The Transformative Power of…”, so you have been warned if this isn’t your thing. (Though why it wouldn’t be, I haven’t any idea whatsoever.)

Music can transform your life, if you let it.

What do I mean by this? (I can practically hear a few of you thinking, “Barb, you have gone off your rocker with this one. What gives?”) It’s simple: music can actually heal you. Or at least improve your mood while giving shape to your feelings, which is nearly as good.

Who hasn’t felt better after singing in the shower? Who hasn’t felt better after singing along to their favorite songs in the car?

For me, playing music takes that feeling and amps it up to eleven. (H/t if you got the Spinal Tap reference, there.) And being able to play music in a group, whether it’s a concert band, a jazz band, a small group, or just by myself, is one of the best feelings there is when it’s going right.

But as this post is titled “the transformative power of music,” I suppose I should get down to brass tacks.

After my husband Michael died in 2004, I didn’t want to do anything. My grief was so profound, it took me at least five years to process, and another few after that to realize I still had a life to live — and what was I going to do about it? All that time, my health worsened, my hands especially, and when I decided I wanted to play my instruments again (sax, clarinet, and oboe), I was barely able to do it due to my hands aching so much.

And it wasn’t just trying to play my instruments that made me frustrated. I was to the point with my hands that driving in the car was painful. I could only use one hand a few minutes at a time, and then switch off to the other. It was just that bad.

Fortunately, I went through a few rounds of occupational therapy, which helped a great deal. The pain lessened, I gained range of motion again, and I learned how to properly stretch the areas. And ever since, when my hands have started approaching that state again, I’ve asked for — and received — another date with the occupational therapist, and gone through more therapy as required.

Mind, I’d have never gone through with any of that if I hadn’t wanted to play my instruments again. But I did. And that allowed me to make a positive decision in the depths of my grief to do something positive, meaningful, and healthy.

Anyway, in September of 2011, I asked to play in the UW-Parkside Community Band again. (I’d been a member before I left the area for graduate school, back in the day.) One of my professors from Parkside, Mark Eichner, was still conducting it, and he told me when rehearsals were for the December concert. So I rejoined it in late October, played the next concert, and voila! I was a performing musician again.

(For the record, my first concert back was on alto sax, and I played a lengthy solo on a piece called “Roma.”)

Soon after, I rejoined the Racine Concert Band in 2012, again on alto sax. (I’d been a member of this in high school and again in college, and only stopped when I moved away to attend graduate school in Nebraska.) Ever since, I’ve played many concerts with them. Most have been on alto, but a few have been on clarinet.

And last week, on Saturday, I played clarinet — first chair, de facto concert master/mistress — with the UW-Parkside 50th anniversary alumni band. That was an exceptionally challenging concert, as we had only one rehearsal beforehand and the parts were very tough. But I was there early, practiced my parts, and was as prepared as I could be.

It paid off. The concert went well. And I had a few folks come up to me afterward, praising what I did (nice, when you can get it), along with asking why I wear a neckstrap to play the clarinet as few clarinetists do. (It helps keep the weight off my hands, and allows me to play for a longer period of time with a whole lot less pain.)

Why am I going into all this detail? Mostly to explain what playing music has done for me. It has given me my confidence back. It has reminded me I can still do something, something positive, something very few other people can do.  It has rewarded my perseverance and search for excellence…it has allowed me to give the gift of music to others in performance, also.

All in all, music has transformed my life.

You don’t have to be a musician to allow music to transform yours, though. Just listen to whatever you want. If you are hurting, let the pain out. If you are healing, allow yourself to feel safe and comforted. And if you just want to hear music for the sake of music, good for you: that’s the best listening experience of all.

What do you think of this blog? Tell me about it in the comments!

Concert Aftermath, Etc.

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Well, as promised, here’s a report on my latest concert with the Racine Concert Band, which was held at Horlick High School in Racine, Wisconsin, on February 26, 2019. I’m going to give you my general impressions of each piece, in the hopes you’ll appreciate the music even without hearing any of it.

The band played four pieces, which started with Richard Rodney Bennett’s Farnham Festival Overture. Overtures, along with marches, are traditional to start a band concert with; they have a known structure and pacing that audiences are accustomed to. The main difference between Bennett’s version and other overtures I’ve played had to do with how well Bennett understood how to write for symphonic band, and exactly what instrument could do which thing the best. A part written for euphonium was meant for exactly that instrument, rather than being a part that could’ve been given to a tenor saxophonist in a pinch; a part written for the tuba was idiomatic for the tuba, and worked perfectly with the rest of the orchestration.

In other words, it was a cute little piece that did exactly what it ought: it started the concert out well.

The second piece was an arrangement of Joseph Haydn’s St. Anthony Divertimento, which is known predominantly for its second movement (a chorale). This piece has four short movements, and is a staple of classical music because of its form and feeling. There is some dispute as to whether Haydn wrote this himself or whether one of his students, Pleyel, wrote it instead; what there isn’t a dispute about is how pretty the music is, how measured, and how much it embodies the feeling of stately grace.

The band seemed to enjoy this one. It’s another sweet piece that audiences enjoy, and it helped the concert move along nicely.

The third piece was an unusual work by Ottorino Resphigi called The Huntingtower Ballad for Band. Written in 1932, it was commissioned by the American Bandmaster’s Association to be played at a memorial concert after the death of John Philip Sousa (composer and bandmaster legend). Respighi is known for big orchestral works like The Pines of Rome, and he brought that sensibility with him into this piece. According to my conductor, Mark Eichner, who looked into the writing of this piece at a deeper level, Respighi had only six weeks to write this piece before the concert, and that made it perhaps shorter than it needed to be.

But what was even more interesting was the story behind why Respighi wrote it in the first place. It was meant to be programmatic, as it was about a historical love story (and nearly everyone can get behind those!), and there were three definite sections: the first being a lead-in to the main section, which is about the two young lovers trying to figure out a solution to their seemingly doomed love affair, and the third, quiet section where it’s obvious the lovers got away and have started a new life free from anyone getting in their way.

I’ll be honest, here; this particular work was challenging to put together. Not because any part was all that difficult, mind; it’s that the harmonies were not what you usually hear and the phrase lengths were either shorter or longer than most. (I know this isn’t very concise of a description, but describing music in words is quite difficult. Please bear with me.) The horns and low brass stood out in the Respighi, and they made this piece shine.

And the fourth and final piece of the band’s solo part of the program was the Malcolm Arnold English Dances. This is another four-movement work, but it’s a difficult one because it’s both lively and technically challenging. This was the one piece I had a solo part on, and I hope I did it justice.

The Arnold, for me, was by far my favorite piece of the night, and not just because I managed to snag a solo part. There were melodies, counter-melodies, and outstanding orchestration (Arnold was known for his orchestrational abilities). They were immediately accessible to the listener.

In short, you don’t have to love classical music to have enjoyed our program on Tuesday night. You just have to keep an open mind and listen, and hear…”those who have ears, let them hear,” as the Bible said. (I may be misquoting this.)

Our coda, concert-wise, was the Moorside March by Gustav Holst. We played that alongside members of the Horlick High School band. It’s a very short, English march (short in Holstian terms, anyway, as Holst is known for pieces like The Planets, First Suite for Band, and Second Suite for Band.) The Horlick members did a fine job on this work, and the audience seemed to enjoy it.

My reminiscences here wouldn’t be complete without saying a few more things.

First, I played this concert through a very bad back strain. Afterwards, I was down for about a day and a half. (Right now, with the physical limitations I struggle with, anything I do, I’m going to pay for in pain. It’s just the way it is.) Because of this, I wasn’t in that great of a mood either on the night of our dress rehearsal or on the concert itself.**

Second, I have to admit that it was difficult, again, to go to a concert, play the concert, and have no one there to listen to me play it. Sometimes, I’m fortunate and my Mom is well enough to go; that wasn’t the case this time. Other times, my sister can go, which also wasn’t the case. Still other times, my good friend who lives in town can come hear me play…but again, that wasn’t possible this time.

It’s at times like these, when my back is out, I must play the concert anyway, and I have no help whatsoever to get in (though I did have help on the night of the dress rehearsal, as one of the horn players helped me in and out of rehearsal when she realized I was in distress — bless her forever for doing this!), that I start feeling extremely frustrated.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad to play music. I hope the audience enjoyed what we did. And I was happy to get a solo, and as I said before, I hope I did it justice.

Because of my physical limitations, I am now among the first to get to rehearsal (to make it easier for me to get settled and put my horn together) and the last to leave. This was definitely the case on Tuesday with my back being as painful as it was; my conductor, Mark Eichner, and his wife Esther, were waiting patiently for me to finish getting my winter boots back on (as I brought dress shoes along for the concert, of course), get bundled up, and get out. They couldn’t leave until I did, as the room had to be locked behind me…sigh.

That said, the only way I got through that concert was to pretend my husband, along with my best friend Jeff, were in the audience. They both loved music. They would’ve enjoyed seeing me play. And I can’t imagine, had they lived to see this day, that they wouldn’t have been there. So it made me feel a little better to picture them there, and made me feel far less alone in the bargain.

And yes, in case you’re keeping score, I also pictured them waiting for me as I was the last to leave. And tried to think about what they’d say, while I drove home, in great pain.

I was fortunate when I got back, because my father helped me get inside with my saxophone (he carried it, and my purse, too, as he knew I was in agony). He didn’t ask much about the concert, though, as the Badger basketball game was on, and he really wanted to know how that game would end.

So, that’s my wrap-up. I hope you enjoyed it, even with my additional conversational fillips regarding my bad back and the difficulties I had playing this concert. If I did my job correctly on that stage, the audience never knew thing one about it…and that’s as it should be. Because music, like any form of art, should speak for itself.

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**And in case the person at Horlick High School who was in charge of moving the chairs, etc., for the band to sit on sees this, I want to apologize to him. I was curt there, when I realized a whole row of chairs was missing. (We needed eight more chairs for the saxes and the French horns.) Normally, I wouldn’t be as short (I hope I wasn’t rude, and I didn’t use any foul language, but still), because I do understand how difficult it can be for one person to try to set up and strike a stage after a concert.

My Musical Journey (A Collaboration with a Purpose Post)

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Folks, World Music Day is later this month, June 21st to be exact. And the folks at Collaboration with a Purpose decided to write about what music is, why it matters, and why we care about it in our own words.

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I’m a musician. If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you likely know this. I play the clarinet, the saxophone, and the oboe. I also compose music, though mostly for myself, and tend to think first in music, and only later in words.

I’ve played instruments since I was ten or eleven years old. Music always called to me. I loved the sound of a saxophone in particular, and remember telling my Mom that I would play that someday. (When my teacher in graduate school, Dr. Fought, said to me that the saxophone sounded the most like a human voice, I agreed with him. Perhaps that’s why I insisted I’d play it.) Whether it was someone like Clarence Clemons wailing away with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band or later, jazz musician Art Pepper’s clear and beautiful sound with advanced and interesting harmonic and rhythmic melodies (yes, you can have it all!), I was hooked.

So why did I end up on the oboe first, then?

I think they needed oboists, as it’s difficult to play well. (One of the common sayings, at least among musicians, about the oboe is that “it’s an ill wind that nobody blows good.”) And no one was going to tell me I couldn’t play a difficult instrument…that’s where psychology came into play, I suppose. (But I was only eleven, at most. You can see why this might appeal?)

I learned all sorts of things about the oboe. It has a beautiful sound if played well, a distinctive one, and for whatever reason, the sound I could get was a bit lower than most, tonally — this is very hard to explain in words, so bear with me — and a bit closer to the sound of an English horn, according to a few of my music teachers.

Personally, though, I think the reason my sound on the oboe was a little different was because I wanted to play the saxophone. And I wanted my oboe playing to be different, interesting, and memorable; I learned how to play jazz on the oboe, even, as there was one musical group — Oregon — that had a jazz oboist.

“But get to picking up the sax, Barb! That’s what we want to hear about…”

Yeah. Well, I wanted to play in jazz band. But they didn’t have arrangements for a jazz oboe player. And my band director, Mr. Stilley, believed that I could pick up the sax in a month or so. The school had an awful alto saxophone available to play; it was held together by string and tape. But I didn’t let this stop me, and I did indeed learn how to play the sax in a month as some of the skills I already had were transferable.

Then, I took up private lessons with two different instructors: one for the oboe, one for the sax. I found out quickly that the alto sax was the instrument most classical musicians play. Most of the good repertoire, including the Jacques Ibert Concertino da Camera and Paul Creston’s Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano, was written for alto rather than tenor, baritone, or soprano saxophones. And of course I learned these pieces, along with one that later became one of my favorites, Alexander Glazunov’s Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra.

I found that while I loved jazz, I loved classical even more. There were so many different ways to say things in classical music. From Robert Schumann’s Unfinished Symphony to Paul Hindemith’s Symphony for Band in B-flat, from Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D Minor to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (and it’s famous “Ode to Joy”), there were so many, many different ways music could be expressed.

And then, there was Debussy, Haydn, Mozart, Bach, Bernstein, Brahms, and the one composer I sometimes loved, sometimes hated: Gustav Mahler. (Mahler’s music can be beautiful. It can make me laugh. And it can make me scratch my head and go, “What the Hell?”)

I listened to jazz, too. And pop music, as I found along the way that I rather liked the diverse influences Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and even Linkin Park brought to the table. (Linkin Park in particular was a very big surprise, as they combined some aleatoric elements along with rock-rap and solid music theory, with not one but two singers: the late Chester Bennington with his soulful voice that could turn to a scream in an instant and Mike Shinoda, who could rap or sing, depending on what was needed from him.) And Creed, too…something about them hit me, emotionally, and I understood why they became popular on the one hand quickly, and didn’t last on the other.

The best of music evokes emotion, no matter what genre you play or sing or hear. Whether it’s Alice in Chains’ “Rotten Apple” or Soundgarden’s “Fell On Black Days” or Linkin Park’s “In the End” (or, much later, “One More Light”), or the second movement of Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, or Elvis (my mother’s personal favorite, and for all his fame, a truly underrated emotional stylist), or Art Pepper’s flights of fancy while playing “Over the Rainbow,” it is all about emotion.

See, words can only take you so far. Music, with all its complexity, all its chords, all its harmony, all its rhythm, can take you much farther.

It’s because of that, and my own, personal journey, that I decided my hero and heroine in CHANGING FACES were both clarinetists and both would use music as a way to survive incredible pain. Because music can describe things words cannot, music is able to heal a great deal more than words.

And that, I think, is why World Music Day is so important.

So do let music heal you, or inspire you, or at least give you the soundtrack to whatever you’re doing/writing/learning at the time. And let me know what music you move to, in the comments!

Also, please go take a look at my fellow collaborators, who’ve also written interesting takes on the subject (links will be posted as they go up, as per usual):

Nicolle K. — Intro Post

Nicolle K. (coming soon)

Sadaf Siddiqi — “A Musical Tribute

Mylene Orillo

Sonyo Estavillo