Music in my life – and other things

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It is somewhat interesting to me to reflect on the role music has played in my life. It has been a comfort, a pleasure, a challenge and a journey.

I had about 6 months to a year of accordion lessons when I was 6. This taught me to read music in the fashion of a child. I didn’t do much with it when I was younger.

Then there was playing the trumpet (poorly) in the high school band in the 9th grade. I’m not sure what that taught me other than that playing with a band could be fun.

Then teaching myself sax and clarinet and…

Then there was picking up the piano when I was 16 and teaching myself to play and read music of the bass clef persuasion (accordion only uses chord notation in bass clef). I never got to be really good, but was good enough to play boogie in a dive down on West Peachtree Street for a while. (Yes – I was underage). A side story: Sometime around the time that Herself & I first married my mother was retired and had a mania for travel and cruises. She decided that she wanted to travel in Germany and visit an old friend who was teaching at the American School in Germany. Anyway, usually she took my sister with her on trips, but Sis could not go for some reason, so she asked me if I would go with her. Herself had no objections, so I did. Rather fun (it would have been better if Herself were there, but I got closer to Mother, so not a loss). We stayed on a tour boat that went down the Rhine from Munich to Amsterdam, and stopped at every decent town on the way. (The Red Light district in Amsterdam was interesting and no, I didn’t). We left the boat in Heidelberg and took Eurorail to Wiesbaden to meet the friend. We all went to a local place to eat dinner and have some beer (of course!) The place had a really good piano player knocking out some really decent 40s style boogie. (I heard more & better jazz in Europe than in America). Anyway, when he took a break I was asked to play by mother and friend, and the owner had no objection, so I did. Really pulled out the stops on some wild stomp boogie. The patrons seemed to enjoy it. Later a gal came in with 2 men and started dancing with them (not at the same time). This gal wasn’t particularly pretty, but wow, she could really move on a jitterbug. I commented to the friend that I would love to dance with her, but that it just didn’t do to approach a strange woman in a bar when she already had 2 male escorts. (Good way to get hurt in the good ol’ USA). Friend said that I was being silly and that there was no problem in Germany. Just go ask her. Well, what the hell. So I did. So she did. Wow – that gal was outstanding. We finished dancing. Me exhausted – smoked too much and hadn’t seriously danced for a couple of years. Out of shape. But you know – I couldn’t pay for ANYTHING in that bar the rest of the night. Food and drink on the house. Loads of fun.

Anyway, that was the end of music, other than the occasional desultory plinking at the piano for a while. Work does get in the way of hobbies.

After we converted to Orthodoxy, Herself’s godfather, who was the choir director at the little mission, noticed that I was a very deep bass (not quite Russian contra, but close) and got me to singing. Bit of a surprise. I grew up a Whiskypalian (where there’s four, there’s a fifth) and could never sing a lick with the organ grinding out funeral dirge sounding music and I certainly can’t sing pop stuff. Turned out I could sing bass rather well with acapella Russian music. Thank God the Church Fathers decided that only the Human voice was proper for church music! Later we moved to a little mission that was in Alpharetta at the time. There was no choir, no director. Nothing. The music was HORRIBLE. This is a major problem since the Orthodox services are completely sung. We are talking about a 1.5 to 2 hour stretch of very painful amateurs slogging poorly. I told Herself that I liked the mission but could not take that pain. She talked to the priest behind my back (sneaky woman!). As a result, the priest came to me and asked that I become director. I had no idea how to direct. No books. Didn’t know how to give tones to a choir. Didn’t know how to direct (choral directing is NOT beating time!) I had to learn all that in a hurry. I got a midi keyboard and some software so that I could make my own books. Had to learn how to score for choir, how to read Old Church Slavonic and translate into English. The church sent me to a couple of choir director conventions where I got to meet and study with some of the real biggies. Eventually I acquired all the skills of a Russian choir director (in English). Got pretty fair. I had one of the best choirs in the South (not just my opinion!). Turns out that over the years I wrote something like 14 choir books for various services (average 1” thick double sided letter). I just looked in the directory where the stuff is stored and it is 1,337 separate pieces at 20.5 meg in a pretty efficient file format. Some short and some running up 15 pages of solid music. Not bad for a self-taught duffer. Herself has put a very small amount on the web HERE.

If you go there and look you may become a little confused if you try to play this stuff by normal western rules. Most of the stuff doesn’t have time signatures. If you try to count beats per measure, you can go nuts. Only some of the stuff written in the late 19th century (or early 20th) has strict meter. The older stuff is really a chant form, rather than a “singing” music form. The words are the important thing, not necessarily the accuracy of the meter. Some of the really early (9th – 11th century) is modal as can be and is rather strange to the modern western ear. Of course, the early stuff is really influenced by Byzantine chant. Really weird chord progressions. See the Byzantine Lord’s Prayer or the Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy) on the above web site for a taste. You can sometimes see where I have used some of this with the serial numbers filed off and the body lines reworked. You should try a listen to some decent good Russian Church Music (there’s lots on the web). I think you will like it as music. After all, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and all the Russian greats were influenced by (and wrote) church music. Matter of fact, there is a Tchaikovsky Trisagian (Holy God) and a Rimsky-Korsakov Lord’s Prayer on that web site. Normal, everyday music for us!

Anywho – I really loved directing for all those years and really miss it. But – the body can’t take it anymore. I tell you, to have a good choir respond to your every body move with glorious music, just wow. Couple of times I had really large choirs of good singers: 50 or so. Church conventions. Better than booze or acid. It is like flying when it is right. Rather physically demanding though. Standing and waving your arms for two hours is too much for an old, broke down guy. Not to mention the strain of keeping everyone in order. I never could decide whether choir directors went to Heaven because of all their travails or to Hell because they wanted to choke the daylights out of the clergy and choristers.

Old Church Slavonic – when Sts. Cyril and Methodios went to Moravia to preach to the Slavs, they followed the traditional Orthodox method of translating the Scriptures and service books into the local language. The script used is still called Cyrillic. The Slavs had a whole bunch of similar, but separate dialects. The amalgam of these dialects into something reasonably comprehensible to all of them became Church Slavonic. This is not exactly Russian, but still somewhat close. There was discussion at the Moscow Sobor (Church Convention) of 1917 about reworking the Scriptures and Service Books into modern Russian since people could not clearly understand Slavonic without some training. (The average Russian comes close to understanding, but no cigar). When the bullets started flying (literally), the discussion was abruptly shelved (and the delegates ducked). I knew some of the people that were there. These tough old Russian Christians lived long and hard (if they weren’t killed). Beautiful people. It is anticipated that sometime in the next several years this will come back up for resolution. The Church currently has somewhat more pressing things in trying to recover from all the years of Soviet persecution. (Very real. Very bad. Somewhere between 20 and 30 MILLION new martyrs).

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4 Responses to “Music in my life – and other things”

  1. Bahama Cruise Blog » Music in my life – and other things Says:

    […] Admin wrote something that might interest you todayHere’s a brief breakdownA side story: Sometime around the time that Herself & I first married my mother was retired and had a mania for travel and cruises. She decided that she wanted to travel in Germany and visit an old friend who was teaching at the … […]

  2. Music » Music in my life – and other things Says:

    […] clopper wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptYou should try a listen to some decent good Russian Church Music (there’s lots on the web). I think you will like it as music. After all, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and all the Russian greats were influenced by (and wrote) church … […]

  3. Meg Says:

    Amen to everything you have written. I only directed a choir for two years, but when it was good, it was very very good (and when it was bad, it was beyond horrid — but you knew that!). 😉

  4. turtlemom3 Says:

    Herself sez: It’s a shame the Ol’ Curmudgeon couldn’t continue directing choir. He was easy to follow, and was really good by the time he had to quit. One of the things he was, was daring. He was not reticent about “stretching” us as far as we could go. He slightly modified Ledkofsky’s Troparion to the Theotokos Joy of all Who Sorrow, and put it into English. It is magnificent. And he arranged it so even our small choir could sing it. I love that Troparion!

    Among the things he did not mention in the blog post, at one time he had the third largest collection of Baroque music in the SE. At that time, he was approached about hosting a local public radio weekly program on the Baroque because of his (self-taught) knowledge of that era of music. It didn’t come off because his accent is Soooooo southern he sounded like a back-woods redneck when recorded. (Just as video and photos will make you look “fatter” than you are, voice recordings magnify your accent.) So there went a promising career as a musicologist. Just as well – I might never have met him!!

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