Follow by Email

Monday, October 20, 2014

My Oscar de la Renta gig and my hair model gig

When you are a professional musician, you sometimes dream about the day that your son will come up to you and say, “Papa, what I really want is a horn.”  You hope that he might want a saxophone.  You pray that he doesn’t have the personality that would ask for a trumpet.  Avi asked for his first horn at a cheap hair salon when we took the boys for haircuts. 

One of the great pleasures of parenthood is being able to force your children to go through the same horrible experiences that you went through when you were a child.  So, we took the boys to a cheap salon, and I got ready to say, “A little boy’s haircut, please.”   The children had different ideas.  Both had announced during the negotiation period that they wanted to grow their hair.  Zach, who has big, curly locks wanted to start working on a Jewfro.  Avi just wanted his hair to hang straight down.  He was sporting a modified bowl cut, and his bangs were dangling down to the bottom of his top eyelids.  Jennifer, when hearing the boy’s announcement, put on her best Jewish accent and said, “What am I going to tell them?  Their father has long hair?”  Thus began the negotiations with eight year-old Avi.

“Avi, how do you want your bangs cut?”

“I don’t want them cut.  I want them to hang down into my eyes,” he said while pressing the bangs flat against his forehead and peering out between strands.

“No, Avi.  You’re not going to have hair in your eyes.”

“I want it in my eyes.”

“No.  You have two choices.  You can get your bangs cut even with your eyebrows, or you can part it like mine,” I said while demonstrating what I intended by parting his bangs.

“I don’t want my bangs cut.”

“Avi, I don’t care if you grow your hair or not, but your not going to have bangs in your eyes.”

“I want it straight down.”

“No.  Either cut up to your eyebrows or parted.”

“Why can’t I have it in my eyes?”

“Because you won’t be able to see.  Son, what’s the long term plan with your hair?  How do you really want it cut?” I asked with mounting frustration.  I prepared to say “no” to the long bangs again.  Avi was quiet for a moment, and his voice took on the tender, vulnerable sonority of honesty.  

“Well, papa, what I really want is a horn.”

Momentarily confused by his unexpected and perplexing statement, I assumed I hadn’t heard correctly.  I said, “A what?”

“What I really want is a horn.”

The thought “Please let it be a saxophone” flashed through my mind as I reiterated, “You want a what?”

“A horn,” said he.  “I want all of my hair cut really short,” he explained, and grabbing about three inches of the bangs in the center of his forehead, he twisted them into a liberty spike and continued, “except for right here.  I want a big horn that I can spike up in the middle of my forehead so that I can run around and ram people with it.”  With that he began a thrusting motion with his head as he pushed his manufactured spike into me.

 I had thought that I was aiming low when I was willing to settle for a trumpet.  I paused as my incredulity passed into exasperation.  The words came flatly, “Avi, you’re not getting a horn.”

“But I want a horn to ram people.”

“Avi…no…you’re not getting a horn.  You go ask that lady over there.  She doesn’t even know how to do a horn haircut.  Watch.”

I marched Avi over to the woman who was to cut his hair.  “Tell her what you want.  Go ahead.”
Suddenly, a timidity that would not normally become a horned creature seized him as he quietly said, “I want a horn” to the kindly hair stylist.

“A what?” she said.

“I want a horn.”

“You want a what?”

“He wants a horn in the middle of his head.  Avi, I told you she wouldn’t know how to do it.  Give him a little boy haircut, please.”

As I turned to walk back to the waiting area, I noticed that our little interaction had attracted the attention of the woman behind the reception desk.  She caught my eye and said, “We need you.”


“We need you.  We are doing a show in a few weeks.  We are flying a Paul Mitchell executive down from Philadelphia to do a trade show, and we need male models with long hair that are willing to do something drastic to their hair.  We need you to be a hair model.”

“You want me to be a what?”

“To be a hair model.  You would get to come to the hotel and get your hair cut for free by a famous stylist on a stage in front of a hundred hair stylists.”

I thought of several times in my life when I have been mistaken for a homeless person.  I thought of the time Brian and I offered a homeless man in New Orleans the opportunity to pick through all of our clothes and take whatever he wanted.  The man rejected our normal clothes outright and picked a blue T-shirt that Brian had brought for sleeping.  Recently, a church secretary insisted I take a bag of groceries because she was convinced I was homeless.

“Look…um…you’ve got the wrong guy.  I haven’t combed my hair in almost seven years.  If it gets washed twice a week, it’s lucky.”

“Come on.  Don’t you want to be on the stage with all of those woman looking at you?”
I could have explained in great detail why I could care less if all of those women were looking at me, but very uncharacteristically, I chose brevity.  “Look.  You’ve got the wrong guy.”

As I turned to walk back to the waiting area, I noticed that our little interaction had attracted the attention of the woman that I had been married to for ten years.  She caught the woman’s eye and said, “When is the show?”

“It’s in a few weeks.  I’ll write the date down.  He would need to come to our other branch for auditions.”

“I’m really not interested.”  I said.

“He’ll be there,” Jenn said.

Jennifer and I worked out another “compromise,” and three weeks later I found myself in a salon with my hair in foils.  The only consolation prize for being selected at the audition was that one of my sisters came along.  She was also selected to be a model.  She was taking absolute delight in the fact that the one person on the whole earth that was the least concerned about personal hygiene and appearance was having blond highlights put into his hair by a Paul Mitchell stylist.  As the stylist prepped our hair for the show, we began to talk.

“Kurt, this is going to be so good for you.  You’re going to have to be concerned about your personal appearance.  You’re even going to have to take a shower.  I know that’s a big sacrifice for you.”

“Kristen, I bathe when I’m dirty.  I can’t believe I’m even here.”

“I know.  Aren’t you excited!?  You get to be part of the fashion world.”

“I was part of the fashion world one time in Dallas.”

You did a fashion show?”

“Not exactly.  I received a call for a gig at the original Nieman Marcus store in downtown Dallas.  I was supposed to play the piano for an Oscar de la Renta show.  I arrived, and there was a space cleared out on one of the floors with a piano off to the side.  As I walked up, employees began to approach me.  One scurried up, took my hand, and said, ‘I’m Noel, and I’m in furs.’  A second immediately followed with, ‘I’m Rene, and I’m in men’s clothing.’

‘I’m just the piano player,’ I responded.

‘Oh.  Go over there.’ They pointed to the piano.  They were obviously disappointed that I wasn’t someone more important.  When the actual Oscar de la Renta representative showed up, he announced himself as they approached.  ‘I’m John, and I’m from New York.’  I started playing ‘Autumn in New York’ and thinking ‘He can’t actually think that people will be impressed with him simply because he lives in New York.’  I was, of course, completely wrong.  Nieman Marcus employees (or Nieman Marcae as I like to call them) began rushing forward to greet him.  ‘Oh, are you really from New York?  Is it so great there?  I went a couple of years ago.’  I finished ‘Autumn in New York’ quickly and switched to ‘’So What’ by Miles Davis.  He regaled them with the tales of the New York life.  Before long, a rather striking blonde walked by, and I started to play Ellington’s ‘’Sophisticated Lady.’  She walked in such a way that everyone on the floor had his or her attention drawn toward her.  She vanished for a moment, and reemerged in a new outfit.  This time, she not only drew everyone’s attention but also began to primp and preen in front of people.  I thought to myself, ‘You’re pretty, but you’re not all that.’ I started to play ‘Doxy’ by Sonny Rollins.  Before long, a stunningly beautiful African American woman was doing the same thing.  Kristen, I had to put in a phone call to our dear sister Kelly later.  ‘Kelly, I played an Oscar de le Renta show, and I swear there were models showing off clothes to old ladies with credit cards.’

‘Kurt, that’s how expensive clothes are sold,’ Kelly responded.  ‘They get models to show you how your fat ass will never look in the outfit, and then you pull out your credit card.’

I went on break and headed over to talk to the girl behind the wine and cheese table.  I usually enjoy talking to the “help’ on gigs because they are the people that are closest to my socio-economic class.  I started eating grapes and talking about the job.  ‘What’s all this about?’ I asked.

‘Oscar de le Renta is coming here in a month for a fundraiser.  This gives people the opportunity to buy one of his outfits and wear it to the event.’

‘Oh.  Well, can’t they just buy one of his outfits any day of the week.’

‘You don’t understand.  He may only make fifty dresses like this one behind me.  You would be one of the only people in the world that would own it.’

‘Hmm.  Can you show up to the event wearing something other than his clothes?’

‘Probably, but these sorts of people don’t want to do that.  Let me ask you something.  How much do you think this dress behind me costs?’

‘I don’t know.  It’s a nice dress.  Maybe three or four hundred dollars.’

She started chuckling to herself as she found the tag and flipped it to reveal a price of $12,000.00

‘Twelve thousand dollars!’ I shrieked.  ‘Twelve thousand dollars for one dress?!  I could put a down payment on a house for that amount!’

‘Not for one of the houses that these people live in you couldn’t.’

‘I could buy a car!  A nice car!  If I ever paid twelve thousand dollars for an article of clothing, I would expect it to get off the hanger, walk out of the closet, wake me up in the morning, make my coffee, and get onto my body!’

She continued chuckling and said, ‘Those pants that the de le Renta rep is wearing go for eight hundred.’

‘Eight hundred for a pair of pants!  They’re nice pants, but not eight hundred dollars nice.’

I walked back over to the piano and started a tradition that I have followed to this day.  Every gig I play in a situation where there is a large amount of wealth exposed, I make sure to play an extended version of ‘God Bless the Child.’  When the notes sound out, I think of that first verse ‘Them that’s got shall get, them that’s not shall lose,’ and I mean every pitch and rhythm.”

“Great, Kurt,” Kristen replied.  “Another long story about yourself.  We really have to do something about your ego problem.  I’m worried that sometime soon you won’t be able to go to some of the places you want to go.  Your head almost didn’t fit through the door for this audition.”

“I know, Kristen.  I’m the hero of my own story.”

“But, you have me.  Everyone else is always like, ‘Kurt’s so wonderful,’ but God has placed me in your life to tear you down and make sure your ego is manageable.”

“Thanks so much, but I already have Jenn for that.”

“Seriously, Kurt.  Do you think that there is anything wrong with liking fashion?  I know you could care less about your personal appearance, but do you think it’s overly materialistic for me to care about nice clothes and shoes?”

“I was talking to Marty Barrett about that once.  Pastor Barrett reminded me that Esther saved the Jews by virtue of the fact that she was a hot babe.  Even cheerleaders have their place in the Kingdom.”

Nick, the Paul Mitchell rep, finished our prep work and sent us home with directions to the hotel for the next day.

We arrived at the hotel and pushed our way through one hundred hair burners to the prep room.  We saw Nick.  His outfit startled both of us.  He was wearing something that almost resembled an Episcopal cassock.  It was very like the outfit that Kenau Reeves wore in The Matrix.  The cassock was coupled with a haircut that was walking a dangerous line between seventies rock star and Kentucky waterfall.  The result was that he appeared as a priest of modern hair culture.  Kristen and I had been selected to have our hairs cut and our fashion sins absolved by the priest on stage as part of the demonstration.  Nick was putting the final touches on the models who had already been transformed and simply had to walk the catwalk.  After a brief rehearsal, the show began and we entered into the world of hairstylists.  As the show began, I was amazed that they were concerned with issues of self-expression and artistic integrity.  They were describing the problems of balancing the desires of artistic expression and making enough money.  I had never previously considered hair styling to be among the arts, but I began to reconsider.  There were certainly enough weird haircuts and clothes.  The mix between gay people and straight people was about the same as in the other arts.  They even had the requisite pretension at some of the tables.  In fact, it was the exact same crowd that I had seen at gallery openings.  The only difference was that the canvass of their creations consisted of the dead protein that sprouts from our skullcaps.

They had assembled here to study and improve their craft as taught by a genuine master.  At a Paul Mitchell trade show, you can learn the latest techniques for bouffanting, spiking, mulleting, wedging, buzzing, bobbing, flat topping, feathering, afroing, dreadlocking, Mohawking, weaving, extensioning, bowling, Caesaring, crew-cutting, fading, pompadouring, ducktailing, page-boying, helmet heading, or corn rowing someone’s hair  (Incidentally, little boy haircuts are forbidden at the events).  My specific case this day was going to be a demonstration of (if you will excuse the double entendre) shagging.  He was going to shag me in front of the entire audience.  Like a weird chapter from the Kama Sutra, he was going to shag me while simultaneously pushing Paul Mitchell’s line of pomades, gels, spritzers, creams, emulsions, foams, tonics, lotions, waxes, texturizers, glosses, pastes, whips, and possibly the new Paul Mitchell hair-in-a-can with aloe and citrus extract. 

I walked up to the stage and sat in the barber’s chair.  Since I normally only get a hair cut every two years, I look forward to the conversation with the hairstylist.  I usually like to start with an icebreaker question like, “When did you come out?”  Jennifer always rolls her eyes at me, but my gay friends are usually more than willing to talk about it.  I’m interested in hearing about it.  This time was quite different.  He was miked up so that the audience could hear him.  He was also straight, so my normal icebreaker wouldn’t work.  He whipped out a patented Paul Mitchell razor blade and began chopping off about two feet of hair.  He would spin me to one side and say to the audience, “Do you see how I am establishing the line along the occipital lobe?  I’ll show you guys on the other side what I mean.”  The chair would whip around one hundred and eighty degrees, the razor blade would chop, and he would continue, “We did these highlights yesterday with Paul Mitchell Teasy Lights.  Now I want to be careful as I approach the temporal lobe to keep the line I’ve established even.  Excellent.  Now, I can apply some Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Oil and…finished.  He still looks like a musician doesn’t he?” 

“Yeah, like a seventies rock star,” I heard Kristen mutter.

After the cut, he made me walk down the catwalk, turn, and shake my hair out for the stylists.  Following the trip down the runway, I was then asked to walk around to all thirty tables and allow the stylists to touch my hair and look at the finished product.  As they were inspecting my new “do,” Kristen was on the stage getting a hair-cut called “The Barbie.”  Between “The Barbie” and my new 70s style coif, Paul Mitchell had provided enough ammunition for a continued sibling sparring session.  As we left the building, I turned to Kristen and said, “I’m going to have my children stick with the piano.  I knew that nothing good would come from Avi asking for a horn.”

Monday, October 13, 2014

ESPN post concert interview

I have been imagining what it might be like if classical musicians got a post game concert interview and could respond like athletes. Here is how I imagine it would go.

Erin Andrews: That was quite a performance!

Arthur Rubenstein: I just want to give all the glory to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

EA: In Chopin's Op. 10 No. 4, you accelerated out of the cadence into the coda and still managed to catch all those low C# octaves! What was going through your mind when you did that?

AR: Well, this is what we practice everyday. I thought I should just go for it, and I did. I managed to catch all of them, but I couldn't do it without a great team like my piano tuner and my yoga instructor.

EA: I understand you've had some nagging injury problems with your 4th finger on your left hand. Are you substituting other fingers for that one?

AR: Injuries are part of the reality of being a professional musician. If a finger gets injured, the expectation is that the other ones will step up and execute. We don't use injury as an excuse.

EA: You have an upcoming concert with the Atlanta Symphony. They've been plagued with management problems and lately have been assaulted by naked nymphs in their concert hall. How do you approach a concert like that?

AR: I can only worry about myself and what I can control. As long as I'm playing good piano, that's all I can do. There is no doubt that they are a good band, and they've had some struggles lately; but you shouldn't underestimate them. They will come ready to play, and hopefully so will I.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Band v Orchestra question

I may be kicking a hornets nest, but a thought occurred to me this week. I'm teaching a graduate seminar in Baroque Performance Practice, and I'm delighted to report that students are arguing away about the intentional fallacy, the relationship of the composer to the performer, and what responsibilities the performer has to the composer.

Now, one of the strongest defenders of the "transparent performer" position - that is, the idea that the performer serves as a vehicle to carry out the composer's instructions without imposing his/her own will is a band conductor. I'm very grateful that we have someone like this in class to present that viewpoint.

What struck me though is a possible difference in band and orchestra culture, and I'm wondering if it is true. That is - and of course there are exceptions - we have a tradition of military bands in this country dating back to at least Sousa. Those bands are praised for their "precision", but not necessarily their passion. Orchestral conductors might be praised for "precisions", but there is not as much praise without also having some emotional content.

I've known a few band directors that do work on technical stuff without inspiring anyone. For that matter, I know orchestra and choral directors who do the same. However, I'm wondering if people have thoughts on any significant divide in the culture between the two.

Is there a tradition that values precision without emotional content that is more pervasive in band culture than in orchestral culture?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Thomas Weelkes: drunkard, urinator, organist

No matter how good you are at your job, you're probably not as good at Thomas Weelkes. Weelkes was an English organist/composer in the late 16th and early 17th century. In 1616 he was reported as

"noted and famed for a comon drunckard (sic) and notorious swearer & blasphemer"

Around this time, he was fined for urinating on the Dean of the cathedral from the organ loft during Evensong. He was apparently drunk and swearing loudly enough during a service that he was dismissed, but very soon after (!) was reinstated. A report sent to the Bishop says,

"Dyvers tymes & very often come so disguised eyther from the Taverne or Ale house into the quire as is muche to be lamented, for in these humoures he will bothe curse & sweare most dreadfully, & so profane the service of God … and though he hath bene often tymes admonished … to refrayne theis humors and reforme hym selfe, yett he daylye continuse the same, & is rather worse than better therein."

Yet he kept his job until he died. It's a new standard of excellence. He literally peed on his boss and showed up to work drunk all the time, and he never lost his job. How good do you have to be as an organist/composer to behave like that?! I mean how do those meetings go? 

The dean says, "Look, he peed on me during the worship service!!!" The senior Warden says, "Yes, but he plays so well. We can overlook it this one time, right?" In any case, I think I need to practice some more.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The annual evaluation highlights

I've been so busy with MusicSpoke and the beginning of the semester that I haven't had time to blog in a while. I did, however, finally receive a packet of much overdue evaluations of the students at Nebraska Wesleyan from the Fall semester today. I always like to post some highlights from their ever inventive comments. Hopefully Spring comments will be coming soon. Five things need to be clarified.

#1 A student was trying to get my attention one day from across the lounge area of the department. She called out, sort of spontaneously, "Hey...Evil Master, can you come here." The moniker stuck. They made a sign that said, "Evil Master's Lair" and posted it on my office door.

#2 Every semester that I teach undergrad theory, I do an exercise where we compare a Schubert song, a Gershwin song, and a pop song of their choosing. During that semester, we used "Wrecking Ball" by Miley Cyrus.

#3 Samantha Peeters still reigns with the best evaluation comment of all time: "He cured my leprosy."

#4 I grew up shark fishing in Florida. The students found an internet picture of me sitting on a shark and made a Christmas tree ornament out of it.

#5 I was a hair model in a trade show once.

Here are the highlights:

"This class is probably the hardest class I have ever taken and he really helps us get through it."

"Evil Master knows how to teach and do it well."

"Thank you Evil Master for putting up with my tardiness."

"He came in like a wrecking ball. Shark-riding abilities. Hair Model."

"He's the wrecking ball of my life."

"We can't stop...doing theory...and we won't stop" - Miley Cyrus

"We put our hands up playing our song and the Theory all goes away. Party in theory USA."

"Knecht came in like a Wrecking Ball, he can't stop and he won't stop. But don't you ever say he just walked away because he will always want you to sight sing."

Thursday, August 14, 2014

My adventures in business lead me to confront Maslow

One of the things that has surprised me during my Summer adventures as an entrepreneur is some of the vocabulary that gets used in the business community. In several of the lectures I've heard, and several of the books Jenn and I have read, Maslow's "hierarchy of needs" is regularly referenced.

At first I thought it was just another piece of the overly patriarchal culture that is the start-up community. I mean, we are all happy that Maslow started talking about the fact that people have other needs than just physical ones, but why is this old washed up theory still bouncing around the business community when it is a relic of the 1950s in the academy.

I well remember laughing about it as an undergrad. How wonderfully systematic Maslow is without really telling you much. I mean, for Maslow, you aren't allowed to start working on your relationships until you've filled in the bottom of the chart. He never really does tell us how much food you have to eat before you are allowed to fall in love, but no matter, the point is to work through the steps until you get to self-actualization. Of course, when you get there, it gets complicated too. All Maslow does is give a list of characteristics of people that are self-actualized, and then he says, "Well, just because you have the characteristics that are on the list, it doesn't guarantee that you are really self-actualized." I suppose ultimately, you would have to ask him if you were cool enough to be in the club.

Now the interesting thing is that the business folks are using it by saying something like, "People aren't just motivated by money, they need to have a sense of belonging and ultimately a sense of calling." I pushed the issue the other day in a discussion for a moment and later decompressed with Jenn.  Finally, I realized what is happening and why I keep seeing the Maslow chart so much.

The business people who keep referring to the chart have never actually read Maslow. They are using it as a reference point to give weight (and presumably some sort of academic cred) to their point that people are motivated by more than just money. Of course there is no empirical research to back up Maslow's theory, and when I was trying to explain something, someone said, "But, you don't have to wait to work on the meaningful parts of the triangle until you have finished working on the physical parts of the triangle." I said, "I agree, but that's not Maslow."

It's an interesting world. I spend my academic life in discussions where people are referencing thinkers and traditions in order to summarize large fields of thought quickly. When someone says Maslow, they mean Maslow. It is the great strength and weakness of the business world that the overarching pragmatism can mean creating a short hand without ever consulting the original source material.

Again, for all the textbooks that use the hierarchy of needs chart, I think they are well meaning but have picked the wrong theorist for their point. It's all good though. As for me, I'm going to keep eating so that I don't slip down the chart, fall out of love, and have to start all over again.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Christopher Marks premieres Romance and Tarantella at the OHS convention

Chris Marks is one of the most thoughtful and expressive organists I have heard. He was also my very excellent organ teacher. I was super excited when he decided to commission a new work for his performance at the Organ Historical Society's convention in Syracuse, NY this week.

Romance and Tarantella is a fairly unified work in that both movements are based on the same little nugget of an idea. I think the Romance is a little bit Finzi and maybe a little 80s pop (though I can't exactly say where or why.)

The Toccata definitely was inspired by Nancarrow at the end. There is some Ginastera and some French spices thrown into the stew. Also, it's not really a Tarentella.

Chris plays them beautifully, and I'm so grateful to have such a gifted performer taking my work around for others to hear. Thanks, Chris.