Friday, May 14, 2010

Sentimental and melodic journey to New Britain

I was sitting at my laptop with the Finale music notation software open, composing the solo clarinet piece that was to become “Kaleenka Suite.”
Though I love composing songs, this was going to be an instrumental solo, so I started thinking about things from an instrumental standpoint. That led me to a nice group of three: melodic motion, repetition and arpeggio.

Motion was probably one of the first musical things explored as, in 4th grade, we learned how to finger middle C, D, and E with the left hand on B flat clarinet. Yup, they were each a step apart from each other.
I thought of a song from the same auditorium at Holmes School in New Britain Ct, where the clarinet was taught. At school music assemblies we sang “My Grandfather’s Clock.” I have a great Johnny Cash version on the original vinyl record and listened to it. Yes, it’s a nice melody with motion.

By 1962 or 1963, when this was going on, I was learning more music from radio and 45 rpm records than I was in school. But school was a good venue for me, I could get decent grades, etc., so I paid attention to the music there, too. White Coral Bells. Marching to Pretoria. One was a round. One was a processional. Cool stuff.
But out there in the big world, a melody got me that sticks today, “45 cents for a 3 course meal at McDonald’s.” A commercial to music! They were called “jingles” back then. What did this melody have? It was the one note samba of the commercial world, repeating the same note.
That’s probably why I still remember it today; probably why I don’t understand bebop too well but I love playing “rhythm sax.” I love the honkers who repeat notes for effect. Always have. Repetition, very nice in music when used creatively. Doesn’t hurt a commercial message. Without it there’d be no rap or hip-hop.

Arpeggio, the mainstay of the student clarinet experience. The instrument is engineered for speed but can only play one note at a time (classically speaking), so, on clarinet, chords are outlined in arpeggios. Suddenly I’m mentally in the same auditorium where we learned clarinet, again. This time, the music teacher is teaching us to sing, “Hot tamales, sure are tasty, always made from finest pastry, so delicious and nutritious, you will like them, so buy some now.” It’s been more than forty years and that melody has come to mind frequently. Have never met anyone who knew it if I sang it. Doggone thing is sure memorable, why? The melody is arpeggios.

Facebook, enter stage left. I got my laptop open to the notation program. There’s a browser open too. I’m gonna find the teacher that taught that melody and ask if she remembers where the heck it came from. My memory is so vague, but I think folk music was on the scene at the time, on the radio, along with Motown, rockabilly, Memphis and New York soul, garage bands, etc. They even brought guitars with folk music into the Catholic church, Kumbaya, etc.

Had her name been Mrs. Jones the whole idea would have faded fast. But there was Ms. Nkonoki, right there on Facebook and basically looking the same as I remember her. I messaged her, asking first if she was the strict music teacher at Holmes School in 1963, and then, did she know where that song came from?

Yes she was; she said I remembered accurately that she was strict. She remembered the “Hot Tamales” thing was a countermelody in a song called Tamale Joe. Couldn’t remember much else about it. I went on Google and found the author’s name for Tamale Joe and also that it was a pseudonym. A reference to a possible recording by Peter, Paul and Mary. That was it. No simple internet trace of a melody that sticks in your head, perhaps only because of an arpeggio.
Well, it also had syncopation. We had heard of rhythm outside of school, on the radio and records, but this may have been the first rhythm tune taught in my elementary school memory. I would have to check with Ms. Nkonoki’s predecessor to confirm that. Both of them went to the same Teacher’s College in Danbury, Ct., the only one in the state that specialized in turning out music teachers.
Whether it made any difference that Ms. Nkonoki was the first black teacher; well, it did at the time, but I don’t know that it does now. What makes a difference now is the persistence of a simple melody. If anyone is ever composing, a simple melody will be your best friend. I also like Three Blind Mice a lot.

Ms. Nkonoki is now on the education committee of the New Britain Symphony Orchestra, and when she found out I had gone on with my music education to the master’s degree level anyway, she wondered if I might like to help judge a scholarship competition, which the New Britain Symphony Orchestra has long used to encourage talented music students in New Britain and the surrounding area.

I went down from New Hampshire to New Britain, early on the day of the scholarship judging, to check out the Young People’s Concert of the New Britain Symphony Orchestra, on its home turf at Welte Hall in the old New Britain Teacher’s College, which is now the Central Connecticut State University, New Britain’s crown jewel of education.

Ms. Nkonoki was the emcee. She had a video camera and before I knew it I was helping set up the camera. I remember thinking how strange that was, because I ran the projectors and film strip machines at Holmes School in 1962-63 and here I was in the same role, year 2010, albeit down the street at the old Teacher’s College. She was busy trying to bring order to the crowded auditorium. What a way to start a Wednesday in New Britain Connecticut, to hear the city’s namesake orchestra play to a packed auditorium of fifth graders from all over! In the late 1980s I was author of a popular book teaching children about the instruments of the orchestra, “Big Ears and His Trip To Orchestra Hall.” And, I have had a children’s group perform my songs. Felt right at home.

Most amazing of all, today’s 5th graders know an anthem that first appeared around 1977, The Star Wars theme. Talk about music transcending time. It was the fitting climax to a program that began with Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man.

So much had changed in my old home town, but the arts seem to survive in events such as this, a labor of love to make sure today’s students get to associate the name of their own home town, with an orchestra that plays with excellence. And with music they might remember for who knows what reason, like I remembered the countermelody to Tamale Joe.

Over at the scholarship competition later, we heard a saxophonist and two vocalists, performing some challenging repertoire in the nave of the magnificent South Church in downtown New Britain. Right out of the gate the performances were excellent. The judges had to consult after scoring individually to arrive at a decision. We were told nothing of the students, but when we agreed on the winner, we later found out the winner had some music prep education over and above regular school. She also had an artist level instrument.

Getting to know the other judges was fun. One of them rehearses his band at a local McDonald’s on Wednesday nights, if I wanted to come down, he said.

McDonald’s? My thought exactly. A band rehearsing at McDonald’s? Well, Sam Kimble was rehearsing and then some, that night, at the same restaurant mentioned in that influential melody, “45 cents for a 3 course meal at McDonald’s.” His band included folks from my home neighborhood, up near the top of Stanley Street, when Country Club Rd. was northmost. The whole neighborhood was cut out of woods and it was magical to us, and Holmes School meant we wouldn’t have to cross Farmington Avenue to go to Slater Road School.

Sam and his band let me sit in on clarinet, my first music played in New Britain since 1966. Bandleader Sam Kimble lays down a groove like nobody else, reminding me of my favorite past music experiences in Texas where I spent most of my adult life.

So maybe this is an exercise you can try at home. Think back on a simple melody you first heard in elementary school and figure out where you learned it. Or even make a “pilgrimage” like I sort of did.

Will you spend a day starting with a symphony orchestra concert and ending with a jam session at McDonald’s, all in the same town? I can’t guarantee that unless your town is New Britain.