Friday, August 06, 2021

The Binmore Scale

One of the great challenges of band leadership is concert programming. Many well-meaning directors suffer under the quaint notion that programming is somehow related to informed and intelligent choices based on an understanding of quality music. This sad misconception is the product of excessive education and has led to more than a few directors (actually, these poor guys are just as likely to call themselves “conductors”) to find themselves facing a silent audience, staring out like a young doe caught in the headlights of a van full of Metallica fans. Don’t blame these guys; no doubt they also watch PBS and have never even owned a lava lamp.

Band concerts were never meant to be Major Cultural Events. Culture is for orchestra-goers, who neither expect nor desire to be entertained. The strength of the American band has always been a relentless mixture of kitsch and class and eclectic middle-brow culture-mulch. Nowhere else in the world of performance can you expect to find the works of Beethoven, Jerome Kern, Michael Jackson, and Kenny Rogers side by side. Bands cannot be programmed like anything else in the universe.

Even Sousa spent a few years playing to indifferent response before he mastered this arcane and barely scrutable art. However, I offer you the following system to help, at least a bit. This scale is designed primarily for your basic hometown adult band, but can be applied to a school concert band as well. It may not be applicable to anything calling itself a wind symphony. I call this the Binmore scale, named for my grandparents, who didn’t know music, but they knew what they liked.

First spot the potential program piece five points just for good luck. Then consider the following.

PULSE: Add two points for a strong two or four beat pulse. You may also add two points for ¾ time if it is a nicely gliding one-beat. One point for 6/8 if beaten in two. No points for a pulse so slow that, in a human, it would require CPR. Minus one for exotic tempi such as 5/4. You cannot hold your audience’s attention if it is distracted by spasmodic foot tapping.

FAKE ENDINGS: Subtract one half point for each false ending. Few things can discourage an audience more than a clear and convincing cadence followed by the whole damn thing starting up again.

STYLE: Subtract two points for any work whose main appeal is that it’s “pretty.” Let’s be honest. There are only a few bands in the country that can pull off pretty, and yours probably isn’t one of them. Subtract three points if the program notes refer to instrumental color or use the term “tone poem.”

FAMILIARITY: Add two points for recognizable themes or melodies. This is where knowing your audience is vital and educating them is a lifelong project. There are certain sure bets. Few audiences won’t to recognize the stirring strains of “The Lone Ranger Theme” or Wagner’s famous “Kill the Wabbit.” Other pieces can become familiar to an audience through sheer, dogged repetition.

REAL DIFFICULTY: Be honest. If you have a grade two band playing grade six music, subtract one to three points depending on the degree of mutilation.

PERCEIVED DIFFICULTY: This involves a principle well known to performers in the world of dance. Twenty dancers can perform intricate, extensively rehearsed maneuvers of great difficulty and skill, but the audience will only applaud wildly after eight girls stand side by side and kick. If your piece goes really fast with lots of notes or involves a trumpet player turning purple and popping a lung out of his bell, give it one point for each awe-inspiring passage.

GENRE: Here you need to know your material and your players, because there are some outstanding exceptions to this rule. However, in general, when a concert band attempts works from the realm of rock, jazz or swing, it works about as well as when Cousin Mell’s barbershop quartet attempted Handel’s Messiah. If you have to explain swing to your clarinets, or your Dixie ensemble has to read the music, you’re in trouble. Subtract up to 3.

MONOTONY : Subtract one point for every repeated section over twenty-four bars. Subtract two if the section is over sixty bars. You may give yourself a break if you do something substantially different the second time through. Anything longer than one page of player music with no noticeable variation in dynamics, tempo, or style must give up one point. This may be the fault of the composer, the players, or the director, but it will not matter to your audience who’s to blame for boring them.

NOVELTY: Any extra special touch will help, however small or corny, as long as you don’t go completely berserk. A real fire engine beside the band stand blaring away on “The Midnight Fire Alarm” is good, but not if you start to hose down the audience. Add one point.

VOCAL SOLOIST: This is a completely subjective, non-musical call (and yes, I hear you out there saying, “Of course, because vocalists have nothing to do with music”). The vocalist will not be judged on quality, but on community popularity. In the average small market, everyone’s beloved Aunt Minerva, who sings those lovely solos over to the Methodist church, will always be a bigger hit than the most gifted pro. Add two points if Minerva can really sing; one point if she’s merely beloved.

ENTHUSIASM: The band’s, that is. If your band really loves to play a particular piece, their enthusiasm will transcend a large number of technical flaws. Live audiences love to watch performers having a good time. This is one prime reason that Regular Folks don’t flock to the symphony. Americans respond to people who love their work, and orchestras generally give the impression that they have all been rushed to the concert at gunpoint from an afternoon of root canal. Yes, it may be a distraction if the trumpets share a spontaneous high five after a series of difficult runs, but your audience will love you for it. Add two points.

TONALITY: Or lack thereof. Maybe your audience will like a modern composition like “Fantasia on a Tone Cluster,” but I doubt it. Subtract one point.

Score each individual piece and then check your score against the following scale.

11 and up: Stars and Stripes Forever with fireworks and the piccolo section on a hydraulic lift; a definite winner.

5-10: Workable, but unlikely to risk the health of any weakhearted audience members.

0-4: This will make a good popcorn break during informal concerts; generally referred to by audiences as “that whaddyacallit you played last week I think.”

Negative numbers: Now we’re in the realm of pieces such as John Cage’s arrangement of “Prelude to Afternoon of a Faun” and other works guaranteed to make your audiences beat a hasty retreat to the mall.

Once you have the individual works scored, work out your total program score. In addition to the scores of the individual works, make the following computations.

DURATION: Subtract one point for every ten minutes over an hour that your program runs. If it runs over two hours, subtract all your points.

70 and above: Now would be a good time to start that fund raising campaign.

45-69: The audience won’t dislike it, but they may not remember having been there, either.

25-44: Publicize this as “An Evening with the Chinese Water Torture.”

0-24: Not even the players in the band want to be there.

A final important note. Good announcing can cover a multitude of sins and enhance any number of strengths. Announcing can, for instance, raise the audience’s perception of a piece’s difficulty (“Folks, we’d just like to take a moment for silent prayer before we attempt this next piece”) or help them spot the interesting features in a work (“In the following piece, you’ll hear the oboe make a noise that can actually peel paint off walls”)

Announcers can help clear the audience’s palate. They can personalize the members of the band so that the Aunt Minerva effect kicks in. And they can help educate the audience so that the familiarity of works can grow over the years.

Announcing actually deserves its own separate article, but I do have to pass along one piece of critical advice: DO NOT LET THE DIRECTOR TALK TO THE AUDIENCE. There’s only one Leonard Bernstein, and he probably isn’t working for you. Okay, maybe you got lucky, but in general directors fall into the “interminable babble,” “incomprehensible babble,” “condescending babble,” or “babbling babble” categories. I have seen a real live band present a two hour concert containing 45 minutes of music and 75 minutes of director-speak. This is not a band concert; it is a lecture with musical interludes and that’s not what your audience signed up for.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

How To Succeed Succeeds

It's unfortunate that my wife and I were out of town and didn't get to see FCOA's production of How to Succeed in Business until last night. Otherwise, I could have spent this whole week encouraging you to come see this production before it closes out Sunday afternoon.

Ben Geibel have mounted a fun production of the classic show that is perfectly cast. Cameron Ashbaugh pulls off the difficult task of playing anti-hero J. Pierpont Finch by exuding such sweet cheerfulness that you overlook how much he behaves like a self-serving jerk.

Ben Bodamer is a perfect Bud Frump, giving a lively performance that pops right off the stage without actually ever being sympathetic (that is harder than it sounds). Carissa McClintock is most often seen as a gifted character actress, but here she completely pulls off the leading ingenue role, giving it a bit more depth and edge than might otherwise be expected. And Katie Kirby brings a little something extra to what could be a simple cartoon bimbo role.

There are unexpected treats as well. I've seen Tracy Brown in several roles for FCOA, and she is always capable and competent, but the part of Smitty seems to land right in her zone; she really shines in this production. Recasting the voice of the book as a duo, played by Andrew and Aaron Ritsig turns out to be genius; after seeing it done this way, I can't imagine doing it any other way. And relative newcomer Ryan Ingram as J. B. Biggley owns the stage every time he's on it. This is a hilarious character performance of the highest order.

There is also great support work from Jeremy Moser, Kelsey Viertel, Kevin Fox, Janie Cassady, Davin Cutchall, and Bill Hennesy. From Moser's chipmunk cheer to Viertel's bowling moves, the supporting cast adds many touches that keep the evening light and funny.

It's rare to see a community theater productions that are so strong vocally, but each one of the songs (some of which you remember fondly and some of which you'll be happy to become reacquainted with) is strong and solid. Every lead presents a musical moment that is strong and assured, and the ensemble provides great vocal backup. There are some great dance moments as well.

The production design is awesome, from the floating leg panels in a perfect pallet of period colors to the beautifully constructed rotating stage and the spot-on costuming, this is a fun show just to look at. And Geibel's stage direction keeps things moving. If you've seen this show in the past, you may remember it as one of those shows that seems to drag on forever (particularly Act I), but that is not the case here. The show moves forward with a breezy (but unhurried) pace. It's over before you realize it. McConnell's steady direction and a solid pit even manage to set perfect tempos for each tune.

It's funny, it's tuneful, it's easy on the eyes, it's well-acted, and perfectly sung. I'm not sure what else you could want from an evening of musical comedy. Saturday night at 7:30 and Sunday at 2:00 are your last chance to catch this show. You should take advantage of the opportunity.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Play List

For something a little bit different

Saturday, September 07, 2013

150 Honors

This is a batch of music recorded with the barbershop quartet I sort of sang with in college (we could easily have been called "Three Vocalists and a Trombone Guy") because I'm playing with bandcamp a little today.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Go See Drowsy Chaperone

Local audiences hate strange and unfamiliar things.

Well, they hate actually buying tickets and going to the theater. Once they're at the theater, watching the show, they are actually quite happy.

It can be frustrating if you're putting on the show. Two of my most favorite shows in ever were "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" and "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." The shows were great on the page, the casts were awesome, my direction didn't suck, and the people who went were absolutely delighted (I will always remember how delightedly the audience would gasp and laugh and applaud at the big reveal in Scoundrels because by then they were so completely into it). But getting them there was a chore.

People like going to see things they already know. And that's okay-- there are shows that are famous and beloved for good reasons. And that's okay from a community theater group's point of view. Doing Rogers and Hammerstein is like printing money.

There are other obstacles to going to see unknown shows as well. Theater folks who DO know these shows sometimes forget that there's a whole world of folks who have no idea what they are. Well-crafted publicity is critical. And can we talk about Barrow ticket prices-- they sometimes give me pause, and I know better. They have certainly kept me from attending a show twice.

But at the end of the day, FCOA has earned audience trust. FCOA puts on good shows, entertaining shows,more-than-merely-competent shows.

And Drowsy Chaperone is such a great show. I am out of town during all performances, and I'm bummed because this is a show I would have loved to direct (stage or music) or play in the pit or even just run the lights. I would even have dreamed of taking my completely inadequate performance skills on stage for this. And I have to miss the whole thing.

So, you should go. If you feel any sense of friendship or obligation toward me, you should go in my stead. You should take my place in the audience, clapping and laughing (you do not have to laugh obnoxiously in my place).

The show is such a great show. It is loaded with character roles, each one delightfully hilarious. The music is just great-- not a filler song in the whole score. When I listen to the "Scoundrel" score, each song is my favorite song until the next one starts, and then THAT is my favorite song. This score works the same way.

Man in Chair is genius. The whole framing sequence is genius and it allows the show to do what the best comedies do-- root the humor in something that is true and human. A good comedy always lifts my spirits a thousand feet higher than an "uplifting" show. No show has ever made me cry like "ILYYPNC" and no show has ever made me feel better about being alive than "Scoundrels." This show is one of those. Don't get me wrong-- it is relentlessly hilarious, but that hilarity is not based in Just Being Stupid.

The Rogers and Hammerstein crowd should also hear that the show-within-a-show is a great show of the they-don't-make-them-like-they-used-to variety. And for fans of old shows, there are plenty of nods to classic Broadway.

This is a great show and I really hope it gets the audience it deserves. If people can just get over their fear of unknown shows, they will get a great evening of entertainment for their money. Go see this show!

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The Sound of the Teens

I've come to the conclusion that the twenty-teens (at least the early part of them) now have an actual sound, as distinctive as eighties synthiness or seventies punk or fifties doo-wop.

Today's sound is epic. I don't mean "epic" describes it. I mean that's what it is.

I'm going to give Florence and the Machine credit for being on the leading edge of the trend, though lots of folks have been playing around the edges. The ever-annoying (at least to me) Black Eyed Peas like to record songs that COULD be epic and produce videos suggest that things are epic inside their heads (cars smashing out of the sky into the pavement), but the band never seems willing to get up out of their comfy porch rocking chairs to finally push things over the top.

Other earlier misses in the genre would include bands like Creed, where the attempt is to funnel the epicness through one large mass of self-indulgent Fabio-haired ego.

But the epic pop sing has become refined, and it's totally here. Imagine Dragons do it. Mumford and Sons, for all their folkiness, do it. Even less-prolific groups like the Ting-Tings, the Mowgli's and River City Extension do it. Even Ke$ha and Lady Gaga have played with the form. The distinguishing characteristics are these:

Percussion that seems to capture the sound of a thousand drums echoing across a large valley, all being hammered so intensely that the drummers hands are bleeding.

Vocal support that sounds like a wall of sound, a hundred hundred voices raised in blistering song.

Chord structures that lift and drive forward on a heroic scale. It's the most anthemy anthem ever.

If you conjure up a picture in your head to go with the music, it involves a camera view that comes sweeping across a windswept plain, dark mountains lining the horizon, as we sail past crowds of people with their faces uplifted, eyes and hands raised to the sky.

Part of the epic sound is not necessarily to write about epic subjects. "I Will Wait," for instance is simply one more love song, but its sonic palette suggests that declaring love is akin to climbing a tall mountain to touch a storming sky. At some point someone is going to mock the form by recording an epic heroic anthem about baking chocolate chip cookies.

I don't read much music press these days, so I may be noting a trend that is already well-documented, in which case, let me just say, "me, too." If not, I'll be using this note to help apply for my pundit's license.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Flag Day and the Elks

from 2003
 Saturday, June 14, it will be time to celebrate one of the great overlooked patriotic holidays. I speak, of course, of Flag Day.
 According to my research, Flag Day goes back to 1885, when Wisconsin school teacher B. J. Cigrand organized a student celebration of the anniversary of the Flag Resolution of 1777 on June 14. He called it Flag Birthday, and within a few years it had spread to New York City and the New York State Board of Education. In 1893 the Pennsylvania Society of Colonial Dames of America resolved to get behind the Flag Day movement (and when the Pennsylvania Society of Colonial Dames gets behind a cause, you know things are going to happen). Philadelphia City Schools, the governor of New York, and the PA and NY Sons of the Revolution also climbed on the bandwagon.
 But Flag Day got its major boost in 1907 when the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks Grand Lodge adopted a resolution to honor Flag Day, making that honoring mandatory for all Elk lodges in 1911. You have to love the BPOE. First of all, how can you not love an organization that was originally called the “Jolly Corks.” Really. Englishman Charles Algernon Sidney Vivian and some buddies in 1867 New York City took their name from a drinking gag of the time. Digression alert: I will now explain the old drinking gag. Each member would ante up fifty cents and place his cork in front of him on the table. The Imperial Cork would announce that the last man to raise his cork would buy the next round of drinks, then count to three. The new guys would quickly raise their corks, but the regulars would not raise their corks at all, ever, so the new guys were always the last ones to actually raise their corks. Get it? And this gag is at the root of the entire national Elk organization. Is this a great country or what?
 But late in 1867, one member died, leaving his wife penniless. The Corks stepped in to help and decided that maybe it was time to expand their horizons beyond playing drinking games. They didn’t wring their hands and say, “someone ought to do something about this.” They regrouped as the Benevolent and Protective Order (words not chosen idly or simply for effect) and chose the Elk as their symbol because it is “distinguished by its fleetness of foot and timorous of wrongdoing.”
 The Elks really are a true American story—folks who get together to enjoy themselves and end up standing up to be counted about things that matter. The Elks give out millions of dollars in scholarship money and maintain medical funding for a variety of institutions.
Locally, our Elks give support to a wide and varied group of causes. I don’t think there’s a civic group that gives any more real help to the area than the Elks.
And they keep Flag Day alive. The BPOE helped convince Woodrow Wilson to proclaim it a real anniversary in 1916, and it was BPOE member Harry Truman who signed an act of Congress designating June 14 as National Flag Day in 1949.
 The Elks have custody of Flag Day, and a whole written procedure to follow when the holiday runs around. It’s a good thing, too, because if the holiday were going to depend on the average everyday civilians who showed up to celebrate it, it would carry about as much clout as National Pickle Day or International Toaster Day.
 Sometimes patriotic holidays can be a bit depressing because they can underline the degree to which so many people have become armchair citizens. We’ve heard a lot of patriotic noise in the past couple of years. The flag has become a popular merchandising item, but people seem to prefer it in forms that allow them to just tack it up somewhere and forget about it.
 But a flag is a symbol, a way to say “If the idea of this country were a thing, I would respect it and take care of it this much.” There’s not much patriotism in the notion of, “I’m happy to honor this symbol as long as it doesn’t cut into any of my spare time.”
 The parade Saturday won’t be all that long, and the service is pretty simple. If you feel that patriotism matters enough to stand up and be counted, then by all means, take some time Saturday to join in. The Elks will be there to show how it’s done.

From my Flickr