Saturday, January 31, 2009

I'll Trade Ya

On my way to Birmingham this morning, I stopped by the Apple Store for my appointment with the "genius" (apple's customer service reps). My iphone's accelerometer hasn't worked for months. It's not a deal breaker, it just keeps me from getting all of the functionality out of this amazing device. After five minutes with the genius, I had a new phone in hand. Wow. It was that easy. Thank you apple.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


In music, a virtuoso is an idividual who is highly skilled at one or more musical instruments. I'm talking head of the field skills. If the value of a musical outfit were determined by the collective talent of its members, then Punch Brothers is as talented as any out there! I just returned from their performance at the Opelika Center for the Performing Arts. I scored some free tickets, and Chandler and I eagerly attended the show.

Punch Brothers is fronted by Chris Thile, formerly of Nickel Creek. Chris single-handedly changed the way the world thinks about the mandolin. I think the word virtuoso accurately describes his skill. However, it wasn't just a rag-tag band of string players fronted by the big name. On the contrary, every member of the group was equally skilled in their instrument, be it double bass, violin, guitar, or banjo. An entire group of virtuoso musicians. Needless to say, it was incredible. They played the entire "Blind Leaving the Blind", a forty minute, four movement string quintet composed by Thile. These five guys played their instruments with as much grace and attention to detail as any orchestral player would. But, let me get back to Chris for a moment. Think about a singer and how a singer controls his or her instrument. The brain simply wills the voice to "play". There's no middle man. Any other instrument requires the brain to communicate with an inatimate object in order to produce the desired sound. Watching Chris play, the middle man fades away. It's almost as if his brain is communicating directly with his instrument. I imagine there have only been several such musicians in history. Perhaps Miles Davis had this trait. Maybe Stevie Ray Vaughn and his electric guitar. It's quite a site to witness, and I'm humbled every time I get the chance.

I had such a chance my freshman year of college. Back then, Chris Thile was still in Nickel Creek, and Sky Bar was still the Blue Room. Nickel Creek was playing at the Blue Room and I went to hear them. I got there extra early, and thus got a spot very near the front (it was standing only). The show was outstanding, of course, but the fun didn't end there. I went home and began getting ready for bed, when a friend of mine called and said, "Dude, come back up to the Blue Room. Nickel Creek is playing unplugged outside their tourbus!" I threw my clothes back on, grabbed my mandolin, and headed back downtown. I got there in time to hear them play a few old bluegrass tunes completely unplugged in the parking lot to the Blue Room. It was great. Afterward, I ventured up to Chris and asked him to sign my mandolin. I handed my bottom of the line mandolin that I hadn't played in several weeks to him. He flipped it around and began to play! (At this point, I froze. I knew I hadn't played this instrument in quite a while and I was sure it would be horribly out of tune). He played a lightning fast bluegrass lick, paused, and said, "hmm... still in tune." Wow. He flipped it back over, signed it and handed it back to me. I smiled and said thanks. Thus, my brush with greatness was over. Five years later, he's in a new band, but still just as amazing to watch and listen to. Thanks Punch Brothers for a great show!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

We've got spirit yes we do...

The Pep Rally. An all important event in the collective spirit of a school. When I was in middle school, pep rallies were fun. We yelled, someone won the spirit stick, and that was all. Drake does pep rallies a little differently. The first pep rally I went to last year blew me away. The sheer volume of sound these kids produce is breathtaking. Teams come up with cheers to use at the pep rallies to compete for the coveted "Best Cheer" award. Nobody actually says it, but winning best cheer means you won the pep rally. "Most Spirit", thanks for playing, try again.
Students and teachers paint their faces and wear the most team colors they can fit on their body. Don't be mistaken, these pep rallies only slightly pay homage to the athletic teams of the school. For the most part, it's one seventh grade team versus another seventh grade team; one sixth grade team versus another sixth grade team in an all out scream fest. You can imagine that I, as a choral music teacher, cringe with every blood curdling scream, every vein popping yell, every hoarse student that attempts to sing in my class the following day. I try. I tell my singers not to yell so much, to let other members of their team carry the weight. Fat chance.
I was tasked with announcing the 7th grade softball team at the pep rally today. I decided to have fun with it since most of the softball girls are also choir members. I gathered the softball players and had them choose a nickname. Then, in my best Michael Buffer voice, I announced each player as "Suzie 'the thunderbolt' Smith" etc. After the pep rally, our bookkeeper asked me "Who was that announcer they hired?" Excellent.

We've got spirit, how bout you?....

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Moroccan Around the Christmas Tree

My cousing Reid is in Morocco for two years working for the Peace Corps. Two years! You couldn't do it. So he's pretty much a bad ass. He started a blog today to chronicle his time in Northern Africa. So, I've devoted my post today, to his blog. Even if you don't know him, it'll be cool to read a blog written by someone living across the world! It'll be like a pen pal, except much more one-sided.

Monday, January 26, 2009


Today, I took a half day off work so that I could drive to LaGrange, GA. My destination was Long Cane Middle School to see the choir director there. In music education, one often finds that he is the only professional in his field at a particular school. The closest middle school might be Opelika, but I've observed the teacher there and feel no need to go back. I met with Mrs. Biggs to discuss my program and music selection. I expected to leave with a few titles I could check out to get me on the right track. I left with four written pages of titles and composers of tried and true middle school repertoire. I dare say that this simple trip was one of the most professionally developing pieces of "professional development" I've ever experienced. Sure, I could flip through a J.W. Pepper catalog (music supplier and distributer) until my thumbs turn blue. But by meeting with Mrs. Biggs, someone who is good at what she does and has been doing it for a while, I was able to see tons of music that someone has done and that works. "This one is great," she would say. "You MUST get this one."

So now I have new direction, or perhaps a more precise heading in my current direction. I was affirmed in some of my teaching practices, which is always a plus. Now, I have the task of choosing from this huge list the pieces I want to do this semester. Wish us luck, and come hear us sing sometime!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Have I ever told you...

That I've been skydiving? It was one of the most fun experiences of my life. I also happened to live with Aubie at the time, and he came along. This video is actually of Aubie skydiving, but I'm in it! I'm the one in the yellow jumpsuit. Off we go, into the wild blue yonder.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Like a Charm

As a new teacher, I have faced a lot of challenges. As a good friend and colleague of mine said, teaching is one of the only professions where those who are brand new are expected to perform on the same level as those that have been doing it for years. My challenges have simply been trying to figure out how to do my job and do it better today than I did the day before. However, on a broader scale, one of my greatest challenges has been selecting choral literature that "fits" with my choir and the situation at my school. By "situation" I mean this: I have a 7th grade choir made up of 88 students. These students are split into four different classes. Each of these classes is a microchasm of the greater choir. There are about twenty girls and four or five boys in each class. This makes things much more difficult than if the whole choir was together at the same time. Each student doesn't have the confidence that they would if they had eighty seven other voices singing with them. Instead, they have to be one of twenty or twenty four voices. It is a challenge, but I must make it work.
As I said, selecting literature has become one of my biggest challenges and I have realized in the last year that it is one of the most important decisions a choral director will make in a given year.
Every school is different. So, I could ask for all the advice I want, but in the end I've got to choose music that will best fit my choir at my school. So, first semester, I decided to set the bar high and see how much they could achieve. I chose three part mixed, mostly homophonic music. Homophonic means that everyone is singing the same words at the same time, just different pitches. For whatever reason, my brain thought that this would be easier for them. We tried, and we did ok. I noticed that the main problem was that everyone wanted to sing the melody. Basically through trial and error, I learned that middle schoolers will want to sing the melody if they are singing the same WORDS as the melody. It makes sense. "I'm saying what they are saying, so I should probably sing the same pitches that they are singing."
So I'm rethinking literature selection. I was too ambitious first semester. I've scaled way down. I'm seeking more advice, browsing through more music, visiting another middle school choir director in LaGrange to compare notes. I want to get it right this time.
The other day, I stumbled upon a piece in my personal collection called "Yonder Come Day". I received a few copies of it while I was in Louisville, KY for a conference last year. Dr. Patrick Freer from Georgia State used it in his lecture on the boy's changing voice. It's an African American spiritual that uses several different melodies that eventually combine to create three part harmonies. I decided on a whim to try it the other day in class. It worked like a charm and is continuing to work better and better. EVERY CLASS today (even my tiny fourth period class) was confidently singing three part chords thanks to this fun, ingenious piece. Not only does it "trick" them into singing harmonies, but they LOVE the piece. "Can we sing that again?" they ask as they pack up their things at the end of class. What have I learned? There are ways to achieve what I want; ways to achieve the potential I see within these kids. I just have to keep digging until I find the key to unlock it. Today, "Yonder Come Day" was that key. If every class is singing it well, then I can't wait to get them all together and hear them sing it. I love days when I learn more than I teach.

Monday, January 19, 2009

I love my...

Welcome to another edition of I love my Mondays, the post that tallies five things I love that are going on in my life. Why Monday? Monday is typically a day filled with thoughts about how much we hate things ("Mondays boy I hate Mondays. They make me so steamed. Weekend, I prefer the weekend.") So, in order to combat those ill feelings, I decided to list things I love about my life... on a Monday. Thumbs up, let's do this.

1. I love... Martin Luther King Jr. Today we celebrate the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. How crazy is it that someone was born with the names Martin Luther and is able to bring about such sweeping change in their surroundings, much like the first Martin Luther. Not only do I appreciate him for his valiant fight against racism in the United States, but for the day off of work!

2. I love... my brother. See previous post.

3. I love... Lord of the Rings. I know, I know, I'm SUCH a huge nerd. If you follow this blog with any regularity, then you know I'm a gamer, and a nerd. I recently purchased the new Lord of the Rings Xbox game that came out this week. It puts the player into the major battles of the epic saga. Nerds, unite and slay the evil forces of Sauron.

4. I love... cold weather. And boy have we had our share of that this week! It's been in the high teens at night here for the past few days. All we would have needed was a drizzle and we would have had snow. Snow is a frozen white precipitate that falls from the sky sometimes in winter. I have to remind myself from time to time. But no, the rain waited until after the arctic blast. Sigh.

5. I love... change. Tomorrow, our nation will swear in a new leader. Let's set aside the "change" from the campaign trail for just a moment. I simply want to talk about the word change. The only thing that stays the same, is the fact that things will change. As humans, creatures of habit, we are resistant to change. However, change is most often a good thing. Even if our current president had not done so poorly in his time in office, we simply need a change. There is a feeling of stagNATION. The pond needs to be stirred; new life breathed in to our sullen country. Regardless of your political leanings, let us rally behind our new leader. He is passionate about America. He is passionate about bringing about change. Even today, he and his wife are participating in a "Day of Service" and encouraging all Americans to find a way to serve their communities not just today, but everyday. Get excited. Whether it's true or not, I like to think that America's best days are ahead of her.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

No Reservations

My mom and I both love the show Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. It follows Anthony, a New York City chef, as he travels the world in search of genuine food and genuine experiences. He is apparently very well connected as he meets someone he calls "one of my good friends" in just about every location. That good friend (often an executive chef) usually sets him up with amazing food and gives him the inside scoop on just about everything.
Last night, I was Anthony Bourdain. The episode? No Reservations: Auburn. From this point on, I will narrate in the voice of Anthony Bourdain.

Auburn, perhaps most notably a lovely shade of hair color, also happens to be a city in the southern state of Alabama. Known for their football fanaticism and agricultural prowess, I wasn't sure what we were doing taping a food travelogue in a southern college town. I met up with my brother, a landscape guru from just north of here and his lovely wife who just happened to be running a half marathon here in Auburn... in January... in twenty degree weather. My brother went to college at Auburn and knows the area and the people quite well. He took us to a restaurant called Amsterdam Cafe, where his friend and fraternity brother is the executive chef. Chef had reserved a table for us in the front window of the restaurant, no waiting involved. Soon after our arrival, the chef came to greet us at the table and tell us about some of the special menu items. He emphasized the bar-b-que Georgia quail, the Berkshire pork, and the true Alaskan cod. He reminded us that the bbq sauce was not Heinz 57 with mangos tossed in, that the pork had been hand massaged, and that the Alaskan cod was not Captain D's fish sticks. This guy was growing on me already. My brother ordered the quail on a bed of fried green tomatoes and topped with sweet potato shavings. As we waited and browsed the menu an appetizer arrived that nobody had ordered. Descending from on high was the largest lobster claw I have ever laid eyes on. Completely shelled, it was a mini nerf football of succulent lobster meat, covered in butter and beer foam, sitting on a flash fried grits cake. I became instantly more happy to be here, in the South. The meal that followed was a series of bests. The best porkloin I've ever tasted. The best seared Tuna I've ever tasted, the best meal I've ever had at Amsterdam. But, perhaps the best of the best? My brother picked up the tab, thanks bro.

So who's to say there's no fine dining in Auburn? It was plenty fine for me.

(insert electric guitar riff and raspy voice saying "Nooooooo reservations".)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Longest Dinner Trip Ever

This afternoon, I drove from Auburn almost all the way to Birmingham. I met my mother, father, brother, and sister-in-law for dinner at Lloyd's for my mom's birthday. It was an hour and forty five minute trip, but worth every minute. It was so great to walk into Lloyd's and see, sitting in the back of the restaurant, a table full of people I really love. They were waiting on me. We ate a huge meal, shared some stories, and then showered my mom with gifts! After dessert, we got up and left. It seemed like such a short time, but again, so worth it.

Happy Birthday Mom. I love you!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

LA Song

Nothing like a lazy Sunday afternoon to play some music. This is LA Song by Dave Barnes. Recorded just for you. Enjoy.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Maybe I AM doing something right

I am my harshest critic. I hold myself to high standards and can be pretty hard on myself when I don't do things right or when I fail. In this "beginning my career" phase of my life, I'm especially critical of myself. Do I even know what I'm talking about? Am I doing things right? Will the things I'm teaching my students help them at all or is it just a bunch of gibberish to them?

I got some positive confirmation this week. I did voice checks of my students at the beginning of the year and told them that we would do voice checks again after Christmas. So, this week was spent listening to student after student to see what changes, if any, have taken place in their voices since August. To be honest, I was surprised. Nearly every student had increased their range in both directions by almost a third. A small handful of students even seemed to open up hidden parts of their voice previously off limits to them. They have all gained confidence since the last time they sang by themselves. This could be a natural progression of the adolescent changing voice, or it could be the results of a semester in choir practicing proper vocal technique. I like to think it's a little bit of both.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Gripe til you get your way

When I was little, I used to get so embarrassed when my mom would argue with cashiers, tellers, etc. I don't want you to get the idea that she is an argumentative individual, she simply fought for what she wanted. Nevertheless, my brother and I would hide in shame. Yesterday, those skills came in handy.
If you live in the Auburn area, you probably know that Charter cable provides shotty internet access at best. One minute, you're watching streaming video, the next you can't even access the internet. It's been a source of immense frustration for years. Yesterday, I spent thirty minutes on the phone with Charter internet service support trying to restore my internet connection, to no avail. After several unsuccessful remedies, I voiced my concerns. Borrowing a line from my father after a dissapointing sailing trip over Christmas break, I told the agent that "For the amount that I pay Charter each month, this is absurd. I expect a discount on my next bill." I never say things like that. But I got worked up enough to make my demands known. Well, I didn't get a discount, but I did get something!
Tomorrow, a Charter technician will be here to install a digital cable box and a modem that will allow for 10 meg internet (as opposed to my current 5 meg connection) at no cost to me. My monthly payment will not increase either. Man, I hate Charter. Whether my dad gets a discount on his next boat charter remains to be seen, but at least the technique helped me out! And I got that fightin' spirit from dear ole mom. Let this be a lesson to us all: bitch until you get your way.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


I just watched Burn After Reading. Easily one of the best movies of 2008.


Sunday, January 4, 2009


In early civilizations, families gathered in villages. They did this for obvious reasons. A family living on its own in the middle of the wilderness was far less likely to survive than a family that lived with several other families. They relied on each other for protection, health, food, and eventually entertainment. If one family had a particularly healthy farm, they might provide produce to feed others in the village. Similarly, other families would provide in whatever way they could to the well being of the village. Herein lies the value of community.
My parents have lived in the same house for twenty years now. It sits on a cul-de-sac surrounded by about nine other houses. Through twenty years, we've watched families move out and others move in. For the most part, the families in the various houses kept to themselves. Occasionally, the couple accross the street would come over for an Auburn game, but that was just about the extent of cross culdesac community.
As we know, the only constant is change. Just as change has come to the White House, change has come to Oak Ridge Circle. My parents are suddenly surrounded by really awesome neighbors! There now exists a sense of community that hasn't existed in the twenty years since they've lived here. It didn't just happen though. In a move straight out of a Christmas movie, my parents threw a Christmas open house and invited everyone on the street! I was still in Auburn, but I heard it went really well. They got everyone's phone numbers and email addresses and the rest is history. Throughout the next couple weeks of the holidays, it seemed that you couldn't go five days without someone throwing a party!
The other night, I followed my dad two doors down to the "Man Cave". Yeah, I know! A couple named Phillip and Stacy live there. They've lived there for a year and a half and Phillip has converted the garage into the perfect man room. The walls are covered in sports, hunting, and rock n' roll gear. There's a 52 inch HDTV, a Wii, and a fridge full of various beers including some of Phillip's own home brew. It's awesome! So we watched the Rose Bowl, drank exotic beer, and then played Wii till we just about peed in our pants.
Then there's Joe and Crystal across the street. They moved in only three weeks ago, but from what I can tell they are loving it so far. They had everyone over to watch the Alabama game. Joe plays in a band and he and I got together earlier today and played guitar for a while.
Then there's Becky and Jonathan, who threw the New Year's party. I wasn't there, because I went to Nashville. Seriously though, who parties this much? It really is cool. I'm happy for my parents that they have such down to earth, fun-loving, party-going neighbors. It is just like that village I mentioned earlier. My parents threw the Christmas party, Jonathan and Becky took care of the New Year's party, Joe and Crystal threw the Sugar bowl party, and Phillip and Stacy... man cave remember? Some say it takes a village to raise a child. Oak Ridge Circle is proving that it takes a village to sufficiently party throughout the holidays.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Music to my ears

Many years ago, a radio station called "The X" opened its doors and began broadcasting "alternative" music to Birmingham and the surrounding areas. Back then, it was located at 105.9 and was considered by many of my peers to be the superior radio station in town. They sponsored a music festival in the summer that became the hot ticket event. However, corporate America reared its ugly head and The X was bought by someone else and moved to another frequency, 107.7 I believe. Mostly, its content stayed the same, but a long and steady downward spiral had begun. After a couple years at 107.7, they moved again to 100.5. I may be fuzzy on my sequence of frequencies, but you get the idea. It's like a restaurant that moves around a few times but tries to convince you that they offer the same top quality fair. There's something inside of you that says, "If you're such a good restaurant, why can't you stay in one place?" Before long, the airwaves of Birmingham's Alternative station were dominated by such musical filth as Nickelback, Limp Bizkit, Seether, and the like. It was miserable. It seemed as though they made a playlist of twenty crappy songs and just played it over and over again. Radio in Birmingham had become a bleak landscape. Enter Live 100.5, Birmingham's Modern Music. Radio had been saved. Perhaps enough people made their opinions known, perhaps the radio powers that be woke up, but radio is good again. 100.5 plays a healthy mixture of up and coming artists, actually good music that's out now, and nostalgic hits from middle and high school. If you'd like to listen online, be my guest. I know I'm a little slow on the uptake here. The station has been in existence for several months now, but I don't live in Birmingham. Since I've been home, the radio in my car is constantly tuned to 100.5. As they say on the station, "Radio is good again."

Friday, January 2, 2009

How Could I Forget?

I know I said that my favorite Christmas gift was my Barack Obama action figure, and yes, I do love it. However, perhaps the most useful Christmas gift I received was a fifty dollar gift card to Niffer's, home of Burger Night! Given to me by my brother and sister-in-law, this is one of the gifts that will keep on giving. I might even buy Jenny a burger one night.

Speaking of my brother, today is his birthday! Happy Birthday Drew! Never been this old before!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

How Expectation Ruined New Year's

It is a commonly known fact that the higher one's expectations are for a particular thing, the greater the chance for dissapointment. I think this simple fact infiltrated the American celebration of the New Year long ago. The result is a doomed string of mediocre New Year's celebrations. I went to Nashville in search of an off the charts New Year's party. I thought that surely Nashville would have something great to lend toward my enjoyment of the evening. And yeah, I had a good time. If it had been any other weekend, I would have walked away saying, "Man, that was an awesome time!" However, because it was New Year's Eve, there was an unspoken expectation (and maybe it's just me) that things were going to be spectacular. In the early afternoon, Chandler and I went to one of my favorite Nashville establishments, the Flying Saucer. The fly has a bajillion beers on tap and a menu created to compliment their brews. We would have been intent on staying there all day and night, but after about five hours, we were ready to leave. We had dinner at a friend's apartment, and then headed to Broadway to ring in the New Year. We waited in line and went into Robert's Western World. Not my first choice... but I told myself I was going to simply go with the flow. Robert's Western World is the "Home of Traditional Country Music". As a music person, I am able to respect and enjoy almost any genre of music. Traditional Country music proved to be quite entertaining, however it was the proximity to other people that got me. There wasn't even room to shuffle your feet to the George Jones tunes. Drinks were too expensive and I didn't have any cash. We rang in the New Year right after the band finished "A Boy Named Sue". Merriment insued and about thirty minutes later we left. Happy New Year.
Like I said, it was a good time, but just not the blowout bash of a good time I was looking for. Thus, I have resigned to simply not care so much about New Year's next year. Festivities aside, it was really good to see some of my Nashville friends as well as some of my Auburn friends in Nashville. It was really good to eat at some of my favorite restaurants as well. I'll never forget my summer in Nashville, and it's good to go back every now and then and reconnect. I hope you had a good time, however you chose to celebrate.