Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Collaborators And Creations: Benjamin Harlan

For some, composing music involves sitting alone in a room, sometimes with a piano, tapping into some corner of TheMysticalUniverseOfSound and pouring it onto the page. The idealized images of Beethoven ThinkingDeepThoughts are just that--idealized images.
Ludwig's sketchbooks are revealing,  demonstrating the distance between his initial ideas and finished products. I've done my share of this sort of composing, and it can be grinding work; very satisfying once completed, to be certain, but it is a slog in the middle of the process. It's well, lonely, three minutes into that seven-minute piece. Minute seven may be days away, and there's no way out but forward.

I therefore love to collaborate--with other composers, with conductors, poets, performers, publishers. I prefer to write with a goal in mind, and with people who have clear goals. Sometimes, they give me an idea of what they have in mind; other times, the roles reverse.

One of those long-time collaborations is in the arena of American Protestant church music with
Benjamin Harlan.

If you have sung in a Protestant church choir in the past quarter-century, odds are you have sung his music. His resume includes the dean's chair in the music school of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, head of music ministries for the Louisiana Baptist Convention, and hundreds of works published. He's an inspiring choral conductor, teacher, and one of the jolliest souls one could ever hope to meet.

He definitely has a goal--to restore hymns back to congregations in the pews. The wholesale post-modern experiment that ditched the hymnal in favor of Powerpoint and 'praise music' (whatever that is...) has been a dismal failure. Benjie has labored mightily these past several years to create a body of work that restores sanity, crafting versions of the standard hymnody that encourage the people in the pews to sing again, with the choir and instrumentalists in a supporting role. He writes, he publishes, he travels, he conducts, he teaches. He releases a new collection of hymns every year.  If you wish to purchase a copy for your church, he'll make it available. More than anything, though, he wants to talk with you, not just sell you something. Email him here to begin the conversation.

His goal is one I share, thus the years of work together. Along the way, we together created a library of orchestrations to enhance a selection of the arrangements.  I hear reports from all corners that these collaborations work well, and it brings joy to the heart. 

If you're interested in knowing more, email Benjie at the link above, or leave word below. I don't just want to sell you stuff either--the publishers have made an art of that, and look where it got us. I want to talk to you as well, as I know that the conductor, the musicians and the congregation are all part of the collaboration that makes these pieces succeed so well.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Sibelius Software, The Musician's Friend--About To Be Ridden Off Into The Sunset

These are tough times for those in the highly specialized business of music composing/editing/engraving software. Both major platforms, Finale and Sibelius, are housed in troubled firms.

Avid, the firm that brings us Pro Tools, bought Sibelius a few years back. It was going to be wonderful--the integration of Pro Tools with the slickest music notation program in history.

(I wondered how this could happen, because I have yet to work a recording session when Pro Tools didn't crash at the most crucial moment. When budgeting, I build in time and money for the Pro Tools crash. It's gonna happen, as surely as the sun rises in the morning.)

It didn't quite work out. The development team in the UK has been put out onto the street, while Avid assures everyone of their commitment to the brand. Just how does that happen, when the brain trust who carries the product in their heads has been dispersed? It's sort of like NASA--who disbanded the team that put man on the moon, once they had put man on the moon. All that's left are memories and a few left-over Saturn V boosters on display in Huntsville, Alabama.


So, I'm putting my two cents in, for what it's worth. I left this on the Avid site, but doubt it will see the light of day there.

It's a small matter in a big world where people think it's somehow a good thing to blow up school buses full of children, as happened yesterday in Bulgaria. But for those of us who are left to respond to that sort of madness by composing music, it matters that Sibelius not be orphaned and left to die.

Dear Avid: I am a composer/arranger who trained with the pencil and pad, old-school. I still employ it extensively.  However, my good friend Dave McKay, your best friend in Nashville, showed me how Sibelius can allow me to think like an old-school composer and still take advantage of software for editing, storage and transmission. It has been a great tool, and my dear bride now sits at her desk, typesetting and editing her annual choral series--in Sibelius 7.

Have you noticed something in all these comments, if you have bothered to read? Do you realize that you have extended your middle finger to your avidly (pun intended) loyal customers? Do you realize that a lot of them will remember this month when it comes time to make a purchasing decision between your DAW and other pro products and those of your competitors? Do you realize that your growth has come from positive word-of-mouth from your customers? You can spend kajillions on sexy displays at trade shows, but it's the actual users, comparing notes over beers, that make or break you.

Are you really that out of touch? Didn't anyone mention this before that MBA was handed to you?

Now, about outsourcing to Ukraine, or wherever: Have you heard the news that a lot of places in the world don't operate with high ethical standards? When your code is plagiarized twelve-ways-to-Sunday by your 'bargain-rate' programmers, where are you going to go in the former Soviet Union to file that lawsuit, get the prosecutor to go to the judge and have the perpetrators prosecuted? Does anyone ever think this stuff through--the questions about real costs, about the long-term health of a business, about what happens when an entire customer base is alienated?


If costs of operating in London were so high, there are some alternatives, like Scotland, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Wales, the Channel Islands. Your team could probably be persuaded to relocate there, within a day's drive of families and good English schools for the kids.

Does anyone ever think of these things? Anyone? Ever?

Have the lessons of GM, Chrysler, Sears, Merrill-Lynch, hundreds of local banks, Rover, SAAB, and other spectacular members of the Failure Hall of Fame ever sunk in? Do you think you are immune, because you are, well, you? Those guys all thought the same thing, as they drove their firms over the cliff into the sea.

You have the inalienable right to go broke--that's what the free marketplace is about. What your customers are telling you is that they do not share your desire for sea-water in their lungs.

Good luck. Think this through, while you can. You only have a few days left in all of human history to make the right decision.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Passing of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

The news of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's passing arrived this weekend. Memories flooded back, principally of hours spent in the Peabody College music library listening to those well-loved Deutsche Grammophon discs, thumbing through the dog-eared Schubert and Schumann editions; listening to that voice! It was a classical performer's voice that was as fresh and recognizable as any comparable pop artist.

Everyone can identify Sir Paul McCartney's voice, or Tony Bennett's, or Frank Sinatra's. One simply must stop and take note when their voices are heard. Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Taylor Swift also come to mind--there is that something about their voice and delivery that makes people stop and listen.

Fischer-Dieskau became, in his generation and genre, one of those voices, along with a bare handful of others such as Peter Pears. Like Frank and Tony, Dietrich understood that he sang in order to deliver poetry to the audience, and that the audience matters. The text always 'won', always shaped the performance, always guided the proceedings. He understood musical style, and how to sing stylishly. He understood the music he sang as entire pieces of music in which he participated, not as some sort of vehicle to carry his ambitions along. He knew entire scores, not just the bits he sang.

He also understood that the gent at the piano was his collaborator, not his accompanist. And he knew what to do in a recording studio, a great part of his genius.

Every time you hear a singer talk about his or her 'voice' as some separate entity, apart from the delivery of poetry in music, run the other direction.  Otherwise, you will be treated to turgid performances in which everything, in technical terms, may be correct, but not worth the time spent listening. Go watch a baseball game, a soccer match, a golf tournament. At least those folks understand the goal of their efforts.

So much classical performing training I continue to encounter seems to be geared to simultaneously equipping students with great technical chops while suppressing their individual voices. It's happening now more than ever, in our age of programmed performing children. (To quote Rozanne Rozanna-danna, 'Don't get me started!') I was, to great extent, taught as a player that my job was to perform within the expected parameters, always give the conductor what he wants; and that most of the time, my opinion just did not matter enough to express. It was a shock when I began to find my own voice as a performer.

It is a blessing that as a young man, his teachers were not able (or didn't seek) to suppress this voice. The world owes them, and him, a great debt of gratitude.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

ABRSM Exam Week Spring 2012 Day 4/5, And Wrapping Up

Day 4 was just one of those days. They happen. A few candidates just crawled through their exams, for reasons unknown, and we fell...behind.

Lipscomb University so graciously hosted us, and kudos and thanks to them. I made use of two stewards, Rachel and Mia, who did yeoman service keeping things going as best they could. But, in the end, it was just one of those days.

We made up for it with Carol joining us and a new arrival from England--a piano and flute teacher with an LRSM and CTABRSM behind her name--for Chinese dinner nearby. We made a new friend and colleague, and the day seemed less futile.

Friday was a travel day to Lake Guntersville, Alabama, for the first-ever ABRSM exams to be held in Alabama at Lake Guntersville Music Academy. Exams were held on Saturday. Things could not have gone more smoothly, and our hosts Keith and Karla Sullivan were lovely.

I trained a new steward, and hired her on the spot for next fall at day's end.

The day ended with Richard Storry speaking with a group of about fifteen teachers, parents and students. He was charming and informative, and the group was great to be with. It's inspiring, especially,  to be around parents who 'get it', who understand good music training is so important to a child's entire lifetime; and are willing to spend the money, put miles on the car, and invest the hours to make sure their children have this opportunity.

Keith and Karla recommended Lake Guntersville State Park as our place to stay for the weekend, and we were not disappointed. Beautiful lodge with views of the lake, with a friendly staff who were fascinated by Richard's London accent. We, for our part, enjoyed the Alabama accent, especially its treatment of the word 'right'. It sounds approximately like this: rrrRRaaaaaaAGHHhhhhhhht.

At the end of a visit, the examiner hands off the results of the week's work to the representative--mark sheets carefully hand-written in duplicate and exam rosters in duplicate. The rep gets to go home and sort them, making sure the bits that go back to the applicants (usually the teacher) are safely mailed, and the bits that go to ABRSM are shipped off. It's tedious--Rachel, my Nashville steward, helped out, blessedly. So, all is underway.

Richard rejoins us in Louisville in early June, and we'll see what manner of adventures he has had in Chicago, Madison, Atlanta, and other far-flung places in the US.

The Other Championship Team At University of Louisville: Kent Hatteberg and The Cardinal Singers

I admit it freely.  I love watching Big East basketball, especially my alma mater Louisville Cardinals under Rick Pitino's leadership.

This 2011-2012 season certainly had its ups and downs, but that final run to the Final Four was truly a thrill to behold. Pitino is a teacher's teacher, and it's a joy to watch him work with his young men. Toward the end of the game, even if they are twenty points up or twenty points down with ten seconds to go, Pitino is right there, teaching teaching teaching about what one does in this situation. He never, ever, lets up.

When this year's team found their mojo, they were reading one anothers' minds, and it was if they were making music on the court. It was joyful, almost effortless--dribble/pass/pick-and-roll/pass/pass/pass/give-the-ball-to-Siva--and suddenly there he was, laying the ball into the basket...

So, if you're expecting some angry musician's rant about 'Let's by golly shut down the athletic departments and fire all those pricey coaches', this is not the place to look, ever.

That said--Choirs are nearly so 'sexy' as Division I NCAA major sports teams. They make their music, in the main, standing still, in much smaller halls, before smaller audiences. But the great choral conductors and great coaches have much in common: that relentless, never-let-up, always teaching and mentoring personality that creates great performances and inspiring evenings.

My alma mater has one of those in Kent Hatteberg, and his Cardinal Singers were just rated the. world. Not just the Big East, or the US. The world.

Kent does not get up in the faces of his kids and yell 'What were you thinking?!?' at crucial moments in the process, but he does constantly inspire and teach, and the singing speaks for itself. The few encounters I've had with his students have been inspiring. They would follow him anywhere, anytime.

Take a listen--I think you'll understand why.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

ABRSM Exam Week Spring 2012 Day 3: Venues, Students, and the Joy Of Uneventful Days

Day 3 went smoothly, uneventfully.  Not all exam days unfold in that manner...there are tales to tell, but not today.

The Nashville exams are blessed to have great venues, thanks to the generosity of a few local churches over the years. I know that this is not the case in many locations in the US and around the world, and it's not taken for granted.

A good venue provides a quiet, well-lit, comfortable room with a good piano, and a comfortable waiting room out of earshot, but within easy reach of the steward. The right venue contributes much to the joy of an uneventful day of examinations.

With little news to report, let me share a couple of images of happy candidates.  One of the perks of the job is watching bright kids grow up, and return to exams every six months a bit taller, more focused, and aware that they are accomplishing their goals.

Off to Lipscomb University for today's exams. More on that most special place later.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

ABRSM Exam Week Spring 2012 Day 2: The Steward

It was a long day, breakfast at 7:00 am and dinner at 8:30 pm, with a multitude of candidates in between.  Impressively, we actually ran ahead of schedule all day. Efficient examiner, well-prepared students.  I began training a new steward who took to the job readily and kept the day going.

The exam steward plays an important role in the process--part traffic cop, part personal assistant to the examiner, part stable pony for nervous candidates. The steward's job is to usher candidates into the exam room, making sure the examiner has a prepared mark sheet and music needed,  ushering the previous candidate out, while keeping everyone calm and the day running on time. The steward also guards the door to prevent parents and teachers from attempting to break in on the exam--it happens from time to time, really.

It takes a calm, organized person to do this job. After a bit, if things go well, the steward and examiner begin to work in synch, and the day takes on a sort of rhythm worked out between them. If the steward is a student, it is one of the best music educations available, as he or she hears every exam go by, and inevitably comes along for a lunch or dinner with the examiner. The steward gets to hear the funny stories from exam rooms around the world, and is given insight into how the examiners approach their work.

Our steward of the past two years, Roseanna, is now away at university. She became so adept at the role that I simply packed up a rolling file box with the needed supplies, handed it over to her, and made myself scarce. She had matters well in hand. More than one examiner sincerely wished they could fly her around the country for other stops on tour. She rejoins us in Louisville in May, and I lok forward to her presence.

Trainee steward Jordan shows real promise, and I have high hopes. She is also young enough to keep around for another couple of years. She showed real calm and presence of mind. I only had to give her instructions once, and she was on her way. She kept the day flowing, when it easily could have bogged down.

Monday, April 23, 2012

ABRSM Exam Week Spring 2012 Day 1

Early morning....

ABRSM, as an organization, has an effective 'corporate culture', to use that old buzzword. It seeks to learn how to do its mission better, based upon what it learns from its ongoing experience.

One detail they learned along the way is to fly examiners in early enough to allow their bodies to acclimate to the local time zone, weather, cuisine and culture. It makes a big difference in how they perform their task and hold up on their long tours. Thus Richard arrived to us late Saturday afternoon Central US Time, late evening London time. There was time for dinner, time to check him into his cottage at East Hills Bed and Breakfast, and a day off to recuperate.

Today, then, is Day 1. We begin with breakfast at the B&B, served by our hosts John and Anita Luther. It's time to go over the week's timetable, make certain we have all our ducks in a row regarding special needs tests, venue arrangements, etc. It's also time to relax and chuckle a bit, because the work-load ramps up dramatically from this point on. I call ahead to the church venues to make certain we will not be walking into a funeral service or wake being held in the exam room. No kidding, it happened once, not an experience to repeat.

The first exams are held today at First Baptist Dickson Tennessee. We are fortunate in the South to have so many churches, and so many of them still willing to open their doors to examination days. I understand this is not the case in other parts of the country.

It's an afternoon session of students from this region of the state, west of Nashville. I'll be training a new steward, since our beloved Roseanna who handled the duties for the past two years is now at university some two hundred miles distant.

For now, it's time to assemble the signage, the schedule books, and prepare the mark sheets for the examiner--after I field the phone call from the officious mother who wonders why the entire world does not stop in order to answer her questions at the moment she poses them...


All went smoothly--pictures will follow in due course. Richard heard exams from candidates ranging from about age seven to college students, including a number of prep tests. No one came out of the exam room crying (which occasionally happens), and several came out beaming telling us what fun they had. That's the reaction we really like! The examiners are vetted and trained intensively on a certain style of etiquette designed to keep the candidate as relaxed as possible during exam time, and Richard certainly does this well.

We actually ran a few minutes ahead of schedule, also a good sign. All went smoothly, and the parents of the younger children enjoyed hanging out together, talking with Carol and today's applicant Amy Shafer, LRSM. (More about her in due course.) I had to run some administrative errands, and helped with the chauffering, set-up and tear-down of the exam room.

We ran into an odd situation in the exam room, with the piano up on the pulpit area, with an unusually designed set of stairs leading up. With a bit of engineering involving a potted plant and a 'mourner's bench', we created a path up and back that no child could miss, avoiding a tumble during an exam.  Always something new, always something to learn....

Back to prepping mark sheets for Tuesday. It will be a long day, picking Richard up at 7:30, and we'll be bringing him back about 9:00 p.m. Some days are like that, thankfully not most.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

ABRSM Exam Week Spring 2012 Nashville

One of the happiest things I get to do as a musician is help coordinate local examiner visits for the world's leading music examination organization,  The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music.

It's hard to explain and describe ABRSM in twenty words or less, living as we do in the Age of Twitter, which demands instant wisdom in 140 characters or less.

So allow me to take a stab at it: ABRSM is the very best system ever invented to motivate and measure progress in music students. It was founded in London some 120 years ago. Its reach is world-wide, some 650,000 examinations annually, in every corner of the planet.

Carol and I had the pleasure last night of greeting this week's examiner, Richard Storry, and look forward to his week with us in Nashville, and a further week in Louisville in late May. He is an award-winning guitarist and composer, as well as an experienced examiner. ABRSM has sent him around the world, from the US to Hong Kong to Malaysia to Guyana to New Zealand to Tanzania and South Africa. He brings with him, as do all these extraordinary musicians, a great good cheer, a love for music and students and life.

Having greeted examiners since 1998, and watched over many thousands of exams, I have met wonderful examiners--some now lifelong friends--and have seen the lives of students transformed by their participation in Board exams and the approach inherent in their syllabus.

So, this week, I'll try to journal the week's events, to give parents and teachers an account of how and why this works so well.

The link to ABRSM is here, and I hope you take a few minutes to explore.

A parents' guide to ABRSM is available by download here. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Baroque Fiddling Project: Tracing Tennessee’s Musical Roots With Music City Baroque

My dear bride suggested we have a date night last Monday evening April 16 to hear Music City Baroque at the famous Loveless Hotel and Restaurant on the west side of Nashville, where the Natchez Trace meets the old state road to Memphis. I'm always happy about a meal at the Loveless, and Music City Baroque is always a wonderful evening of music. No way to resist that double invitaton. In any event, our friends in the group spotted us, and the next day I was invited to review the concert, since illness befell the fine gent who usually does these sorts of things. I was flattered to be asked, and share it with you below:

The Baroque Fiddling Project: Tracing Tennessee’s Musical Roots 
The Loveless Barn, Nashville, TN April 16, 2012 

The prospect of a lovely spring night, dinner at the Mother Church of Southern Cooking, and a performance by Music City Baroque attracted a warm and enthusiastic crowd of about a hundred to the Loveless Barn, located just behind Nashville’s iconic Loveless Restaurant, located where Highway 100 meets Natchez Trace Parkway. The Loveless is an appropriate setting in so many ways, not least because its history and the history of Nashville’s music are so intimately connected. The food and service, as always, were classic Loveless--warm biscuits and good cheer in abundance.

Music City Baroque’s presentation mirrored the venue, with a wide variety of offerings offered with good humor and style. American music from about 1900 onward so dominates the world landscape that it is easy to forget that it came from somewhere, actually a variety of ‘somewheres’; like so much of our culture, imported from Europe and the British Isles and transformed into a homegrown American genre. WPLN’s Will Griffin expertly narrated the evening’s program, walking the audience through that journey from imported to native grown music, noting the historical figures such as Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Jackson, Crockett and Lafayette who lives intersected American music or were memorialized by it.

Beginning with a Corelli trio sonata, likely heard at Monticello, the program quickly moved to Baroque dance forms that were popular in colonial America, with a bow in the direction of Franklin’s ambassadorship to France, and included excerpts of his string quartet. This was followed by an entertaining set of fiddle tunes, parlor songs, square dances, and original music composed in and for nineteeth-century Nashville. Square dancers joined in to demonstrate the intricate steps associated with the tunes. European imports to Nashville Emil Heerbrugger and Ole Bull were recognized for their contributions to 19th century Nashville culture, and the evening closed with a final set of square dances, led off by Yankee Doodle.

The entire ensemble richly deserved the enthusiastic applause at the evening’s end, but two performers must be especially noted. Tammy Rogers King especially impressed with her fiddle work, featuring a Scandinavian ‘hardanger fiddle’. Artistic Director Murray Somerville was honored for his unselfish work in championing historically informed performance in Nashville. This was his final performance with the group before his upcoming move to South Carolina. He will be sorely missed.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Bachanalia 2012

It's become an annual celebration, a family reunion for the classical and jazz musicians of Nashville. It's a six-hour marathon of the music of J.S. Bach, featuring everything from a quarter of harps to the mighty organ situated in the rear balcony of Christ Church Cathedral in Nashville, to a whistling physician, to jazz musicians improvising on the master's music. Along the way, choirs sing, soloists perform, and the audience fills the pews. Most stay for a couple of hours, many stay until the end. Lots of food available in the parish hall, and great fellowship amongst both musicians and audience.

Musicians are a funny lot. We work like madmen, most of us; and although there is a lot of mutual admiration, we tend not to cross paths with some of our colleagues except at the rare event like this. The green room set aside for the performers is where everyone gets to catch up with one another.

Presented by Christ Church Cathedral, organized by the brilliant Susan Dupont and her merry band of volunteers, this is a great event, not to be missed.

I'm proud to be involved, this year and previous years in arranging sponsorship via The Harp School, Inc. and Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music.

This year, I even pull the trombone out and perform some short transcriptions, accompanied at the harp by the brilliant Carol McClure.

Details: 5:00-11:00 pm, free admission with donations gratefully accepted and food and mementos available to purchase.

Christ Church Cathedral
901 Broadway
Nashville, TN 37203

Thursday, March 15, 2012


Welcome. It's me, Wes.

I've been asked from time to time why I keep such a low profile. There's a story to tell about that, but this is not the time or place. Yet. That day is approaching, however.

So, for now, welcome. It's me, Wes Ramsay, the happily married composer/trombonist/border collie owner who has had the privilege of raising two fabulous children in a small county outside of Nashville, Tennessee.

I also have the privilege of creating some delightful music with and for people I admire and am blessed to know. I'm generally humbled they tolerate me, much less treat me with such love.

From time to time, I'll share some of the music, and some of the stories of those people, and trust you'll enjoy them both.

Meanwhile, if you wish to get in touch, I've left the comment window open. I vet all comments before publication, to prevent spammers, scammers and stalkers from invading this little corner.