Monday, July 26, 2010

Man in the Middle, Mom on the Sidelines

It is July 24th and I've been looking forward to this moment since the blizzard back in February. I've just sung two of my favorite songs, played bass like a man, and my husband, two microphones away, is about to sing a big crowd pleaser, "The Man in the Middle." The band is hot (I'm so lucky to be playing with these guys), the summer breeze is cool, the sound crew is skilled, the folks at Morgan Arts Council are wonderful. This is a terrific day and a terrific moment to be here and now.

And then in a flash of chance and gravity, things go horribly wrong.

I look up from the stage and see my son, Jim Dill, in horrible pain, and bleeding profusely from a gash in his shin.

A million thoughts and impulses fly through my head like a freight train. My heart leaps out of my chest, across the canal, and into the gaping wound. How did things go so bad so fast?

OK, let's go back in time.

It's February 2010. I'm snowed-in in what will be known as the Snowpocalypse. The phone rings and it's Gordon Macleod from the Morgan Arts Council. He says they want the Dill Pickers to play in their summer concert series. My friend Lynn Greer has helped us get this gig by hand carrying our press kit and I'm so happy for her support. Now, they say they like our sound and we discuss the business end (I'm terrible at this) and schedules and money and such. I grab my laptop and email the other pickers, who are as excited as I am. This is gonna be a great summer.

Fast forward a month or two and add the much prayed for springtime thaw. I'm cyber-chatting with my good buddy Ron Furgerson. Ron has been a Dill Picker supporter from the beginning and has even used our music in some of his youTube videos. Ron would really really really like to have a video of us performing "The Man in the Middle." I would, too, and I think that maybe this summer's gig in Berkeley Springs will be a great time to film it.

And that's how it happened.

At the gig, Jim was hired to be videographer and photographer. He was using my camera to take some stills and some video. I had asked him to be sure to get "The Man in the Middle" on video. Jim was not expecting to have to be filming so early in the set and was nowhere close to the stage when I asked him publicly and into the mic to start the video. Jim's a good photographer and he takes his job seriously so he rushed back to the stage to catch the song from the beginning. And he almost got it, too.

But on the way, he had to cross the stone waterway. One leg makes it, the other leg slams shin first into the edge of the stone retaining wall. *Expletive*

And we got the aftermath on video, because even badly hurt, Jim does what he says he will do. So as the camera runs, you can hear Jim react to the fall, the blood, the wound, and the feeling that his leg may be broken. The video is very hard to watch. For the first 10 seconds, Jim is breathing heavily and groaning in pain. And yet, somehow he continues to hold the camera and continue with the video. At 0:55, he says calmly "That was a mistake." At 1:38, someone off camera comes to help and offers to bring some ice. At 2:14, the folks getting ice alert the wonderful Dr. Matt. Yes, there's a doctor in the house. Hallelujah. The ice arrives at 2:24 and Jim asks for medical attention, initially asking for an ambulance, but getting a better solution with Dr. Matt just a few feet away. Dr. Matt and my friend Kathryn Rack arrive at 3:00, one to check out the situation and then retrieve his black bag, and the other to check out the situation and offer help with the video camera. At 3:30, Jim utters the understatement "I tried to jump the gap."

From 3:30 on, the video looks normal. Kat frames the band, even getting happy footage of the dancing girl on the front row.

Looks normal from the outside, but I know what's happening on the inside. My child is in terrible pain, maybe even terrible danger, and my heart is breaking with worry and guilt. But on the tape, I look fine, sing fine, play fine. You can't tell what's going on inside me. I suppose that's a good thing.

At 4:40, before the song is over, I turn to Frank and ask him to talk for 30 seconds so I can run off stage and check it out. I drop my bass and scurry off to see about Jim. By that time, Dr. Matt is in motion, Jim has shown that he can walk on the leg, and I'm a little bit calmer. Frank is wonderful, chatting happily with the crowd about anything and everything. I'm back on stage a few seconds after that and the show must go on.

Now that it's over, a few words of heart-felt thanks.

Now that it's over and the gig still went well, now that we know that Jim's leg is not broken and he didn't need stitches or an ambulance ride or a tetanus shot, now that we got that Berkeley Springs crowd to dance a little in the 99 degree heat, now is the time for me to express my gratitude to the folks who were so fabulous.

Thanks to my fellow band members, Keith Dill and Jamie Leonard, and especially to Frank Nanna, for holding it together and covering for me while I freaked out inside. I definitely lost my mojo that day and these guys made it all fine with their amazing musical skills and supportive attitudes. Frank's banter while I ran off stage is just another example of what a great entertainer and improvisor he is. I am so lucky to be playing with you all.

Thanks to my friend Kat Rack, who was wearing a MOMS ROCK piece of flair, for stepping in to quietly fill in the mama role. You rock, indeed my friend. I don't think you had to do much, but seeing you there and knowing that you had your eye and your love on things is so greatly appreciated.

Thanks to the Morgan Arts Council for their support, in particular to Dr. Matt Hahn for answering "yes" to "Is there a doctor in the house?"

And thanks to all the kind folks who came out to the gig. We had so much fun and you guys make our work all play. You rock our worlds and we love you like nothing else. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Hope to see you again, maybe next year.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Flying in a BGV Formation - I love harmony vocals!

This blog post is for all of you who love singing backup vocal, which we in the biz call BGV for BackGround Vocals.

I love singing with you guys. We fit together in a tightly controlled and yet totally organic formation, like a flock of geese flying in a V. Our lead vocalist goes up, we go up. Our lead vocalist goes down, we go down. Our lead vocalist crescendos (that's fancy music talk for getting louder), we crescendo. Our lead vocalist decrescendos, we back off slightly, too, staying just a hair behind so that the lead is still out in front, in the point position of the V formation. It's magic and yet it's reproducible, both an art and a science.

So let's teach the others how to fly along with us. Feel free to add comments if I miss anything. I'd love to grow our numbers because well-sung harmonies are so rare and so wonderful.

Flying in your zone, it's like soccer or basketball

So if you don't like the flying geese analogy, let's look at the zone analogy.

In soccer and basketball, each player has a zone. You get in your zone and you stay in your zone. If you go into another player's zone two bad things happen: nobody is now in your zone (say, right forward) and your team now has 2 players in another zone.

In singing harmony, finding and staying in your zone is also important. For example, if your job is to sing just a little higher than the melody or lead (we call this position the "tenor" position) then you should find your position and stay there. Don't venture lower, either into the melody/lead position or farther down into the "baritone" position. Don't venture higher, up into the "high baritone" position a full 5th above the melody. There are already players in those positions, so you'll color that position too darkly and worse, nobody is singing tenor now.

Find your zone. Embrace your zone. We need you there. We sound full and warm with all of us in our zones.

Flying slightly behind the leader

This concept is easy to explain. We need the melody to be prominent, easy to pick out and recognize. So we BGVs stay just a little behind, both in volume and in timing.

As far as volume goes, much of this is up to our sound techs. Pray for them, that God will guide their fingers and open their ears. I mean, we gotta all hear each other or this thing doesn't work. So we all need to be strong in the monitors, if we're going electric. And never underestimate the power of a good compressor to balance and shape the vocals. If we're going acoustic, we need to stand close together, so everyone is within earshot, even if the banjo is banjo-loud.

Now timing is an art, almost a psychic connection. We all need to make our attacks (fancy musical term that means how we start the note) and decays in formation. Us BGVs need to be just a nanosecond behind the lead on the attack, and just a smidgen ahead in the decay. This way, the melody/lead is the first and last thing heard in the vocal blend. This letting go of the note in submission to the leader's lead is hard for us diva types. We love to embrace that note and hold it for all it's worth. Resist this impulse, it's of the devil.

Flying with the leader

Here's the last little instruction: follow the leader. If the leader goes up a small interval (fancy musical term for the number of pitches between notes in a passage), then we go up a small interval, staying within the chord and holding our positions. If the leader goes up a large interval, then we also go up a large interval, not a small one, not holding the same note we just embraced.

When the leader makes a big leap, you need to make a big leap, too. If you don't make an equally big leap, you'll be doubling somebody else's part, either your other BGV team mate, or the melody, making that part too dark and leaving a big hole where your part should be in the blend. So make that leap. Whee, it's musical bungee fun!

Now, let me take just a moment to rant about counter-melody. Don't do it. Don't even think about it. Counter-melody is similar to harmony because it's something that fits in the chord and is not the melody. But it's not harmony. Counter-melody draws attention to itself. It says "Hey, I'm singing over here. Look at me!" and draws attention away from the melody, messing up the nice warm blend of a tightly flying harmony. If you want to sing out front, sing the melody role for goodness sake. Then you can be the goose out front for all the world to see and admire. I hope I've made my point. Counter-melody, like refusing to decay in time, is of the devil.

Harmony Evangelism

So there you have it. My small bit of musical evangelism. Singing harmony is for anybody who can sing. It's simple but it's not easy. But you can do it. I believe in you.

Please join us. We'd love to sing with you!