The Chronicles of Marla Callahan, Teacher – Part 2

Shirley, Marla’s supervisor, was quite pleasant when she welcomed Marla into the office for “a little conference,” she said. It was never a good thing to have the “boss” call you in for a one-on-one!

Marla wondered which of the spoiled little brats had ratted on her. She could just imagine Shirley saying, “I didn’t make the rules! I’m just following the syllabus distributed in the school’s registration manual!Marla imagined herself replying, “In that case, change the requirements to read, ‘Effective contingent upon the students’ desire to follow through,’ unless the catalogue’s not going to have any legitimacy.”

“Hi, Shirley,” said Marla. “What can I do for you?”

“Hi, Marla,” said Shirley. “Hope you’re doing fine! I wanted to mention to you a currently un-official complaint lodged by one of your Private Instruction Students. Like I said, it’s not official, but the student just wanted to make me aware of your actions in her lessons. She said you spend a lot of time talking about yourself and your career and all the songs you know and all the stars you’ve sung with. She says every lesson she comes to is another session reminding her of your resumé. She said you make her feel like she will never get anywhere or be successful at anything, because you seem to have ‘done it all!’”

“I wonder, Shirley, is this one of the students who brings in their assignment? Did they mention that they didn’t get to sing their assigned songs? Or did they say I was talking about my experiences since they had not brought in their assigned songs to sing to me!”

Marla did have an anecdotal style, especially when the student came in with no music, sat in the chair next to Marla’s desk, and didn’t have any of the “stuff” she’d given them to work on in their previous lesson in their bag. Perhaps it was unfair, but Marla knew her career experiences were substantially more interesting that anything these young people could dream of to talk about, so the only other option was to allow them to talk about their boyfriends or girlfriends or enemies or bands they liked to “stalk” on the internet. When she talked about her actual experiences on the road, sessions and the artists she’d sung backup for, the tour life she’d led, the things she’d learned as she’d packed and unpacked over the years, Marla tried to stay positive and joyful about her career, always finding the most hilarious or sarcastically humorous way to narrate her stories. And there was definitely no shortage of stories!

I oughta write a book, Marla often thought. At least a written account of her experiences would be a guide for a novice singer to compare notes. Then she could cash in on her autobiographical saga by assigning passages to be read and discussed in the next class period. That was how the instructors used to do it, Marla remembered, only they were called teachers when she was in school. They were actually hired to teach back then, instead of babysit. That’s what it seemed the occupation had evolved to, a baby-sitting job, watching young people grow up and decide what they wanted to do with their lives and careers. Nice, except that this was college, and Marla had always thought that college was for developing and training for the career that had already been chosen, not an incubator for waking up the minds of the brain-dead.

She was always thinking, “Come on, you people! Don’t you have any idea what you want your life to look like? By the time I was your age, I had already won my fourth Grammy in my mind! Of course, I didn’t have a clue how to get it, but I at least knew I wanted to win them!”

It seemed these young people didn’t have any idea what kind of music they wanted to sing, let alone what paths to take to get to the Grammys’ stage and accept the highly-revered sculpture. They just wanted to sit at the piano slumped over, play those same three chords over and over, riff and run, then go to the “caf” and hang out, happy to be back with their friends again, in the company of fellow disciples of dereliction. Somehow, and often when she thought of standards and all the melodies she knew, she longed to compose her own anthem of laziness, call it, “I Do Nothin’, and I Do It Good!” She’d only have two notes, ti and doe; that would be all the singer would have to memorize, to make learning and singing the song as easy as possible.

Now here was another one who was only interested in herself and didn’t want any input from the instructor, just wanted to arrive and be praised for doing nothing and then leave and return to the world of “Me.” Seemed she hadn’t gotten to talk about her boyfriend or the fabulous time she’d had in New York city the previous week. But no music had been memorized and no choices had been made of selections she was going to sing in her final proficiency examination. The thirty-minute lesson that her folks had paid so much for her to blow off was essentially only important in the registration process; as in, “I got Marla Callahan!”

Marla was so unmoved by the hype. She knew that the moment she told the student, “Come in,” he or she would be recording everything she said, soaking in all her wisdom like a sponge, totally expecting the marvelous miracle of her wisdom to fall on them like alpine honey. Yeah, but if you don’t believe in yourself without me, how are you going to make it? thought Marla. What’s your four-year plan, your career goal, your personal destiny? How are you going to take what I say to you and in ten years still be interested in being a professional musician? She had asked this so many times to a myriad of students, some of whom now would “hit her up on Facebook” and thank her for the “heads-up.”

“I learned everything I am, I do, I teach from you, Mothah!” She’d read it just the other day. Luanna, her student organizer back in the day when Marla had been a rooky on the PROTEAM, the group of faculty who helped to put on all the semi-professional shows at the school, had written her to play a vocal production idea she’d sung all the tracks to for a new artist she was producing. It was actually incredible, and Marla heard traces of her own extensive career as a backup arranger coming through as she listened to this sweet intoxicating arrangement.

Luanna had written, “I learned it all from you, Mothah!”

Marla was proud to say the least. But more than just proud, she knew her griot style of teaching, word-of-mouth, experientially, credibly, was fading, and that her steadfast commitment to this form of spreading of the musical “gospel” had to continue through her students. The ones who listened anyway. Marla knew without a doubt that even a student like Arianne would write to her one day with the request she’d once had for Mrs. Jörgenson: “Tell me, what was that you said about lower-body support?”

Marla would have the pleasure of repeating it again for the millionth time to Arianne one day, if instinct served her, just as Mrs Jörgenson had to Marla! Lives and priorities changed, but physiology and pedagogy did not. Ever.


© Donna McElroy. All rights reserved.

(picture courtesy


The Chronicles of Marla Callahan, Teacher – Part 1

Marla glanced at the clock as Arianne knocked and waltzed in.

“Hi, Ms. Callahan! Sorry I’m a li’l late, I was finishing up at the Caf!”

It was ten after. Marla wondered, just out of curiosity, what Arianne would have had to give up in the session with her lunch mates to arrive on time for her lesson. She wondered if closing out her conversation and arriving on time ever occurred to her precocious student. This was habitual, Marla speculated; a life style. It was a culture. All the students did it, she thought, to avoid being labeled “complicit” to the rules of the institution. It was “the thing”!

“Can you warm me up?” It was 3:30 in the afternoon.

“Do you have any ensembles or singing classes earlier in the day, Arianne? Can we sing some of the assigned materials I gave you last week? You don’t really think coming to class ten minutes late allows you to warm up, do you? Plug in your cell phone and let’s get started… Uh, you did bring something to sing for me, didn’t you?”

“Uhhhh, no, Ma’am, I was wondering if you could warm me up ‘cause I have a gig at 6:30 in Harbourstown. Actually, I have to leave a little early so I can get to the train in time!”

“So you haven’t sung today, you just woke up, and you came to me late to get you started, huh? Hmmm… And leaving early means you’ll do a couple of hums, a scale, sing through the chorus/belt part, and then, ‘see ya’!?”

“Uh, I guess so…. Do we have to do the hums and the scales?”

Let’s not get too deep here; money is not so important to many people anymore. The fact that your folks pay twelve thousand dollars for your voice lessons out of the thirty-eight-thousand- dollar full tuition, has no bearing on your value system. It’s just one more thing they got for you to “entertain” you through your adolescence. It’s merely a technicality, morphing from meme to post to video to flirtation, never landing on any one thing or idea that warrants your full attention, or, heaven forbid, commitment. It is also not a facet exclusively of affluence, the total unconsciousness to cost – value – expense. Youth is inherently a state of unawareness of the value of life. Regardless of economic status though, the consciousness to cost is lost on some youth. It was interesting to Marla that the students who did not come from a more economically enriched background were preoccupied with cost only from the position of want and pining; the other end of the economic arc was a world of total disregard for what it cost the parents, with a simultaneous preoccupation with display of their access to everyone who cared enough to pay attention. Either way, it spelled doom for the youth of the day whom Marla felt were committed to a new term Marla had made up, “Obliviosity”!

Marla kept remembering the line her voice teacher used to say to her.

“You will have students like yourself one of these days!”

She remembered she used to laugh and say,

“Oh, no, Mrs. Jörgenson, I am going to be a singer! I will never have to settle for teaching, I’m gonna be on the road!”


These days in the latter part of her teaching career, when it felt as if she could easily assume no one heard her anymore, Marla had a strangely calm inner peace about the state of education in her school system. Maybe the fact was that the same hopelessness had come over her own elders in dealing with her and her contemporaries. Maybe it was generational. Maybe it was the human state of being. It certainly seemed that Mrs. Jörgenson hadn’t been so lazy, so lacking in discipline, commitment to learning as Marla remembered herself as being. She had been a highly respected performer and eventual mentor in the field of classical pedagogy. Marla had never had even a hint of self-indulgence or laziness when she went to Mrs. Jörgenson’s office half hung over twice a week for five whole semesters. (It would have been six, but Marla painfully that she had indeed flunked one semester when poor Mrs. Jörgenson had had enough. Art and pictures from performances in La Scala, the Met, and all the roles in which she had been so glamorous covered the walls of her studio from ceiling to floor! Marla had been awed but not inspired in viewing these pieces hanging in her voice teacher’s office. She knew she’d never live like that! It was too much work! She thought to herself…So one of the semesters, her spring semester junior year she’d done absolutely nothing! And paid for it with a grade of “F”!

“You have students just as lazy and un-focused as you were, and they will have students like them! Get over it and listen to this girl’s song so she can get out of your office!”, she hrrrumphed.

Marla’s social life had conflicted with her need to get out of college and ease her own parents’ financial strife. Now she recalled that conflict over and over every time Arianne and a few other students were late or absent. Some never even showed up for class after the first meeting. This was a half-assed style of student-hood she’d forgotten. Blow it off, and if you do go, just hit the joint a couple times before you leave so you can stay chill while she’s raking you over the coals about being unprepared. It’s just a fifty-minute lesson! You can make it! Go in fifteen minutes late and lie and say you have a gig and have to leave early. Then come back to the room and finish the roach, take a well-deserved nap and wake up in time for the next class where you have to do the same thing. Then go to dinner, hang with the other loafers, spend the evening playing spades, drinking, getting wasted, and wake up the next morning to do it all again. Listen to some Gil Scott-Heron, Last Poets, glance over at your Brahms book, you know, so you’ll be able to say you “studied”.

“Boy, if my students could hear what I’m thinking! They’d be blown away! They think we have no past, no misspent youth, no way to relate to their immature dalliances. Pitiful little buggers!”, she chuckled to herself.

Marla’d had no sense of how to structure her life, especially not financially. The concept of savings, investment, dividends, the language of an organized monetary scheme were other people’s luxuries. The Callahans didn’t have that advantage with all the needs of six children spanning nineteen years. Marla was your typical middle child, a clown, a disruptor, conscious of the stress their parents were undergoing to keep the ship afloat, but still immature enough to long for and resent not having the things she saw other kids having. Any other kids! The condition of Want was one Marla had taken most of her life, well into her thirties, to heal from, to grow out of. It was a lesson she had been fortunate enough to be cured from in the wake of all the opportunities she’d been blessed with. In the midst of interaction with people who needed no money, Marla had been smart and wise enough to sense the true nature of the hypnotic effect of perceptions of wealth. All her adult life (if there ever was such a thing, she’d muse)she had seen time and time again couples who, for all the things they could afford, were bankrupt of compassion for anyone, even each other! The money just distracted, substituted for richness. Wealth was the consolation prize for lack of wisdom. Marla realized more and more that each soul was its own counselor. She realized that were she going to achieve this structure she needed so desperately, it was all up to her, that family couldn’t save, assist, retrieve, console, or care. It was all up to her. 

“I’m so glad I know who I am and whose I am!”

Up and coming, bright and shining, THE most promising, a phenomenal talent, a natural, prodigy, old soul, the next…

She’d heard it all, and Marla wasn’t having any of it. She’d grown up in a family of pragmatists and immediate suppliers. You do what you gotta do to make it to the next phase, then you push on, doing what you gotta do to get beyond that. Never look too far ahead and get your priorities twisted. And on the way, try to be as kind as possible to folks, bearing in mind that, on the way down, these same folks will be either the pokes in your ass or your landing pad. Steady and even keel was the best route to ultimate glory. No explosive bursts, no flashes in any pans.

As she kept in league with the class of recalcitrant fellow students who would become her life-long friends, Marla was, of course, unmindful of the retrospective regrets she’s endure, like the Arianne’s she faced every semester. In the the beginning days, however, there were only one, maybe two per semester. Now it seems the week was totally filled with the slough of unadulterated disinterest in being told anything other than what was already known.

“What the heck am I here for?”

Marla would sit and listen to the “self-accompanined” singer-song writer playing his new song he was going to in a few hours to record. She was also not so enthusiastically looking forward to the final mix, done on some recording “software”.

Funny, she would often say to herself, this doesn’t sound like the warm analogue live music like the stuff we listened to growing up. These kids really don’t know what their missing, nnh, nnh, nnh.

“Did you just want five bars in that phrase? The usually is four or maybe eight bars in a phrase, I’m just saying…”

“How about a new section of different chord progressions or a new melody over those ones you’re playing over and over?… Oh, it’s the groove, yes…”

Well, it’s certainly burning a groove into my brain! The thought that repetition is the style now was not consolation for the fact that the melody and lyrics didn’t change either.

“We’ve been working on a mixed range when you’ve come to class. Why is this melody sitting in your lower range? Could you sing the chorus an octave up? Could you do anything to give the “groove”, as you call it, a little more interesting dimension?”

In Marla’s day, back in high school, it was called “make-out music”. The lick was hit and it stayed there for forty-five minutes or so, folks a-grinding and whispering lustily into each other’s ears. Hell, Arianne might be the product of such a grinding session at one of those parties!

“That would explain it,” Marla mumbled to herself, on the verge of chuckling.

The nebulous but not nefarious approach to learning was not Marla’s concern these days as she was getting older. Marla was un consciously growing increasingly paranoid about her well-being and peace of mind, her safety in the days ahead as she got older. She existed of late in a state of unacknowledged panic, constantly thinking she should take Krav Magah lessons, buy a gun, take ammunitions instruction, collect AK-47’s as a hobby, go back to school and major in thermos-nuclear annihilation or something constructive like that. She had nightmares of owning a weapon and having it used on her. She had always relied on her sense of humor and a positive outlook, both fading as she interfaced with fewer and fewer people who gave a damn.

Oh, there was no shortage of passion. Passion abounded. The one thing Marla knew would never be lost in this human population was passion. She was constantly feeling the pressure to re-focus this passion in herself first. Then the ripple effect would radiate from her living example and touch everyone around her.

“If I can show young people that there’s no sacrifice in giving up a little time, attention, assistance to another,” Marla thought, “compassion has a chance at least to radiate to a few folks!”

The cell phone rang, vibrating on the desk and flashing the number of her band member, Dejuan.

“Yes, Dejuan, wassup?!”

“Did you talk to Cesarrrr?” asked Dejuan, slightly irritated.

Dejuan, who was the son of a Colombian father and an African-American mother, could not control his rolling “r”! He laughed at this inability to eliminate this betrayal of his Latin genealogy, but really found there was no essential need to work on it that hard, though fellow band members and his girlfriend, Xu, from the Bronx, perennially awaited his soliloquies to jeer and snicker at his residual Hispanic identity.

“I have not… Wassup?!”

“He’s in the hospital! He didn’t call you? He’s probably embarrrrrassed…”

“What the…! No, he has not called nor has anyone else! Please tell me it’s not life-threatening!”, Marla pleaded.

No, Cesar was in the hospital with his daughter who had swallowed his key fob for his garage door.

“Damn, this guy gets all the breaks”, Marla thought sarcasticly.

“Well, I’ll be finished here at school in about an hour… I have one more student, and some grades to turn in, then I’ll be headed over to rehearsal. We can do without Cesar for this rehearsal if we have to. I’m just glad he’s not laid up indefinitely like the last time, remember?”

The previous adventure with Cesar had been fraught with a lot of ripping and running and bailing out and smoothing over and explaining and, oh, the usual. The guys in the band said often it wouldn’t be Cesar if there weren’t some “extra”. That’s what Bob called it. “Extra”. As in, not just a bit of, but a lot of tumult!

“Gotta go now, here’s my last student!”, Marla whispered breathily as Brandon Wilson knocked and came in bright and a little on the hysterical side. Brandon was always on the verge of screaming, it seemed to Marla, but that’s what made him exciting to teach. To keep up with, to find challenges for. This kid was the real deal. He was curious, people-oriented, knew the aspects of the different styles he sang in, got straight “A’s” on all his proficiencies, was in a local band, played in several ensemble projects, had a cd being released soon… Marla wondered how he did it.

“Hey, Ms. Callahan! I produced my track of the accompaniment to my proficiency mats! I wanted you to listen to it all today so I can make adjustments according to your observations and have this music all finished when finals week comes up. So I won’t be caught off guard, you know? I got too much on my plate for any slip-ups, and I gotta leave right after my proficiency and fly to Miami for a club gig with my cover band! We’ve been getting a lot of out-of-town gigs, and the manager gave me a raise!”

Marla was so impressed, slightly on the verge of being star-struck. This was the kind of student that kept her putting up with the Ariannes on her roster. One of these every two or three semesters was worth the wait.

“To whom much is given, much is required…”, she sighed, thinking she’d later find that verse in the Bible just to get an idea of the inspiration and context of its utterance.

Mama would know exactly the book, chapter, verse, story, context, spiritual lesson, corroborating hymn, the works!” Marla missed her mother desperately! To invite her mother’s spirit into the room, she said to Brandon,

“If my Mom were still living, I’d call her right now so she could hear you sing that…it was one of her favorites and the last hymn I learned from her.”

“My Grandmother said she hadn’t heard that song since she was a little girl! She started singing it for me when I told her the title!! Wow, Ms. Callahan, you sure do know a lot of songs!” Brandon was grateful for a reason, he wondered why. Marla knew his understanding was only hampered by his youth.

Marla reminisced with melancholy about the afternoon the old family friend, Jonnie, had knocked on the front door, and Marla had curiously risen to answer it. Mama had arranged the mirror on the wall opposite the front door to reflect the occupants on the front porch. She often would say she didn’t have time or energy to be running to that door whenever somebody knocked.

“Jonnie!!!?”, Mama screamed with delight!

She saw immediately, even with her cataracts, that it was Jonnie, and her voice got lighter and playful! Marla, who didn’t remember who this old lady was, knew she must have been close to the family, as they hugged, giggled, ran the recent histories of all family members, who’s passed on, who was in the rest home, who was coming out of intensive care tomorrow, etc. Then they settled in talking about the church and the old people, their upbringing, the old songs… The got to singing and old one Marla’d never heard before; “I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked, in days of long ago, …”, Mama singing bass, Jonnie singing broken soprano. Marla remembered rushing to find a hymnal to sing the tenor part. It was the last time she’d heard her mother sing. So these days, whenever she had a student curious about the “old songs”, Marla always went to this song and assigned it, or one like it that she’d grown up hearing the “Senior Choir” warble in her childhood.

Brandon left and Marla packed up her things to go to rehearsal, waxing nostalgic. In traffic she sang some of the hymns, hummed some Gershwin, some Ellington, a little Kern. She thanked her mentors for planting the excellent seeds and prayed God enrichened her “soil”, kept her hungry to learn.


© Donna McElroy. All rights reserved.

(picture courtesy






by Donna McElroy


First of all, organization was never one of Zella’s greatest features

She never stopped to think; she was a hurry-scurry creature

Referring to her lack of order as a sense of style

She used to say, “I never file, I always stack and pile!”

Well, guess you know what happened when she plugged in the fan

Stuff went flying everywhere, creating the mess that stuff can

The choice was clear; it stared at her directly in the face

She either had to clean this up of bear her own disgrace

For years she’d looked at cards and letters collecting dust,

A-waiting, for Zella to just get it done and quit procrastinating

“Today”, she’d say, “I’ll take this pile and put it over here!

Been sittin in this corner now for goin on two years…

Oh, there’s that number I needed back when we planned our trip!

And here’s my scarf all wadded up! And here’s my black half-slip!!

I must call Mika later and tell her that I found

That card she sent to me that time when I was feeling down.”

Zella couldn’t remember if she’d called Mika back;

“We haven’t talked in forever! I really have lost track!”

Now, Zella lived so long in such dishevelment and chaos,

We’d all become accustomed to whenever she’d delay us

We’d sit out in the taxi and watch the meter run

And be the last at everything, arriving ALL undone!

So we sat her down, and asked her

what was going through her mind

She said, “I don’t know what you mean!

You know it’s just my sign!”

We said, “What sign? HELP WANTED?

‘Cause, Girl, you are a mess!

We think you should be filing more

And piling a little less!

Look here, you can’t keep sliding in by the seat of your pants,

And we won’t play the victims of this stylish circumstance!”

Zee knew this was no ordinary meeting of her pack

This was that famous straw that broke the dromedary’s back

“Shape up, Ship out, sink or swim!”

She knew they meant no malice

You really could get started in this funky junky palace

They told her to prioritize, to plan, to persevere

They told her lots of painful things she didn’t want to hear

Sybil told he, “Pace yourself-don’t try to do it all,

Just take it one room at a time, and try not to drop the ball!”

Now Zella’s head was swimming with the passion of their pleading

So she made up her mind to change, and blessed their interceding

She took a legal pad, a fine-point pen, turned of the TV

And sank into her deepest chair. She was concerned, believe me

The more she tried to see beyond the scope of her demise

The more depressed she got, and after several weary sighs,

She squared her back and said,

“Things may not look so great right now,

But seeing is believing… I’ll make a change somehow

You’ll see! You come back in a month; I’ll have you all for dinner

Some shrimp, champagne and crumpets,

You’ll see, I’ll be a winner!”

She heard again what Sybil’d said, “Remember what I told you-

One project at a time-you’ve got a lot of change to go through!

So Zella took the plans for her soiree to a pro

Which left her time to straighten up her old domestic foe

And thinking of the most enjoyable thoughts that she could think of

The task began, and pretty soon she’d come right to the brink of

The strangest new sensation she’d never felt before

She’d swept and dusted, mopped up everything from door to door

A puzzling new feeling, so different, not a bad one

Except that in poor Zella’s cluttered life she’d never had one

If I could keep this place a little neater all the time,

I wouldn’t have to spend my hours digging through such grime!

When all the unimportant stuff was cleared and left for hauling

A wiped off mirror faced; she said, “Girl, you missed your calling!

In no time you have finished something that for years you dreaded,

And now you see with a new clear path

Exactly where you’re headed!”

So Zella learned her lesson, and as she disbursed the ale

To all her friends she made a toast

Which turned them all quite pale

“It seems”, she said, eyes gleaming,

“My whirlwind days are through,

And I owe the well-kempt woman I’ve become to friends like you!

To think, I mighta gone on for years with piles a-heaping

And never known, with all your help, the joy of good housekeeping!

Here, Here!!”


© 1984 Donna McElroy. All rights reserved.

Print Songbook Arrives July 14, 2017!

Our new songbook comes out in print on July 14! From the Foreword: “Back in the early ’90’s, when my musical direction felt like a riddle to me, I met Lori Mechem and her wonderful husband and musical partner, Roger Spencer. We began swapping ideas and writing together and soon grew to know and love each other. Since those early days, we’ve felt the need to chronicle our diary of songwriting – and, finally, here it is. I hope you truly enjoy our stories of the need for – and delight in – love!” –Donna McElroy

The Cream of the Nashville Background Singing Crop

imgallery-donna2Early in our careers in Nashville, Vicki Hampton and I were fortunate to sing a lot of backup sessions with Lea Jane Berinati, a numbers chart-writing, AFTRA-contracting DYNAMO! She would come in maybe an hour before the rest of us and write “charts” on notebook paper, assigning parts to us in the number system. She would always want to be on the bottom part, and Vicki and I would fight over which of us would take the top part. Some of the conflict was because, not having warmed up, the range of the notes would initially intimidate us. Most of the time we both just liked to sing that inner harmony, the middle note, that would hold the other parts fast and require the top singer to be on point and the bottom singer to keep great intonation, which Lea Jane definitely did.

There were others singers like the Cherry Sisters, whom I would sometimes sub for if one of them were double-booked. These women were the cream of the Nashville background-singing crop. Also, I cannot forget Yvonne Hodges, who always took the top part and was  on point about absolutely everything! She was punctual, charming, and fast to learn and memorize. She was also a fellow Fiskite, a classically trained soprano, and an inspiration; Yvonne showed me that I could use my classical training to sing in any genre I chose! These are a few of the great singers who got me to start seriously considering my own professional singing and musicianship.

Vicki and I were part of many singing groups in church and in school all our lives. Those early years of lots of musical experiences helped to develop lots of versatility, and gave us the ability to sing any part with any combination of singers! The prospect of continuing with this really fun activity as a job for life was not much more than big dreams of fame, fortune, and success in the minds of two young Kentucky girls. Little did we know, the dreams would become reality, and one day we’d be seasoned professional vocalists in the entertainment industry, touring, session singing, teaching, arranging, writing, being sought for our talent – yes, divas!

The Universe of Sound – Or How Perfect Pitch and the Numbers System Got Married and Had a Baby Called Solfege

imgallery-kingsteachingIn my days teaching at Berklee, being part of the famous YOTEAM, I irritated great arrangers. In the midst of the orchestra/big band rehearsal, I would hear a note played by an instrument in the mix of the performance of some chart and say to the player, “You should have an Ab on that chord, not A!” In the denseness of the chart, I would hear that one note.

Interestingly though, I would always have to ask what “Key” we were in. (Which is a whole ‘nother essay, and we ain’t got time!) If I knew what key the chart was in, I could go directly to that chord/note in my mind, identify it, and tell the player what to replace it with. It was a not-so-slight irritation to my co-workers, both student and faculty, but they grew to realize that I was right whenever I heard something “off” and decided I had better be heeded. It was through this ear training skill that I inadvertently also learned how to spell out chords.

I found that it was not enough just to know the note to correct. The note doesn’t sit there by itself. It has a role, or membership, or position in the harmonic structure of the song, therefore it has to be correctly spelled out in the harmonic arrangement of the chart. Sometimes I would say to the horn player, “that note is a G not G#.” Then my colleague Ken would spell the chord out for the player to reiterate the quality of the chord and, therefore, the importance of that note’s membership in it. Through listening to Ken and Tom and Richard and Winston and Alonzo and all the other faculty and student arrangers speak in the language of the harmonist, the mind of the arranger, I was able over the years to merge two concepts: the horizontality of the melody and the verticality of the chords written to compliment, even explain or enhance, the nature of the melody.

I have always hated graphs and charts, so when I see teachers at the blackboard “analyzing” the harmonic structures of exercises or assigning certain harmonic progressions to meet a theoretical format, my mind goes to another planet and has a margarita. Then a new amazing artist comes along – still today, and just like Bird or Waller – to toss out that theoretical bung and give us a new innovative concept of how to voice or express or utilize the same twelve half steps!

Sometimes people think I have perfect pitch, and I get a kick out of that. What I have, however, is a kind of relative pitch. I may or may not be able to tell exactly what a tone is, but once I know what it is, I can tell you anything else about it, i.e., its membership in the chord being played, or the interval between it and the note before and after it, and its number or solfege name, assuming there is a tonic reference implied in the piece.

So how I think about a song and its performances, whether live or recorded, has evolved to be a multi-dimensional holographic picture of it as a cosmic deposit in the universe of sound. Hey! That’s kinda Herbie Hancock-y! I gotta remember that! A multi-dimensional holographic picture. A cosmic deposit in the universe of sound. That’s kinda cool!