Marla Callahan: Trash or Treasure?

Miss Marla was frantic. It had to be in her possession, but she had no clue where to even begin looking. In the gig folders? Or the curriculum/ensemble books? Or had she left it in one of her briefcases? In moments like these, Marla felt totally justified in being a pack rat and never, ever throwing anything away! She felt there was no argument that could justify tossing anything, especially if that item might one day be important in an entirely different context.

Now the formidably anticipated day had come; Marla didn’t know whether to be proud of her astute prediction or crushed by the shameful frustration that, after so many years, she’d not found an even marginally sufficient organization style that accommodated the chronicling and locating of her important ideas, documents, songs, and writings! Even when she’d attempted to put her life in order, she’d file something and then forget where she’d put it! Here she was again in her fourth walk-through of the third bedroom full of boxes, not filed but piled.

You had a beautiful poem you wrote once, Ms. Thing, and it kept you inspired to stay organized for many years! What the hell???

Marla remembered her housekeeping parable, “Zella’s Housecleaning,” all the time but couldn’t remember where she’d even stored that! Now she was looking for her arrangement of a song she’d written thirty years ago that fit the gig she had coming up so perfectly! She’d even recorded it in one of her early gigs. However, she couldn’t find the cassette tape it was recorded on. Even if she found the cassette, where could she find a tape player anymore to play the darn thing on?

“Technology, my ass!” murmured Marla in her “office” as she adjusted her readers to decipher the scribbled titles on the cases, irritated that she didn’t have enough light in this room to do anything even remotely pertaining to finding something important.

“Why, I can’t even see anything in this room!!” she exclaimed.

This was one of your favorite songs to do live, and now you can’t even find the damned thing! Even when you find it, how’re you gonna listen to it? Where are you going to find a cassette player, for Chrissake!? You only remember the first line.

“Damn technology!” Marla growled.

She went to the piano and played the first few chords. She could remember the progressions and the form of the song, but the lyrics were deep in her memory, laughing at her, she felt.

“Hmmm, was it ‘Don’t Waste My Time!’? Hmmmmm…” she hummed bluesily.

She seemed to remember that the song was an edict slamming the “BS” that so many people engage in, procrastinating with their duties and responsibilities, going through whole days producing nothing, which Marla had always felt that most people did on the average. With eyes wide open and minds closed, most people were, in Marla’s assessment, inwardly, maybe even subconsciously, committed to mediocrity and sub-par performance packaged in excuses and empty rhetoric. The bar was always lower than was necessary for the best to excel. No one wanted to push hard, stretch, extend, gamble their essence on any idea or purpose, fearful of failure or of not receiving the credit commensurate with their effort.

See? This is how you get distracted! Going off on tangents and rambling until you forget what the hell you were thinking about in the first place! OH!

‘I Takes My Time’! That’s the title! Yeah! Ok, now I can really look for it! Maybe that’s why I couldn’t find it in the first place!”

Marla was slightly irritated that she thought she’d seen “I Takes My Time” in one of the folders a day or two before. ” Yes, actually she had been looking, unconsciously maybe, for a few weeks! There’d be a rushed situation in the office, everyone stressing and rip-roaring around to get a task done, and Marla would start humming this tune and finally get home to go through her old music to see what was in the literal piles of charts. There were stacks of folders of charts in every room though. She’d never invested in a file cabinet, though there was one in her office at the school, also in real need of order but a bit better. At least Marla could lock the damn thing and only open it when she was absolutely sure of where she’d put something. “Filed” was not exactly what she called it, though there were some pieces which were alphabetized. Mostly she resisted the label of “hoarder” and made the best of her memory and the instinct she had for remembering where a piece was the last time she’d used it. Well, “I Takes My time” was not going to whistle from the stack of papers it was hiding in, so Marla resignedly decided to put a little thought into the last known sighting of the campy ditty.

Maybe if you try to think of what you were experiencing when the song came to you. It was in the days of working with Chris in the transition from the Lori and Roger collaboration. You were stressed one day, thinking about an upcoming gig that was wigging you out ‘cause you didn’t think you’d learned the songs well enough. Damn! Seems you’d have been cured of that after all these years! But the stress of thinking how down-to-the-wire this gig was, had incited you to sit down and write the lyric.

“Don’t go rushing me through my chores! Ain’t no use in scaramooshing through my day…duh,duh,duh,duh, I Takes My Time…. “

Then the bridge went:

“Now you can wear your nerves right down to a frazzle, looking for the next hoop to jump through,

But how you gonna make a little razzle-dazzle, when all you are is stressed and waitin’, anxiously anticipatin’?…”

That last line’s not exactly right, but it’s a start at least!

As Marla walked into the living room to get her cell phone recharger, she spied a distracting piece of paper out of the corner of her eye. Sticking out of a huge dusty folder of notes, grades, and event programs from over the twenty or so years she’d been at the institution was the yellow-colored legal pad she’d used to write the lyrics to the song.

“Oh, my GOD!” Marla shouted, delighted. She then remembered the last time she’d sung the number. For her first performance at the school, she’d pulled this song out to sing for the introductory department mini-concert. She’d used “I Takes My Time” to telegraph to her new colleagues that she wasn’t one to be peer-pressured or stressed into doing anything! It was funny and yet just honest and candid enough that they ought to get the message, she’d thought.

“And it seemed to have worked over the years!” Marla mused, chuckling.

With a sigh of relief, Marla, totally aware that her organizational skills were still pitifully in need of development, thought, “You can never, ever throw anything away, my dear. Who knows what could turn out not to be trash? Most things you’ve filed away are destined to be treasures if you live long enough. How ‘bout hiring someone to come over and assist you in at least alphabetizing your music!?”

Anyway, Marla, not a total hoarder – yet – was holding on to most things, whether trash or treasure!

—–

Copyright © Donna McElroy. All rights reserved.

Illustration courtesy www.pixabay.com

Proud Teacher List #1

Maddie, the young high school student who recently called to let me know she’d been selected to participate in the State competitions with a perfect score

Grace singing In the Garden after being away for years, and still sounding like she did the day she learned it

Heather sending the yearly Birthday greeting

Natalie on the Country Western circuit with her band AND finalist on the Voice

Tiffany starting her own family/arts school/record career, and still being a faithful hairdresser, mother, sister, friend

Jordan never being anything other than a friend and gentleman, talent-be-damned

Angela working it out! That belt and that head voice submitting to her will

Sabreen out on the road DELIVERING the TRUE DIVA WISDOM

Jessica transposing the singing to the cosmetic and skin care and still making it musical

Ben and his wife and baby making the real family experience

Daniele who auditioned in Italy, won a scholarship, blazed through the system, and is now in NYC KILLIN’ IT!!

Christina singing my original songs better than I do and taking her talent to its heights in Nashville while raising a gorgeous son

Annie, recording my song and starting an underground revolution of he own kind

Steve and Jack and Darryl allowing me to sing the demos of their songs, showing singers how it’s done

Lee and Susan, the former president of the academy reaching back and plucking up the essence of the Marla and Jaime’s spirits to spread their love of the music to the world

Mo who never lets a song live in her heart without singing it POWERFULLY

Vaughnette who only took a couple of “consultations,” then was “shooed” out of the nest, I mean, come onnnnnn

Kevin who was already the real deal, just needed to live and learn and do his thing, and is burgeoning on a Dynamite career

Michael who went home to lead and sing his way across the world and comes back to check in often

Maira sang for the POPE!!! That is ALL

Daisy who was finalist in the Voice China and had a BIG life right in front of me

Goapele who took my advice and got the hell out of the school!! She was wasting her career

Roni who was short on the campus but long on the extractions from my studio, and who now has a glorious career in her own country, Isreal, and is artist of the universe

All the beautiful groups of singers who made up Jubilee Spirit over the years

Just reminiscing, and this is just the first submission…

The Joy of the Solo Voice

I still get a funny look from people who are taken aback when I say I did a gig a cappella, by myself, with no other singers or instruments. I have to remind folks that the voice existed before all the other instruments entered into the psyche of man! We heard each other calling out, and it was “music to our ears”, and for thousands of years, man communicated everything by a growl or a coo or a scream or groan that conveyed everything necessary to deliver the message.

When I open my mouth, especially in this hi-tech era of karaoke, lip-sync, cover, I love to be able to stand flat-footed and sing in key, in any key, arrangement in mind, no chart needed, no dependence on any other player to enhance or aid me in the performance of this message.

When I was a child, I sang, even at 6 months, and was in tune. My first solo was at age six, “In the Garden”, standing in the pulpit of First Virginia Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, KY, too short to be seen over the lectern, but not too young to know I was special.

I always used to struggle with the look I got when I opened my mouth and just sang. The faces of people who don’t know me and have no connection with this lady standing before them, suddenly light up and soften with relief and joy. Relief that I haven’t wasted their time and been just another tone-deaf, un-musical and attention-seeking narcissist, making noise to get attention. Then the joy floods into their faces and they “color up”, getting that blush of happiness. Yes, I know I have this effect on people. I have the same effect on myself when I truly believe in the song I’m singing!

I remember being young and searching for that right sound, the lick that will be the show-stopper, the run that I can sing for ten bars and show ‘em ALL up! Or play a record in one spot for three hours straight, learning and perfecting the notes or inflection in a run, and making a practice of doing that with every artist I covered. This became the basis for my, for lack of a better word, versatility.

When I was learning how to sing, just as I was getting old enough to start knowing what I wanted to do in life and seeing I had this effect on people, The Sound of Music, starring Julie Andrews, was released and I went to see it at the Rialto Theater in downtown Louisville, KY.

Now, my home was a musical dream factory! In the kitchen, I could dream of being a revered and celebrated gospel singer listening my mother and other great spirit-filled vocalists like Mahalia and Tennessee Ernie Ford, George Beverly Shea, Edwin Hawkins, Andrea Crouch, the Barrett Sisters, Sarah Jordan Powell, Larnell Harris, all revered and cherished by my Mom.

Just ten feet away was my Dad, wearing his trusty headphones so as not to miss a note of Louis’ or Miles’ or Trane’s or Dizzy’s or Prez’s or Lady Day’s or Nancy’s or Mancini’s or Mitch Miller’s(HAH!) or any of the classic contemporary artists of the jazz or big band era. My parents never competed, but they always made it clear:

“When I’m listening to my music, don’t come in here with that mess!!”

And we didn’t if we knew what was good for us! We established our own listening format and territory:

Beverly rehearsing her aria in the bathroom, kitchen, or our little bedroom, or wherever she could hear herself, rehearsing “Misty” for her competition in the WHAS-TV Crusade for Children Contest, which she went on to win second place in, to accompany her scholarship to Centre College in Danville, KY, catapulting an academic career that still flourishes today;

Felix in his room listening to Procol Harum or Hendrix or Joplin or Iron Butterfly or The Byrds or some psychedelic band of the day, in that little room in the middle of our little house with the window open for “ventilation”;

Fred in the same room later in the day listening to a mixed fair from Motown to Miles, but mostly anything African American and declarative, from The Temptations to Curtis Mayfield to speeches of the Civil Rights leaders of the day, Martin Luther King, Adam Clayton Powell, or reciting his own poetry, speech of acceptance, or declaration of independence from the little bedroom reeking of his older brother’s psyche-rock forensics.

It was only natural then, that Donna Maria would be singing all kinds of songs, but mostly influenced by her mother’s sweet and reverent sound. The truest singing I listened to before all the other singing was my mother’s singing. All my current criteria for vocal exceptionalism is stemmed from the womb experience listening to my mother. Imo could SING y’all!

It would stand to reason that my attack on any song is not subtle or indirect. I wanna KNOW what the composer was saying to the audience, and who that audience is/was! In my own writing I follow that same m-o, writing a song with a specific listener-type in mind. Usually, admittedly, it is a listener who thinks like I think, but sometimes not. Sometimes I try to just be universally appealing. Funny, that doesn’t work as well for me. I’m not gonna lie, I can’t presume to speak for you; I sometimes find it difficult to even speak for myself, but I know when I have created the composition it will be pleasing to the ears of listeners, even if not relatable!

Whatever I sing I truly MUST believe in! If I believe it, I can sing it anywhere, anytime, any situation. I tell my students to choose songs they could sing a cappella if they had to. If you can’t hear the melody in your head, hear it with your inner ear, you don’t know it as intimately as you need to! I mean, suppose you’re on live broadcast and your monitor doesn’t work!!? Just sayin’…

When the song is on your heart, when you know that you know that you know it, when the folks you sing it to are emotionally in need of a SONG, not a “cover’ of someone’s recording, or a pyrotechnic demonstration of how many notes can be squeezed into one syllable, then you have to just let the song do some of the work, let the message breathe, let the lyrics live, and let your ear carry you through the performance. Isn’t it curious that there are some folks who will read ALL these criteria for the best a cappella power, and still get up and try to sing. These folks would probably sound bad with accompaniment, I suspect!

All this is my way of praising the person who can hear the CONCEPT of key, interval, melody, range, and can find said key taking into consideration all these other aspects of the song and its melody. Thinking of the countless YouTube posts of the National Anthem started in one key, and visiting many, many more keys before the rendition is complete! Sad, and nobody can have that three minutes back! Solo singing is not for the many, but the few. That’s why I love a cappella performances! Kudos to the singers who get out and do it! And if you sing alone, know that you, singing to anyone else, can move a whole population!

Sing it!

Not for the applause!

Sing it for the Joy of Solo Singing!

© 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!

How I Got My Life Back

imgallery-berklees60thanniversaryconceIn 1981 I drove off a cliff. For the next several weeks I was in recovery in a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. (Which I will not credit due to the treatment I received. Though I am grateful to be alive, it is not by the grace of any of these hospital employees, and if I were a vindictive soul, I would sue the hospital and the doctors and nurses who were not happy that a Black woman was in their midst, injured-angry-delirious from brain trauma and not easy to be kind to. But I digress . . .)

During that time I was lost and had no real concept of who I was until I was told I was a singer. Then when I heard myself sing – and I remember this moment – I was flooded with emotions and memories from my childhood that helped start the healing process in my brain. Even before I was born, I had listened in the womb to my mother’s beautiful voice and my family’s inimitable musical proclivity. It was my memory of being a musician and singer that propelled my recovery.

The effects of music on different regions of the brain was documented in a film I recently viewed with the students at the Global Jazz Institute sponsored by Berklee College and led/presented by Danilo Perez. The film featured Gabby Giffords, the U.S. Congresswoman shot in the head by that guy who was an angry cuss. (He won’t get his name in this article either.) In one segment of the film, a nurse tries to assist Gabby in saying the word “light,” but Gabby is unable to form the words in her throat. Then the nurse starts singing an old spiritual, “This Lil Light o’ Mine.” Gabby sings the song with the nurse with clarity of diction and no problem remembering how to form the words or sing the notes! I sat there in the mercifully lowered light of that room and wept, remembering how I got my life back singing simple songs that I had learned as a child and piecing my conscious mind back together. That film also added to the theory I have had all my life that the sound and the knowledge of it come first, then the method of expressing what that sound is.

I thank God in my recent years that I had no problem remembering those early days up to my adolescence. The smudge starts and my memories are obscured approximately one year before the accident. I’ve been sort of resigned to be grateful for the recollections I have been able to gather. To start to rebuild one’s life in the middle of it, having lived many years with countless little memories that comprise a life’s story, let’s just say, is not anything I would wish on my worst enemy.

Lately, I’m remembering “Super Fly,” “Where is the Love,” “In the Ghetto,” “In the Bottle,” “Across 110th St” . . . song after song of an era! One that I know I spent singing with great artists and shaped my dreams! I do not actually remember hearing them and embracing them in my mind and heart, but it’s strange how their effect is still evident on the soul even if not in the consciously stored memory. I guess that is what I call the evidence of tones in my heart and sounds in my spirit.

 

Dedication Beyond Vocals

jubileesingers-400x400I thought it would be a great idea to share what great teachers have taught me. These are the insights that lie behind any vocalist maintaining outstanding ethics and principles:

* Preparation. Warming-up, personal hygiene, and punctuality go a long way to signal to your co-workers and your client that you have a professional and dependable work ethic.

* Flexibility. Understand your role(s) in the overall goal of a project, even if the project is your own. The performance of the song, whether recorded or live, is just the result of all the comprehensive preparation for it, including its usage and destination.

* Change. Be willing to not only listen but to actually hear and carry out changes and suggestions according to the input of others.

* Faith. Always believe that you are supposed do this job and are there only because the client thinks so too.

* Journey. Try not to get preoccupied with any single project you’re included in; each experience is on the way to the next experience and never the ultimate destination.

Be Dedicated.

Dedication to doing the job well and building a lasting working relationship with the client should be a long-term goal.

With this level of dedication, your career will be filled with respect and esteem from producers, co-workers, and artists who share your passion for excellence, and your resume will be extraordinary!

Though my singing has been largely professional, all the “tips” I have for healthy, professional, long-lasting singing were ingrained in me in my formative years—in elementary, junior high or secondary school, and high school, and through my training as a lyric soprano in college (Fisk University,’77).

In other words, in my life, great teachers have taught me and helped me to maintain outstanding ethics and principles, and for this I am truly grateful.