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.

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 pixabay.com)

 

ZELLA’S HOUSE CLEANING

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.