THE MUSIC OF THE CUBBIES

SCAN0055

I now wait for the last piece of the puzzle – the musical soundtrack to season 1 of my web series. Music will set the proper mood for each episode, and honestly, it will hopefully smooth over some of the more glaring mistakes I made throughout the process. Music will save the day – no pressure to my composer John Kobayashi.

While we wait, I can share a few stories about music in my life. Today’s story takes us back to the very start of it all. After some mind-bending, I counted back to discover I have been actively making music for the past 36 years, starting with trumpet lessons in grade school. And although I took a lot of lessons with many different music teachers, I believe I’m still in the process of learning a more valuable life lesson that lurked in the shadows of those early music days. My little kid behavior held clues of a flaw/opportunity that still challenges me in my current frustrations as a filmmaker. But, first, let’s go back to 1977 and 1978…

It all started in 4th grade with the Borg School band program. Parents and students visited the band room one night to check out instruments and pick one to play. I wanted to play trombone. It looked cool, and it had a slide that made funny sounds. It seemed different from the other instruments. Unfortunately, the music teacher cautioned my parents that I didn’t have what it takes to be a trombone player - my arms were too short. So what! I could do exercises. I could get arm extensions. I could work hard to build a trombone player belly with burping power. Instead, she recommended a trumpet. I don’t remember feeling disappointed, though. I suddenly found myself holding my own brass trumpet, and as it turns out, trumpet players have bellies too! Besides, if I felt any subconscious anxieties that people didn’t want to listen to me, then a trumpet would cure that issue right up – no ignoring me now.

Everything about the trumpet fit me perfectly. Feeling different from the other kids and out of place before, now I found myself in a band, an instant group working together. I made new friends, such as fellow trumpet player David Rubin. It wasn’t long before we realized that we shared the same goofy sense of humor (thus wasting 2/3 of our lesson in fits of uncontrollable laughter that I’m sure drove our teacher into madness). I also felt a visceral connection to music. I could express emotions on another level, and I received plenty of positive reinforcement from my family who attended all my concerts like I was the new pope.

My neighbor Brian was a couple of years ahead of me, and he already played a mean bass. I looked up to him, and we spent our summers together – so it made sense that we would start our own band. We created a fake drum set out of cardboard, and we managed to grab one of my uncle’s old hi-hats. Brian played bass, and I played trumpet. I guess I played drums too? I’m not sure how that worked, but someone had to play the drums. Why else did I spend all that time with the scissors and paint? Maybe Brian played drums? Anyway, our music was written using dashes on a blank page. For example, Jingle Bells would be written like this:

CubbiesJingleBells

I know. Insane. Especially considering the obvious – we both knew how to read music in band. So, why didn’t we go out and get some sheet music paper to figure out the notes? I have no idea. But, somehow it all worked.

We called ourselves The Cubbies (being huge Beatles’ fans, and also Chicago baseball fans). We wrote songs about the neighborhood, recorded songs on a tape recorder, and even went on tour around the block (called the Wonderful Wildi Tour). As you might suspect, we modeled much of our escapades on The Beatles. However, like Lennon and McCartney, Brian and I eventually disagreed on the direction of the songs. In our case, he wanted to do straight versions of Beatles’ songs with new words, but I wanted to create completely new songs. I became obsessed with writing truly original music. I’m not sure why I developed that notion, but I adamantly attempted to come up with new melodies for each song. It didn’t always work.

My first song was “Blue Skies are Pretty”:

Blue skies are pretty, Blue skies are pretty, With white clouds, With white clouds, There are clouds shaped like bunnies, and other funny things, I like clouds, They are nice, That’s why I say, Blue skies are very pretty!

I thought I was so original as a child, but it turned out that part of the melody was a blatant rip-off (“With white clouds” sounds like “Three Blind Mice”). I also wrote a wonderfully lyrical song called “Keep on Smiling” which I thought was so romantic and cool, until years later when I realized it was the melody from “Rocky.” Other hits included “Helicopter,” “Dice Yeah” and “Crain Street.” At least these songs seemed completely original, but mostly because I haven’t gone back to analyze them. And you can’t make me!

I thought the band lasted quite a long time – at least 2 summers, but I can’t be certain. Brian eventually acted out The Beatles experience to the point that we dressed up old pill bottles with homemade labels like “Heroin” and “Cocaine” and pretended to experience a police bust. In the end, the band couldn’t last. We burnt out too fast, like shooting stars, or maybe more like incense.

The whole experience gave me a taste of the thrill of performance and provided instant gratification – mostly because I had no idea how bad we sounded. I could write a song, and then the next day we would record it. No one in the neighborhood had anything to do with their time (pre-Internet/cell phones), so they would sit and listen to our “concerts.”

My drive for instant gratification never ended. It’s still true today. I want to see the product of my work as fast as possible. That’s the reason that the web series has proved to be quite a challenge. It took much longer than I expected, and bringing all the little pieces together to make a final product required time and patience. In the old days, I could sit down with a piece of paper, some colored markers, and throw together what I considered to be a hilarious cartoon birthday card for someone in my family. They would read it within the hour. The results were immediate, and the audience reaction always positive because of the gesture.

Soon I will be sending all my friends what I consider to be a fun card in the form of a 6-episode web series season. So, I look forward to the instant gratification that can only come with a 3-year homemade project. And then I will get back to my inner child, and make a few projects that may feel like they were made with construction paper and crayons. That way, I won’t have to wait another 3 years for my fix.

P6170020.JPG

By the way, I still get opportunities to play my horn to this day. I will be playing with The Outcast Jazz Band at Grant Park as part of the summer dance series on Friday, July 26, 2013:

http://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/chicago_summerdance1.html

It’s free, so if you’re free, come get some instant gratification!

MUSIC TEACHERS ROCK

DPMHS Voice BTSI’ve bragged many times – my wife is a music teacher! I’ve felt a strong connection to music my whole life, and as a result, I believe whole-heartedly in the value of an arts education. So, I love knowing that so many kids have the chance to develop the same love of music because of my wife. She can affect these kids in a lasting way. And thanks to the shrinking financial support available for public education and growing class sizes, she can now influence up to 54 kids every hour! I’ve enjoyed seeing her students perform since she started the music program from scratch at Daniel Pearl Magnet High School 3 years ago. Back then, her class was like the Bad News Bears. Most of them had no formal musical education. The brutal sound told me so. And they tended to misbehave. They stuck garbage in the piano. They fell off their chairs for no reason. Some of them showed an unhealthy interest in the Illuminati.

Regardless, I chaperoned the group with their first awkward caroling visit to the old folks home, where most couldn’t sing on pitch, and the male singers mostly mouthed the words with only the sound of bad breath. But, since then they have made great strides with some amazing performances, including their latest promo performance for THE VOICE (more info on this later…) I feel so moved just thinking about how proud I am of my wife’s value in these kids’ lives, but I’m not crying. I have dust in my eye. Look away!

The students sense the value as well. Sure, some of them absolutely do NOT want to be in choir, but they are forced by the school schedule. However, many more of them recognize what a fabulous and special lady my wife is. In fact, they like her so much, she needs to watch what she says. If she happens to make an offhand comment about a challenging situation, she might find that her students later have taken the matter in their own hands to "fix" the situation. They want things to go well for Mrs. Gorski! They REALLY like her.

I always joke about staying in the good graces of my wife’s therapist. After all, if the therapist doesn’t approve of something I do, she has the power to make things extremely difficult for me. But, all this time the real threat lurked in a group of rag-tag teens. I now know that I need to suck up to her students if I value my well-being. Luckily, I’ve met the kids, and they seem to like me for the most part. So, I’m probably safe – for now. I guess I better stay on good behavior at home.

Onto THE VOICE – in April I managed to watch NBC shoot a promo for THE VOICE at Jackie’s school! The high school choir she conducts sang a song with the runner up from last season – Terry McDermott. I’m so thrilled that her talents are getting recognized while helping these kids. Here’s the story from the school newspaper (it’s a journalism magnet), which includes the promo:

http://www.thepearlpost.com/2013/05/21/the-voice-commercial-promoting-lausd-music-students/

And, here’s a behind the scenes video of the session from Terry McDermott’s website:

http://j.mp/10VTpKL

And finally, if you feel so moved to support her growing program, you can donate to help her build a keyboard lab at Donor’s Choose:

‪http://Tinyurl.com/caafsd7 

So, watch THE VOICE tonight! They will run the promo during tonight’s show (May 21, 2013). It will also run on 5/28, 6/4 and 6/11. It’s really short, but look for the choir that isn’t in the classroom. The other two schools are shot in classrooms, but Jackie’s was shot in the assembly room.

Then, if you see any of her kids walking down the street, put in a good word for me, will you?

MRS. GORSKI! MRS. GORSKI!

IMG_0060I like patterns. I prefer patterns. Patterns make me comfortable. Patterns are safe. But, when you live life in a pattern, you wake up one day, and you’re celebrating the 4th of July, and your Christmas tree is still up. So, then you set aside 30 minutes to put the tree away, and then suddenly it’s Christmas again. Time shouldn’t be used as a reliable measure of life. Time owes me nothing, and delivers accordingly. So, I’m learning to measure life in other ways… This week I broke my usual daily pattern. I joined my wife on a journey with the most alive and unpredictable members of our society – high school students. Our destination was the Valley Performing Arts Center, a relatively new facility with amazing acoustics and surprisingly comfortable seats. We went to see a concert of The Romeros with Massimo Paris & Concerto Málaga as part of a student matinee series. Being the budget of schools these days, we had to take public transportation – 2 busses each way – making sure all 30 kids made it on and off the bus. Luckily, the only trouble-makers during the trip were the bus drivers. Boy, are those dudes cranky. The lady bus drivers were all super nice, though. I urge the LA Metro to stop hiring men.

Here’s what I took away from the field trip. First, the kids all seem to really like my wife as a teacher, which is not a surprise, but wonderful to see in action. They demonstrate their appreciation by constantly vying for her attention. - “Mrs. Gorski! Mrs. Gorski! I see the bus.” - “Mrs. Gorski! Mrs. Gorski! It’s not the bus. It’s a street sweeper.” - “Mrs. Gorski! Mrs. Gorski! I made my water bottle into an instrument!”

Second, I also must’ve forgotten how much teens consume - all day long. At every bus stop, a group just had to go into the Subway, Burger King, Papa Johns, 76 Gas station or Boba shop on the corner for sustenance – or for the restroom. “Mrs. Gorski! Mrs. Gorski! I’ll only be 2 minutes. I swear!” But, the most significant insight didn’t cross my mind until later that night.

The chamber orchestra backed up the guitar quartet for a few classics, including the Hallelujah Chorus and Ave Maria. Can I reiterate my awe for the acoustics? I was sitting towards the back of the concert hall, probably at least 50 rows back, and I heard every note on those un-amplified acoustic guitars perfectly! Then the quartet played a few songs without the orchestra – mostly Christmas carols. They concluded with a folk song arranged by the leader’s father called “Malagueña.” I recognized the song, but I couldn’t place it. But, I was singing it the whole way back in my head. Where did I hear this song? Was it on The Simpsons? I asked my wife. When you’re married, it turns out you can ask your wife any random question about your own history, and she will know the answer. She’s the expert in the Dan edition of Trivial Pursuit. In this case, it turned out to be the Jackie edition of Trivial Pursuit because she taught the song to her guitar class, and then they played it at their concert. That’s where I heard it.

Suddenly, the potential impact of the concert hit me. These kids got to see the original group playing a song live that they played live. That would be like when I saw Count Basie play “Basie Straight Ahead” in concert, or to a lesser extent, when I saw The Monkees perform “Daydream Believer.” The students know the music on paper. It’s accessible. They have witnessed the black dots and lines of the musical notes printed on the staff. They have felt their fingers on the acrylic of the strings, and tingled from the vibrations of each note. They have pieced together the flow of a musical line, and have blended it with other like-minded musicians. They even may have memorized it. The process creates a deep connection with those songs. Then, they see the professionals having the same experience, and enjoying themselves. They feel the experience shared by the audience (whether they recognize that feeling or not). It’s a potential moment of true inspiration – professional to student. It’s possible that this concert contributed to a spark in at least one student that will live with them and drive their actions for years to come.

So, where was my spark? Did I forget my inspiration? Because of the long-term nature of web series development, at least with my apparent learning curve, it’s easy to become swallowed into the pattern of the day-to-day pursuit and lose sight of the bigger picture. Why exactly did I choose a career that would take 4 years of studying, followed by 4 years of honing and developing my craft, followed by 10 more years of further studying, development and honing, with no guarantee of every making any money? Why did I feel driven to focus on comedy and specifically in the medium the moving image?

To my relief, I only needed to ponder the spark for a moment to rush back into awareness – my daily patterns only slipped the spark into my subconscious. My inner motivation remains fully in tact. This infinite spark still holds my memories of watching my current composer develop the soundtrack on the spot in a college dorm room for a dorky marching band movie. It holds moments of filming my own dorky little projects - like my first horror movie, in which my roommate is terrorized by Dave the heating and cooling guy, or my series of promo commercials for cicadas in breakfast cereal. It burns from the fuel of images I conceived in my young teen mind, preserved on celluloid and projected larger than life. The spark lives off of recordings of what I saw – not just with my eyeball, but whatever insanity was swirling in my head. I know I still have it because I can feel it as a tinge of a thrill in my stomach even right now.

The field trip journey has helped me keep my stomach’s eye on the spark-ball. Otherwise, what’s the point? More specifically, the journey reinforced my desire to measure life not by time, but by thoughts, feelings and experiences that contribute to my inner spark. They appear timeless because of their consistency – their pattern of permanence.

So, for that lesson, I have to thank… Mrs. Gorski! Mrs. Gorski!