Home, politics

My Undumpy White House

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As accustomed to the frequent barrage of BS from the current administration as I’m becoming, I confess to being more than a little taken aback by #45’s critique on Tuesday of his current digs; “That White House is a real dump.” Over the past 196 days, #45 has said and done some doozies, but something about dissing The White House itself, a spectacular home which is paid for by our taxes, just boggles my mind. I picture him leaving his dirty socks all over the West Wing, littering the White House with greasy fast food wrapping, the way he’s been littering our country with trashy hate-filled speech and Twitter tweets.

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The comment kept coming to mind the past couple days, until it occurred to me to consider my own concept of “home”. And I realized with a start that MY home is my body – where I live, the physical manifestation of my being – and that in the past I have been treating MY White House as “a real dump” – every time I don’t take care of it. Every time I overindulge in food or decide to stay up too late or make myself jittery with too much coffee. Every time I blow off exercise and fritter away hours window-shoppping and doing stupid puzzles online. I’m offended at #45’s lack of respect for his home because I’ve been disrespecting my own home.

I’m actually grateful for the wake-up call. I can only hope that #45 will tune in and hear himself as clearly as I am hearing him now. Because where we live is NOT a dump, unless we make it so. You don’t have to be a billionaire to figure that one out!

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growing up, learning

Blue+White Haze

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The invite had said “Freshman Orientation & Mixer” for the Saturday evening before classes started, so that’s what I’d expected; a convocation that would explain the rules and regs of life at the Hartford branch of UConn, to be followed by a dance to meet with other new college students.

I’d sewn most of my back-to-school wardrobe, and chosen my favorite never-before-worn dress for my intro to college life. In hindsight, bearing in mind that this was September 1968, and the dress in question was probably more appropriate attire for THAT GIRL heading to a secretarial job interview than a college student, maybe not the best choice – but I’d put so much thought and care (and money!) into it…

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Bright red wool, with shiny black buttons, black specialty-silk thread triple top stitching around the scoop neckline and a black belt at the empire waist – much better suited to a young career woman than a 16-year-old coed… but I thought I was stylin’!!!

What I soon found out at the “mixer” part of the evening was that this dress painted a bulls-eye on my back, making me a target to be singled out and terrorized by mean-spirited sophomores who couldn’t wait to “pay forward” the hazing that they had suffered the year before! After being marched across campus in the dark, we freshmen were herded into a room and pelted with raw eggs and verbal abuse, with no escape. One particularly nasty Husky girl emptied an aerosol can of whipped cream into my décolletage and shoved multiple young men at me, commanding them to “lick it up!”

I had never felt so humiliated in my life. After the sophomores got bored with bullying us, we were “allowed” to go to the dance, but all I wanted was to go home. I couldn’t believe what I’d experienced, and that this activity was sanctioned by the University. I was ready to quit college then and there, but since I wouldn’t get my high school diploma for another 10 months, I knew I couldn’t.

I never wore that dress again.

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growing up, learning, music biz

Believe Them The First Time

I can forgive myself for wanting people to be better than they are – to make good on their promises, show up on time and behave honestly – despite many experiences to the contrary. I’ve certainly let myself down, so why shouldn’t other people? But there have been a few instances that stand out.

I’ve learned major lessons from each CD we’ve released; the first one (in 1993) taught me that expenses will run over – there will be tracks that need to be “fixed” and some that will need major reworking, so count on needing more time and money than you’d originally planned. The second one (in 2004) taught me that radio promotion is not enough – you’ll need publicity to make any kind of a splash, no matter how awesome you know your recording to be. The third CD (in 2006) taught me “Caveat Emptor” – in bold relief. And that Maya Angelou was a very wise woman.

We’d been shopping for a publicist for a while, asking our jazz friends about their experiences. No one we knew would recommend anyone (which may tell you something about the nature of the publicity industry!?)  So when a collaborator began to sing the praises of one couple he was working with to promote his jazz career, we were excited to meet them!

When she said, “I don’t know what we can do for you”, that should have been the first clue to heed, since:Screen Shot 2015-11-08 at 10.58.50 AMBut we were impressed with their big fancy house in a fashionable part of town and their list of successful clients in all media and we were tired and time was growing short for our release date and we desperately wanted to work with someone (anyone???) who was connected in the biz, to get the word out about the new CD!!  And yet:Screen Shot 2015-11-08 at 10.58.50 AM

And then there were their adorable dogs, and the photos on the walls of their past triumphs and we could see how wonderful it was going to be when they promoted our wonderful CD and got us reviews in all the trades and even a mention in People magazine andwe joined those triumphant success stories on the wall, and… and… and…
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Even though she had told us that she didn’t know what she could do for us (and she was right – she did not know and wound up doing virtually nothing!!), she was more than happy to take our sizable check. And great was our ultimate disappointment.

If only we’d believed her the first time.

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learning, music biz, self-acceptance

Gaslit* at the Gaslight

*gaslit = freaked outscaredunnerved into questioning ones own sanity (Oxford).

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While I was hardly “born in a trunk”, both of my parents were theater-folk; they’d met doing shows at Syracuse University and continued to perform in plays and revues throughout my childhood. My sisters and I would “run lines” for them when they prepared for a performance, type copies of my dad’s plays for 10¢/page (pre-Xerox!) and be an enthusiastic audience while they rehearsed and performed at tiny theaters around CT.  My father had a number of his one-act plays published and even had an off-Broadway show produced in NYC in 1965. The Fourth Pig

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My first (unpaid) theater gig was playing for an awards ceremony for the Mark Twain Masquers in Hartford when I was 15, and I later earned a few shekels accompanying dance classes while at UConn. I always liked actors personally but grew impatient with the number of rehearsals they wanted to do. (we jazz musicians like to “wing it” more than some other performers!)  When I participated in the terrific ASCAP, BMI and ASK workshops, I also discovered I wasn’t too thrilled with the degree of compromise required with working in the musical theater – the endless rewrites for non-musical reasons, for example. While it can be exciting to collaborate with other talented people, the old adage of “too many cooks” DOES come into play at a certain point – usually, for me, earlier than anyone else. (Which is ironic, since I truly love musicals – I’m just not crazy about the process of creating them, I guess!?)

So I’ve resisted involvement in many theatrical endeavors, despite my high regard for most thespians. In 2008, however, I agreed to sub for the pianist at a musical melodrama theater – an extremely underpaid gig that extended almost 2 years before I had enough financial wherewithal to walk away… umm, make that RUN away! For years afterwards I told myself that it was the unreasonable demands of the music director, some of the actors and staff that had made me so miserable during that period, when every single day for 7 days a week I would dread the one or two performances I’d have to play each Sunday. It was only after I’d subbed at another musical melodrama theater that I realized that, crabby and unappreciative as the cast might have been, they hadn’t been the problem – for me, it was the job itself! Juggling last-minute changes while responding to what’s happening on the stage and always being “on!” is nerve-rattling and I just don’t have the constitution to sustain that for 2+ hours. When it comes together, you might feel like Superman…

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but when something goes wrong (as it frequently can!), there’s hell to pay, whether it’s actually your fault or not!

Technological advances and shrunken production budgets have had a dreadful impact on the current state of musical theater; to be filed under “Spinning Straw Into Gold”,

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the last gig I was hired to play seemed easy enough when I checked out the songs via YouTube videos; the score was non-challengingly melodious and traditionally orchestrated, like musicals in the 1940s-60s. When I got to the first rehearsal, it was revealed that ALL of that orchestral music, (save a solo cello, solo flute and the music director’s piano) would be MY responsibility, courtesy of a jury-rigged computer-keyboard setup with multiple pedals, sampled sounds and sheet music indicating multiple instrument changes within 2 bars – an impossible scenario for low-tech me.  I knew that there was no way I’d ever be able to perform, let alone master this part, no matter how much I practiced, so I bowed out that afternoon. I later learned that playing this particular show had reduced more than one highly skilled professional pianist to tears.

My cap is off to theater musicians – especially music directors – who are able to run the show AND make superb music doing so. They create unique magic for an audience, and they are more-often-than-not ill-compensated for their alchemy.

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…… after all, fingers take a beating, doing this sort of thing!!

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music biz

Music for a Joyous Occasion?

After it became apparent that the ad agencies of Michigan Avenue (the Chicago version of Madison Avenue) weren’t going to pull our scorched jingle company from the fire, it was time to make a new plan. Our pastor suggested we use our musical skills to play weddings and funerals, so we did some research, asked friends who had played those types of gigs, got feedback from other clergy, constructed a song list of the most requested religious and secular titles, bought 2 new VERY heavy amplifiers and began marketing ourselves. We made hundreds of cassette demo tapes, took out ads in the Chicago Wedding Guide magazine and sent out thousands of the following pamphlets to every church within 20 miles:BrochureCovers  BrochureBlurb

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The wording for this sort of thing can get dicey, (especially with funerals) because we’re talking about providing music for…. death. Grieving people are at their most vulnerable and it’s important to strike the proper note of concern and compassion, while projecting sufficient confidence that the music you’ll be adding to the service will be reverent, inspiring and tender. Interestingly enough, the few funerals we were called to play (all at our own church!?) were relatively easy gigs.

The weddings, on the other hand…. ah, the weddings!!  The term “Bride-zilla” had not been invented but such things did exist!

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We met more than a few GROOM-zillas, too….

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not to mention PARENTS of the happy couple….

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While we had our own ideas, wedding music is generally “chosen by committee” and everyone has input except the musicians! Thus we wound up adding a LOT more titles to our song list.

I know now that even by late 80s’ standards, we were charging way too little for our services – but we really needed to get some gigs, and we hadn’t figured out how much actual WORK was involved in providing music for a half-hour service, let alone a (gulp!) 90 minute Catholic wedding mass, complete with communion for the entire congregation!  We also underestimated the toll schlepping those 2 amplifiers, keyboard, EVI gear and mics, stands, etc. would take on our bodies and our spirits – especially when we got home and still had to carry all that gear up the rickety winding stairs to our 2-flat apartment.

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We DID have a few nice moments playing weddings; there was one where the happy couple wanted “their song” performed during the mass AND during the reception right after AND during dinner. (They had hired a DJ for post-dinner dancing so we actually got to go home and feed and walk our dogs after 5 hours). “Their” song was  ALWAYS by Atlantic Starr – and we sang the played the duet over and over, to their obvious delight! By the end, all of the guests as well as the complete wedding party were singing along with us!

But most of the weddings were grueling – a high-stress situation with no relief until the check finally cleared.  Brides and/or their mothers were always adding MORE special songs we had to perform, and higher choir lofts we had to schlep all our stuff up to… not to mention waiting until everyone was gone before we could break down, pack and head home, where another schlep  awaited us. It got VERY old VERY fast.

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The end came after a June wedding at a Catholic church. We’d agreed to provide an hour’s music, collected 50% down of the $150 fee we were charging and then things got more and more bizarre; MANY midnight phone calls amending this song and substituting that song, micromanaging every detail imaginable. It was hotter than Hades on the wedding day as we schlepped all of our equipment to the choir loft where I was to play on the out-of-tune organ as well as my keyboard.

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We were there early, before any of the wedding party had arrived, so we got to really “case the joint” – and this was turning out to be a BIG wedding! Outside the church was parked a huge video truck and inside were no less than 7 cameras, each with its own cameraman.

Of course the wedding didn’t start on time, but we were instructed to entertain the guests until things got going. 45 minutes later we got to play Lohengrin, and then there was the lighting of this candle and that candle, the mother-of-the-bride’s special music, the groom’s family’s music, etc. etc. etc.  The mass went on for almost 2 hours and then we FINALLY got to play the recessional, pack up and head home. As we got to our car, we noticed the arrival of a huge stretch limousine with a hot tub in the back!!!

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That was the final straw. We had just sweated and played and sang for almost 3 hours, (not to mention all those midnight phone calls) for a payday of $150 for both of us, and this couple was going to ride away in a hot tub!?

And what was waiting for us at home? More schlepping up 2 flights of stairs!  And two very sweet schnauzer dogs, thank heavens!

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music biz

Limericks!

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It was Mike’s 40th birthday and the surprise party invitation specified NO GIFTS – instead we were requested to write a dirty limerick in honor of the birthday boy – “the filthier, the better”. What fun! We anticipated hearing everyone else’s poetry at the party, then got inspired and couldn’t seem to stop writing our own – no less than 14 smutty gems, which we printed up into a little pamphlet just for the occasion!

My husband had met Mike while working one summer at Disneyland and they’d become best friends. When I met Mike 6 years later, I immediately adored him – in all regards, he was terrific; a great sense of humor, a superb musician, friendly, confident, ambitious, upbeat – he radiated warmth and positivity like the sun! He was a swinging drummer and played percussion equally well – his license plate read “MR TIMPS” and he’d been making real headway in his career in the studio scene. He was also VERY popular with the ladies and always a blast to hang out with since he enjoyed so many things, like the L.A. Dodgers, burgers and malts, listening to new music…  so it was easy to come up with line after line singing his praises.

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When Mike had initially brought his bride-to-be over to our midtown apartment, it was obvious she didn’t like us very much – she sort of sneered at everything and, as a sales rep for a book publisher, told us in no uncertain terms how poorly we were running our jingle company. Well, if Mike loved her, that was good enough for us! And we DID make every effort to engender her friendship, though it was an uphill battle.

We were especially intrigued by this party invitation since five years previous we had received a Dear John letter out-of-nowhere, informing us that Mike and his wife would no longer be friends with us because we were so fat, they were afraid we would soon die and they didn’t want to be around to watch anything like that, so… Sayonara, baby!  The timing of this letter couldn’t have been worse, since we were going through a regrouping period of our lives, having just lost a cherished father as well as our jingle company dreams and were reeling from grief on both the personal and professional fronts. We had never contacted Mike and his wife after receiving that letter and so we wondered if perhaps they had reconsidered their decision to kick us to the curb and now might want to be friendly again?

When we got to the party, we saw a HUGE pile of gifts from all of the other guests on a table… and somewhat sheepishly added our nicely printed booklet of limericks to the pile. After the candles had been blown out, it was presents-opening time and we watched Mike open his lavish gifts (none of which contained limericks, of course!)… until he got to ours! He was speechless. WE were speechless. Everyone was speechless. Then “they all moved away from us on the Group W bench”, as Arlo Guthrie said in his song “Alice’s Restaurant”.

We’d been set up, and the limericks were the final nails in the coffin of this friendship. We beat a hasty retreat and drove home, and that was that.

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But here, for your delectation, 20 years after the fact, are a few of the less smutty birthday limericks created for the occasion:

Rome  AllegNonTrop

piatti     PiattiLim

Perc.   drumsticks_by_crystalcracker-d3lc5di

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music biz

Getting OUT of the Jingle Business

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I can’t remember when I didn’t want to make my living in the music business.  After struggling to read my illegible scores with their atrocious hen-scratchings, professor Hale Smith encouraged me to learn music copying as a survival skill, so that’s one thing I made sure to study under his tutelage. My plan for after-graduation: become a music copyist in NYC while working on finding gigs as a composer/arranger/songwriter/piano player/singer.  It might not be possible now, but it was possible in 1972, and that’s what I did.

In addition to playing piano bars and off-off-Broadway shows, transcribing lead sheets for publishers, singing demos (while writing my original songs in my off-hours), I began copying for jingle writers and was struck by how rich they were and how much fun they appeared to be having. In no other professional setting did I see grown men dancing with each other during recorded playbacks! I already LOVED the studio, but add the fast-pace of jingle production, the variety of styles and genres from session to session, and how incredibly versatile and expert the musicians and singers were, nailing their parts on the first run thru? It was heaven as far as I was concerned.

Though it took a little while to break into it, the jingle business was very good to me; I got to work with the creme-de-la-creme musicians in state-of-the-art recording studios, earning decent union wages and residuals (plus pensions, thank you AFofM, AFTRA and SAG!). My fast, legible hand and accuracy were valued and rewarded. I got spoiled – I had to trade in my upright piano for a grand because I could hear the difference and had gotten used to a better-sounding instrument. I made unforgettable friends among the musicians, singers, engineers and clients, and had the thrill of hearing my scores come to life. Sure, not every ad campaign was artistically a gem, but it was SO gratifying to see a spot I’d worked on running on TV or to hear myself singing one of my jingles while waiting in the dentist’s chair.

Best of all, through working in the jingle business, I met and married the love of my life. Soon after the wedding we started our own company – http://www.harriswolframmusic.com/index.html

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– and made hundreds of sales calls every day, trying to develop a clientele at advertising agencies.  It was challenging and also a lot of fun at times. Other times were frustrating as we learned the compromises of running a business; how hiring a sales rep who has only had experience in the non-profit sector doesn’t work, how hiring an experienced advertising guy who refuses to USE his connections that he’d promised doesn’t work, how offering a coupon for “$1,000 off your next jingle” does NOT work!

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In the middle of our 3rd year in business, we were getting a lot of phone calls from students at Eastman and other music conservatories, wanting to know how THEY could break into the field. After one especially long call, when I should have been cold-calling to generate more work for our company, my husband asked, “why are you spending so much time telling people how to do it? Why are you giving it away for free? Say, why don’t we write a book and get PAID for sharing what we’ve learned the hard way?”  So we wrote and self-published GETTING INTO THE JINGLE BUSINESS.

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We had 500 copies printed at the offset printers downstairs from our office/apartment/studio, collated the pages and staple-bound them ourselves, then had the offset guys trim our books. We took out an ad in the union paper and after we’d sold half of them via mail order, we began handing them to potential clients at meetings, saying, “See? You think you don’t know us, but we wrote the book on the jingle business!” – a winning sales pitch if there ever was one.  (well, less embarrassing than that $1,000 off coupon!)

When our client list began to thin out, we took a couple “geographical cures” before facing the fact that our company was in serious trouble. We scheduled an appointment at S.C.O.R.E. to get advice from a retired business professional. Because we were driven and rewarded by the actual creation of music more than the bottom-line, it was difficult to explain our situation. When we showed him our business plan, financials, demo reel, full-color poster, ads we’d taken out in trade magazines and then described our then 7 year odyssey in the jingle jungle, he literally laughed us out of his office, saying, “you’re not in business!  You’re PLAYING AT being in business!”

We took a hiatus to regroup and after a couple years got back into jingles – my husband freelancing as an arranger/producer for other music houses while I extracted parts from his scores and played piano bar gigs around town. We had some profitable years again and, looking back on our beginnings, I penned one of the short MUSIC HORROR STORIES about those compromises I referred to earlier.

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It really was fun while it lasted. The advertising music industry began to fall apart when agencies chose to ignore the unions and started licensing “hot” and sometimes cheap library tracks willy-nilly in lieu of creating custom underscores and jingles for their clients. In the 1970s-80s there had been at least 150 jingle companies in NYC and between 45 – 70 jingle companies in Chicago, not to mention other cities around the country. Some were one-man or mom-&-pop operations like ours, while others had large staffs of writers, producers and support personnel. These days there’s barely a handful of production companies devoted solely to creating jingles, which is a shame, because advertising music can be fun – for both the creators and the audience!

I count myself blessed to have worked on jingles in the mid-70s thru the 90s – there was some terrific advertising being created and aired, and I learned so much about music, myself, people and life.

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