Music has been a part of my life since . . . wow, since my brothers and I were tiny tots (no comments from the chocolate factory) banging pots and pans on the living room floor in our parents’ apartment in Queens, New York to the powerful tunes of James Cleveland, The Hawkins Family, Shirley Caesar, Dorothy Norwood, Mahalia Jackson, Jesse Dixon, The Caravans, and several other gospel music pioneers I respect and appreciate today. My mom was, and still is, a smart cookie dealing with six stair-stepping children (1-1.5 years apart). She figured out how to create peace and harmony in that small apartment and maintain her sanity as she prepared meals and bottles for the Bulls’ cattle call. J Play music!! And it worked every time. The pots and pans she didn’t need for food preparation she converted to drums with spoons, and we had a ball. Singing, dancing and banging to gospel music. Those were the days.
I don’t know if she realized that the message was getting into our little souls at that time, but it did for me, for I have strong memories of “Oh Happy Day” and other songs by the Hawkins Family playing on the record player. I remember the strong booming voice of the Reverend James Cleveland so well because my dad would sing some of his songs with the church choirs he directed around New York and Virginia. Yes, those were the days.
When we moved to our first and only family house in Virginia, mom stopped us from banging her pots and pans, but the music never stopped playing. Most days of the week you could find me in the living room singing in front of the mirror with a cordless microphone (we used hairbrushes in those days) singing and directing those groups and choirs like I personally knew them. (You could not convince me otherwise.) ;-) As we progressed through elementary, junior and high schools, four of us pursued musical instruments desiring to make music like what we were hearing, along with new tunes from television shows and movies, and then other artists and music genres. My primary instrument became the trumpet, and piano lessons began a few years after that. Each day I had to spend one hour practicing each instrument, learning and memorizing techniques and songs, homework for school and even for church. Most of the time I enjoyed it immensely, especially when the sounds I made began to make sense. LOL!!
Then the four us began playing together and our favorite song was “Oh When the Saints Go Marching In.” My grandmother would stand and dance and sing to that every time. It was her most requested song by The Exotic Four. That was our name given to us by a pastor’s wife who also enjoyed hearing us play. Mom eventually began shopping for outfits so we would look exotic too, matching shirts and slacks for the guys, and for me the leader, the nice flowing dresses I loved so much. And oh yes the high heeled shoes. Thanks Mom and Grandma Frances! ;-)
I had to use my little bit of knowledge to “write” songs – the notes – so we could play together. At first we tended to play the melodies together, but our education and experiences in school bands filled us with the desire to become creative. To play in sync and against the beat. To improvise and do jazz solos. J Yes, to and with church music, and it was fun!! Then I ran against a snag. I had to write for trombone which was in the bass clef, but I played and wrote in the treble. For a long minute I couldn’t understand why my brother was out of harmony with us and we argued and cried and became angry, until one day in school I looked at the sheet music of one of the trombone players, and saw notes that I played with the left hand on the piano. Ding!! The light came on. That day I apologized to my brother, went to the piano and together we began to write his parts in the bass clef. Now we were able to not only play the melodies together in the same key, we were able to write the harmonies we could hear and desired to play. Yes!!! Those were the days.
We realized that playing the same notes in the same key was okay and sometimes appropriate, but that’s not harmony. That’s unison. We also knew that each of us could play the first part, the main part from time to time. But that’s not harmony either. That’s the melody. Oh, but when we climbed every mountain and forged every stream, we reached harmonic heights we had never dreamed!! J We were playing different notes but in what is called a “chord” and when they blended well we would be smiling to each other through our mouthpieces. Now that’s harmony. Even when one of us broke off and played the lead around the chorus part, or when another one would play the verse – the solo, the rest of us would play supportive parts and behind the leader. That’s harmony too. Yessss. And finally when you can feel the music in your muscles and bones to the point that it brings tears to your eyes, I could tell you what it’s like on an intimate level, but for now I will just say, it is almost like heaven. ;-) Thank you Mr. Landis and Mr. “UB”. Broadneaux.
And those wonderful days in the marching band and stage band in junior and high schools, the competitions, the trips, the uniforms, the field shows, the freezing cold nights in parades, the ice on our mouthpieces and the squeaky clarinets because they couldn’t keep their reeds moist and warm. LOL!! Those were the days, of harmony. I’m so grateful for those days for they helped me develop not only my ear for good music, but for relationships as well.
You see, there was a song we sang in elementary school that said “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. . .” and for a while it became the jingle for Coca Cola commercials. This song means more than just the actual singing with our voices. The song is a message reaching down into our hearts and souls with the message of “can’t we all just get along?” J But what does that look like, or in musical terms, sound like?
Well, for some it means that everyone in the group, club, church, family, team, etc. are saying the same thing and no one is saying anything differently, even if in their hearts they believe something else. They will not “say it” for that would mean they are singing a “different note” than everyone else and they would “stand out” and bring attention to themselves. That would mean they might shed light on the situation that there is more than one way to skin a cat, dead or alive. LOL!! Sorry cat lovers. That’s just one of those handy clichés. But really, that’s just unison and sometimes unison is necessary and desirable and it can pack a powerful punch at the right time in a song, and it also can be a great and subtle element of surprise before breaking out into harmonic chords. But let me not get ahead of myself. I sometimes want to hear music and lyrics played and sung in unison, but not all day long, and not the entire song through. This eventually becomes boring and it can be like everyone sitting on the same side of a boat. You get the picture.
For others harmony is one person doing all the talking and everyone else just agreeing, even when they don’t agree. Aha, yep, yes, mmmm. But when they go home they complain about the person doing all the talking. Sometimes the person in the lead seat might change, but the scenario is still the same: one person is doing all the talking and making the decisions and is the only one who gets heard. This is not harmony folks; this is what we call “singing or playing the lead”. In some cases, it’s just a plain old solo. Period. No one else’s opinion matters and no other voices are heard.
And then in some situations there is the one voice which represents all the voices. In corporations we call this a “consensus”. Everyone has spoken and has given their vote and opinion and has chosen a voice, or maybe two voices to sing together the same notes/song. They deliver the purpose, desires, plans etc. of the group and everyone is okay with that. We call this the “melody”. Everyone can sing the melody, but not everyone can do it well, but it’s the part of the song that stays in your mind. The most important part, the hook, the lines and music which carry the main message of the song. J This is how you know you’ve written a good (or bad) song – when the melody stays with even a little child, or it’s easy enough for them to remember not just the movements of the instruments, but the lyrics as well. Like MJ’s “You know I’m bad! . . . Who’s bad?” LOL!!
But unison, solo and lead, nor melody, are harmony. Not by themselves. Something else is needed. Something else needs to be done. I call it “humility”. In order to create harmony someone must be willing to take the lowest place of all. We would call that “bass”. Oh baby, that sounds like Larry Graham to my ears. Bass is the foundation and when you have a good bassist you can do almost anything with a song. You cannot build a house without the bass – the foundation. At least you shouldn’t try to live in one that lacks a foundation. J Many times in groups we lack the bass and we get by well, but when a good one comes along, that’s when we realize the missing ingredient from mom’s fried chicken. J
Then there’s the baritone. Now for some people this is the same as the bass, but if it were, it would be called . . . “bass”. LOL!! See, in school I learned that the bass instruments were the tubas and bass drums, tympanis, and such, but the baritones were the . . . baritones. Baritones are brass instruments with the bells facing the sky. They create a sound higher than basses and lower than tenors. They are “that-in-between-sound” that yes, we don’t try to create because it takes a special ear and heart to make it happen vocally. And yes, they are close to the bottom too and many times they’re the forgotten ones in a choir. They don’t seem to “fit in” anywhere, oh but when you create a part for them, and yes they stand out, it’s the most awesome sound you ever want to hear. Those are the Teddy Pendergrast’s of the world. J
“Well we’re moving on up!!” to the tenors. Now we’re in the middle of the house, but for many the tenors are the bottom. So one has to be humble for this position too because whether you’re in the middle or the bottom, many times you get overlooked in this position. Think of the middle child in a family, or the person who is the glue that keeps everyone and everything together. (But tenors become the top voices when you have a choir of tenors, baritones and basses. Interesting and wonderful sound too.) They have a quiet loudness without which nothing would get done, or stay together. They’re the ones who speak up last when all others are yelling and no one can agree on anything. When they finally speak up everyone shuts up and listens, eyes are opened and the stalemate is broken. Tenors can make or break your harmony, so you want to keep them happy. LOL! When you hear trombones and tenor saxophones, think tenor. Think Sam Cook and Luther Vandross. Ooo-ooh!!
But tenors are not the only ones in the middle. At times, when you have only soprano, alto and tenor voices, altos become the glue that keeps everyone together. Yet they have a higher sound than tenors at all times. I’ve heard altos given parts lower than the tenors and depending on the inversion of the voices and the type of song, the key and brightness, it can be great. But most of the time, altos lose their power and brilliance when they are placed below the tenors. Just like in relationships. When we are forced to be something we are not, to perform like a fork when we’re a spoon, to be water and wash the dishes when in actuality we are corn syrup – ick!! What sticky situations get created, and we wonder why we run into problems and cannot see the light of day, or there is no progress because we’re ‘stuck’. The sound is just not good. A good French horn or Flugal Horn tastes like good warm gravy – yeah alto. Think Marvin Gaye or Brian McKnight for a male alto or Chaka Khan for a female, just to name a few of my favorites. ;-)
Now we’re the fiddler on the roof with the sopranos!! This is where I like to fly, but I don’t want to live in the sky, not yet. Most of the time sopranos carry the melody and maybe sing the same parts or chords as the baritones. When they are good, soft, strong and ouch! they are the icing on your cake! I can toot my own horn, preferably a trumpet, at least once. The mistake we make with sopranos is that we think because they’re on top, they’re always right, but this just is not the case. In relationships, the person who speaks the loudest or the longest or with the biggest words the definitions of which they lack knowledge doesn’t necessarily know everything there is to know about the situation. They are not always the one most qualified to speak for, or to everyone. Sometimes the sopranos need to pipe down because they don’t have the melody. Sometimes the sopranos do sing a supportive role/part. Sometimes the sopranos are supposed to sing their part an octave lower. This means “humility”. J Sopranos are not always the stars. Sorry, get over it. LOL!! ;-) but if you cannot hear them, you're singing too loudly.
When we’re trying to create harmony, each person/part must consider everyone else more important than him or herself. Just think if we all are willing to open the door for each other rather than insisting on being the first one to go through . . . hmmm. Or when all the tall people insist on letting the short people be in front so everyone can be seen and have a good view for the photo session. . . . hmmmm. Or when men are real men ALL the time and not just when they feel like it and they treat women and children like the more “softer” beings that they are even if they don’t know them. . . . Ooooh, I like that one. Your manhood would fly through the roof and you would receive more love than you can handle. J (Can we call those “love handles”?) I do believe this, for a nice, gentle manly man can change the atmosphere in any room better than a Giovanni suit, Stacey Addams shoes, and Polo cologne. Or when we women finally realize we don't have to compete with each other or with men to be our real selves and to excel in our crafts, and neither do we have to act like men to be respected, because we've learned to love and respect ourselves. Harmony. It begins within, for whatever is going on inside of us we will act out and manifest outside of ourselves. Our internal world becomes our external reality.
In 2008 I wrote a song called “My Name is Melody” and I’ve let some friends hear it. After many weeks they were still humming it, so I knew then “it’s a hit”. We hope to release it next spring, but in the meantime I will write a song called “We are Harmony”, or something like that. LOL!! And if I ever have children in this life, I will name them Melody and Harmony. I need both to make good music and to keep that good feeling flowing from me, to you. “Sing. Sing a song. Sing it loud, Sing it strong . . .”Peace.