Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Special Guest Blog: Mary... Oh Mary, Baby, Did You Know?

(photo @ home.comcast.net)


Okay readers, you are in for two great treats this evening.  


1.  We have an excellent guest author.
2.  You don't have to read my writing.


This is a story that I have been begging my good friend, Seth to write for a while.  Seth has his own blog, but he is also a secret celebrity (i.e. he does a dead on impression of a celebrity for a radio show) and keeps a blog in character there.  


Instead of giving away his alter ego, Seth asked to guest author on Ramblings of a Beach Cat.  Since that means the website gets his great stories and I don't have to do almost any work, I humbly agreed. Without further ado, here is the story of a popular contemporary praise song that has taken on a life of its own amongst our circle of friends:  'Mary Did You Know?'


Greetings. My name is Seth, and I will be your storyteller for the evening. Nick is a very dear friend of mine, mainly because we have the same sense of humor, and because we were comrades in suffering during our time as music majors at the University of Kentucky. We were part of a tight-knit group, relying on each other for cathartic release when it came to the stresses of the day. He asked me if I'd like to recount some favorite stories relating to our experiences in music education and the trombone studio at UK.

In the spirit of the holiday season, I'd like to give you a glimpse into one of the best running gags that we in the trombone studio had, and STILL, have going. It revolves around a particular Christmas song... As a professional trombonist, I make a good portion of my income from freelance playing. Christmas is one of the two biggest days/seasons that I am guaranteed work playing with various churches for services, shows, and cantatas. The material follows a rather predictable formula: Christmas carols lead to recognizing that the sweet baby Jesus is the real reason for the season. Most of the time, especially in this struggling economic climate, principal positions in the church orchestra are hired out to anchor an ensemble filled with other church members (generously referred to as "weekend warriors") or young students willing to play for free.

Combine this with a house choir, and the end-result is a cacophonous uproar that only the Lord himself, and the partially deaf blue-haired elders in attendance, could enjoy. We always called the bee-hive haired women "Q-tips," because at a distance, whenever they would lean over to talk to their unsuspecting husbands, they would look like a giant Q-Tip bobbing to and fro in an attempt to clean the poor man's ear out.


                                                                    wordpress.com
It's the moooost wonderful tiiime... I can't hear


To be honest, I really have no problem with community musicians coming together to make a joyful noise, possibly even to a fault. Maybe it's due to my music educator nature, where we accept momentary musical mediocrity under the premise that we are working towards growth and progress over time. I will admit to some degree of frustration however when playing in a group with no intonation center, with a drummer who can't keep good time, and where even my most sensible, moderate dynamic level on the bass trombone buries the entire ensemble. In addition, there was always a rush to avoid the inevitable conversation where I would have to spend 10 minutes humoring old men who felt the uncontrollable urge to tell me that they played the trombone in middle school.

During my undergraduate days at Kentucky, I had numerous opportunities to play at different churches, and many of them were rather gratifying musical experiences with my trombone quartet or brass quintet. However, these experiences occurred when my group was left in charge of ALL the day's music. There comes a time in every church service where some kind of special music is presented, either on its own or for the offertory. For some reason that is too hilarious to be coincidental, one song in particular relentlessly came up over a short period of time, that to this day still has the power to make me burst into laughter regardless of time, place, or setting. That song, is "Mary Did You Know?"  Click the link below, but only if you're prepared to be blown away by spiritual awesomeness.




As one of the central figures in the Christmas story, Our Lady of the Benevolent Income has naturally taken a prominent role on the musical stage. Boat-loads of cash are made as new arrangements and recordings of this song are pumped out every holiday season, which is ironic given Christianity's central tenet of charity. Current butcherings include, but are not limited to, artists such as Kenny Rogers, Wynona Judd, and the ever-masculine Clay Aiken.


To be fair, "Mary Did You Know?" is actually one of the better Christmas tunes in the overtly religious repertoire. If by "better" you mean cheesy, narcolepsy-inducing pop tunes that make you wish your soul would escape in the sweet release of death.


                                                      churchformen.com
That light-headed religious experience you're feeling? It's called sleep apnea.


Along with my friends, Nick and Brad, I really enjoyed frequenting a particular church in Lexington because the pastor always gave a well articulated and inspiring message. In addition, the choir was an exceptional group that always gave a tremendous effort led by a director that we all respected as a professional vocalist and musician. My trombone quartet enjoyed a special relationship with this church, and were grateful that they hired us on so many occasions to play for them.

Like many churches, these two services were split into a more traditional one at 11am, and a more contemporary one at an earlier hour that doesn't exist for brass players, much less college students. Our collective nocturnal natures, along with the contemporary service being held in the gymnatorium rather than the main sanctuary, led to a rather surreal experience. My quartet's task was to play 10 minutes of prelude music, a special music feature, and the post-service postlude.

The offertory was left to a gentleman-member of the church who decided to sing, "Mary Did You Know?" Prelude and the special feature went off without a hitch, after which we had a substantial break. I'm sure someone other than us appreciated the sight of four grown men sitting in the front row, clad in suits and ties, trying to look comfortable while clutching trombones and sitting elbow to elbow in folding chairs meant for middle-school children.

As we sat, half-dazed from sermonal assault and early morning brain fog, the dulcet tones of a slow pop-rock CD accompaniment lulled us to slumber. The introduction was complete with the typical verbal barriers like "Ooooohh" and "Yeaah" that inevitably pop up when the lyrics lack substance. The slightly pained look on his face was even there. The only things missing were the diva-like hand gestures.


                               jointhegleeclub
Artistry: Moving my hands helps me avoid the pitch.


I remember looking up into space at one of the gym's many basketball hoops and thinking that this introduction seemed rather long. How long was it going to take to get to the first verse?  Our lucid nightmare was rudely interrupted when the singer abruptly stopped.

"I'm sorry... can we start this one again? I've lost my place..."

 There lies in every musician a shared fear of this happening, and to this day it's still a source of performance anxiety for me. I always feel awkward for people when I witness it, and genuinely felt bad for the guy...until he said, "Happens to the best of us."

 Wait...What?! The BEST of us? Something about the way he said this really bothered me, like he really WAS counting himself among the best of us. Our illustrious trombone instructor went to great lengths teaching us to never make excuses for our performance, and while I tried to remind myself that this guy shouldn't be held to the same performance standards as me, I couldn't help but roll my eyes a bit. After all, this guy had probably spent countless minutes at a Wednesday night rehearsal diligently trying to remember that the first words to "Mary Did You Know?" are "Mary Did You Know?"


                                         joeystrawn.com
All the world's his stage.


After a complete and awkward silence, which is one of the worst things for a musician to experience on stage (as every second seems like an eternity), the CD accompaniment started again. Same long intro. Same look of passing a monumental bowel movement. Same exact "Ohhhhh's" and Ya-yeaaaaah's" in the same exact spots as before.

 At this point it took every ounce of self-control we had to suppress our laughter, much less our smiles. I kept wondering who would break first. All it would take was simple eye contact and my money was on Lee, who had a penchant for doing so. Twice, the chorus swelled to a climax, and twice, the singer cried at the absolute top of his range: "DID YOU KNOW-HO!?"

 All joking aside from literally calling the Virgin Mary a "ho," that last syllable went even higher, COMPLETELY out of his chest-voice range, and was belted out in a cracked, pterodactyl-like mating call that would have made all Michael's of the Bolton and McDonald variety stand up and slow-clap.


Somebody get this man a record deal!


As musicians, we are taught to imitate greatness. This robust musical appoggiatura became a universal greeting/battle cry for us as we wandered the halls of UK's Fine Arts building, or answered each others' cell phone calls. We joked about how I was going to choreograph spontaneous interpretive dance to a trombone choir arrangement of this, the greatest song ever sung.  Little did we know that further greatest from this piece of music was yet to be experienced.

The second instance of this tune cemented a great running gag for the UK trombone studio into timeless lore. The UK Trombone Ensemble would often perform "run-out" gigs to raise money for an upcoming tour or trip. This time, we ventured out to perform at our professor's church on a Sunday morning in December. The special music for offertory at this service was superbly delivered by the church's children's choir singing none other than my new favorite tune. Professional musicians spend so much time in pursuit of perfection in every aspect of our art, that listening to a children's choir becomes a rather awkward experience for me. I know I'm a terrible person for this, but I just can't get past the squirming bodies and poor intonation to experience the "that's so cute" novelty of the situation.

                                             special.news.msu.edu
Terrible.



The first verse of "Mary Did You Know?" starts with the following lyrics:

 Mary did you know, that your baby boy, would one day walk on water?

 Mmm... So poetic... Anyway, the second verse poses an equally ponderous query:

 Mary did you know, that your baby boy, would give sight to a blind man?

Utterly delightful. Nothing to get worked up about humor-wise, though, unless you had been through my previous ordeal. Here's where things got interesting. Children throughout history, and especially in their current A.D.D. form, are prone to distraction and forgetfulness. Despite the conductor mouthing every single word in dramatic whispering fashion, one of the singers ended up giving us this quality gem; a combination of both verses that you just can't premeditate:

Mary did you know, that your baby boy, would one day walk... a blind man?




                                                   rollingstone.com
" - the hell..?" Stevie wondered.



BRILLIANT! Walt Whitman, eat your heart out! Bless that poor child's heart, but my overactive imagination went wild. How does one walk a blind man? Do you let him lead, or do you drag him along so he can feel confident in his footsteps? Obviously there's a leash involved. Can't have him wandering out in front of unsuspecting buses... Probably need to bring along some of those poop bags. I wonder if he knows what his face looks like when he shamefully takes a Number 2 on the sidewalk...

I literally had to put my face down in my arms on the pew-back in front of me, knowing that eye contact with anyone would spell my composure's doom in front of my professor and the church congregation. Years later, none of us can hear this song without laughing. Just hearing the first few notes of the melody can set me off. Nick wasn't even present for the first part of this story, yet he has left voicemails for me, solely consisting of this tune playing in the background.  Part of me hopes that Mary smiles and nods in approval.


                                                           flickr.com

Somehow, I think she knew.