Monday, March 31, 2008

VM, competition... and me!

I had a new experience with the Vocal Majority this weekend, one for which the group is perhaps most well-known, but which involves only a fraction of the group's time -- competition! The VM is known worldwide for having won the gold medal in the Barbershop Harmony Society's international chorus competition an unparalleled eleven times, the last ten in a row, but in reality most of the group's time is focused on other things: primarily shows, concerts, or new CDs. Competing keeps the group sharp, but entertaining is much more the heart of the chorus.

In the BHS, when you win the international chorus championship you are not eligible to try for it again for another three years. Because the VM won its eleventh gold in 2006, the earliest we can compete for it again is in the summer of 2009, but the cycle of competitions leading to that opportunity begins well in advance -- first at the Division level, then the District, and then onto the International. This weekend's competition in Oklahoma City was the Division contest that leads to the District contest in October, and then eventually to the 2009 international stage, to be held in Anaheim, California.

Since I'm new to the VM, and to the barbershop world as a whole, it was my first time to compete. It was a very interesting experience. I guess the most shocking thing to me was this: we work as a chorus (and individually) for months on every aspect of our two competition songs -- every vowel and consonant sound, every step, every hand motion, every turn of the head, every emotion, every facial expression, every little subtle nuance, from curtain up to curtain down, over and over and over -- and yet the actual competition is over in a flash. We got onto the risers, were introduced, the curtain came up, and it seems like the next thing I knew, the curtain was down and we were walking off stage.

I vaguely remember performing, but the entire experience felt like it was over in thirty seconds. It's amazing that on those relatively fast flashes of time every three years hang the evaluation and reputation of the group. How incredible.

Brandon came with me for the trip, due mainly to a paperwork mistake that kept him out of a district science fair competition that he'd earned a place in, but I was happy to have him along. He had been wanting to go anyway, so it all worked out. We left at 3:30 Saturday morning and drove straight to Oklahoma City for an 8:00 chorus call. The competition was from 10:00 to 12:30, then we had the afternoon free. We drove 40 miles to the east to take a quick tour of the campus of Oklahoma Baptist University, which I attended for a year and a half. It Brandon's first time to see it, and my first time back in almost 24 years.

Then we went back to Oklahoma City, checked in at our hotel, and crashed for a couple of hours before returning to the contest venue for the evening's "Show of Champions." VM was the closer, performing five songs (which turned into six when an unplanned encore was demanded -- good thing we keep a lot of songs active!) to end the show. Brandon and I finished our looooooong day with an almost-midnight dinner at the Cheesecake Factory, and then headed back to our hotel. We drove home Sunday morning.

All in all, a very interesting, tiring, and satisfying trip. I'm sore as I always am after a VM performance, because of the power and intensity we pour into every move -- a point driven home by the fact that I now have an obvious bruise on my right wrist at the exact spot where my arms collide on a choreography move we do on Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho, a song we sang only twice, once in rehearsal and once on stage. I don't have much time to rest up, though, as VM is busy preparing for our Spring Show, Best of Broadway, in less than three weeks.

Oh, and the competition? Yes, we won our Division, scoring 1105 points out of a possible 1200, for an average per judge per song of 92.1 out of a 100. That's an awesome score at the Division level, and we're glad for it, but we're also still working on improving. It's been said in the VM that we don't really try to compete against other choruses; we compete against the 100. That's the score we work for.

So, I'm no longer a "competition virgin," and more amazing (and reassuring) to me, the VM is still able to do well in competitions even with me in the group! Next stop: the SWD competition in Little Rock in October!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Shalom Alechem

Yesterday was interesting... It started with a presentation in both morning services of my church of a Passover Seder, with explanation from the amazing Stuart Rothberg, a teaching pastor at Sagemont Baptist Church in Houston, of the many, many specific ways this 3,500-year-old ceremonial meal not only looks back to God's deliverance of His people from slavery in Egypt, but also forward to the coming of Jesus the Messiah. (This was my fourth time through a "Christ in the Passover"-type presentation, including one my parents and family celebrated together at home last year, and it never fails to amaze me. If you are a believer in Jesus, you owe it to yourself to see it sometime. If you are Jewish, ditto. Everyone else... ditto, too. What are you waiting for???)

For music, we also had the incomparable Dr. Maurice Sklar, one of the most impressive violinists I have ever heard. (And having played the violin -- poorly -- in my youth, I really marvel at and appreciate a true master of the instrument.) I was in an expanded praise team during both services, and we sang several traditional Jewish songs along with some newer ones written by Jewish believers in Jesus. (Dr. Sklar's tongue-in-cheek comment upon hearing us rehearse one song: "Eliyahu sung in a Baptist church? You are not far from the Kingdom of Heaven.")

So after that morning exposure to Judaism (admittedly with a Messianic perspective)... where better to spend my afternoon, than in synagogue, of course! The Vocal Majority performed a show at Temple Emanu-el in Dallas before an appreciative audience of around 300 people. It may have been the first time I've been in a synagogue, though I vaguely seem to recall going to one on a school field trip in my youth. From the little bit of exploring in hallways and classrooms I was able to do, I was struck by how much it resembled many of the hundreds of churches I've been in (absent crosses and pictures of Jesus, of course), a resemblance made all the more uncanny by the fact that the Temple's Cantor, our host, was the spitting image of a former music minister of mine -- except, of course, for the yarmulke.

All in all, a very interesting but tiring day. My morning was filled with lots of music in minor keys and aspirated "ch" sounds and my afternoon was spent in synagogue. That's as much immersion in Jewish culture as this goyim has ever had.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

That Thing I Do

In That Thing You Do, the 1996 Tom Hanks-directed flick about a smalltime band in the 60's who unexpectedly find themselves with a hit record, there's an awesome scene, my favorite in the movie, where the band first hears themselves on the radio. The band members race to the drummer's family's appliance store and scream themselves silly as they turn on every radio in the place to the same station, and then bounce around in pure unadulterated joy. It's a fun scene.

I had a taste of that last night when I was on my way home from a Vocal Majority practice, rescheduled from last Thursday because of messy weather. I had just climbed into my car and I put my radio on my default news/talk station, WBAP, but they were discussing finance. I switched over to another talk station. More finance. Going down the row of preset buttons, I passed Radio Disney and landed on KAAM, "Legends 770," a local oldies station (although these days "oldies" apparently includes the 1970's!).

There was a beautiful, string-filled orchestra accompanying a men's chorus singing "My Special Angel." Hmm. I... think I know this song. In fact, I think I know the specific arrangement -- because the VM is performing it at a show this Sunday afternoon and I'd just pulled out the music recently to refresh my memory of it! They were playing a cut from the Vocal Majority's With Strings Volume II, which was released a few years ago.

Oh, I'd heard the VM on the radio before, long before I joined the group, but this was different. I'm in the Vocal Majority now, and the radio is playing us!

Okay, so there was no jumping around in an appliance store. And KAAM is a long way from being a station that plays current hits. And... I'm not actually on the album myself, having just joined the VM last year.

But it is pretty cool being in a group that occasionally gets played on the radio.