Archive for Barbara McNairy

To Eat or Not to Eat – A Horn Player’s Recording Dilemma

Posted in Blog, Music with tags , , , on Friday, 24 December 2010, by Stan

Barbara McNairy at the Antelope Valley Mall  (c) Stan Thomas/Kanale Creations

November, 2010

Singer Barbara McNairy was in the process of putting together her Christmas CD titled Christmas Is. She asked me to play flute on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”. I happily agreed. Now all we had to do was find a day when all parties would be available.

One Sunday after church Barbara asked when would be a good time for me to record my part. I replied, “right now!” She asked Corvelle if today would be good for him. He said it would be. And that’s how it began. No preparation, it was just on.

We descended on Corvelle’s studio a little after noon. Jackie brought out some roasted pumpkin seeds, water and tea. After sitting around talking for a while, the subject got around to the task at hand. It was then I realized what we had to work with was a blank canvas. This could either be very good (think spontaneity, allowing ourselves to be completely used by the Spirit), or very bad (think hours of recording with nothing we liked).

I didn’t know if I’d be playing the melody or improvising behind Barbara. We didn’t know what style we’d play. We didn’t even know at what tempo to take the tune. Only two styles came to my mind; either play it in 4/4, legit, around 140 BPM, or as a jazz waltz. Barbara preferred upbeat, straight. And I was to play the melody.

Settling in at the controls, Corvelle prepared to record our first take. I placed the cans, sorry, headphones on my head. We were going to just use a click track to keep time but Corvelle laid down a multi-layered percussion track. He did this off the top of his head. Each instrument a different rhythm, each a perfect contribution to the whole. It had a decidedly Middle-Eastern flavor to it. I could imagine the three kings from the song travelling across the desert to bring their gifts to the baby Jesus. I was really feelin’ this groove. It got me in the mood to lay down the track. Mind you this was just to keep time for me to play against. I don’t know if they kept this in the song because as I write this I haven’t heard the finished product.

As the ideas flowed it was decided we’d do three choruses of two verses each, six times through the melody. I played it through six times non-stop, all in one take. Not bad, I thought. It was then that Corvelle told us that that took only about a minute and a half. Now we had to figure out what else to add to the song.

Meanwhile, Corvelle wanted me to record over the initial track to make it fuller. I got a couple of notes into the first verse and realized that I had to play it exactly as I had played it before. Same breaths, same accents, same phrasing. Now how exactly did I play that before?

I was standing up all this time. You flute players out there know that even though it is a relatively small instrument compared to, say, a saxophone, the flute requires a lot of air and breath control. My body was reminding me of this because I hadn’t eaten yet. Jackie offered me something to eat but initially I declined.

I don’t like to eat before I play for a couple of reasons. One, because I play wind instruments, food particles can end up inside the horn. Two, because if it’s a big meal, it affects my breathing and slightly reduces my lung capacity. No matter how hungry I get before we play, it’s better for me to just tough it out until after the gig.

By the end of the second track I was feeling light-headed. I had to stop for a bit. Going against my own play first-eat later rule, I asked Jackie for an apple. After eating it (and swishing really good with water) and instantly feeling much better, I was back at it.

Ideas continued to flow. Now we were going to do a harmony over the second chorus. Which was cool but I only had the chart for the melody. This was going to involve stepping up a bit here. I told myself that I very often have to transpose charts in concert key on the fly for Tenor so I should be able to do this. After two or three false starts, I finally got the hang of it. Again, same breaths, same accents, same phrasing.

The chart we used was the traditional version. Aside from the meaning of the lyrics, nothing really special about it. Another part of that blank canvas; here are the notes, you make them come to life. While doing the harmony, I heard Jackie singing a note that was different (read better) than the harmony part I was playing. Thought it deviated a bit, I liked it so we used it.

Next, Corvelle suggested doing something of a round. We tried to figure out how that would work. We decided I was to start the melody again three beats after the initial melody started. Here is where it gets interesting.

Up ‘til now I had been playing the melody and playing it again on top of the same melody. Even the harmony part was on top of the same melody. In my headphones I hear what by now sounds to me like a full flute symphony. Now I have to ignore every bit of that lush concerto and come in three beats after the ‘flute symphony’ does. And stay there until the end of the verse. It actually worked out pretty good…until we got to the third line. Without getting into the musical terminology, the second note of the third line clashed with the last note of the second line. When I heard it while recording I thought I had played a wrong note. When I played it the second time making absolutely sure I played the right note I stopped. Sure enough, during the playback, there it was. I studied the chart again. That’s when I discovered the clashing notes. Doctor Corvelle recommended dropping the note from the second part of the round and using that whole section in a different part of the song.

I kept waiting for Barbara to offer her suggestion but every time I looked over at her, she just looked so content. She just allowed us to do what we do. She did say that she liked what we had put together so far. That was good to hear. A couple more takes and Corvelle said we pretty much had what we needed. Barbara seemed happy with we had.

Sometimes the best experiences are those that are unplanned. Thanks Jackie and Corvelle for being such gracious hosts! And thank you Barbara for the opportunity!