My First Singing Valentine (February 2014)

As our chorus, Harmony Express, prepared for its Singing Valentines program for 2014, it became quite clear that there was a shortage of volunteers to fill in all of the four parts for the quartets needed for both the morning and late evening sessions.  Although my confidence in delivering the lead notes in a quartet as a romantic offering from one person to his significant other was quite limited, I had to do something.  I had not been able to support the chorus in past years for the Valentine’s day happenings.  I needed to go out of my comfort zone to help the chorus this time, especially since I had time on my hands.  So I signed up!

I was assigned to sing with two different quartets, one in the morning and the other in the evening.   The morning crew consisted of two people who were accomplished singers, and two others of us who did not quite match up to the first two.  Both of us less accomplished singers had signed up to help the chorus even though we were not used to singing in quartets.  You knew that things were not going well when we practiced for the first time, when right away I began to get all kinds of instructions on how to improve my singing.  This did not make for a good start.  A few days earlier the quality of my singing had led our chorus director to give me some directions for changing the mechanics of my singing process, and now I was hearing many more suggestions to add to the mix, all of which were being provided with the best of intentions.  But I was trying to figure out four or five different new things at the same time, and this made things difficult.  There were instructions that did not make any sense to an engineer.  Throw your voice forward to produce the brightness required for barbershop singing (rather than produce the deep sounds from your throat like an opera singer).  Keep your sound tall.  Keep the soft palate closed (easier said than done!).  Let the sound come out of the top of your head.  And then there were these other directions – sing louder, sing like a drunken person, sing as if you had a marshmallow or a golf ball stuck in your mouth, remove the tension in your voice, relax your throat muscles, get under that last note in the song, sit on the note, get on top of the note. Oh my goodness! After singing in the chorus for so many years, the sound of my singing voice was in the process of being deconstructed and reconstructed in a big way yet again.

Well, one of the songs that we sang during the first practice session went off OK, but it turned out that I had been singing the last note of the second song slightly sharper than it needed to be for a very long time.  This discovery brought the whole practice session to a complete halt.  The good singers could not continue forward with the current quality of singing from the lead.  So I spent the whole week focusing on the song that was giving me difficultly.  I made recordings of my singing on the computer, with and without accompaniment from the learning track.  Sure enough, I had been singing the last note incorrectly for years. But nobody had corrected me during all that time!  It was going to be difficult to undo something I had been doing for such a long time. The next week I went back to practice thinking that my problem had been addressed, but I got grief immediately once again.  Another week of painful repetitions of the last part of the song followed at home with the learning tracks and a pitch pipe in hand.  Every time I thought I had it, the pitch on that last note of the song would drift upwards subtly.  Most people would not have made a big deal of it, but I could not get away with it with the folks I was singing with. It was maddening.  Now that I was thinking about it so much, I also began to feel that the pitch on that last note had to be exact.  After all, engineers tend to be anal retentive, and like things to be perfect. I analyzed my problem systematically as engineers are wont to do, and I did it in so many different ways in excruciatingly painful detail.  I compared each note I was singing at the tail end of the song to the notes in the learning media, and I also compared these notes to the notes that came out of the pitch pipe.  Not that it was going to help me, but I even looked up the difference in frequencies between the neighboring notes. It did not help that I had never learned to read music. My singing of the whole song (not just the end of it) was now beginning to fall apart because I was thinking too much about it.  But I think the analysis did finally work in the end.  I realized that the problem was not just in the last note, but in the previous note as well.  Since I was sharp on the penultimate note (a fact that nobody had pointed out), I was also sharp on the last note.  I needed to focus on the entire sequence of notes.  Luckily I got to the root of the problem with sufficient time to spare.  After a sufficient amount of practice I was able to get back to trying to relax and singing the complete song freely once again without tensing up too much.

The weekend before Valentine’s day we sang the songs in front of our director so that he could check the quality of the songs and also offer some constructive criticism.  While the experts may have been thinking about the exact pitches for the notes, the director just focused on how comfortable I was singing the songs. Of course, the song that I had spent hours practicing was the one for which I was a little more tense and had the most issues with delivery.  We decided that that song would be the last option during our gigs.

The Friday of Valentine’s day comes up just as the area is recovering from a massive snow storm.  It became quite clear the previous evening that we would have no orders for Friday morning.  That meant that I would not have to sing with the folks who tended to be most critical of my singing.  For a little while it also seemed like there would be no customers for the evening, and that I would get off scott free from the whole gig.  But that situation changed during the day.  I was going out with a quartet to Columbia, MD, not very close by, to deliver two Singing Valentines programs.  Not only that, we would be delivering the most expensive package that we had, which meant singing all three songs that we had practiced, along with a card, a box of chocolates and a dozen roses.   I could not get away from the song that I had been critiqued about, and I would have to sing it on two occasions.  Now, the quartet for the evening was different from the one I had spent a long time practicing with. It did not include the people who had been most concerned about my singing, but it did include a person who I had never sung with before (because he had not been coming to practices).  This was going to be quite the experience!  But you know what, I was not stressed out about any of this.  I resolved to just relax and do whatever I could do, with whatever musical quality I could conjure up.  I was not even going to worry about the problematic song.  Que sera sera.

We landed up at the first home where we were supposed to sing after the sun had set.  It was turning cold and the water from the melting ice had begun to refreeze up on the roads.  The first thing we did when we got out of our cars was to warm up by singing together in the cold beside the car. This warm-up was especially important since we were singing together for the first time.  We sang through each of the songs once.  It did not sound too bad.  We carefully proceeded into the home sliding over the ice.  I think the lady to whom we were delivering the songs was expecting us.   She sat on the sofa waiting for us to start while her husband stood in the background.  The boy who had been sitting in the room decided that he wanted none of this and vanished to his room.  The dog stayed back.

I sang my heart out to her.  I was trying to channel as much emotion as I could into the song, but she was sitting there looking somewhat expressionless, even looking away from me.  I thought that the beginnings of the songs were ragged in timing and pitch, but we sang pretty decently (not great) after the shaky start.  We got to the end of the songs and I could not make out how successful we had been from looking at her face, but the dog was wagging its tail.  The lady thanked us individually for coming and then we departed.  I have to say that I was not nervous while singing, and I tried to focus on delivering the emotion of the song rather than the exact singing technique and notes.

The lady at the second house did not know that we were coming, but she knew that her husband was up to something because he had not wanted to leave the home earlier for dinner.  We started singing the first song, and she immediately reached out for her husband’s hand on the seat behind her.  She was appreciating the words in the song.  She was definitely paying attention.  She was moved!  We went on to the second and third songs and she was really feeling it and getting a little emotional.   At the end she came up and hugged each one of us.  It looked like we had made a successful delivery.  But I did think that our singing was still only of similar quality to that for our first stop.  It was not top notch.  And we did get a generous tip this time…

So we drove back home and I was feeling quite satisfied about the way things turned out.  I knew that I had done what I could for the chapter within my limitations.  I was done.  Or so I thought.

A couple of days after Valentine’s day, our program coordinator sent out a request for singers to deliver a Singing Valentine that we had not been able to deliver on Friday.  The school at which the delivery was supposed to take place had been closed that day on account of the weather.  The husband would like the the Singing Valentine to be delivered even if it was late.  Being the helpful soul that I was, I said that I was available.  As luck would have it, I was asked to be the lead in yet another quartet on Wednesday.  This time all the other parts of the quartet, not just two, were being sung by good singers.  I was the odd man out.  But the situation was slightly different.  Two of the new singers had been singing in quartets for years and had the experience to deal with folks like me who were not that good.  The third person in the quartet happened to be one of the guys who had been pointing out my mistakes at the quartet practices earlier on.  But no worries!

I got to the location where we had decided to meet for a warm-up session prior to the drive to the school to deliver the Valentines.  Let’s sing, they said!   The pitch pipe was blown.  I delivered my first note.  You are flat, Kuriacose – came the somewhat pointed statement from the bass who was staring at me, not looking too happy.  I stared back at him silently, thinking to myself that this was an honest criticism, that I should not react negatively, and that I should endeavor to do better with the next start.  But the others were not as rough.  Hey man, give him a break, he just came out the cold – said the tenor.  If he is flat, then we also need to sing flat – said the baritone.  The fact of the matter is that the tenor, bass and baritone are expected to follow the lead wherever he takes them, even if it is off-tune.  I took off my jacket and prepared myself for a long warm up session.  They were a little gentler with me after that.   The singing improved with each song that we sang.  They would have wanted me to sing louder, but understood that I was more comfortable at a lower volume level, and that they would need to adjust. They gave suggestions on how to get beyond just singing the right notes in order to deliver a performance. A light level of conducting was suggested from one of the experienced singers in order to make this an effective performance.  We were singing quite well as a quartet as we headed off to the school in the tenor’s vehicle.

The Frost School in Rockville, MD, is a school for children with special needs.  After we signed in at the front desk with the receptionist, we waited to be escorted to a room when we would deliver the Singing Valentines.  The person who took us to the room was the one we were going to be singing to.  What I did not know was that she was going to have the school kids in the room while we were singing.  As we went down the corridor, she let the teachers know that we were there, and kids streamed into the performance room from all directions.  If there were a time I should have started becoming nervous, this was it!  I was singing to a room full of kids with special needs.  But things were cool.  Things were laid back.  After the introductions and the delivery of the flowers, cards and chocolates, the pitch pipe was blown.  Our experienced tenor knew enough to hum my first note so that I would have a good start.  And then we were off to the races.  We sang quite well I was told.  I thought that we did create some nice chords that rang, which is an indication of how well the different parts were harmonizing together. In any case, after we sang our third and supposedly last song, there was a request for an encore. There was an impromptu performance of one of the songs from the Barbershop polecat book without any prior practice.  This time even I could make out that we had nailed it.  The song sounded incredibly gorgeous, and on the last note I could feel the perfect harmony.  It was an awesome blend.  There was hushed silence from the folks in the room as the song ended.  Home run!

We departed in good spirits, and I thanked the rest of the gang for supporting me.  They declared that they were willing to sing in this quartet in the future at any time!  (I might hold them to that one!) As for me, I was happy with the way things turned out.  I will be signing up to sing next year.

A Farewell To The King (7/18/2014)

I just heard that BB King passed away last night.  I happened to go for his concert in Washington, DC, in July, 2014.  This is what I wrote at that time…


It was March 2014 when I first heard that the king was coming into town.  Having been a fervent admirer of his works for a very long time, but not having seen him in person, I thought that I should make the effort to meet him at least this one time.  Here was a man who had given so many years of his life to the cause, and it was time to pay homage.

On July 17th, 2014, on an unusually cool summer evening, my friend and I boarded a Metro train at Shady Grove station to head out to the capital city of Washington DC to see the king.  I was looking forward to this, and in a moment of irrational optimism, I even picked up a pen from the kitchen counter before I left home – in the hope that I could get an autograph on the ticket that I had printed at home.  But, at the same time, I also had this nagging concern at the back of my mind about the well-being of the king.  After all he was 88 years old, and he was suffering from diabetes.  He had looked his age in recent times, and when he addressed his subjects recently, it was always from from a lonely chair on which he sat with his friend Lucille.  But, in spite of his age, the king had always brought a smile to my face.

That evening in Washington DC was a somewhat sad one.  I was probably witnessing history in some way.  It was not the B. B. King, the King of the Blues, the guitar god, that I had known, who was on stage.  It was not the performance that I had been expecting.  It was as if I was witnessing a passing, and it might  have been the opportunity for B. B. King admirers in the DC area to pay their respects to the great man for the last time before he set sail into the sunset.

One might have suspected that all was not right when the program started with a long set by the warm-up band, and an extended intermission that lasted more than half an hour.  Then the B. B. King Band came on and played a piece all by itself for about 10 minutes.  B.B. King only appeared on the stage after all that was over.  When the King shuffled on to the stage (with some difficulty and with the help of some other folks) the audience rose from their seats and applauded wildly in honor of the Man.  There was a sense of anticipation in the air.  But one began to suspect that things were not right during the first song that was played after he sat down.  It was essentially an introduction to the members of the band. BB talked most of the time.  Lucille, his guitar, sat on his lap with the strings untouched for the most part.  In fact there was another lead guitarist featured in the band who was picking up the slack for BB.  BB rambled along, talking to the audience in the front row most of the time.  He appeared to be very distracted.  The one or two occasions on which he actually played his guitar, it did not sound quite right, and perhaps BB also realized this and even stopped trying.  The rest of the band played on respectfully, as well as they could.  They were superb.

I think there were only four songs that BB “performed” during his set.  One of the songs was a simple sing-along that he did with the audience.  The song was “You are my Sunshine“.  His mind seemed to wander during the song and I had some difficulty making out what he was saying.  He did acknowledge that at his age he was just happy to be where he was at.  He said he was enjoying his time with the audience.  But too often he would wander off, again and again, and even try to start more conversations with people in the audience.  He was slowly losing the rest of his audience as the performance went on.

But there were also those occasional spots of brilliance during the show. BB would summon all his focus and energies to deliver the chorus lines for The Thrill is Gone or Rock me Baby.  As his voice rose with confidence, the superb horn section and the piano would also rise to meet the challenge, and there was this wonderful crescendo of beautiful sound that arose from the stage.  He could certainly still hit the notes with power like the B.B. King of old.  There were moments in time during the concert during which all my senses were heightened in anticipation of what could come next.  But such instances where infrequent. And what could have been never happened that evening.  BB could not sustain his energy.

As the evening went on the audience must have slowly realized what was happening on stage.  Most people were content to let BB ramble along in his own way because of the respect they had for the Man.  But there were also some who were impatient.  BB must have realized what was going on, and I suspect that it was on a couple of these occasions that he actually made the effort to deliver a performance.  But people also started leaving before the end of the concert.

As the band went into its encore at the end of the set,  B. B. King was in his own world.  He would not cooperate as the handlers came on stage to try to get him off.  The encore went on and on as people crowded to the front to get a closer view of the Man and to take pictures.  My friend and I departed as this scene continued to play out on the stage.  It was getting late and it was time for us to take the Metro back to our quiet suburban lives.

During the evening I also heard the news that a commercial jet had just been shot out of the sky, and that Israel had started its ground offensive into the Gaza strip.   It was a very sad evening indeed.  The thrill is gone.

What Happens to Aging Rock and Roll Bands?

The short answer is that they end up performing on cruise ships.

But this blog is about much more than the answer to the above question. A couple of days ago I got a call from my friend asking if I was interested in seeing Uriah Heep perform at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA.   An old rock-and-roller like me cannot even keep his bands straight, and my mind gravitated towards Jethro Tull, the name of another band from the same era! I was thinking of the music from Heep while thinking Tull. Go figure! But it would not have mattered. I said yes.

For those of you who do not know, Uriah Heep is a band from the 1970s that used to create music that would not have  necessarily been considered mainstream. Their heavier brand of rock music was actually quite innovative and catchy at the same time. Songs like July Morning, Easy Living, Lady in Black and Sunrise are all unique in their own way, with great vocals (including occasional notes up there in the stratosphere), fantastic extended guitar and keyboard riffs, and awesome drum solos. They were also one of those bands that were not afraid to make songs that were long. (This was not unusual for that time.) You could find yourself taken on a roller coaster of a musical ride that could last 10 to 15 minutes. Needless to say, the music was not necessarily targeted towards those with short attention spans.

I was surprised to find out that the band was still together.   A quick search on Wikipedia revealed that they have come out with new albums in both 2013 and 2014. While personnel changes happened very frequently during their earlier days, more recently there has been more stability in the group, except for the death of their bass guitarist in 2013. One has to remember that the older members of the band are now in their 60s!

Birchmere is small but a well-known musical venue that has been hosting music groups since the 70s. It is a somewhat more intimate setting than a concert hall or a stadium, with the audience sitting at dining tables not too far from the stage enjoying their food and drink. It makes for a great set up.




The band started promptly at 7:30pm. There was no mistaking the age of the people who were on stage. The vocal lead was even displaying a nice paunch. They still had the long hair that was typical of bands of the 70s, as if they were trying to still keep some the reminders of their youth.  But they need not have worried about the hair. Their music instantly took us back to the old days. They rocked! Even the music from their newer albums had the same flair and style as the music of our youth.  The group had the same energy as a bunch of young rockers, and we even got our loud guitar, keyboard and drum solos.   The lead singer even hit the high notes that are unique to some of their songs with ease (he could be excused for losing his voice during the encore). This was great after my previous disappointing experience with BB King!   They did not play too long but they gave it all they had while they were on stage. They did not take a single break during their set.  (This could not have been easy for people at their age.)  One of the things I like about these type of shows is that it is less about the staging and the choreography and more about the music. I had a great time with the music, the food, and the drink.




OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne could not help but wonder what it takes for bands like this to stay together, and why they would choose to remain as a group for this long.   They are obviously not a mainstream band today (they tended to be a fringe band even during their heydays), and life cannot be that easy when you are performing in smaller venues like the Birchmere or on cruise ships. (Here is a piece of trivia. The band apparently performed at OAT in IIT Madras in 1983.) But these guys continue to come out with new albums with good music. They still appear to have their creative juices flowing. Is that all there is to it, or do they do this in order to be able to make a living and survive? But how can they manage something like that under the circumstances? They still seem to have most of the overhead of a regular rock band, but their audiences have surely shrunk from the days when they were better known.

There is probably no point to my wondering about questions for which I will get no answers – unless one of the band members decides to write a tell-all story.  For now one must just enjoy the music, and the nostalgic feeling that comes with the process of being taken back to a previous time in one’s life, in another century, when one was still young.