The Music of Drew Fennell

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Drew's Blog
reflections, ruminations, meditations, observations,
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3/1/08 Old Friends
3/3/08 A Brave New World
3/6/08 Composer Carson Cooman

3/7/08 BSO Composer of the Year
3/17/08 Happy (Belated) Birthday to Me
4/10/08 Composer Mike Tomaro
4/11/08 The Very Depths of Me
5/22/08 The Very Depths of Me, II
8/11/08 What I Did This Summer
8/12/08 Kevin 'Big Guy' McKelvey

Kevin "Big Guy" McKelvey (Tuesday, August 12th, 2008)

Yesterday afternoon, the new Kittanning Firemen's Band compact disc, Engine KFB, arrived in the mail (see my earlier blog entry). My friend, Manny, called me to tell me he had a dozen boxes of CDs (over 1,000 units) in his garage. I went right over, and with grand ritual (and the help of a steak knife), we opened the first box. We each took a CD and inspected every inch of it. We were quite pleased with the look of the final product. Then we went and played some of it on his stereo. We could not have been much happier about the whole thing. All the long hours of tedious work this summer was worth it.

...I should mention at this point that one of the tracks on the CD is a tune called Spirit of Big Guy March. It is a song I wrote for the band eight years ago upon hearing that a good friend, Kevin McKelvey (a.k.a “Big Guy”) had passed away - at the age of twenty-five - in a car accident. The band played it at Kevin’s funeral and it has since become a regular part of the band’s repertoire. The inclusion of this piece on the recording is very meaningful for me - and for a lot of people. So, back to yesterday...

I left Manny’s house in high spirits and drove to my hometown (Ford City) to give a recording to my parents. Along the way, I began thinking of “Big Guy,” and I thought I absolutely should make a visit to his grandfather to bring him a couple of CDs, so I drove down the road a little further.

When I arrived, “Red” (Kevin’s grandpa) greeted me at the door, but did not recognize me - his eyesight failing him. I told him who I was and what I had brought for him; and then we talked for a while about the recording, about the band and about Kevin. I read aloud for him the “In Memoriam” to Kevin which appears inside the CD booklet. That was difficult for me, but he really seemed to appreciate it. After a nice visit, I got in my car, but instead of going back the way I came, I decided to go the other direction, about a half-mile away, to the cemetery where Kevin was buried. It was as if I were being pulled in that direction - I didn’t have a choice in the matter.

I am not usually all that sentimental about cemeteries, but when I got there, I was struck with some powerful memories. I had not been in that place since the day Kevin was buried - a very similar day, with a misty rain and cool summer temperatures. I parked across the gravelly country road, rolled down the window, set the CD player on repeat and walked up the hill to Kevin’s gravesite with the sound of the Spirit of Big Guy March floating from out of my car. It is hard to describe how those few minutes felt. It was like some sort of a ceremonial pilgrimage.

When I reached his gravesite, I looked back down over the hill. Across the road where my car was parked stood the little country church where his funeral took place. I remember that day. The entire band had stood in front of that church, playing Amazing Grace, Danny Boy and Spirit of Big Guy March as they had prepared to bring Kevin, in his casket, up the hill to his final resting place. After everything was over that day, I remember talking to a friend who was equally close to “Big Guy.” At that moment, we both agreed that we felt like empty shells after days of intense emotion.

For a few minutes, I walked around the site, taking a couple of pictures with my phone. Kevin’s mother and his grandmother are buried on either side of him; they both passed away two years ago. Along the way, I discovered that his mother had an inscription on her stone: “Big Guy’s Mom.” I chuckled at that, and then I got a little teary-eyed. She never got over losing her son.

I walked back to my car and drove away with a feeling of exultation at having visited Kevin, and at having played his song for him. I laughed a bit at the thought that people driving by might have wondered at that cheery march playing in such a somber place on such a misty, gray day. But they didn’t know “Big Guy.” It could not have been any more appropriate.

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What I Did This Summer (Monday, August 11th, 2008)

After a very long hiatus, I am back at the keyboard today. It has been a very full summer with lots to do. Maybe I'll write about some of that another time, but I wanted to focus on one thing in particular today. So, in answer to the age-old essay question, “What did you do this summer?,” here is my response.

Some who read this will know I am a member of a group called the Kittanning Firemen's Band. I have played in the band for (gulp) twenty years - more than half my life. It is an all-men's amateur band that has been around for almost sixty years. We have a great time playing together, but we have just as much fun on bus trips to performances and even just in rehearsal. It constantly reminds me of why I started playing the trumpet in the first place: because it is fun. I won't lie: it is an amateur group and I sometimes get a bit frustrated with the level of musicianship, and more so, with things I perceive as a lack of commitment to the group. I'm a perfectionist about the things I do - and this extends to the things I do with others as well. But, on the whole, I thoroughly enjoy playing with this great bunch of guys, and I would miss the band terribly if I didn't have it anymore.

For years - even back to the time when I directed the band (in the late 1990s) - there has been talk of making a recording of the band. I always played the idea down, because making a recording is a monumental task, and I felt we needed a more consistently-high level of performance by the musicians to ensure a good result. It was decided at the outset of this season that (come heck or high water) the band would, in fact, make a recording this summer. Again, I was not the most positive voice on the subject, but I resolved to do all I personally could in an effort to make it as successful a venture as possible.

The band met at Kittanning High School on June 7th for what would be a six-hour marathon recording session. It was very much a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants thing. A friend of the band brought his digital recording equipment to be used along with some microphones and other equipment we rented, and we set to work.

There were frustrating moments early on, and I was getting worried we might not make it work. Right away, we noticed the stage lights buzzed at somewhere around the same decibel level as a 747 jet (maybe a slight exaggeration). They had to be turned off. So some of the guys brought in some portable emergency lights from one of the fire stations, and we played the session on a dim stage with long shadows cascading down the stage. Worse yet, a bit later, we found we had lost a lot of the material we recorded because of a technical glitch. But we soldiered on through the day.

...For those who have not done recording before, I should mention that it is a very arduous process for the performing musicians. It is not as simple as sitting down and playing through all the material you’ve prepared. It is extremely physically, mentally and emotionally draining - much more so than a rehearsal or performance. The pressure to “get everything right” is great, and the result of that pressure is that it is even harder to “get everything right.” In all my experience, I have never left a recording session not feeling completely drained...

Halfway through the day, we got a chance to hear a couple of the things we had recorded, and it sounded pretty darned good. Everyone was reinvigorated, and we completed the session in high spirits, with fourteen tunes recorded.

A couple of weeks later, the director of the band, Jason Krecota, and I got together to begin listening to the tracks and choosing the material which would ultimately be edited together to make the final versions of the tunes. We met at the home of my oldest friend (we met in third grade), Manny Wolfe, who served as recording engineer.

...For those who’ve not been involved with recording before, following a recording session, you have multiple takes of each tune you recorded at the session. Usually, for every minute of music utilized in the final product, you’ll have as much as five or even ten minutes of recorded music to sift through. Producers go through and select the material to be used, and then recording engineers work with the digital waveforms on a computer to assemble the various takes into a finished product. Some tunes only require one or two different takes, but some can require many, many takes to be digitally spliced together into the final version. Later the engineer does things to “sweeten up” the tracks: adding reverb and bolstering the sound in such a way as to make it sound as robust as possible - called “mastering”...

Jason and I met in Manny’s basement several times over the course of two weeks or so, and then Manny set to work piecing everything together. It was a grueling process for him, but for the most part, it went smoothly, and as time went on, I began to believe we would have a pretty nice recording after all.

We ended up having to jettison two of the tracks that didn’t pass muster, but happened - very much by chance - on a vinyl record of the Kittanning Firemen’s Band from 1963 (as far as we know, the earliest recording of the group). It was decided that we include that recording (digitally enhanced) as a bonus track on the recording, and so the final count is thirteen songs.

A friend of mine, Todd Pascuzzi, is an excellent graphic designer who specializes in this sort of thing, so he worked with us to create a really good-looking compact disc. The band made recordings in the 1970s, 80s and 90s which were black, blue and white respectively, so the plan was the call this recording the “Red album.” And is it ever!... It looks fantastic, in my opinion. I think Todd did an amazing job with the art.

Today is supposed to be the delivery date for the CDs. Everyone is excited about it. I’m just waiting for a phone call to go pick up my copy of Engine KFB.

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The Very Depths of Me, II (Thursday, May 22nd, 2008)

I have been meaning to write for some time now regarding The Very Depths of Me and the choral program at Fox Chapel in general. I suppose I'll start with the Fox Chapel choral program.

My wife and I attended the "Seniors' Honor Concert" last week and were both thoroughly impressed with what we heard. There were around ten different groupings of singers onstage during the performance and each was really excellent. Of particular note were the senior women who sang a piece (based on a Charles Dickens text) called These Things Can Never Die (composer: Lee Dengler). Just before this, my wife remarked that the concert was running a little long, and after this performance I looked over at her and saw tears welling up. I also loved that performance (no tears, but I'll admit to a lump in my throat). They sang with such heartfelt authenticity. And there was a moment near the end when they moved closer together and joined hands which was particularly touching. I imagine that piece - and especially that moment - were was quite poignant for the parents in the room. That rendition was genuinely a high point among many. Another outstanding performance not to be overlooked was that of Eric Whitacre's Lux Arumque, by the concert choir (the largest group of the evening). It is a stunningly beautiful piece. This is the first time I heard it and I was blown away by the sensitivity of the singers and the great dynamicism of their performance. Wow.

Of course, the big event was the premiere of The Very Depths of Me, and for me, it did not disappoint. I stood backstage at that point in the performance and watched the singers (to paraphrase the poet's words) give the audience a piece of their hearts. How inspiring it was to witness the giving of such a gift - something which happens only so infrequently in the world. It wasn't their strongest executuion technically. I could tell their voices were a bit tired (they'd sung so much already), but there was a sort of magical quality to the performance. I really enjoyed it, even from the not-so-acoustically-ideal spot where I stood.

The audience response was very favorable, but for me the appreciation of the musicians was the best part (it always is for a musician). These thirty-six young people really understood the words, the music - all of it. They got it, and were able to communicate it musically; and that's what we're all trying to do in this business of music. How great that they get to do that at such a very high level all the time - as teenagers no less.

At one of the two rehearsals I attended, I remarked to the Madrigal Singers - who premiered Depths - that I wish I'd been able to sing in a group like that in high school. The truth be told, I kind of wish I could sing in a group like that even now! Which brings me to two days ago...

On Tuesday, I went to a little church in Fox Chapel for a recording session. In addition to the live performance at the "Seniors' Honor Concert," all the choirs at Fox Chapel High School get the opportunity to record in a controlled environment each selection from the concert. When the time came to record The Very Depths of Me, Director Craig Cannon invited me to sing along with the group. It was a lot of fun (as it turns out, I wrote a really interesting Tenor I part for Depths). So I got my wish of singing with such a great group. I thank Craig and all the singers for letting me join in.

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The Very Depths of Me (Friday, April 11th, 2008)

A couple of weeks ago, I completed my latest work. I am excited about it for a few reasons: 1) I think it is a decent little piece, 2) it's essentially my first work for choir and 3) it will be performed by a very good group - the Fox Chapel Area High School Madrigal Singers.

I first heard the FCAHS Choirs about ten years ago when I played a piece with them at the PMEA (Pennsylvania Music Educators Association) Conference. I was blown away. As you might expect, they sang with musicality, good intonation, good sound and good rhythm. But the difference was what their director, Craig Cannon, did dynamically. From what I have witnessed, he approaches choral singing like an instrumental conductor. The group did things I never heard a choir - and certainly not a high school choir - do before. They did accents, staccatos, sforzandos and crescendos with every bit of drama and intensity that any instrumental group could produce. It left quite an impression on me.

Over the years since then, I have collaborated with Craig a number of times, both in projects for the school and also playing under him at a couple of local churches. Along the way, I asked if he'd be interested in commissioning me to do a piece, and he recently gave me the go-ahead. I suggested using a Shakespeare sonnet or some beloved poem as a text, and then one of us (I can't remember which) got the idea of using a student work. So, he held a somewhat informal contest among the students at the school to decide which poetry would be set to music.

He left the final decision, among three of the strongest texts, to me. After some consideration, I selected a poem by FCAHS student Lara Graham which I think is quite good. I'm certainly no expert, but I genuinely like the tone of the work. It has a clear point of view and a message which speaks to everyone - especially young people. Below is the text.

The Very Depths of Me
by Lara Graham

And I realize I can’t idealize
About fantasies that never will come true
And I understand that there is a plan
That I must inevitably follow
But can’t I dream a little?
Sing foolishly a little?
Let myself sink into that weakness that you see
So that for one moment you’d comprehend
That in that weakness is me
Open the doors to my soul
Let my voice echo in harmony
Hear me give you a piece of my heart
Don’t close the gates
Leave me in disgrace
Because this is my most precious gift
Listen while you can
To my foolish melody
My silly childhood dream
Because in this world such things are fleeting
But in my heart they’ll be forever beating
And for this one moment you can see
They are the very depths of me

I spoke briefly with the poet about what she meant to portray - the idea of how nice it would be to detach from what is expected, and as she put it, to "say what I feel without distraction." When I read the text, I can imagine the perspective of the writer: a young person with hopes and dreams who just wants to express those (maybe unrealistic) passions without feeling foolish about doing so. The words progress from tentative hopefulness to pure exaltation and finally to calm resignation.

In writing the music, I hoped to capture that hopefulness, exaltation and resignation. For me, the words are as if spoken in a prayer or a dream. I tried to keep that in mind when choosing the melodic and harmonic schemes. I wanted the musical phrases to communicate a sense of longing, almost as the moments just before waking from a perfect dream when you want to linger there just a bit longer. I think, alongside the hopefulness and exultation, there is also a pervasive sense of disappointment in the text. The writer, despite living for a moment in reverie, knows reality will always return. I think one of the great gifts of youth is boundless hope for the future, and the unfortunate side effect of growing up is the abandonment of many of those dreams.

I am heartened to hear that Craig and the members of the chorus do in fact like the piece - and I really can't wait to hear them sing it. I will write more on the subject when I do.

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Composer Mike Tomaro (Thursday, April 10th, 2008)

It's been three weeks or so since I last wrote. I have been busy, but I must admit I probably have also been (just a little) lazy. I did manage to complete a piece in that time - a choral work. I'll talk more about that in a later post.

At the moment, the River City Brass Band is in the midst of its April concert series, whose traditional theme has become that of Big Band Music. While it is usually very physically demanding, I think that for a lot of the players in the band this series is always fun - and that is definitely the case for me. Also continuing for all concerts in 2008 is the inclusion of a new commissioned work - this month by Mike Tomaro.

Mike Tomaro is known widely in the music world. Currently, he is Director of Jazz Studies at Duquesne University (Pittsburgh, PA). His career really got its start in "Pershing's Own" United States Army Band in Washington D.C., where he was a member - and Music Director - of the famed Army Blues Jazz Ensemble. All through his career, he has been composing and arranging (he is very widely published), and in recent years his arrangements have become a fixture on River City Brass Band concerts. His new work, Portrait in Brass and Steel is his first original piece for the band.

I am really enjoying the piece. Portrait in Brass and Steel, for me, is all about orchestrational sonority and brilliant chordal color. Mike makes great use of jazz harmonies in his writing, but with the exception of a few sequences, this piece seldom becomes overtly "jazzy" (not that there's anything wrong with that). For me, complex harmony is a really addictive quality in music. The effect of the sonority created by the mixture of various colors and chords really works for me (probably a big reason I like the music of Anton Bruckner). In addition to the interest created by the sounds, I enjoy the physical sensation of being onstage with all the sound waves travelling through the air, the floor and even reacting with the metal of the instrument you play; when this really works, it really is as though all the players were part of one machine. That is a really satisfying experience.

Mike does integrate some jazz elements into the work, and he also makes good use of some very American-sounding elements - reminiscent of Aaron Copland (I consider this a compliment, by the way*). These comparisons are most apt at the beginning of the piece when the solo cornetist plays an angular but very fluid melody all alone. I think the effect of this would be especially great in a big hall where the acoustic would allow the individual arpeggiated notes to ring long enough to imply chords. He follows this with a tutti restatement of the melody with accompaniment of those aforementioned thick chords, and a really powerful outburst which leads to the main part of the piece. Throughout the rest of the piece, the band plays several sequences, each building with a very deliberate layering of rhythm and harmony.

Fairly early on in the piece, I chuckle each time at a (probably unintended) reference to the Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper." There's a tuba part - sort of a funky line - which is pretty close to the bass part of the old rock tune. That impression is quickly dispelled once the chordal pad appears a few measure later, but for a moment, I have to fight the urge to sing "All our times have come" each time I hear that tuba line. I'll blame Jimmy Stillwagon (who sits right behind me) for putting that thought into my head...

We are nearing the end of the concert series. It has been a good run though. Playing Mike's piece is the high point of the show for me.

*Sometime, I'll amplify my thoughts on the subject of why it's a good thing to be favorably compared to other composers.

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Happy (Belated) Birthday to Me (Monday, March 17th, 2008)

Yes, that's right. As of last Thursday (March 13th), I am officially one year older. Birthdays are strange. They start out as something you look forward to; you, of course, can't wait to get your birthday presents and so forth, but also you look forward to being a year older - because age equals respect and independence. Eventually, birthdays become sort of ho-hum. I remember wondering how and exactly when that change occurred. And now, once again, I can't seem to recall when it became the norm that birthdays are just plain depressing. Just thinking out loud a little...

Last week, I got the chance to work with band students at Franklin Regional High School. They are performing Hometown Miniatures on a concert approaching in a couple of weeks. (Incidentally, this happens to be the school from which Manu Narayan graduated; I spoke about him in an earlier post.) Their director, Kevin Pollock, asked me to come out for the morning, which was a lot of fun for me. I did a session with a few trumpet players, one with a Ninth Grade Band and finally a rehearsal session with the Wind Ensemble - the group performing the piece. They are doing well with Hometown Miniatures and I am sure they'll play great in the concert. Hopefully, the students got something positive out of my being there. I think it is important to encourage young people to dig a little deeper and work a little harder in their studies of music, so that they have a chance at a truly worthwhile musical experience.

Every musician has had "eureka moments" when all the individual effort and group practice pays off. I can remember a number of these in the musical journey I have taken; they are powerful memories. I am speaking of something that a person really cannot understand until he or she experiences it first-hand. Anyone who has experienced it, though - anyone who has really gotten the point of it - will never forget. And those are the people who will love music, whether as a performer or an audience member, for the rest of their lives. Even at the professional level, playing with great musicians on a regular basis, I find it to be an elusive goal - trying to recapture that euphoric moment. For every musician, this is the challenge. It is my goal to encourage everyone - especially the young musicians I work with - to seek out the "eureka moments." They are every bit as addictive as any drug, and there are no negative side effects.

It's funny. Music is a business for me, and I am poignantly reminded of that fact every time I pay my bills. However, as time passes, I realize more and more that it is also a calling - in much the same sort way as being a clergyman is a calling. I don't profess to hold the "key to immortality" or anything like that; but in a manner, music allows people to experience - in a spiritual and even a somewhat physical way (goosebumps, anyone?) - something almost divine. In that aspect, teaching music is akin to being a sort of spiritual guide for music. I think that is pretty cool.

John Placha wrote: "Happy Birthday Drew and many more, sto lat!" [April 8, 2008; 10:20 p.m.]

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BSO Composer of the Year (Friday, March 7th, 2008)

I got pretty great news yesterday: I was named Composer of the Year for the 60th Anniversary season of the Butler Symphony Orchestra. They will present several of my pieces on upcoming programs (10/11/08 - Fanfare and Theme, 12/6/08 - 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, 3/14/09 - Hometown Miniatures), and I will be writing a new arrangement for their Valentine's Day concert. Finally, on April 25, 2009, the orchestra will premiere a brand new work (title TBA). This is the sort of thing that I have wanted to do for a while now, and the fact that it is a collaboration with the BSO makes it a special thing.

For a few years back in the mid-1990s, I was Principal Trumpet with the Butler Symphony Orchestra, which makes this a sort of a homecoming for me. Additionally, it is meaningful that a few of my brass-player friends play in the orchestra. This includes a couple of my high school teachers: Principal Hornist Denise Gamble and Principal Trombonist Dennis Cramer (who, after 31 years, will retire from teaching later this year), and one of my closest friends: Principal Tubist Jason Venesky.

It is a good situation in that I will finally have a good reason to transcribe some of my pieces into the orchestral medium. And the icing on the cake is the opportunity to write a new piece for them. I enjoy writing for wind band and brass band, but writing for orchestra is a different experience altogether. The pallete of colors is just so wide in the orchestra, and the strings add a depth of sonority that is really very refreshing for me (having spent so much of my career with brass instruments in my ears). I think a large part of why my arrangements for wind and brass bands work so well is that when I write I am conceptualizing an orchestra - trying to achieve with winds, brass and percusion, or just brass and percussion, the same timbres as those of the full symphony orchestra. So, while it is more complex having all those various instruments at your disposal, it is actually easier work.

The fact that this whole thing worked out just goes to show that you never know whether you can make something happen until you try. Almost a year ago, I attended a Butler Symphony performance. I saw that the BSO would be celebrating an important anniversary this season and on that day was planted the seed of this idea. I dismissed it pretty quickly. I let things pass for a while, but the idea remained. Finally, with some encouragement from my wife and a couple of friends (thanks, Jason), I made an overture to Chuck Norton, the long-time BSO Principal Clarinetist who also has an integral role in the planning of repertoire for the orchestra. After a few months and quite a bit of correspondence, the deal is settled. Now all I have to do is deliver the goods! They say be careful what you wish for - that you just might get it. But nothing will happen if you don't wish for it first - and then take that first step.

Jason Malloy wrote: "It's been a while since I looked at your website...this entry was pretty exciting! Congrats! I hope you throw in a 2-3 sus for an old friend. :)" [April 19, 2008; 5:13 p.m.]

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Composer Carson Cooman (Thursday, March 6th, 2008)

Right now, with the River City Brass Band, we are in the middle of our March concert series, which features a new work by composer Carson Cooman. If you are not familiar with Carson and his work, you really should check out his website. Carson is easily the most prolific composer I know, having written 750 pieces - and he is only in his mid-twenties! (If you do the math, that averages out to something like 75 works per year - assuming he began in his mid-teens.) He writes music for any number of settings and is widely published and recorded.

The piece Carson wrote for the RCBB this month is called Pittsburgh Rhapsody, and I think it has the potential to do very, very well in the wind and brass band world. For my money, it's one of the most accessible things I have heard from Carson, and it is accessible in all the right ways. The piece is melodic, but not banal or clichéd. It is harmonically colorful, but not predictable. It has a few moderately challenging spots, but not just for the sake of making it difficult. It is just very good work. The second movement,"Memorial Song," is particularly poignant as a rememberance of Dennis Abelson, horn professor at Carnegie Mellon University, who passed away last year. I really enjoy the way Carson interweaves his melodic lines, and the juxtaposition of lush and full sections with some parts which are very spare. Beautiful writing.

Carson Cooman writes good stuff and he does it with tremendous facility; but I am equally impressed with the wide range of his talents. He is the kind of guy who very well might just as effortlessly succeed in business or engineering as he does in the arts - he just has that kind of intelligence and enterprise. In addition to his work as a composer he wears many, many hats: performer (organ is his major instrument), artist representative, music editor, repertoire consultant, record producer and musical writer and reviewer. I have probably missed a couple of things, but that is a synopsis. He simply does everything well.

A few years back, we had Carson up to perform an organ recital for the summer concert series at our church. He, of course, played great, but his enthusiasm for music - and in particular new music - was so evident that day. I am convinced it takes a real passion for someone to really succeed at something, and Carson has that in spades. He writes new music, but he is also an ambassador for the genre. He believes - and I agree with him - that there is a place for new classical music in today's world. Not only can this music survive, but it can thrive. But it will take more people with Carson Cooman's energy and talents to help educate and reinvigorate people to better understand and more appreciate the classical music of today.

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A Brave New World (Monday, March 3rd, 2008)

A couple of days ago, I spoke of a meeting with a few friends. It was a good time, and for me it was especially gratifying to talk about one subject in particular - that of the creativity and flexibility required to succeed in today's world. In terms of career, the last few years have been a sort of evolution for me, and it was good to know that others were similarly evolving. I'll elucidate as best I can.

During my time at Carnegie Mellon University and in my early professional career, it seemed there was a sort of "career template" which I was destined to follow: 1) Get a degree, 2) Audition/interview until winning a job, 3) Work for thirty years, and 4) Retire with a pension (and, haha, Social Security*). It is a simple formula, but a formula that worked for a majority of Americans over the last half-century. It had become the norm, but recently it has sadly become passé for many people.

In recent years, work has become harder to come by and making a living is sometimes a challenge. It can be a frustrating thing knowing you are pretty good at your work, but frequently feeling underappreciated. For a while, you may feel sorry for myself, but eventually you realize that if the world is changing, you very well may need to go with the flow. This has been my mindset of late.

One big change for me has been the fact that I no longer 100% expect to be properly compensated for my work. "Properly" is a relative term, but I mean it really in terms of simple hourly wages when compared to those of a similar skill level in other professions. I always do my work as well as I can. Sometimes, I make a good wage, and sometimes less so (though I certainly prefer to make a good wage). If the work I am doing has larger career implications - perhaps in terms of promoting a pet project or forming an alliance with other like-minded musicians - it can be worthwhile whether you are properly compensated or not. And I will always make time to work with musicians I particularly enjoy.

Another adjustment for me is the fact that I have begun to accept that the rewards for my work will not always be in the form of a check made payable to Drew Fennell - I do not mean to sound shallow with this statement. A musician is selling a product/service just like every other person in the workforce, and that musician - though he may receive ovations and appreciation - is, in the end, just trying to make a living like every other schlub out there. Still, I have begun to appreciate the applause and adulation a little more, though I still enjoy receiving a paycheck once in a while.

I've also focused some of my efforts on passive income generation (a.k.a. "PIG"). I figure anything I can do that helps me earn a living while I'm asleep is a good thing. The tough part of this - the tough part of all of this really - is that these efforts can involve loads of time and effort up front. And, worse, there is no guarantee they will pan out.

Without a doubt, though, the biggest change for me has been diversification. I often use the metaphor of keeping lots of irons in the fire, stoking the fire and waiting patiently to see which iron gets hot. This can be a harrowing experience - sort of a circus act, keeping a dozen plates spinning on poles, hoping none of them fall. It is difficult to give the attention to each project that it deserves. This is especially challenging for me as I am a often obsessed with minutia (i.e. anal retentive). Nonetheless, too much dependance on one employer or on one part of your work can be a big risk. For this reason, keeping open as many career options as possible is a really good idea.

I am convinced in this "Brave New World" that being flexible and innovative is the biggest key to success. While I do not pretend to have figured it all out, this is the perspective from which I approach things these days. And despite the challenges, I really like that I have at least some semblance of control over my own destiny. Sooner or later, I suppose I will learn how this pans out. And I expect I will write more about this as time progesses.

*Call me a pessimist, but if there is still a functioning Social Security system when it's time for me to retire, I'll eat my hat.

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Old Friends (Saturday, March 1st, 2008)

Weblogs (blogs) have become such a popular thing in recent years, and since I've gotten a little positive feedback regarding the anecdotal reflections on my pieces (see Music Notes), I began to ponder the idea of doing a regular blog. To tell the truth, it seems a very self-absorbed thing writing and publishing your thoughts in such a way. I suppose some might say I am self-absorbed - and maybe that's true. I won't argue either way. I have never done any sort of regular diary before, and I haven't a clue: 1) just how regular this will be, 2) whether it will be at all interesting to read (for anyone other than my family), or 3) whether anyone cares to read it in the first place. But, all that considered, I decided to just give it a shot.

I guess I'll begin with a recent meeting with musician/actor extrordinaire Manu Narayan. This get-together could be characterized as simply a gathering of old fraternity brothers (the four of us who met are alums of Carnegie Mellon University and members of Phi Mu Alpha Music Fraternity). I might also suggest it was a brush with stardom. As I said, Manu and I were in school together at Carnegie Mellon. He was a vocal/saxophone major. That may seem an odd combination, but Manu's career has thrived on the combinations of various sometimes-unconventional talents. From the beginning it was obvious that he was fantastically gifted, and he ended up leaving school several months early because he'd gotten a job with the touring company of "Miss Saigon." From there, he has just gone onward and upward. This meeting was particularly special because: 1) I haven't seen him in close to ten years and 2) because he's on the verge of a huge step in his career. In June, he makes his feature film debut as a co-star with Mike Myers in the movie "Love Guru." It's a very big deal.

It was a great time. We spoke about our lives, about where things had gone since we last met so long ago, and of course about old times. But it was particularly interesting to hear about Manu's many and varied experiences in the last few years. He is definitely running on a fast track.

A few years back, he starred on Broadway in a show called "Bombay Dreams," which was produced by the great Andrew Lloyd Webber. A friend of mine told of seeing Manu's image on a huge billboard on the side of a building in Times Square. Manu spoke of how demanding that part was (onstage for 146 minutes of a 150 minute show!), and how, with all the physicality of the role, his waist size dropped several inches during the nine-month run of the show. He also has done a number of plays and some parts on television. Additionally, he is a lead singer with a band called Darunam.

It was very interesting to gain some insight about his experiences working with Mike Myers and the other stars of the upcoming film. How surreal must it be working alongside the man who is the voice of Shrek, and who played Austin Powers and Wayne Campbell (in "Wayne's World")? And how strange it would be to work on the set with the beautiful Jessica Alba? And yet Manu was the same guy we knew so many years ago - as attentive to hearing about our somewhat ordinary lives as we were to hearing about his quite extraordinary experiences "in the rabbit hole."

Okay, I suppose I'm bragging a little about my famous friend. Sue me. I'm proud to know Manu and mostly just proud of him. Small-town boy makes good.

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