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Word For Word

December 3, 2006

Okay, so I’m waiting in the drive-through (I know “thru”—still can’t quite make myself drop that Olde English Influence) at my bank on a Friday afternoon.  It’s crowded and I’m bored.  On the radio is one of my favorite Pittsburgh stations, WJAS, playing hits from the 1950s (pre-Elvis) and having an array of eclectic songs and singers it’s tough to find when randomly running up and down the dial.  The disc jockey comes on and says if I’m Caller #5, I’ll win two tickets to something somewhere—I’ve just moved an inch and am concentrating on whether it’s worth it to shift to second or just keep riding the clutch in first.  I don’t catch the name of what I’ll win, but I’m bored and my cell phone’s handy.  Now normally even that wouldn’t be incentive enough to call because I can never remember the first three digits of the phone number, followed by the punched-in call letters, namely WJAS (which I hate doing because it takes me 15 seconds apiece to find the corresponding letter on the phone). 

 

However, the DJ also gives an Option B which is on my Verizon Cell to hit * something something—the “something something” being only two numbers.  Option B is much simpler, so since I’m bored I flip open my cell and punch in what I need to.  It rings about four times, then two things happen simultaneously.  The disc jockey’s voice comes on the other end with:  “Could I have your name?” and the line moves for the bank and it’s my turn at the window, whose tray is effortlessly gliding toward my manual car window, which I haven’t managed to crank open yet.

 

I yell (everyone always tells me I yell over the cell) “Sandra Louden,” shift into second, crank down the window and throw my deposit slip and checks into the waiting tray while simultaneously nodding hello to Darryl, the bank guy.  “Well, Sandra Louden,” says the DJ, “you’ve just won two tickets to see Marvin Hamlisch and The 21st Century Platters at Heinz Hall as part of Marvin’s Fabulous ‘50s Concert with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.” 

 

I hate when winners on the radio can only manage to stammer “Thank You” ten times in a row—which is precisely what I hear myself saying.   I gather up my bank deposit receipt, nod goodbye to Darryl and drive off in an unusual euphoria.  I’m not one of those people who have “never won anything;” nevertheless, it’s been over a decade since I’ve been to Heinz Hall and I’ve always liked the Platters—even though, obviously, these would not be the original Platters from the 1950s.

 

I decide to introduce my son, Logan, to the culture of 1950s pop music, so he’s going on my second ticket.  Besides, I don’t feel like driving downtown—Logan will be the designated drive and I, the designated navigator.  I warn him the concert goers’ average age will be about a decade older than I am; Logan, at 24, will be one of the youngest people there.  After being seated, we peruse our programs and, to my delight, the first half of the program will not only be Broadway show tunes and a montage of songs under the umbrella of “When TV Was Young,” but also four songs by composer Leroy Anderson.    Of course, Logan has never heard of Leroy Anderson and I tell him that even though it seems as if lately he’s fallen into obscurity, when I grew up his “light concert music” was all over the airwaves.  (To learn more about composer Leroy Anderson, visit www.leroy-anderson.com, where his most famous composition—which I know you’ve heard—the cheery “Sleigh Ride” will greet you).

 

The lights dim, the orchestra walks onstage, followed by Marvin Hamlisch.  He gives us a brief, down-to-earth introduction and gets right to business.   When the segment comes up for the Leroy Anderson compositions, Hamlisch notes that “serious” music connoisseurs often disparaged Leroy Anderson, considering his work fluff and nonsense.  Hamlisch was quick to note, however, that “the people” immediately embraced it, took it to heart and loved it.

 

“Of course,” I thought.  And I was immediately transported back to when my family and I had visited the Norman Rockwell Museum along Route 7 in Arlington Vermont during the 1980s.  Our guide at the time (a woman in her early 70s who had posed as a child for one of Rockwell’s paintings) told us that “serious” art connoisseurs often snubbed Rockwell’s work, but that Mr. Rockwell was content in the knowledge that the only group he cared about—namely “the people”—had embraced his art, took it to heart and yes, loved it as it became a part of our collective psyche.  It really didn’t surprise me that two beloved icons of American culture would be derided and disregarded by all those “serious” critics out there.

 

This part of the concert was funny, creative and yes, fabulous.  Then the 21st Platters were introduced and sang their various hits (in case you need a mental nudge, those being “Only You,” “The Great Pretender,” “Twilight Time” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” to mention a few).  At various points throughout their songs, I was disappointed.  At times the words to the songs were garbled.  At others, the orchestra drowned out the vocals entirely.  At one point, one of the female singers was embarrassingly off-key.  It was as if the second part of the concert was as faulty as the first part had been memorable.  As I sat there, the thought crossed my mind that I could be a paid music/concert reviewer (after all, a big part of my writing over the years has included book reviews).

 

Just as quickly, I dismissed the idea.  Even though I was a professional musician, what did I know about singing technique or full orchestration?  After all, this was Heinz Hall, Marvin Hamlisch and The Platters we were talking about and even though I felt less than satisfied by their performance I was even more intimidated by the thought I’d actually have the nerve to negatively review them in print had I been a critic.  “It must be me,” I concluded as we drove home.  “They obviously had to be good.”

 

Two days later, classical music critic Mark Kanny wrote in part:  “The evening began well...[and] even a medley of TV music starting with the theme from “Dragnet” was effective. But then the 21st Century Platters came on and it was downhill until the concert was over....In addition to solo and harmony singing that veered out of tune...it was sad when leader J. Michael asked the audience to pay close attention to the lyrics and then the words weren’t sung clearly...The arrangements [they] brought for the Pittsburgh Symphony to play were astonishingly bad...they were superfluous and inaudible, drowned out by the heavily amplified singers...”

 

I was stunned.  In his column, this music critic practically echoed word for word (!) what I had thought.  What did I know about singing technique or full orchestration?  Apparently enough to come up with an informed opinion that now had the imprimatur of a paid music critic with a large Pittsburgh newspaper.

 

So, what was the “light bulb moment” here?  There were actually two and although at first glance they seem at odds, they are curiously intertwined.  First, what is often termed as pop culture, whether in acting, music, dance or painting, is many times off-handedly dismissed by those who consider themselves as possessing more refined sensibilities.  Norman Rockwell and Leroy Anderson are sloughed off as having no worth, not because of content, but because of mass appeal.  If “the masses” like them, obviously they are without cultural merit, reason these cultural snobs.

 

Justifiable criticism, however, is dramatically different than ingrained prejudice.  I heard the exact same sounds as did critic Mark Kanny and independently arrived at the same negative conclusions, not because the singers were The Platters, not because they came from the 1950s, not because their music used horns instead of harpsichords.  The criticism came about because on that particular night in that particular concert hall, they simply were not that good.

 

As writers, we can learn that our writing is vulnerable to criticism.  However, if it’s honest criticism based on the merits of the words—not the opinion the words express, not the genre we may find unacceptable or any other peripheral consideration—then, if we’re truly impassioned by our craft, we learn from—and accept—that criticism.  As writers, too, we should learn to have confidence in our own opinions.   Do we like what we’ve just seen, heard, read?  If so, why?  If not, why not?  Exactly, precisely pinpointing the reasons either pro or con and having enough self-assurance to express these opinions whether vocally—or even more committed, in print—then becomes not an option, but an obligation.

 

After reading Mr. Kanny’s words, it was sweet validation indeed.  Once again, the question that had shaken my self-confidence, came back...this time to make me smile.  What did I know about singing technique or full orchestration?   I knew what I heard, I knew what I liked, I knew what I didn’t like.   That, in the end, was enough.

 

And that’s my Word For Word.

 

Well, my home base is Salisbury Pennsylvania and now I’m making trips back up to the ‘Burgh to pack up final boxes, shut off or turn back utilities and forward mail.  I’m slowly unpacking here (if you send me a Christmas card, please put your full address on the envelope...I still can’t find my address book) and getting comfortable in my new office, pictures of which I’ll soon be posting on the home page.  I thought I’d miss my old office (especially the stone wall that faced my desk), but now I have a lovely view of Mt. Davis, a pond, a church, rolling hills and sheep as well.

 

In moving, I’ve gone from hi-speed to dial-up (hopefully a very temporary situation!).  The transition has caused some difficulty in retrieving my email, especially from this site.  So, if you’re written with questions or concerns, please be patient.  We’re working on this problem and with any luck, will have it fixed within a few days.

 

December is always a difficult month, work-wise because obviously so many other family events take precedent.  If you don’t get as much writing done as you’d like, don’t beat yourself up over it.  Buying, wrapping, baking, decorating, making lists and checking them off twice all seem to reach out and grab us.  Remember, January 1st is right around the corner.  New years and new starts seem tailor-made for one another.

 

I’m doing an abundance of consulting work lately; there are some exciting, individual card lines out there and I’m flattered when their creators turn to me for creative input.  In addition, I’ve been asked to speak at two conferences—one in 2007 and remarkably, another in the spring of 2008.   Since I don’t seem to think much past the week ahead, this advance planning is short of astounding.  As details of each of these conferences crystallize, I’ll certainly let you in on the details.

 

My online classes are very brisk and, as always, I invite you to sign up at any of the three locations where I teach.  I’ll be introducing a new class at www.writerscollege.com soon based on my second book:  A Few, Choice Words: Short “Do-Able” Writing That Sells.   I introduced this class during the late 1990s at our local Community College and have taught it in a slightly different form on the web.  

 

My attention is also once-again focused on the site and we’ll be updating a lot in the coming months.  I have several new features in mind and plan to bring these to fruition soon.  Thanks for your many emails, questions and compliments.  I read each of them personally and try my best to give you the answers you need to either start writing or retain your motivation to continue your creative path.

 

We’re all in this together and that fact couldn’t make me happier.

 

Sandra

 
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