Birthday at U. Michigan

As a lifelong Buckeye, it’s hard for me to admit that there might be some positive qualities about anything at the University of Michigan, but I have to admit…  Some stuff on that campus is acceptable.

First thing’s first: the people there are a little weird…

… and they all wear pajamas to rehearsals…

… but I kind of loved them. I was a guest at the University of Michigan for four days last week, and I don’t know that I’ve been treated better anywhere. Michael Haithcock (the Director of Bands) and Kristy Kuster (a member of the world-class music composition faculty at Michigan) couldn’t have been better hosts. It all started on Tuesday evening, with a tasty dinner at Paesano’s with Professor Haithcock and also Mary Schneider (Director of Bands at neighboring Eastern Michigan University). After dinner, it was off to a 90-minute sectional rehearsal on “Harvest: Concerto for Trombone” with professor David Jackson (trombone professor at U. Michigan) and the percussion section from the Michigan Symphony Band.

I wish I had time for more percussion sectionals in general. As many have seen — anybody who has been subjected to one of my band coaching sessions — I’m a little, er, particular about the percussion. I want the drums that I want, and I want the mallets that I request, and when I don’t get those things, I tend to throw a tantrum.  Probably 75% of the notes that I give in any rehearsal will be notes for the percussion section, so having the luxury of 90 minutes with just the percussionists, the conductor, and the concerto soloist made for probably the most productive single rehearsal I can recall.

Michael Haithcock and David Jackson were very flexible in dealing with my tempo and dynamic requests, and the student percussionists… Okay, I’m just going to put this out there. I think the percussion studio at the University of Michigan, under the instruction of Joseph Gramley, is currently the best percussion studio in the country outside of Juilliard.  They have every piece of equipment I could imagine — and it’s top-notch equipment (you should have heard the bass drum they use in the concert hall!) — and they play the hell out of everything.

The depth at the studio is kind of stunning.  The second band was rehearsing Aurora Awakes while I was on campus, and I’ve never heard the mallet parts sound so good.  Every note was crystal clear (never covered by the ensemble, which is, I’m sure, largely thanks to Rodney Dorsey, who was conducting the group with great energy), and every percussion note had a great sound — and things were in the right place.

Moving to the players in the Symphony Band, there was a sense of time and feel that was exceptional.  If I asked them to try a different mallet, they had it on hand — there was no “I only brought this mallet today” argument (one of my biggest pet peeves in a rehearsal).

I don’t want to seem like some sort of percussion nazi.  I’m open to suggestions — that’s how I’ve learned how to request the mallets that I request in the first place!  There’s a part of the trombone concerto where the tom-toms and the djembe have a back-and-forth duet.  Although I marked the tom part “sticks” at the beginning of the part, that’s the only notation I made, and in the middle of the piece — during this little duet — I noticed that the player (Quincy Brown) had switched from sticks to hard yarn mallets.  I hadn’t asked for a change there, but I also hadn’t explicitly asked for him to stay with sticks, so he wasn’t ignoring what I’d requested — he was adding to it.  And the change to hard yarn from sticks in that place honestly made the piece better — so much better that I’m making that revision in the next printing of the parts.  (For those currently rehearsing the piece, it will switch to hard yarn at measure 255 and then back to sticks at measure 269.) Here’s a shot of Quincy rehearsing the part.

It wasn’t all rehearsals, of course.  There was some tasty food, too, like this meal at Logan.

On Thursday, I had the opportunity to visit Eastern Michigan University to work with old friend Amy Knopps on “Sasparilla,” which was a lot of fun. I also got to coach a student sax quartet on “Strange Humors,” and I realized that I’d never heard the piece live before! How weird is that?! (I’ve also never heard “Sultana” live.  Come to think of it, I’ve never heard “Sultana” — period.)  This picture captures why I’m not a fan of wide-angle photography of people.  I’m short, but I’m not literally half the size of your average tenor sax player.

The students all did a great job, and man, they were awfully kind. At the end of rehearsal, the students presented me with a birthday cake — a homemade carrot cake with cream cheese icing (my favorite, for the record).  Thank you, Charlotte Anderson, for taking the time to bake such a delicious birthday cake!

Yes, the next day was my birthday (I’m now 21), and it was a pretty excellent birthday. I was happy that Loki remembered my special day…

… and sent me balloons! Mr. Kitty, I don’t know how I’m going to fit these in my suitcase, but I’ll try.

That wasn’t the end of the birthday treats, though. On Wednesday, I’d hung out with several of the Michigan student composers, and I mentioned my love of Buckeyes — not just the team, but the food, which is a chocolate-dipped peanut butter ball. Wow, I love those things. So what did I receive for my birthday from Katie Mueller? (That’s my security detail behind us, by the way.)

A Tupperware full of homemade buckeyes! These were the best buckeyes I’d ever had. Recipe please, Katie.  Nice blue top and Michigan “M.”  Cute.  But maybe Katie was onto something.  Maybe Buckeyes and Michigan could get along somehow?  More on that in a moment…

Mmmm. Buckeyes.

I also got a hell of a performance for my birthday. Michael Haithcock, David Jackson, and the entire Symphony Band were in top form for the concert that night. The concert also included Ricardo Lorenz‘s piece, “El Muro” — the piece from which I originally stole the idea of putting a Kevlar drum into Asphalt Cocktail.  I love Ricardo’s piece (and he’s an awfully nice guy).

I even got birthday cake at the post-concert pizza party!

I was especially happy that my dad had driven up to Ann Arbor for the performance. Here he is modeling the silk scarf that he suggested I should start using in concerts. His idea was that I’d dramatically throw a silk scarf into the audience while bowing after every performance. He seemed convinced that this could be my “thing.”

It really was a wonderful trip, from the first rehearsal through each subsequent rehearsal on both Harvest and Aurora Awakes, to some social time with the student composers, to the visit to EMU, to the Michigan composition seminar (where I always feel a little inadequate), to a faculty party hosted by Kristy Kuster, to the great performance, to a post-concert pizza party — well, it was awesome. Maybe Buckeyes and those Michigan folk can get along after all? AEJ thinks so, so she created this character to represent the possible unity of Michigan and OSU. I present to you: Michigan Buckeye. Can’t we all get along, at least until late November?


Ryan Blauvelt says

Hi John,

I really enjoyed reading this post. It's cool to see composers building relationships with young music majors like you did at Michigan.

Speaking as a percussionist I think you are spot-on with being specific about your requests for specific mallets, drums, etc. The more details the more prepared we can be.

A belated Happy Birthday to you!


Andrew Hackard says

Glad you had a good birthday, John. Those buckeyes look great, but give me sopapillas instead.

jean baker says

happy birthday, john! oh i remember the day you were born and you were such a cutie. i thought you had such rhythmic seemed to even then be tapping metronomically consistently. interesting your favorites are carrot cake and buckeye treats. your childhood friend jenn enjoys the same favorites and i will send you both her recipes for them. she also does not fly. did you ride the train to ann arbor? she is speaking in new orleans the end of this month so will ride the train from kansas city to chicago and then south to new orleans. congratulations on all your success. i'm so excited for you and your family and proud. best regards, jean baker

Kathryn says

Happy belated birthday! I don't know how realistic a "Michigan Buckeye" is, but all your birthday treats looked delicious.

Tyler S. Grant says

Happy (late) Birthday! Do you really have a security detail!?

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