Tuesday, September 26, 2006


The thing they never tell you when you're a teenager is that pimples don't go away. I get just about as many zits now as I did when I was a tenth-grader. Of course, back then I didn't have a wife who took great joy in popping them.

Also, back then I didn't have too many that were so juiced-up that they squirted out and hit the mirror. I saw a friend on a church mission trip do this once in our room, and was horrified and fascinated. As far as I recall, it only happened once to me, in my junior year.

But in each of the last three years, I've had a mirror-squirter. Hm.

Saturday, September 23, 2006


A former church kid by the name of Jake is now taking a college class in which he had to interview a real live professional musician. We conducted the first round by email.

1. What style of music do you perform?

I compose and arrange and perform virtually every style. In the past month, I've composed a modern-classical piano sonata, written a Nelson Riddle-style string arrangement for the crooner Ken Slavin's latest CD, begun an arrangement for a Broadway revue for the spring, also begun arranging classic rock numbers for a stage show at Baylor University, arranged and scored a religious song for a church choir, played jazz in several clubs and at the recent jazz festival, and written, orchestrated, and recorded a 2-minute original composition (in the style of the typical movie score) for a video that advertises a new luxury housing subdivision.

2. How long have you been performing professionally?

My first paying gig was a dinner-music piano thing in 1981. I was fourteen. Wow, that was a long time ago!

3. What or who inspired you to learn how to perform?

Performing has always been in my blood. Everyone in my family took piano lessons as part of a good upbringing, but I'm the one who had the performing bug. I've never been nervous in front of a crowd. So, at any performance of just about any kind, I've thought -- for as long as I can remember -- "I could do that."

4. How did you learn your craft? Did you study privately? If so how many years did you take private lessons?

In the same way that every educated person is self-educated, every true musician who really cares about the craft owes more to personally following obsessions than to obeying a teacher. I did take sixteen years of classical lessons, from mostly really good teachers. But some of those teachers never thought I was learning much, because I only did the bare minimum in regard to what they were teaching me, while spending hours and hours at home on Dave Brubeck and Igor Stravinsky.

5. Please describe the kind of practice that was required to learn how to play/sing on the level you perform on?

I was made to practice piano thirty minutes a day from first grade through eleventh. (My senior year I played three hours a day in the Gunter Hotel lobby.) Beyond that, usually at least an hour a day on the stuff I enjoyed. Sometimes much more than that. At one point I was practicing, hard, eight hours a day. That was in college, during my first couple of years as a music major.

6. Do you still practice?


A. If so, how does your practice routine differ from the one you used to learn?

Not much. I still go over my scales, and other basics, about as much as I always did. My main concentration now is in composing and arranging, so much of what I do involves inventing new ideas, whether at the piano keyboard or the computer keyboard or walking around the neighborhood humming to myself.

7. What do you like most about performing?

In any kind of performance -- at a church or a dinner party or a jazz club or a concert hall, or even in a recording studio -- there's a real joy that comes from connecting to people. Maybe they're listening, and hanging on every note, or maybe I'm just the background, but either way I'm affecting their environment in an essential way. Today more than ever, when almost every moment of a person's life is soundtracked, and when people identify themselves based on the style of music they listen to, I love being the person who has that kind of effect.

8. What do you like least about performing?

Having to answer to people who don't get it. Any time that happens, the vibe suffers.

9. Does the style you perform require you to interpret music?


10. What does interpretation mean to you?

In jazz music, the performer is a co-composer with whoever wrote a given tune. Not only does the improviser come up with what is essentially a theme-and-variations, but sometimes even the theme itself is so personally expressed as to be hardly recognizable. In other styles of music, such as pop, that interpretation is limited to phrasing and embellishments, but even then there's tons of latitude. In classical music, in which every note is written out and even dynamics and pedalling and fingering are sometimes written out, the opportunity for interpretation therefore resides in more nuanced places, but is still essential.

My jazz group takes great joy in performing surprising interpretations of songs, in which we fiddle with the tempo, the basic beat, and sometimes the entire structure of a familiar tune to make it new again. For our radio show, we enjoy selecting strange themes (80s pop, 70s pop, Fiesta), and playing unlikely songs for a jazz group to play (Michael Jackson's "Thriller," George Michael's "Careless Whisper"; Schoolhouse Rock tunes, Barbra Streisand's "Evergreen"; Willie Nelson's "Three Days," "San Antonio Rose"). It's fun when someone responds with a Wow to our bravado, but it's even better when someone simply says, "I never realized what a great song that was."

11. If you regularly interpret music, what is the hardest thing about interpreting music?

I'm not sure: it now comes so naturally to me, doing it as I do several hours every single week. I suppose the real challenge is staying fresh, making sure not to descend into familiar ruts.

12. How do you know when you have given a good performance?

Interestingly, you often don't. We'll come out of a recording session with the Protagonists and be very negative about how we sounded, consoling ourselves that there's always a next time, and then get into production and discover that there were some really great performances. I've often had the golden glow of amazing moments onstage, but that's a completely independent thing that often has no correlation to how I actually did.

13. Among performers in your medium, whom do you admire?

Oscar Peterson: technically brilliant but never blandly impressive. The skill always is in the service of the smile.

Bill Evans: technically brilliant in a different way. He never showers you with notes, but each one is carefully chosen and thoughtful, even if delivered spontaneously.

14. Do you think live musical performance is important? If so, why?

Absolutely. Recorded music has its value (and pays my bills quite nicely), but the essential experience of music, throughout human history, has been for real musicians to perform live for other people. It can be a bunch of guys singing old songs over beer, or it can be a full-scale opera. Either way, there's something different about the unmediated experience of a live performance. You can't affect it like non-live music, by turning it down or pausing it or rewinding or forwarding it; but then you can affect it in a way you never could with non-live music, by responding and feeding your energy into the atmosphere.

15. Have you ever felt like you were one with the audience as you performed? If so, what performance was it? Where and when?

I've often felt that way. It happens every so often at a jazz club, when there are at least a few people really digging what we're doing, and everyone's aware of each note that goes by. It also happens in worship, when the music itself is a pointer toward a religious experience that a group is sharing. In both cases, there's definitely an awareness that both performer and audience have, of being what's now called "in the zone" -- where absorption and skill meet perfectly.

16. Do you feel like you continue to push your limits on your musical capabilities?

That happens in seasons. Sometimes, I'll realize that in the past year I've really expanded my boundaries, by taking up a new instrument or by reaching a landmark level on an old one, or by exploring a new type of music. A couple of years ago, I decided for no good reason to write a couple of country songs. They wound up being so good that I'm now trying to figure out how to get them marketed in the hitherto unfamiliar (to me) world of country. Sometimes, though, I'll have a season of shoring-up, of simply doing what I do.

17. Will you be working on a new album in the near future?

Right now, I'm finishing up with an album for the singer Ken Slavin (who was named "Best Musician" for 2006 by the readers of the San Antonio Current). Though I didn't play on it, I'm producing it, and wrote a few of the arrangements, and composed some new lyrics to an existing song. That album should be coming out sometime in November. Meanwhile, the Jazz Protagonists are beginning to get itchy about recording a new album after 2003's Blizz Blazz. We'll probably do that early next year.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

coming events

Check out FOX's morning show at 8 am tomorrow morning, and you'll see the sprightly Ken Slavin and the very groggy me, performing some tunes in anticipation of this weekend's jazz festival, the largest in the region. He'll be performing Saturday evening, and the Jazz Protagonists will be performing Sunday at 3. See ya there.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

spam and grieg

For almost two months, this website was down, and I was unable to use my main email address, because of something called a denial-of-service attack.

Suppose you live at 123 Anywhere Lane. Suppose I want to cover the city with advertising for my new widget. I send out postcards to every address on every street in town — 111 Main Street, 112 Main Street, 113 Main Street... — even if those addresses don't really exist. The ones that do will get the postcard, and YOU will get all the returns, because I'll put 123 Anywhere Lane as the return address. Who can stop me from doing it?

So, one fine day, you begin receiving "No Such Address"s and "Return To Sender"s. It gets to where you're getting hundreds of these every minute. Your mailbox is full, and your house is full, of returned postcards from some anonymous person (me) who put your return address on them. There's nothing anyone can do about it, except simply shut your mailbox down. Which is fine for the moment, because there wasn't any room for your real mail anyway.

Translate that into electronic terms, and you've got a denial-of-service attack. Usually they're malicious, geared toward punishing someone who's done a geek wrong. But sometimes — increasingly — they're just random domain names that some spammer uses.

Fortunately, we're back on, and everything seems normal for the moment. Why not celebrate the re-advent of barryland.com by visiting one of my strange links? Like a complete and rare recording of Edvard Grieg's "Norwegian Peasant Dances?" A Hardanger fiddler first plays the original ditty, then the pianist plays Grieg's transformation. It has delighted me for years. Enjoy.

Saturday, September 9, 2006


Today, Catherine and I will be painting, painting, painting. We are, in fact, painting the entire interior of an empty house, which we will then move into, after ripping up the carpets, restoring the hardwood floors, redoing the cabinets, replacing the broken light fixtures, and on and on.

Yep, we're moving. For some length of time, we'll be living in a beautiful mansion in the heart of Monte Vista, an area that we both have family ties to and great sentiment for. Beautiful, yes?