July 24, 2002
Vol. II, No. 28
"The Legend of the Bobcat Boogie"
Grades 1-6, I rode a big yellow school bus 40 minutes each way to Hutchinson Elementary School. Long since demolished, it was a seven-room, two-story cement block of a school. After the coal mine, it was the centerpiece of Hutchinson, PA. The seventh room of the school served as an indoor gym where we would have our once-a-week gym class with Mr. Rhua, if it was raining. It was also the room where each week, one grade at a time, we would sit in folding chairs and sing from our music books while Miss DeNezza accompanied on the piano.
Miss DeNezza, the traveling music teacher, was an attractive young woman, probably in her 20s. Isn't it amazing how, when we were kids, people in their 20s seemed so much older than they do now. Anyway, she had this odd eye-flutter thing she did whenever she talked and played piano at the same time. As we found the correct page in our music books, she would chat away, all the while playing the same "oom-pah, oom-pah" vamp to introduce each song. And every so often, her eyes would flutter. As I said, odd.
The summer before fourth grade, I started taking piano lessons. Each week, Dad would drive me into nearby Madison for my half-hour lesson after school. For $2.00, Mrs. Sheraw would listen patiently as I made my way through the Schaum Piano Course, each level color-coded and identified by a letter. I could already play a little so she started me with the "B" book, which was Blue. Not long after I played in my first group recital and, being the most recent recruit, I was first on the program. "The Dress Parade" was what I played, from the "B" book. Not terribly interesting but I survived my "baptism of fire."
The story resumes in "Huchison," as we used to pronounce it. Miss DeNezza somehow found out that I was taking piano lessons and asked me to play for the class. On the spot, I selected a piece I had memorized from the "D" book (orange), a little 12-bar, up-tempo, boogie-woogie dittie called the "Bobcat Boogie." Now, the piece has a two-bar introduction and twelve bars of melody. Throw in a fermata on the final chord and the whole thing doesn't last more than 20 seconds. But it was a hit and I had to give an encore performance.
From that day forward, each week in music class, before we sang, I was required by popular demand to perform the "Bobcat Boogie." I responded to this opportunity by "jazzing it up" a little more each week until finally it was a full-blown performance piece. I embellished the melody with bluesy grace notes. I added a Da Capo to double the pleasure and eventually extended it into a Theme and Variations. What a thrill -- the applause, the admiration of my peers, the swelling pride of my teacher, Mrs. Lash, and, of course, Miss DeNezza. Boy, I was riding high. This in spite of the fact that I was taking a good ribbing from my friends -- during my performances, the "Boogie" got into Lisa Greenawalt and made her move her "seat" in her seat. Immature boys think that kind of thing is funny. Then, just as suddenly as it all began, it all came crashing down.
My plan was to premiere a new piece, to really "wow" my friends. I can't tell you the name of the piece; I've obviously blocked it from my memory. I do know it was classical, concerto-like. Premier day came and I announced to the class what I was about to perform. As I began playing, I immediately sensed something was different in the room and a hot flush came over me. I became increasingly nervous. The new piece was harder than the "Bobcat Boogie" and, being newer, the memorization wasn't as solid. I started making mistakes and my "wow" piece, meant to impress, started going down the tubes. It was a flashy piece but my peers weren't buying it and I sure as heck wasn't selling it. And just like that, I could feel them turn on me. I could feel their piercing eyes, their hot breath on my neck, see their bared teeth, their claws at the ready. I could sense danger and they could sense fear. How I made it through, I don't know. To be honest, I don't remember what happened next. In the end, I assume there was polite applause but the fact was, my brilliant plan had backfired and I was devastated.
Well, needless to say, the following week the Bobcat Boogie was back but I never quite flew as high after that. The spell had been broken. Then we all grew up and forgot about it. Except me. This little jaunt down memory lane was brought to you by the good folks at KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE.
That was my first and last experience with disappointing an audience. A hard lesson at such an early age but it stuck. As performers, we have a symbiotic relationship with our audiences. At its most basic level, this relationship amounts to: They come to hear us play, we play for them; they don't come, we don't play. Beyond that, it gets a little tricky. On one hand, we have a responsibility to the audience because they've made the effort to come hear us play. On the other hand, we have a responsibility to nurture ourselves as artists. So we're confronted with a conflict of interest. If we cater exclusively to the whims of our audience, we deny ourselves the opportunity to grow and risk losing interest in performing altogether. However, if we focus exclusively on our own musical agenda, excessively challenging the audience and thereby denying them satisfaction, we risk alienating them and playing to empty rooms. We walk a tightrope between needing to please the audience and needing to please ourselves.
These days I err on the side of the audience because I feel our audiences have already been alienated. Isn't that what small recital attendances show? If someone is going to make the effort to come hear me play, I want them to leave happy. I'm not saying it's OK to simply give an audience whatever they want but we also can't just throw them in the water and expect them to learn to swim. If we truly want to challenge and educate our audiences, then we need to make a commitment to invest the proper time and resources. I love the old expression: "Never try to teach a pig to sing. It frustrates you and it annoys the pig." Fortunately, we don't perform for farm animals. Our audiences have untold potential. How we try to tap that potential, however, is another story. As performers, it is important that we know our audiences, respect them, and nourish them. But before we challenge them, we must make sure that we ourselves are up to the challenge.
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Links of Interest
The "Bobcat Boogie" can still be found in Schaum Piano Course / D - "The Orange Book":
I couldn't wait to reach Third Grade so I could sing "Streets of Laredo" from the Third Grade music book:
Click this link for a newly-posted website by a BACHorgan.com community member:
Have a great week and boogie down!
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