Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sleigh Ride

Last night for some unknown reason, while I was loading the dishwasher, I started singing the melody of the popular Holiday concert band piece, "Sleigh Ride."

I was not thinking about it, I just started singing it. [The Man I Love] came into the kitchen, and he started singing along. Also without thinking.

We both sang the syncopated melody absolutely perfectly, and suddenly started laughing. Of course we both knew it. We share a common American experience - we were both in high school band.

"Sleigh Ride" was written by American composer Leroy Anderson in 1946, and has been a popular holiday tune ever since.

Anderson was the son of Swedish immigrants, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1908, and attended the New England Conservatory of Music and Harvard. In the 1930's he began arranging music for Arthur Fiedler director of the famed Boston Pops Orchestra. Anderson had a long career as a composer, musical director, and teacher, but "Sleigh Ride" is among his best known works.

[The Man I Love] and I did not attend the same high school - he was in rural Florida, and I was in suburban Ohio. He played the string bass and tuba. I played percussion.

I played keyboard percussion instruments - xylophone, marimba, vibraphone and chimes. Musicologists group percussion instruments into two major classifications - membranophones and idiophones.

A membranophone is an instrument that makes sound by the vibration of a membrane, like a stretched skin on the top of a drum. Timpani, snare drums, bass drums - they're all membranophones.

Idiophones are instruments that make sounds by vibrating their entire body - when you hit a triangle, a bell, a wood block, or the aluminum key of a glockenspiel with a mallet, its entire body resonates.

I think glockenspiel players welcome the holiday season, because it marks the end of marching band season. Marching with a glockenspiel is a pain. You have to wear a harness to hold the lyre-mounted keyboard in front of you. Then there's the music. Not all marching band scores have written glockenspiel parts. The glockenspiel is tuned to middle C, so you can play Oboe parts. But often marching band arrangements don't have Oboe parts, either, so you end up with a Flute part - written so high above the bars its hard to read.

Another hazard is cold weather. In the cold, metal keys contract and go out of tune. I remember a November parade in freezing rain where the entire glockenspiel section mimed playing, because we were half a key sharp from the rest of the band.

So, after ten weeks of practicing pinwheels in the parking lot, a glockenspiel player looks forward to the holidays, when you can hang out with the drummers and count rests. And practice your mallet skills for "Sleigh Ride."

There are some challenges for players in "Sleigh Ride." I had a mad crush on the trumpet player who had to make the horse neigh sound - when he messed it up during one concert, you could see his ears blush pink, all the way from the percussion section at the back of the stage.

For percussionists, there are many critical moments. In the bridge, there's a whip-crack made by slapping a hinged wooden flapper. Many a high school percussionist chokes from the pressure, missing the beat. (Ask me how I know!) The glockenspiel is featured in one long, syncopated phrase at the end of the chorus that runs the length of the keyboard. If you screw it up everyone knows!

Years and years of playing - or hearing - a piece of music tends to imprint it into your brain and your body. Which is why two people of the same generation, educated in American schools of the 1960s and 70s, could spontaneously and unconsciously burst into tune with perfect harmony.

"Come on, it's lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you!"


Cheri @ Blog This Mom! said...

Wow! What a great post. Relationships, music history, instruments, singing and love.

McSwain said...

Great post! Brings back a lot of memories. I was a clarinet player, but was often pressed into service on the same "keyboard" instruments. So I've carried the 40-lb glock in marching band and played Sleighride. Worst experience ever was an orchestra concert--playing "Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies" on the celesta. I'd had almost no rehearsal, so it wasn't memorized. And someone opened the door to the concert hall right as the middle solo section with the runs began. The wind whipped through, my music flew off my stand, and I froze. Most embarrassing moment of my life.