Category Archives: those that are trained

Doing All the Days with LZOrk – SPRING 2019

LZOrk Spring Concert: Thursday, May 16, 2019 | 7:00 p.m.Lake Zurich Middle School North | 95 Hubbard Lane, Hawthorn Woods, IL 60047 | (847) 719-3600

For the fourth year running — they haven’t caught me yet! — The Viper has sprung the Spring as a Composer in Residence with the Orchestras of Lake Zurich Middle School North under the direction of Mr. Riley Broach. When the white snows of yesteryear’s Winter have receded, when the vernal hours and aestival days begin to thicken, when single-serving snackbags bloom red, yellow, and dream-lucid blue on each and every Milwaukee curb and root-snag, well, then’s when’s I show up, four strings and all, to corrupt our nation’s musical youth with notions of collaborative composition, creative “borrowing”, head arrangements, and well-turned melody as equipment for living.

So that’s always fun.


The word cloud above is based on last year’s post-concert response asking LZOrk students to describe the Composer in Residence program, which you can read more about on Mr. Broach’s teaching site here.

This year, due to the arrival of the newest little conductor in Mr. Broach’s house, and his consequent paternity leave, my work with the students had the able support of Susan Phillips — and I wanted to be sure to recognize all her contributions to this year’s project here. I ask for some strange things and deliver rehearsal materials in some pretty unorthodox forms, so I’m very glad she was game for it!


For the 6th-grade group of musicians, I typically bring a simple lead sheet of the type that a small jazz, country, or rock band might use to make “head arrangement” out of a familiar song structure, like the 32-bar AABA pop song form of “Winnebago Bay” or “Heartbreak for Beginners” (recordings from the 2018 & 2017 Spring concerts, respectively).

In rehearsals, we’ll work out how many times the orchestra would go through the form in performance and figure out which instruments are going to do what, where to provide variety and the structural development of the piece — with the emphasis on how the music itself (as distinct from the lyrics) can tell a story that starts somewhere and ends up someplace else.

A couple years ago, with “Just That Good” (see workshop video above), we found the 12-bar blues form worked pretty well in this regard. So this year I brought them a Spring-into-Summer seasonal celebration song called “Do All The Days With You,” which puts a New-Orleans-rumba-Professor-Longhair-style twist on the 12-bar form, including the distinctive habanera rhythm for the bass figure you see in the “rumba” line (lower staff) below.

Do All the Days Fragment - Rumba

The idea was to show how some fairly simple fragments, like the bass line + the basic melody figure (“call”):

Do All the Days Fragments - Call

… a response:

Do All the Days Fragments - Response

… and a counterpoint:

Do All the Days Fragments - Counterpoint

…could be layered on top of one another to produce some rather complicated and funky polyrhythms, which themselves would take on a different character when played in different permutations and combinations by the different instrument sections.

We figured out that with five instrument groups (violins 1 & 2, violas, cellos, and basses) and 5 different parts (which might include playing nothing at all!) there were 3,125 different ways we could play the first two measures alone!

Here’s the arrangement we settled on (pdf here): the text tells the player what to “go fetch” in terms of their fragment for each time through the form:

Do All The Days - Structure Notes

And here’s what a couple of combinations could sound like, as sketched out for our final two instrumental “out” chorus (in all the glorious midi sound of my MuseScore software).

Looking forward to hearing how it all pulls together on Thursday night!


If the work with the Intermezzo group focuses on arrangement, I like to get the older group of 7th/8th graders involved at the level of composition itself. And, again, this follows the model I might use with my own Famous Orchestra, in which rehearsals become the lab in which some germ of an idea I’ve had gets worked up into something fuller. With the Chamber Orchestra, this often takes the form of testing out ways of taking a bass riff and changing it up the rhythm, the ornamentation, or the harmonization, as we’ve done with The Monsters Are Coming” or “(It’s Gonna Be) Another Day” (2017 & 2018 Spring concerts, respectively).

The piece I brought in for them this year, “Leave a Picture (Take a Person),” is something I wrote literally the day after last year’s concert, based on an idea of creating a loop that would undergird variations. But then I had to wait a whole year to hear how it would develop with the whole orchestra!

It’s a simple, mostly through-composed piece that takes a slow Beatle-y melody, adds in some Bollywood-ish call & response, and punctuates the verses with a two-measure, four-chord progression I creatively borrowed (i.e., stole) in equal parts from George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity” and Big Star’s “Feel.”

Leave a Picture (vamp chords)

Which sounds like this:

In the instrumental middle of the song, that bit becomes a looped “vamp” over which the orchestra riffs based on some rhythmic and harmonic ideas that came out of the workshops. And we end up stealing some other bits and pieces from other recognizable places — see if you can hear where in this midi-rendering version of the full score:

Can’t nobody tell us nothing. At least until Thursday! See you all then.

The Viper appears as Composer-in-Residence and soloist with the Orchestras of Lake Zurich Middle School North  (LZOrk) for their Spring 2019 concert on Thursday, May 16, at 7:00 p.m. (95 Hubbard Lane, Hawthorn Woods, IL 60047 | (847) 719-3600)

…and it WAS another day.

A couple weeks ago now, The Viper showed up on May 17, 2018 and did his duty as Composer in Residence with the Orchestras of Lake Zurich Middle School North under the direction of Mr. Riley Broach.

You can read about this program and how we all approached it this year in my previous post, but in this space here I plan to turn the page over to the words of the 6th, 7th, and 8th-grade students (now about to become 7th, 8th, and 9th-grade students, some of whom I’ve worked with for all three years of their middle-school careers) who performed full string orchestra versions of Viper-made songs “Winnebago Bay” and “Another Day.” I really appreciated reading everyone’s comments, which — enjoyably gentle insults aside! — showed a lot of thoughtfulness and appreciation for the uniquely challenging approach Riley takes to setting up and teaching his orchestra courses.

So here’s the questions that Mr. Broach posed to them, post-concert, followed by a word cloud showing the words they used with the greatest frequency (as a group) in their responses. (You can find a fuller rendering of many of these comments on the LZORK page right here.)

Q: What did you learn from The Viper?


Q: How do you describe the Composer in Residence thing we do in orchestra?


Q: Tell me about the song you might compose over the summer!


Q: Write a message to The Viper!

yer Viper

Thanks again to Mr. Broach and to the students in the Orchestra program of Lake Zurich Middle School North for all their great work and tremendous patience with me this year. I’ll be back — but for now all I have to say is:

How to make a jug band jug

Something of a follow-up to my “How to build a washtub bass” series, this video shows you how to prepare a ceramic jug for playing as a musical instrument, with some advice for finding a suitable jug. If you like, you can skip the video and read instead the transcript I’ve given below.

I re-baked this jug special for Rob right before this show.
I re-baked this jug special for Rob right before this show.


“How to make a jug band jug”
with The Viper

Today I’m going to talk about how to prepare a jug for playing. By “prepare,” I mean finding one and then cleaning it. Cleaning it will involve getting out all the stuff that might have gone into a ceramic jug in the past, and sterilizing it to get out any remaining funk. You can put that funk back in later when you play.

Stage 1: FIND A JUG

First: finding one. This is a 2-gallon stoneware ceramic jug of the sort that you might find in an antique store, a basement, an estate sale, things like that. They’re not that hard to find. But they are a little bit hard to find cheaply, unless you’re lucky.

The good news is, it’s not the only thing you can play. Really, anything of about this size and shape will work: a glass apple cider jug (although those are harder to find these days, as well), a wine jug, old bleach bottles, laundry detergent bottles. Even things like a milk jug will work, although [with] the sides, the plastic is probably too soft to really give you good tone. You want something with about this much volume — 2 gallons is about the right amount of resonance — and you want resilient, tough sides to hold their shape.

Well, now let’s talk about cleaning.


So cleaning a jug isn’t rocket science. But it is materials science. In putting these instructions together, I’ve consulted the online advice of people who deal in antique ceramics but, perhaps more importantly, home brewers and distillers. If your jug is particularly valuable and irreplaceable, you may want to go beyond what I’m saying here to make sure I’m not giving you bad advice that might lead to a cracked or otherwise wrecked jug.

I’ve got some very basic materials here. I’m going to use vinegar and bleach. And if you’ve got a glass jug, [like an] apple cider jug from the supermarket, [it’s] even easier: just warm soapy water (like you’d clean any dish). With ceramics, we have to worry a little bit more that the glaze inside may have not held up, may be porous; and any water of the kind that you might be spitting in would harm the jug and lead to funk, which will come right back at you when you play it.

I’m going to start just by rinsing it out. And, incidentally, one way that you can check for porousness is simply to fill it up to the lip with water. Let it sit for a couple of days; and if the water level goes down, then you know you have porousness.

Then I’ll pour some vinegar in — you know, swish it around, maybe let it sit for a while (you might know better than I do). And then when I’m happy with the amount it’s sat, pour it out, maybe do it again, fill it up with water — in other words, just give it a number of good rinsings to get out any of the big stuff.


And when I’m satisfied that I’ve got everything out, then I’m going to sterilize it. I’m going to start by filling it about halfway with water. Then I’m going to add 2 tablespoons of bleach for each gallon of water. So for a 2 gallon jug that’ll be 4 tablespoons of bleach. Fill it the rest of the way with water. Then I’m going to let it sit for 20 minutes while the bleach does its magic.

20 minutes later…

I pour out the bleach. And now to get rid of any remaining water and bleach and to sterilize the jug I’m going to bake it for two hours at 320 degrees. I don’t want to pre-heat the oven, because to avoid any cracking I want the jug to warm up slowly and then, again, I’m going to let it cool down slowly. Put in the jug. Now we’ll let it bake — 2 hours.

2 hours later…

Two hours are up and the jug is done, so I’ll turn off the heat. But, again, I’m going to leave the jug in to cool along with the oven to avoid any sudden temperature changes that might lead to cracking.


When the oven has cooled, then it’s time to take the jug out. And then when it’s cool to the touch — like it is right now — then it’s ready to play. Now, it’s your turn!

How to build a washtub bass pt. 3 – playing

You’ve got the materials. You’ve put them together. So how do you PLAY a washtub bass? Here, in the last of three installments, the Viper shows you how. A transcript follows the video.

The bass you see being put together here will make its public debut on Friday night, May 7, in the very capable hands of Riley Broach. Riley, along with John Peacock and the Viper, will be playing with The Viper and His Second String as part of a four-band jug-music show at the Coffee House, below Redeemer Lutheran Church on 631 N. 19th St. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Also featured are Larry Penn’s Washboard Band (featuring Dave Fox), Peter Lee, and the Grumpystiltskyn Jug Band.) The show starts at 8:00 p.m. It’s a Food Pantry Benefit, and so a donation of $4 and two cans of food is requested.


Now, to play the washtub bass.

PLACEMENT: When I’m at home, I just put it straight down on the floor. But if I want a little more volume, I’ll put a book under it. Today, we’re using Charles Schultz, The Complete Peanuts, volume 1.

STANCE: Then the notch that you carved in the stick will go on the back rim. Your weak foot will go behind the tub, behind the stick. And your strong foot will go on the rim of the opposite side, where the book is, to hold it down when you play.

PLUCKING: To play, you pull it tight enough to make the string taut. And if you pull the staff back to make the string tighter, the note will go up. And if you move it more towards the middle, you’ll get a lower note. And then when you put it all together, it will sound like this.

[“Seven Nation Army” follows, featuring Irene Jerving on washtub bass drum]

How to build a washtub bass pt. 2 – construction

So you’ve already carefully jotted down the materials you would need to build a washtub bass. Now in this, the second of three installments, the Viper shows you how to put the parts together. A transcript follows the video.

The bass you see being put together here will make its public debut on Friday night, May 7, in the very capable hands of Riley Broach. Riley, along with John Peacock and the Viper, will be playing with The Viper and His Second String as part of a four-band jug-music show at the Coffee House, below Redeemer Lutheran Church on 631 N. 19th St. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Also featured are Larry Penn’s Washboard Band (featuring Dave Fox), Peter Lee, and the Grumpystiltskyn Jug Band.) The show starts at 8:00 p.m. It’s a Food Pantry Benefit, and so a donation of $4 and two cans of food is requested.



Now to build the washtub bass.

WASHTUB: We’re going to start with the washtub. We’ll be removing the handles, which you can do with a bolt cutter, if you have one, [or a] hacksaw — sometimes, if they’re soft enough, even just a pair of pliers. Drill a hold in the bottom and then put in the hardware assembly.

OUTSIDE HARDWARE: Eye bolt, lock washer, fender washer.

INSIDE HARDWARE: And in the inside: fender washer, lock washer, lock nut. Then you want to make sure you tighten it, quite tight. (This ended up being just about perfect. The bolt doesn’t extend past the nut, which is good if you want to carry stuff in the tub: it won’t scratch as much.) And then we’re done with our tub.

STAFF: Now we’re going to work on the staff. First, we’re going to cut a notch across the bottom. That will fit into the rim of the tub, and that’ll allow it to rest on the rim without slipping while you’re playing. Then we’re going to drill a hole through 48″ up for the string to go through. I’ll go a little bit more than this. But you don’t want to go too deep, because you don’t want this to touch the bottom of the tub, which will rattle. So just about 1/4 of an inch, enough to keep the thing from slipping. Now we’re going to measure 48″ up the staff. And mark it: that’s where we’re going to drill the hole.

[NOTE: One correction to this. Rather than drill the string hole 48″ up the staff, I’d recommend going a few inches higher (like to 52″) so that the string itself, when taut, will measure 48″ from staff to eye bolt (it’s the hypotenuse — use your knowledge of right triangles!).]

And when you do the drilling, you just want to make sure that the hole is going through perpendicular to the way that the notch is cut — in other words, the hole should be facing the center of the tub. You’re going to drill the hole big enough for your rope to go through.

STRING: Now that we’ve got the hole drilled, we’re just going to feed one end of the clothesline through that, and then tie a knot on the other side. And then cut off about 6 feet. And we’ll run that through the eye bolt — double back, like that. And then we essentially want to adjust the length until it’s basically taut when the string is almost straight up and down. When it’s straight up and down, that’s the lowest note you’re going to be able to hit. Then we’re going to take our clamp. Clamp this, and screw these back on. Eventually, we’ll cut this. But for now, I’m going to leave it until I have a chance to test out the bass: make sure I like the tautness of the string, and the length and everything. And the nice thing about the clamp, rather than tying it, is it makes it  much easier to make small adjustments while you’re figuring out what work.

PLUNGER: And then the last thing we need to do is to build a riser to allow the sound out to come out of the instrument. So we’re going to cut a notch in the top of the plunger. And that’s going to go under the rim.

And that’s how you build a washtub bass.