The musical theater show A Chorus Line (which I hasten to point out that I’ve never seen) includes the song “I Can Do That.” The song’s lyrics aren’t much to read, and the musical’s subject matter isn’t very worthwhile, either, but the song is rhythmically interesting, and it made for a good intermediary piece in a medley I played in high school band.¹ And the title phrase does tend to stick with you. It sometimes comes to me even at work.
Every few days or so, one of my coworkers will be struggling with a minor technology matter, such as a photocopier or scanner function, or getting the Excel spreadsheet dimensions, margins, and print areas set for optimum output. “I can do that” kind of thing. I could also help with written material. Only in two cases has anyone asked for help with in important memos and letters. I could help a lot more by editing out misappropriated apostrophes in simple plurals or by advising on the use of strangely absent past participles. I can do that. Rarely does anyone ask for proofreading or editing or a writer’s advice, and I really don’t expect them to, because these kinds of things aren’t very important to most people . . . but I have this desire to use capabilities.
I’m apprehensive about this post. This “I can do that” thing can seem childish, and maybe that’s because of the association with Dr. Seuss. It might seem childish to some that I continue to write this instead of holding my “pen.” I might regret this, as I have one other post recently. Please realize that I know it doesn’t sound very good in spots. . . .
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Many moons ago, a special men’s group attempted to recreate Glad’s “And Can It Be?” for a morning church assembly, in conjunction with communion. I had taken dictation on the Glad arrangement, because I can do that, and I got the group of men together to rehearse a couple times. I wanted to offer this special song, using not only my capabilities and those of an old DOS-based notation program, but the abilities of five other men. Here’s a recording from a rehearsal. It’s not great, but it’s not bad for an ad hoc group from a church of 200, right? Go ahead and give it a listen. If you’re into the seasonal observances, it happens to fit in about now.
Sometime after the rendition we gave, a generally capable, articulate man expressed offense at not having been asked to sing. He had not been included. I hadn’t asked him. Directing his objection toward a church elder, he appended (and I have remembered this for about 20 years … who knows why?), “I can do that.” I would have known that he and maybe a couple others had the technical ability to join in, but this guy didn’t fit in to well. Knowing something of his background and orientation to issues, I don’t believe it was so much that he wanted to contribute to the effort; rather, he was opposed to the use of any select group for a musical selection, feeling that all church music should be congregational.² He was saying “I can do that” to assert that he and others should not have been excluded, instead of being content in listening and soaking it in. Also, not insignificantly, although he could probably have sung the correct notes on one of the five men’s parts, his voice was very bright and would not have blended well with the others in his vocal range. (Another bright voice was present in the group, but he was one of two on the lowest bass part, and he did end up cutting through too much, at least in the recording.)
These days, whenever I’m in a church hall and hearing or participating in the musical expressions of worship and edification, I might note what the leaders are doing and think I can do that. It’s not so much that I want to be a part of what’s going on. It’s not that I’m opposed or offended. I can’t explain it, really. It’s more like this:
Oh. I remember doing things like that. I am pretty good at it. People responded when I led. But it took a lot out of me. I don’t have that opportunity anymore. Wonder if I ever will again. Probably not.
Back to the man who commented negatively on our small group’s rendition of “And Can It Be?” I could not and cannot see into his or anyone else’s soul. But I’m persuaded that he would really rather that the song had not been sung. He wasn’t about contributing and helping; he was about opposing the effort. That is not me, though. When I think about being able to do something, it’s usually in a spirit of slightly melancholy musing on whether I could support this or that effort at some point.
And now, moving from work group and corporate church matters to individual musical ones. . . . When I am having a musical experience as a concertgoer or ensemble member, I also might have the thought that I can do that. Or maybe it’s “I can’t do that” sometimes. . . .
I actually can’t sing very well anymore, because (1) I don’t exercise my voice that way, and (2) I’ve only ever had a mediocre voice. But I don’t need the part played for me, because I can hit the notes, and I can often figure out how to help others. I can do that. I can hear when the basses descend to a “fa” instead of a root “sol” in a dominant 11th chord. When most others merely see or hear a major-7th or sharp-9th chord and go, “Oh, that’s a clash,” I can probably hear which voice part is out of tune.
My horn playing and trumpet playing leave much to be desired, and I can’t do what I once could. But I can diagnose problems and rehearse groups. In some cases, I can do that better than anyone nearby. I have a few things I can offer, and I want to help.
Three years ago, I heard an all-state orchestra playing (in a gymnasium, of all places), and I heard a horn playing a little sharp. I thought it sounded like a fourth-line D, so I quietly checked, and I was correct. What I’d heard was an all-too-common evidence that the horn player had not been trained to pull out the first-valve slide on the Bb side of the horn. Pulling it out about an inch would have the tuned the D better. I can diagnose things like this with brass instruments, and sometimes with woodwinds.
Weekly these days, there are ways I could help musicians around me. It might be “note police” error detection, or suggesting that the amp settings aren’t optimum, or, more important, discerning ways to enhance musical effects and arrival points.
(There is a tacit rule of law that governs interactions during rehearsals, and usually it works out just fine, with all the musicians respecting whoever’s in charge at the moment. Others with more technical playing gifts and experiences than I have respected my musical leadership roles, and it’s always much appreciated. I’m generally pretty good at pointing out a thing or two without making another leader look bad, but that doesn’t mean I don’t wish I could do more.)
My conducting muscles aren’t getting enough workout, but I’ve had a couple opportunities in the last year, and I know I can still do that. And I can teach, too:
When a conductor neglects breathing with an ensemble (particularly wind players or singers), I would remind her that entrances and style can be affected.
When the tempo increases, a conductor might find himself dividing the beat, and I would suggest to him that this technique will frequently hinder the ensemble.
When the sight line to and from the conductor is compromised, it can almost always be mitigated with a minimum of effort, and I would teach a group of future music educators about that.
When a young conductor gratuitously “dances” on the podium, moving ten extra body parts instead of just the hands and arms, the tendency deserves attention from a teacher. I learned this the hard way, watching myself on video and also being instructed by others. Now, I can do that better than I could, and I can also help others.
In these situations, I often have gestures rising within, and words formed on my lips. Sometimes, I almost lean in to help or say something . . . but it is often inappropriate, so I sit and wonder when or if I could do that. The vast majority of people probably never have thoughts like these, but maybe this strange piece has helped someone to understand a few of us a little better.
¹ Another time, ask me about the rest on beat two after the first verse of “What I Did for Love.” What I did in rehearsal of that medley got me in trouble with my band director.
² Nevermind that preachers do things “solo” or that no complete chorus of everyone made announcements or offered communion meditations. This man capably articulated things during “Sunday school” on a solo basis, too. He could do that, and this or that other person wouldn’t have been the best choice for the teaching role.