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Conducting a dream

Posted May 1, 2014

Paul Alexander lowers the baton, turns briefly to the first violin like offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and quarterback Andy Dalton might trade a protection call before a series, and after they nod in agreement the first rehearsal of Mozart's “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” by the Hamilton-Fairfield Symphony Orchestra rolls to an end.

Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander lives out a life-long dream when he steps to the podium Saturday night to conduct the Hamilton-Fairfield Symphony Orchestra. 

Paul Alexander lowers the baton, turns briefly to the first violin like offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and quarterback Andy Dalton might trade a protection call before a series, and after they nod in agreement the first rehearsal of Mozart's “Eine kleine Nachtmusik”  by the Hamilton-Fairfield Symphony Orchestra rolls to an end.

"There's a part where the violins are all playing and it's just vacillating chaos," Alexander says. "They kind of got drowned out a little bit, so I wanted everyone else to take it down a little bit and for them to pick it up."

Donzel Burkhart, the first violin who is the quarterback, otherwise known as the concert master, made the necessary change as the notes shuffle in his head.

"It was a good comment," says the energetic and serious Burkhart, "and we've got a spot where we can do it."

They'll find out for sure Saturday night at 7:30 when Alexander, the Bengals assistant head coach, celebrates his 20th season as the club's offensive line coach with a once-in-a-lifetime shot as a guest conductor when he leads Burkhart and the strings in a 22-minute serenade during the Ohio Mozart Grand Finale Concert at the Hamilton First Baptist Church.

The offer came during that first lunch a year ago when Paul John Stanbery, the orchestra's maestro, wanted to talk Schembechler and Alexander wanted to talk Schubert. Stanbery urged Alexander to take his classical music journey to the next step and when he suggested he'd train him for a turn at the podium at this concert, Alexander broke down.

"A big guy like that crying took me by surprise, but that's how much it means to him," Stanbery says. "He told me, 'That's been a lifelong dream.'"

Alexander, who cut his teeth in the college ranks at Michigan and Penn State, is no stranger to the classics. Even though he started playing piano just eight years ago at the age of 46 when his middle daughter, Carolyn, took her bow at CCM and he joined in.  His three years of lessons with concert pianist Albert Muhlbock produced a book that connects his worlds in "Perform: A journey for athletes, musicians, coaches and teachers."

 The experience culminated in Alexander’s concert before the royalty of the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music a few years back. And he’s kept it going under Michael Chertock of the Cincinnati Orchestra, the veritable Anthony Munoz of Queen City piano.

“Doing music only takes up a small amount of my time, but it opens up the creative part of me,” Alexander says. “It’s not only making sure of the nuts and bolts, it opens up a creative part of me. There has to be outside-the-box creativity. The coaches that don’t have that part are lacking.”

Alexander took his recital in a suit, but he has to go with the tux and tails when he takes the baton Saturday night. Besides getting married in one and going to a prom in Rochester, N.Y., wearing a salmon one, a tux is a rarity for the longest tenured offensive line coach in the NFL.

 But Alexander and Stanbery are a perfect match at Tuesday’s first rehearsal. Stanbery, wearing Ohio State sweatpants, introduces Alexander, wearing a Bengals sweatshirt.

“Don’t hurt my orchestra,” Stanbery says and after everybody laughs Alexander says, “While I was watching, you reminded me of the pros that I coach.  I was impressed how intense you were in your music, no messing around, and believe it or not that’s how pro football players are.”

Alexander catches himself. He says the concert is on Sunday, not Saturday, as he runs through his thoughts. For Alexander, all big days are Sundays.

But these are pros and like pros, they sound like they’ve been working on this concert for months even though this is the first rehearsal.  Stanbery is dripping with sweat after leading the first two hours before he sweats out Alexander’s debut.

“He’s nervous about it, but I don’t want him to overanalyze it,” Stanbery says as he gazes from the back of the church. “He’s keeping a good steady beat for them. The hard thing for a conductor to show is the character of the music and you have to do it in such a way they will know what to do before they play the note. You have to give the indication of the style of the next attack before they come in. If it happens simultaneously it’s too late. They don’t know what to do.”

Unlike Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, Stanbery hears better than he sees. He has a keen eye, for sure, but an even keener ear. Two years ago his Second Symphony “Foundations” was nominated for the Pulitzer and in 2005 he became the first conductor to win the Post-Corbett Award not associated with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra when he took home what amounts to the Greater Cincinnati Pulitzer.

But he’s also the step-father of two high school football coaches and the father-in-law of another. He loves the game as only a Toledo, Ohio native can, perched so close to both Ohio State and Michigan. He can tell his job in pretty simple terms.

“It’s like a quarterback barking out signals at the line and the offense knows what’s ahead and what the cadence is going to be,” he says. “That’s why they react so well. And the audience is the defense. They don’t know what’s coming.”

 Stanbery and Alexander have had about 15 sessions throughout the past year girding for this week. There’ll be another rehearsal Thursday night and one Saturday morning. There isn’t much time, but it’s going pretty smoothly except for one spot where Alexander loses his place, a not uncommon miscue in a first scrimmage. Kind of like a false start, but after the set he puts them at ease with a quip.

It turns out that Stanbery has taught him well.

“When the conductor gets lost, he just moves his arms in a circular motion,” Alexander says. “And he just stays in rhytyhm and then when he feels where the beat is going, he jumps back in. It happens. It’s the biggest scam going. You go to the concert and you see the conductor waving his arms and you think he’s trying to inspire them when in reality he’s treading water. He’s trying to breathe.”

That gets a good laugh, but later Stanbery tells him he can’t talk so much between sets. In the pro music business, time is money. And while the NFL players have a union, too, their coaches have a license to meet as long as they want.

“But maybe that was good because it gave them a chance to get to know him a little bit,” Stanbery says.

Alexander likes the idea of talking. To him, making music is great the same way playing football is great. A team effort. A bunch of people from all different directions pulling together to make something else go in the same direction nobody else can.

It’s why he closes each of his coaching clinics with a video of Stanbery’s orchestra playing together.

“I’m a fan of great performances,” he says.

So is Burkhart, a regular music man who also plays for the Middletown Symphony while also backing up in Springfield, Ohio, as well as running a sound company that does everything from musicals and plays to dances.

So he’s a first-stringer not thrown off his game when told he’ll be led by a football coach for a night. After all, he played with former Bengals Pro Bowler Mike Reid about 20 years ago when Reid played the piano with the Middletown Symphony.

“He was a hoot to work with. He does a country, almost comedy act along with the piano that he plays,” Burkhart recalls.

Burkhart did his advanced scouting on Alexander.

“As soon as I heard he was studying with Michael Chertock and was doing conducting with Paul, that’s comfortable. That’s fun,” he says.

Here’s Burkhart’s scouting report after one rehearsal:

“He’s real solid at what’s going on. I’m very impressed, actually… He had a real good idea of what he was doing, what he wanted. He had studied it. He had some musical ideas as well as just the mechanics of 1-2, 1-2.”

Alexander talks about music being “the universal language,” but the challenge for the conductor is to get different instruments to sound the way he or she wants the thought interpreted.

“He had a very straightforward concept in the first movement,” Burkhart says. “The second movement he wanted to romanticize a little more with a different style than the first movement. The third movement is the minuet trio, a stately ballroom dance, and he gave us real good stately tempo on that and it just locked right in.”

The minuet trio isn't exactly the counter trey, but Alexander’s big fear has vanished. He went to the podium thinking about the musician who told him that in the first 30 seconds you can tell if they’re going to follow the conductor or if they’re going to make the conductor follow them.

“They stayed right with me on everything. I was able to slow them down, speed them up, make them louder, make them softer,’ Alexander says.

As the rehearsal breaks up, Alexander looks relieved. As if the Bengals have just rushed for 160 yards and a win. Fittingly, as the musicians pack up their instruments Alexander reaches into a bag to give them a 2013 AFC North championship hat.

They head to the cars, but Alexander and Stanbery linger. He can still feel the adrenaline.

“That’s the only thing you can say,” Alexander says to Stanbery. “What a rush.”

 

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