Written By Sherwood Kohn
“By Heart” is a one-man band times three.
No, not like the guys with bass drums strapped to their stomachs, cymbals tied on their knees and harmonicas wired to their mouths. This trio is high tech.
In fact, “By Heart” is a technical and musical powerhouse run by three Carroll Countians who can, through the use of traditional instruments and electronic equipment, sound like an octet; or as they look at it, like a big band.
Okay, a big band is usually defined as having more than a dozen members. But who is quibbling? Elliott Burgher, Barbara McCourt and Dave Emmert manage to fill any room they are in (or for that matter, any space, since they often play outdoors) with the big band sounds of the 1930s, Ô40s and Ô50s.
They do it with two keyboards, two sets of speakers, two amplifiers (with their speakers), a sub woofer, microphones and — somewhat incongruously — two saxophones. All of which they lug from their Westminster base (Burgher’s suburban home basement) to most of their gigs in a tan 1990 Ford van and can set up in an 8 by 10 foot space. Power? All they need is a wall plug.
And their engagements, which average two a month, range anywhere from weddings, nursing homes and American Legion halls to night clubs, corporate bashes and big holiday parties.
Their largest play date was a corporate champagne party in Columbia last year, their smallest was “in somebody’s living room,” and the strangest was a concert at Fairhaven in Sykesville for Alzheimer’s patients.
“Most of the people in the room were out of it,” said McCourt, “but as soon as we started playing, they started singing; even the ones who couldn’t move.”
“It was an eye-opener,” said Emmert. “Some of them knew all the words.”
That basic appeal was also the origin of the group’s name. McCourt came up with “By Heart” when she was taking some marketing courses.
“We knew,” she said, “that we wanted to appeal to people who knew songs by heart.” Hence the moniker.
Obviously the group is flexible. Not only can they produce or approximate the sounds of a piano, bass, saxophone, guitar, trumpet, vibraphone, drum set, bongo, conga, cowbell, marimba and clave, but can play some 300 vintage tunes from Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Harry James to Dezi Arnaz, Xavier Cugat and beyond.
Burgher is the band’s arranger and player of the M.I.D.I., or musical instrument digital interface keyboard, the mainstay of the band that not only reproduces the sounds of many instruments, but, he says,“allows musical instruments to talk to each other.”
Mastering the M.I.D.I., he said, was like rubbing your stomach while patting your head. He frequently has to play two rhythms at once. It took Burgher, a white-haired, no-nonsense guy who was an industrial and electrical engineer before he retired, and has been playing the piano for more than 60 years (he is 74), three weeks to become proficient.
Born on Staten Island and educated at Wagner College and and Rutgers University, Burgher came to Carroll County in 1967. He has been married twice and says he has eight children, 22 grandchildren, 13 great grandchildren and four great great grandchildren.
Emmert, 53, a compact, scholary-looking scion of an old Carroll County family, started playing the piano when he was big enough to climb onto the bench. He picked up the sax at age 4, went on to play the organ in high school and got his advanced education at Western Maryland College (now McDaniel).
Emmert is an ophthalmic photographer at Johns Hopkins’ Wilmer Eye Institute. A quiet bachelor, he is the group’s recording specialist and does the graphics for the CDs that “By Heart” produces. One of his jobs is to to wrestle the band’s 300-400 pound amplifier box into and out of the van.
“It’s just a bit more than I can pick up,” he said. In fact, the setup is so big and powerful that when the group played an outdoor wedding recently, the sound stopped cars on a nearby highway.
At 65, McCourt is a statuesque blonde who started playing the piano at age 8, but “didn’t get around to the real thing” until she was 33. A nurse for more than 40 years, she earned her degree at St. Agnes Hospital in 1963 and the worked at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center. Before she retired, she served as the school nurse for 13 years at Liberty High School. She has a daughter and two grandsons, one of which is already “messing with my guitar.”
In addition to serving as the group’s glam vocalist, she plays the bass, guitar, piano and – of all things – the Celtic harp, which she strums at the Carroll County Farm Museum, the Maryland Renaissance Festival and Art in the Park. And, of course, she has been known to vamp atop the occasional piano.
One night, when “By Heart” was playing a gig while a thunderstorm raged outside, the power went out. Rising to the occasion, McCourt hopped onto the piano and the trio went acoustic.
Then there was the time the group played the Ramada Inn and Conference Center in Gettysburg. It was a lengthy date: some 108 times in a row, according to McCourt, and the band got really close (and maybe a little mischievous).
“ÔMr. M.’ owned the place,” she said. “He liked ÔThe Girl from Ipanema.’ So every time he’d pass the bandstand, I’d give the boys the nod and we’d play it. And every time, Mr. M. would drop $20 into the pot.”
The three have been playing together for almost 20 years and the gig never seems to get old, at least from McCourt’s perspective.
“It’s like what Linda Rondstadt did with Nelson Riddle,” she said. “But we get to do it all the time.”–S.D.K.