Slowly Getting Better

Robert Hughes, Jon Kirchoff & sometimes Andrew Cannan

They’re Slowly Getting Better

Is it a band name, a statement of faith, or a modest-but-optimistic self-assessment? “Slowly Getting Better” is one of the names that musicians Robert Hughes and Jon Kirchoff (sometimes joined by Andrew Cannan) call themselves. Other musical monikers include “DadBod,” “The Great Banana Cream Pie Caper,” and “The Old Tyme Backalley Brisket Boys.”  Or so says Robert Hughes, who plays upright bass. It’s anyone’s guess how serious he might be.

Maybe the band is an intentional break from the seriousness of their day jobs. Both are ECU professors, Hughes in biological chemistry and Kirchoff in marketing and supply chain management. Hughes contributes to scholarly articles about such things as apoptotic epithelial cells, and Kirchoff writes about the spillover effect of supply chain news. (Just molding minds and providing the world a little light reading material.) As a rector at St Paul’s Episcopal Church, Cannon is involved with some pretty important business, too. Heady stuff. It’s enough to inspire them to play, as they say, “anything awesome, from Merle to Johnny to Jimi to Joni.”

The band has all appearances of grass the shade of Carolina blue. But their diverse musical stylings extend to playing Depeche Mode, the British synth-pop new wave band from the ’80s.

Are they academics who play music, or musicians with a scholarly soiree?

Hughes acknowledges the intersection between music and academia, and science in particular.

“On a fundamental level, both involve advanced pattern recognition; on a higher level, both require creativity,” Hughes said, noting that “scientific creativity is usually less apparent to the layperson.”

He cites several examples of musician-scientists, from Alexander Borodin, the Russian classical composer & chemist, to Ron McNair, the NASA Challenger astronaut and jazz saxophonist. And of course there is the household name, Brian May, Queen guitarist and PhD astrophysicist.

Hughes has a master’s degree in classical double bass performance from ECU. “I did this long ago before switching over to chemistry,” he says. Kirchoff played in numerous bands during college and graduate school. 

Patrick Reid credits Kirchoff for helping him get out, playing in the community more, a few years ago: “When Farmville Arts decided to do an outdoor market, they asked me to find music for it. I called Jon and said, ‘There’s an outdoor market that needs 2.5 hours of music. Do you think we could pull together enough to play 45 mins or so?” He confidently said, ‘We can play ALL of it.’”

They compiled a list of songs, had three or four practices, and TrickJohnny was born. The name was a combo of PaTRICK & Jon. Ultimately their schedules made it too challenging to practice together and they went in different musical directions.

Sylvia Bjorkman has performed with the musicians at their church. “We had one bluegrass mass service before the pandemic which was fun and a switch from the more formal music St. Paul’s usually offers,” Borkman said. “David and I played with them as did some others. At St. Paul’s they have offered good music that was open to all who wanted to participate and added another way music helps people connect through worship.”

Slowly Getting Better plays locally at venues such as the Leroy James Farmers Market, Taste of Farmville, and “our garages,” said Hughes. “We’re interested in playing places that aren’t open past our bedtimes.”

Kirchoff plays guitar and harmonica with the group, also contributing vocals. Cannan plays guitar, mandolin, and sings. In addition to bass, Hughes plays keyboards (presumably not at the same time) and sings. He also lists the theremin as an instrument of choice. Considered one of the first electronic instruments, it was invented by a Russian physicist in 1919 and is played without actually touching it. Watching a thereminist perform is like witnessing a conjurer in action.

While the group mostly plays covers, Hughes says they have a couple of original songs that they’re “kicking around. “ When asked how fans can stay apprised of their performance schedule, he responded, “No website yet; however if you have ESP we’re both open to communicating through the ether.”

The secret to slowly getting better?  Hughes’ answer is one you can raise a glass to: “More riffs, fewer sips.”

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Originally published in the Daily Reflector January 15, 2022.