Thursday, March 28, 2013

What Do You Remember About Music?

A few days ago, I had the pleasure of holding a baby just 10 days old. It was mid afternoon, and I was guessing her poor mama hadn't really slept since the birth. Elle and I took turns cuddling the baby, while my friend crept upstairs for a much needed nap. After a few minutes, the baby began fussing. I picked her up, walked around the room, sang our version of "Hush Little Baby." Still gritchy. I switched to "All the Pretty Horsies" and did a gentle canter-y gait. More fussing. Then I started in on Ledbelly's "Bring Me Little Water, Sylvie." The baby pulled her head off my shoulder (strong baby!) and stared at me as if in disbelief. She stopped crying and listened as I sang. When her mother came downstairs fifteen minutes later, I told her what had happened.

"No wonder," said her mother. "We played that song and sang that song many times while she was in the womb, and since birth."

I'd certainly heard of this happening--baby recognizing pre-womb music post-womb--and in fact, we wrote about this phenomenon in our book All Together Singing in the Kitchen: Creative Ways to Make and Listen to Music as a Family. But I'd never witnessed it so directly. (Well, maybe I did. Maybe it happened with my own kids, but I was so sleep deprived then, I have no recollection.)

Today in Jay's Suzuki class the teacher had the four-year-old pre-twinklers form a circle. She played "pass the Twinkle," playing the first line of "Mississippi Stop Stop" to the child on her left, who in turn, wordlessly passed it on to the child on his left, and so on, around the circle. "Isn't it amazing," she said. "How you all knew what to do, and could do it without even saying any words. Music is a language we can all understand."

Plans for SOS-SOA are looking up. Emails are circulating. I am making phone calls, juggling schedules, refining our focus. Meanwhile, doing a lot of thinking about the role of music in our children's lives. Why fight to keep music in the schools?
-it's a language we all share.
-it cuts through reason and goes right to the heart.
-when I look back on my own school memories, so many of them have to do with music class, performing, practicing an instrument. Maybe that's just because I am a musician, but I can't imagine growing up without all the music I had.
-it unites a group of disperate kids
-it's the only academic discipline that is equally left-brained and right-brained

What about you? What do you remember about music education growing up?

For more about music education, visit the National Association for Music Education.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

SOS-SOA-Save Our Schools-Save Our Arts

photo c/o Sarah Buttenweiser. Read her always wonderful, insightful and inspiring blog, "Standing in the Shadows."

Time for Spring, time for budget cuts. Time for Big Ideas.

As I posted earlier, we're facing a huge budget deficit in the school system here in Northampton (endemic in Massachusetts because of a combination of Prop 2 1/2 and some crazy formula they made 30 years ago). The proposed cuts are heartbreaking: $1.2 million all together, including bussing, many classroom teachers including our dear almost-family member Ms. Mc, many teachers in the high school and middle school, and of course, arts and music teachers at the middle school and high school. Katryna and I want to fight it. Of all the issues near and dear to our hearts, this is number one. We are who we are as artists, musicians and people because of the music teachers we had in our own school systems.

Tuesday I attended a meeting at the middle school (JFK in Florence). They were expecting 30 people on a snowy night after a snow day. Instead they got over 175. Peter Kocut, our state rep, laid out clearly for all of us the need to increase our state taxes. (No hard sell with me. I think it's ridiculous how little we pay and how much we get, but that's another story. And I do know that not everyone can afford higher taxes. But a lot of people can, and I am all for a progressive tax code. If everyone in Northampton paid $320, we'd cover the budget deficit.)

Peter Kocut spoke at great length about how we got here, why we have the deficit, how he is working hard to get legislative change, but it'll be two years if he's successful before we have the money to restore the cuts. And if we don't take action now, there will be more cuts.

Since 2000 we've had to cut and cut and cut. There is not too much more to cut.

A 13-year-old girl stood up and said, "I hear what you're saying. But the thing is, I want to know how to save our band teacher's job. She's the best teacher we've ever had. And I want my little brother to get to have her when he's at JFK middle school. What can we do? How can we help?"

Right. Blah blah blah. How do we get our teachers to stay?

If anyone with a heart could see these kids imploring us adults to let them keep their band teacher, they'd find it impossible to refuse them. I'd personally give all my savings to keep our teachers at Jackson Street whose jobs are on the cutting board. But it doesn't work that way. If we do private fund raising, the taxpayers will think the problem is solved. And I don't believe our public schools should be funded by private fundraising. What about schools in poorer communities that can't fundraise as effectively?

It was strongly suggested at the meeting that an override would be necessary again.
A JFK teacher stood up. "In 2009 we were in a similar place. And we were in a recession. Everyone said the override couldn't pass. We got 60% of the vote, and we saved our teachers from being cut. We can do it again."

"And your job," said our city councilwoman Pamela Schwartz to the 13-year-olds. "Is to spread the word. Tell your neighbors. Tell all the adults you see. Get out there and lobby!"

Who could I lobby? I thought as I sat there feeling helpless. Who cares the most about arts and music in the schools? Besides the students? HooteNanny moms and dads and grandparents! I whispered as much to my friend Liz. "We should do a benefit to raise awareness." She pointed over to the middle schoolers. "Well, be sure to include those kids!"

So as soon as the meeting was adjourned, I made my way over to the group of middle schoolers. I explained who I was and how I had access to about 300 local moms and dads. "Let's put on a show!" I said (basically). My friend Lucien, a high school freshman at NHS overheard. "I can get a group from the high school," he offered. Our longtime publicist, Michaela O'Brien is a parent of two boys in the school system. She immediately offered to help, too.

So here's the vision: Katryna and I do a benefit--proceeds go towards helping publicize the override. Also onstage with us are the JFK Jazz Band and groups TBD from Northampton High School. I'd also love to have the Jackson Street Faculty Ukulele group and maybe one other performance by JSS or another school. All the schools. Let's celebrate our young musicians in this town that's so well-known for music and arts.
We need:
-a location (NHS? First Churches? Helen Hills Hills? Center for the Arts?)
-a date (late April, early May--we're having a hard time finding a date due to so many moving pieces)
-a sound system and someone to run it
-some volunteers to collect money, help set up and clean up
-the teachers of the school groups on board
-to reach out to the Gazette, RSI, FCR, other media

Will you help us? Do you want to join a discussion to make SOS-SOA happen? Please email me at or respond to this blog with your contact information.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Speak Up for the Arts and Music in our Schools, part 1

[From the Jackson Street School Music Assembly 2012]
A friend just sent me a copy of the proposed budget cuts for the Northampton school districts. I went through them all, and I am heartbroken. I feel so strongly that we need to speak up and raise awareness about these cuts. If our wonderful schools lose all these teachers and programs and services, they will not be as strong. I think we should talk about how weakening our schools affects real estate, an issue that even folks who are out of the school-age era care about. If our schools cease to be a draw, the values of our homes will fall. Educating our young people is a direct investment in the future of Northampton. Of course, as a parent, I feel there's no better use for our tax dollars. I am sure many feel the same, whether or not they have children in the public school system. But we have to talk to our friends and neighbors about this. I am hoping for another override.

I had the pleasure of attending Jackson Street School's annual music assembly. I was moved to tears by the efforts of the music teacher, the passion of the teachers who supported their students and the whole event, the strength of the principal, Gwen Agna and the gorgeousness of the student body who sang a song written for the United Nations called "United," bespeaking a multinational, multiethnic world. The kids sang music from Ireland, India, Mexico and Ghana. At times, they were accompanied by a faculty ukulele band. Music is such a powerful force that unites a community like no other, and it breaks my heart to see potential cuts in music, arts and drama (to name a tiny few of these cuts) on the table at the Middle School and High School level.

Please, if there is anything you can do to raise awareness about these cuts, speak up. This is our community; these are our kids. They will grow up, go out in the world and eventually run it themselves. We all want maximum love and nurturing for them during these crucial years. May they not be shoved into overcrowded classrooms. May we not take away their arts and music and theatre and PE. My hope is our town is better than that.

To see the proposed cuts, go here.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Apple Products Anonymous

I've figured out one sure sweet pleasure. On occasional Mondays, I unplug my new Hofner bass, pack it up and drive into town with my Beatles scores and head down to a basement cubicle at Downtown Sounds, our town's remarkable little music store. Here I find my teacher, Doug, a 60 something lap steel genius. The two of us choose a Beatles song; he plays guitar and I, with my now mandatory reading glasses, stick my face deep into the Beatles tome and pick out the tablature for the bass line. We started with "Help!" and stalled at "With a Little Help from my Friends"--too hard. We backtracked to "I Want to Hold Your Hand," which has a juicy little chromatic bass riff (after "I think you'll understand...nier nier nier nier neet..."), "Hey Bulldog," "Lady Madonna," "Eight Days a Week." And today I learned that totally wild "Come Together" part, complete with bass slide at the 12th fret. I figured I was ready to try again on "With a Little Help." I stuck my nose back in the book, but quickly found I didn't need to. I found the melodic line sitting neatly in my memory, and I was, with all those other songs behind me, able to find the notes myself on the bass. Progress!

It's March 4 today--my mother-in-law would have had her 83rd birthday. She's been gone now almost 3 years, and today is one of those heavy days where my internal organs all feel constricted and hard as iron. The wind blew with surprising ferocity as I left Downtown Sounds, and the elation from the bass playing blew away down the street. Perhaps to counter this, I bought a new iPhone 5 and gave my 4 to Tom, which necessitated a lot of stupid wasted minutes reprogramming, trying to remember passwords, and surrendering to our daughter who begged to play on the AT&T store's iPad.

I've been in a funk about technology, noticing how addicted we all are to our various devices. I want to throw them all away, even my brand new iPhone, which already strikes me as a disappointment, and go back to communicating through smoke signals and tin cans with string.

It's probably good that I am already done with my new iPhone. As addictions go, this one must be pretty weak if it's already lost all its pull. But still, I need it, just as I need the morning's coffee or risk a killer headache. Gone is that sharp awake feeling I had when I was a caffeine virgin. Now I just drink to maintain the dull high. The tremendous thrill from opening that crisp rectangular box and tremblingly raising the tiny piece of technological perfection to my eyes was obscured by the annoying reality of having to buy all new cables for the damn thing. But then I thought, "Ooooo! A trip to the Apple Store! Maybe I should get the new iPad mini!"

Tom says I need to join APA: Apple Products Anonymous.

February Album Writing Month was a half success. Meaning for the first half of the month I worked on my songwriting, and for the second half I completely abandoned it. I did accumulate what Katryna has termed song "starts"--the way one "starts" plants in March--tiny green dots in a black soil landscape nestled in trays on your window seat. That's what I have, and I don't even have the requisite 14. But mid-month I was seized with a desire to bring to completion a project I've wanted to do since 2010: a revision/new edition and ebook version of How to Be an Adult (2008, Mercy House). I went to Kripalu for President's weekend and spent an entire 48 hours with my face bent over my computer and print-outs. So much for a relaxing yoga retreat. But work--when it's cranking, when I'm really writing, when it's all flow--is actually relaxing for me in the same way that playing Paul McCartney bass lines is relaxing for me (or so I believe, anyway). I left Kripalu invigorated, and moved immediately into a solo parent stint with both kids (and Katryna and her kids) in Florida. This I had no illusions about: I knew a trip to Florida without my husband would be more like boot camp than a proverbial day at the beach, and as I've shared here before, I am not really much of a beach gal. I don't like to swim, am cold unless the water is warmer than my body temp, and I don't know how to just sit back and chill. Like many of my artist friends, I don't really know how to play. I can be playful; I can laugh; I can make others laugh. But sometimes I have to work at it. Forgetting how to play is not conducive to songwriting.

I decided I would treat this trip as the meditation retreat I should have had at Kripalu (the kind of meditation retreat where they don't let you read or write. NOT the kind of meditation retreat where you sit for 15 minutes and then they have some wise American Buddhist, who has written several best sellers that teeter somewhere between spirituality and self-help, talk at length about her funny adventures in India as a 20 something.) No, my meditation retreat would be the kind where I had to be present and awake and iPhone-free for as much as possible.

I did pretty well, actually. It helped that Katryna was with me and that she has given up her iPhone for Lent. We supported each other in our efforts to put down the drug. And our kids got into the act too. "No cell phones!" They'd moan if they caught us reaching for the cigarette-pack-sized thing. And cigarettes are a good metaphor. At the airport on our way home, our flights were delayed. The entire airport was full of people bent in that tell-tale position over their devices, lit weirdly by tiny screens. It was all very 1960s Mad Men where everyone in any context is lighting up. Only we light up with fluorescence, not fire.

I have no idea what kinds of songs I should be writing. I'm at a complete loss. Partly this is because sometime in early February Jay (who is now four and a half) discovered the Nields' back catalogue and has been spinning the disks 24/7. He became obsessed with my ex-husband David and pelted Tom and me with questions about him (he still doesn't know that David was my husband once, or what it means that David's last name is Nields--a name Jay shares with him. He is more interested in the fact that we had 3 Daves in our band.) But hearing our old music ad nauseum (and I really mean ad nauseum) has made it hard to write. Mostly because I think the old stuff is pretty good, and I'm reminded that I've said a lot already. Is there anything more to say? Right now, what seems to need saying is that 20 somethings should know how to cook brussel sprouts, and that it's harder than it used to be to qualify for a mortgage; and that they should know that if they have a dream for their future, they should go for it, but to be prepared for the eventuality that it might end up looking very different from what they imagine.

In my little ministers' Bible study last week, we looked at Luke 13:1-9, which talks about how bad things happen to good people, and how it has nothing to do with God's love for them. God isn't punishing the wicked and rewarding the good. We all know this at some level, even as we worry about our karma. The passage underlined for me the importance of being useful. Jesus is saying no way does God doesn't cause bad things to happen. But Bad Things are our wake up call to realize that life isn't about what we can get out of it (which is my orientation, by the way. Part of me always believed that bumper sticker from the 80s that says "Whoever dies with the most toys wins." Hence the iPhone obsession.)

Life is sucky when we orient that way, though. It tastes like yesterday's coffee after awhile. Life is much sweeter when we see what we can put into it, what we have to give. The CD that I most like hearing (and the one Jay has most recently discovered) is our 2007 release Sister Holler. Those songs were written to order for my sister and my parents and the new church Tom and I had joined. Those songs have always struck me as useful. I'm not saying there's no use in our older songs (and I'm not even saying art has to be useful! On the contrary! Is there any use in "With a Little Help From My Friends?" "Come Together?" well, actually, yes, a ton of use. Was it useful that today I played?) But there's a part of me that just wishes I had that album still to write. Or that I could write a neat sequel.

I completely forgot to register Jay for kindergarten. As I was putting dinner on the table and about to sit down with Tom, he reminded me about it. I threw down my napkin, dashed out of the house and jumped in the car, and as I drove to the school as the sun was setting, I thought, "I'm afraid I'll never write another good song again. I'm afraid I'll never do anything useful ever again. I'll probably spend the rest of my life never doing anything of note, just being me." Once again, the sky, all mottled and purple and blue, glowing with the backlit sun, seemed to say, "So? Do you think I love you because you're a songwriter? Don't you think I've loved you ever since you were a tiny baby, just like you loved your own little babies? If you never did anything, I'd still love you just as much as I do now. I've always been in your thrall. Do you think you have to accomplish anything more to be loved? Do you think you have to accomplish anything ever to be loved?"

Grace, I thought. Amazing grace. Right. And I breathed a few breaths and made it to registration on time. And then, as soon as I was back in my car: Yeah, yeah. But what am I going to write next?

Sanity comes in tiny postage-stamp-sized windows: God doesn't care what we accomplish. God just cares about how we treat other people. And, I suspect, the way we communicate all this to God is through play. I have been here many times before, this place of creative despair. I always get my answer. "Let your children teach you how to play," my friend Jane said. So I came home to dinner. My son was standing on the small playtable by the window, DJing at our Bose as usual, air-guitaring to "Jack the Giant Killer." So I grabbed a spoon and sang along.