Getting In Tune with The Infinite

I have been been blessed to sing wonderful songs written by other people for many decades — as the MP3 player on the right hand sidebar of this page can attest.

And every now and then I have helped to write or co-write a song.

But it wasn’t until a few years ago, when I bought my first ‘ukulele, that I started writing songs on a regular basis.

I love reading about how other songwriters have created their hits.

Composer Harry Warren and lyricist Johnny Mercer wrote “Jeepers, Creepers,” “On The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” and “You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby.”

Warren gave Mercer the nickname ‘Cloud Boy’.

As Warren explained, “A lot of times when I would play a melody for John… particularly if it was after a good lunch… he’d stretch out on a couch and just lie there with his eyes closed and his hands folded across his stomach. He was way up there some place in the clouds. Of course, what came out later was just great.”

When asked by his father about his creative process, Mercer once said, “I simply get to thinking over the song — pondering over it in my mind — and all of a sudden I get in tune with the Infinite.”

Many songwriters have expressed a similar sentiment — that they feel as though they are acting as a conduit or channel for something greater than themselves.

The lyricist Ira Gershwin said that the composer Harold Arlen would never “approach the simplest musical requirement or idea without first calling upon ‘the fellow up there’ — jabbing his finger at the ceiling.”

I cannot say that I have experienced this phenomenon yet.

I have, however, noticed that lyrical themes sometimes emerge which surprise me and lead a song in a different direction than I had originally intended.

And I have had the inspiring experience of writing a song which gradually became true.

It is called “Can We Slow It Down?” — and I wrote it a couple of years ago when I was working full time at my day job in Harvard Square.

I realized recently when I was practicing it at home that my life has in fact slowed down since I began singing this song.

If you are curious, you can listen to “Can We Slow It Down?” by clicking on the audio player at the top of this page.

I will be singing it plus two other originals as part of a mini-set at a lovely open mic in Lexington — hosted by Nourish Restaurant on Massachusetts Avenue — on Tuesday, November 5, 2013, starting around 7:30 pm.

Perhaps you can join us.

Music and Spontaneity

I am at an open mic run by the Boston Association of Cabaret Artists (BACA) in an elegant UU church in Watertown, MA.

Steve Heck, a wonderful local pro, is playing the grand piano, and I am singing “Over the Rainbow.”

It is one of the songs in a new show about Harold Arlen I have recently begun performing with pianist Joe Reid.

After Steve takes a piano solo, I re-enter at the bridge of the song (“some day I’ll wish upon a star…”) and then I hear elevator doors opening behind me.

Three women — friends of Steve Heck, I later learn — appear on stage. They did not realize that the elevator would deposit them there.

I turn and, still singing, welcome them in order to escort them across the stage and down into the audience. But as I do this, I realize that they probably love music and very likely know all the words to “Over the Rainbow;” so I encourage them to stay with me onstage and sing — which they happily do.

One woman in particular catches my attention because she is singing a beautiful harmony line in a great, big, functional belting voice. We make eye contact as the song builds to a dramatic and completely spontaneous harmonic climax of “Why oh why can’t I?” — each of us singing at the top of our vocal range, my microphone completely unnecessary.

The entire series of events has lasted less than a minute, and the entire room is happily caught up in the moment.

Afterwards, during a break period, I am asked how I managed to time their arrival so perfectly. I explain that I had never met them before and that the entire experience was utterly spontaneous — unfolding moment by moment with no guidance other than the lyrics of the song and our shared love of music.

Ahh, music!

Ahh, spontaneity…

I have been experiencing a lot of spontaneous musical moments in the past few months.

Joe Reid and I put together our Harold Arlen show in one rehearsal that lasted about two hours. He is a jazz pianist who is very comfortable in the here and now.

I brought a bunch of sheet music to his house plus a rough idea of a run order. We double checked the keys for all the songs, played each one through once or twice, and Joe was ready to take it public.

So far we have performed at two retirement communities to very enthusiastic audiences (and we did get together for another hour-long rehearsal before our second performance…)

Of course, I spent many additional hours apart from Joe — making sure I know exactly how the song was originally written, reading several books about Arlen I ordered from my local library, memorizing lyrics, and writing the “patter” to lead from one song to the next.

All of which helps me to surrender to the moment when we are performing them.

I have also begun leading Music Together (MT) classes in Arlington and Belmont.

MT is a very-well-researched and very-well-planned program to introduce small children — along with their care-givers — to the joy and fun of music-making.

Although one is expected to learn 30+ new songs (carefully arranged to include a wide variety of keys and rhythms) each semester, one is also encouraged to be spontaneous and improvisatory during each class.

I am sure my training during the past six months to become a MT teacher helped me to go with the flow at the BACA open mic when those three women appeared onstage.

And I have experienced many moments of musical connection with children and parents during my first two weeks of MT classes that have given me a similar jolt of delight.

I think this might be what I am supposed to be doing here on planet earth!

I will end with a version of the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer classic, “Accentuate the Positive” that I recorded with pianist Doug Hammer during a rehearsal for the “Mostly Mercer” show that he and Bobbi Carrey and I created last year.

Thanks for reading — and listening!