In Praise of Doug (and others!)

In Praise of Doug (and others!)

 

I have been blessed to make music with a terrific array of musicians during my musical life here in the Boston area.

In recent years I have worked mostly with pianists, including Doug HammerJoe Reid, Tom LaMark, Mark ShilanskyJoe Mulholland, Mike Callahan, and Steve Sweeting.

Joe Reid fortuitously called me four summers ago — a few months after I had been laid off from my day job of sixteen years at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education — and asked if I might like to do a gig at a local retirement community with him.

This first gig — an hour of songs co-written by Harold Arlen plus a few stories about how they came to be written — has led to over a hundred performances together at public libraries, coffee houses, and retirement/assisted living communities with programs featuring the songs of Dorothy Fields, Oscar Hammerstein II, Larry Hart, Cole Porter, the Gershwin Brothers, Jule Styne, Jerome Kern, and Hoagy Carmichael as well as a program of songs written (by the Gershwins, Porter, Berlin, Styne/Sondheim, and others) for Ethel Merman to perform and a program of winter holiday songs written or co-written by Jewish songwriters.

It has been a fruitful collaboration with no end in sight. Soon we’ll be debuting a one-hour program of songs co-written by Sammy Cahn, and 2018 will bring a program of songs written (by Porter, the Gershwins, Berlin, Kern, Fields and others) for Fred Astaire to perform.

But so far Joe Reid and I have no recorded evidence of our collaboration because we have not gone into a recording studio together…

Tom LaMark, Mark Shilansky, and Joe Mulholland have all been a pleasure to work with as well, but I similarly have no recordings to document our time together.

Mike Callahan is now a professor at Michigan State (and the person conducting and/or playing piano in the Pops concert clips on YouTube — which he also arranged and orchestrated!) I hope to make music with him some day in East Lansing…

Steve Sweeting currently lives in NYC; so I don’t get to make music with him as much as I would like. I have, however, included many recordings that he and I have made together in past blog posts.

Which brings me to Doug Hammer.

doug2.jpg

Doug in his backyard with trees and water…

I do not remember exactly when I started working/playing with Doug.

It may have been when Steve Sweeting moved from Brighton, MA to the upper west side of Manhattan (in the mid-1990s?)

I was living as an au pair with a wonderful family on Spring Hill in Somerville, and Doug and his wife were living not far away on the Somerville/Cambridge border.

If I am remembering correctly, Doug had a very intimate but functional recording studio near the back of his apartment — as far away from the traffic of Beacon Street as possible.

He’d come from Chicago to Boston to study at Berklee, had played piano in other countries (which is how he met his stupendous wife, who is French), and then moved back to the Boston area to build a life as a pianist, composer, accompanist, engineer, and producer.

I think our paths crossed because he played with other singers I knew from having taken a class with Mike Oster in the South End.

Maybe some day  Doug can read this blog post and correct or fill in some of missing details…

In any case, I loved the way he played the piano and accompanied singers and built a life with his wife (who is an artist and graphic designer).

And I loved that I could walk or ride my bike to his home studio.

But as many wise texts remind us, life is full of changes.

Doug and his wife decided they needed more space and moved to a new home on the north shore of Boston — where Doug built a recording studio in the lower level of the house and where he and his wife began raising a family.

DougStudio

Luckily it is accessible by public transportation (a surprisingly scenic bus ride from Haymarket T station), and Doug has also been kind enough to drive me to the nearest T stop, Wonderland, when the weather is horrible or the hour is late.

And his family is willing to be quiet upstairs when someone is recording downstairs with Doug.

There are two isolation booths to the right of the piano (which you can’t see in the photo above) which is where I usually stand when we are rehearsing/recording.

This is what Doug looks like when we are rehearsing/recording.

Doug3

One of the many great things about working/playing with Doug is that we are able to record all of our rehearsals in high fidelity.

He is not only a terrific, playful pianist, but he is also a super competent sound engineer and producer.

Over time he has invested in high-quality musical tools — a Schimmel grand piano, great microphones, and endlessly upgraded recording software and hardware (including an Apple computer which almost never misbehaves) — and he is able to switch effortlessly from being an engineer/producer to being a collaborative pianist/accompanist/co-creator and back again.

The songs at the beginning of this blog post are from a show we did called Will Loves Steve, which featured all songs written by people named Steve, Stephen or Stevie. “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” is by Stevie Wonder, and “Everybody’s Got the Right” is by Stephen Sondheim from his extraordinary show Assassins.

They demonstrate how imaginative and improvisational Doug’s accompaniment often becomes when we work together.

He and I have been operating on a very simple guideline — familiar to improv comedians among other creative beings — for many years.

We always say “yes” to each other’s ideas.

Sometimes I have a specific set of images I share with Doug: “Let’s imagine that we are next to the Charles River and someone has started a fire in an old oil drum” or “We’re in a piney woods on the Cape, and a downy woodpecker is hopping up and down one of the tree trunks.”

Sometimes Doug starts playing something interesting on the piano while he is familiarizing himself with the sheet music for a particular song, and I encourage him to pause and hit the record button so that we can start with his fresh idea before either of us has had much time to think about it.

After each take we usually offer each other feedback about what we liked, what we might retain, and what we might like to explore further (“Let’s try going into a Latin feel on the bridge…” or “How about we do it twice as long so that you can take a solo and then we’ll end it with a triple tag at the end?”)

By the third or fourth take we often find ourselves in completely new and unexpected musical terrain.

Then we let that particular song rest and move on to the next one…

I don’t remember what ideas led us to this thoughtful version of “In My Life” by John Lennon.

I think we recorded it when we were rehearsing for a benefit concert (or maybe when we were rehearsing for a show I did at my old high school in Connecticut?)

Doug’s solo on this take is one of my favorite things that we have ever recorded together.

 

In the past decade Doug has been devoting more and more of his time and energy to composing and recording CDs of original piano — and increasingly orchestral —compositions.

You can click here for a link to his YouTube channel if you are curious.

Those of us who love to perform with him have been both excited to see his star as a solo artist rise and also sad because it means that he is less available to perform with singers…

Ahh, yes.

Life is full of changes.

Doug4

But so far he is willing to continue to work/play with singers in his recording studio.

Hurrah!

He and I are slowly but surely working on a CD of my original songs — which I write using a ukulele and are then transformed by his inspired piano playing.

I do not know when this project will be finished, but I am enjoying the process — one song, one session at a time.

Thank you to Doug Hammer for being born, pursuing a life in music, and working/playing with me on various undertakings for over two decades.

Thank you to Doug’s web site for the photos (probably taken by his talented wife) I have included in this blog.

And thank YOU for reading and listening to yet another post!

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Stuff (and Amanda McBroom’s Blessing)

Stuff (and Amanda McBroom’s Blessing)

 

Recently we experienced the warmest February day ever recorded in Boston according to a radio announcer on WBUR.

Hmm.

In the short run, I am very grateful for this lovely respite from wintry weather.

In the long run, however, I wonder what’s going on with the larger weather patterns and ocean temperatures on planet earth?

Our opposable thumbs — and seemingly insatiable desire for novelty and innovation — have helped us to create all sorts of stuff.

And much of what we have created needs power from fossil fuels (in the form of electricity, for example) to function or is actually made from fossil fuels outright in the case of plastic.

Plastic wrap. Plastic toothbrushes. Plastic containers to store leftovers. Plastic bags. Plastic bumpers on cars (one of which my sister’s dog was able to chew into pieces when he thought a small animal was hiding under it!)

Plastic plates. Plastic silverware. Plastic cups. Plastic shower curtains. Plastic bowls. Plastic bottles filled with water and laundry detergent and shampoo and apple cider.

Plastic dispensers for easy-gliding floss (which is itself made out of plastic). Plastic souvenir tchotchkes. Plastic electronic devices. Plastic credit cards.

The list goes on and on.

Today I listened to a news story about an area in Texas where we human beings have been extracting oil and gas for the past hundred years.

We’ve been blessed with an inheritance of solar energy accumulated by plants growing on planet earth for millions of years — and we are withdrawing it — and spending it — in the blink of a cosmic eye.

What an amazing inheritance!

Why are we squandering it to manufacture and then purchase stuff that doesn’t usually make us feel any better after the initial thrill of acquisition subsides?

Stuff that won’t decompose for hundreds of years — thus contaminating and altering all sorts of natural processes and feedback loops on land and in our lakes and rivers and streams and oceans.

Why have we not been taught to weigh the long-term consequences of our manufacturing and consumer choices?

I sometimes wonder what an economy would look and feel like which actually honored the long-term costs and consequences of fossil fuel-driven lives on the larger ecosystems which sustain the amazing, interconnected web of life on planet earth…

I am guessing it would be simpler and slower.

It was a growing awareness of all the stuff in my life which inspired me to write lyrics for a melody by Steve Sweeting many years ago which became the song “Stuff.”

I was visiting dear friends who had moved into a large new home on Bainbridge Island near Seattle — and reflecting upon the pros and cons of our very blessed — and privileged — lives.

Two years ago Steve and I recorded “Stuff” for a CD of his songs called Blame Those Gershwins.

I recently sent a copy of it to Amanda McBroom.

She is a songwriter and singer and teacher whom I met when I participated in a week-long cabaret conference at Yale.

I  — and many of my singing peers — love to perform her songs, the most famous of which is probably “The Rose,” which she wrote for the movie starring Bette Midler.

She has recently finished a new CD of her latest batch of songs called Voices.

I guessed that she might be sick of listening to herself (which one ends up doing over and over and over again when one is recording and mixing and mastering a CD) and open to the possibility of hearing something new.

And, bless her, I was right.

Here’s what she wrote back after listening to Steve’s CD:

“Thank you so much for sending the lovely CD!  It was such joy to hear your voice again. AND to listen to something that wasn’t ME for a change!

The songs are terrific. Your performances are nuanced and touching and lovely.

My very favorite is STUFF.

I think I have to have it.

Feels like it would something perfect for me to put in my repertoire if your friend is willing to share.”

Needless to say I was astounded and excited and humbled that she had made time to listen to the CD, that she liked Steve’s songs, and that she liked one of the songs to which I had contributed lyrics well enough that she might end up adding it to her repertoire!

Deep breath in…

Deep breath out…

It’s funny how something as simple as someone asking for the sheet music for a song I have co-written gives me a renewed sense of validation and encouragement to continue on my (still extremely humble) path as a songwriter.

Maybe it’s another example of the power of feedback loops — in this case feedback that Amanda found the melody and chords and ideas and arrangement of “Stuff” compelling enough that she might want to learn it and then share it with others.

Another deep breath in…

And another deep breath out…

Despite all of the larger patterns of disrespect and dishonesty and disbelief which are rippling around our country and around the planet these days, I will continue to count my blessings, continue to reduce my ecological footprint, and continue to sing — and sometimes write — songs.

Thank you, as usual, to Pixabay for the lovely images in this post.

Thank you to Steve Sweeting for entrusting his melodies to me.

Thank you to Amanda McBroom, for making time in her complicated life to listen to Steve’s CD AND then to send such uplifting feedback to us.

And thank you to YOU for reading and listening to another one of my blog posts.

PS: I hope you noticed the irony of me ranting about all the plastic junk we human beings create and buy and sell on planet earth and then agreeing to make a CD recording of Steve’s songs — thus creating 250 shiny, round, flat pieces of plastic which will be obsolete junk within another decade or so…

Yet another deep breath in…

And deep breath out…

The World Within

The World Within

 

When I was visiting friends on Toronto a couple of summer ago, I found a great article in Eating Well magazine profiling Jeff Leach, who is one of a growing number of human beings curious about the communities of bacteria which live in our digestive tract.

digestionchart

According to author Gretel H. Schueller, “most of our resident gut bacteria are real workhorses. Some aid in digestion and produce enzymes to break down foods. Others make vitamins, like B12 and K, and other vital compounds, such as the feel-good chemical serotonin. A few help keep the intestinal lining impenetrable. Some gut bacteria help regulate metabolism. And others boost immunity and fight pathogens.”

Yowza!!

bacteria-assortment

You can click here to read Gretel’s summaries of many medical studies exploring the astounding connections between the health of the bacteria in our digestive tract and the health of our other organ systems — including circulation, how we absorb nutrients, and our immune response.

I was amazed to learn that, according to Gretel, “gut bacteria produce HUNDREDS of different neurotransmitters, including up to 95 percent of the body’s supply of serotonin, a mood and sleep regulator.”

In fact many researchers have begun referring to our digestive tract as a ‘second brain’ partly because our “vagus nerve is a major communications highway which stretches from the brain to various points about the intestinal lining, and communication travels in BOTH directions.”

Intestines+bacteria

For example, one species of Lactobacillus bacteria “sends messages from the small intestine to the brain along this nerve. In a study led by John Cryan, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at University College Cork in Ireland, anxious mice were dosed with a proprietary strain of Lactobacillus rhamnosus.”

Gretel further explains that “these rodents then had lower stress hormone levels and an increase in brain receptors for a neurotransmitter that’s vital in curbing worry, anxiety and fear. THE EFFECTS WERE SIMILAR TO A DOSE OF VALIUM. According to a 2011 study, when mice had this bacteria in their gut, they showed less depressive behavior.”

Aside from my discomfort with human beings experimenting on other living beings, I find this an amazing idea.

Jeff Leach does a lot of HIS experimenting on himself — eating different types of foods (fats, proteins, and carbohydrates) for a 10-12 day period and then analyzing the proportions of bacteria which are stimulated to grow in his digestive tract as a result of what he has been eating.

leeks

According to him, plant foods with complex chains of carbohydrate molecules  — which include Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, chicory root, beans and asparagus — are particularly healthy for us to eat.

I was so inspired by Jeff’s research and Gretel’s article that I ended up writing a song (and recording it with Doug Hammer on piano at his wonderful studio in Lynn, MA) which you can hear by clicking the play button on the top left of this post.

And I find myself right back at the heart of last month’s post — musing about how interconnected all the different forms of life on planet earth are.

 

Antibiotics can be a blessing which wipe out colonies of life-threatening bacteria in different parts of our body.

For example, we may take some to get rid of a lingering sinus infection.

bacteria-purple

However, we may also be unintentionally upsetting the healthy balance of bacterial colonies in our guts.

This idea reminds me of why I choose to support organic agriculture when I can.

It may be true that the nutritional value of an organically grown leek (not using pesticides and fungicides and petrochemically-derived fertilizers) is similar to a conventionally grown leek (using pesticides and fungicides and petrochemically-derived fertilizers).

However, I am interested NOT ONLY in this leek’s value to my individual health BUT ALSO in the health of the honeybees and hummingbirds and earthworms and opossums and foxes and rabbits and butterflies and bats and insects which live in and/or pass through the fields in which this leek is grown.

beeon leekflower

And I am interested in the health of the fish and frogs and newts which live in the streams and rivers into which the rain (or irrigated water) will flow from these leek fields.

And I am interested in the health and balance of the astoundingly complicated communities of bacteria which live in the soil in which this leek grows.

And some of these soil bacteria will end up in my digestive tract along with the leek if I do not wash off too much of the dirt before I eat it.

leekslices

And that, it turns out, is a good thing.

We are all connected via many different, extraordinary, and still-to-be-discovered strands in the web of life.

And every day we can make choices — about what we buy to eat, about what we choose to wear, about how we move from point A to point B (walk? bike? public transportation? car?) that honor our precious inter-related connections with the rest of life on planet earth.

Thank you for reading, listening, and perhaps even humming along.

ps: I found the lovely photos in this post from a site called Pixabay.

LeekFlowerHands

I’m A Baby Monkey

One of the things I love most about teaching Music Together is the concept that each person absorbs and processes music in their own way.

Some children (and some adults, too) like to sit still while they soak up the sights and sounds swirling around them.

Others like to move their bodies — swaying, clapping, tapping their toes, nodding their heads, or even jumping up to dance in the center of the circle.

Still others prefer to wander around the room, seemingly oblivious to the musical activity unfolding all around them. And yet these same children will often start singing their own versions of the songs as soon as they leave class…

I love the respect for different learning styles that is baked into the Music Together pedagogy.

As long as no one is hurting themselves or distracting the rest of the class, whatever she or he wants to do in class is OK.

At times this can make for a somewhat chaotic classroom experience.

But as long as the teacher and a majority of the adults are able to keep participating — singing, moving, chanting, drumming, dancing, marching, and so forth — the class flows on.

The grown ups copy the teacher.

The children copy their accompanying grown up, the teacher, the other grown ups, and the other children.

And the teacher is always looking for movements and ideas from the children and grownups in the class which s/he can mirror, highlight, and otherwise incorporate into the flow of the lesson plan.

It can become a very rich — and fun — environment of “monkey see, monkey do” feedback loops.

I wrote the song at the top of this page, “I’m A Baby Monkey,” before I became a Music Together teacher.

Serendipitous foreshadowing?