The piles of snow between our sidewalk and the street are getting smaller.
Tiny green fingers are pushing out of the earth…
And today the first crocus bloomed in our front yard!
I planted a bunch of bulbs in November, right before the ground began to freeze.
And it appears that the squirrels did not dig all of them up — because crocus leaves are popping up everywhere.
Several years ago I wrote a very simple song about spring and colored blossoms falling down to the ground.
This was before I started playing the ukulele — so I just sang into my lap top computer using the wonderful Apple program GarageBand.
Then I fooled around with a lot of the sounds and loops that are included with Garageband.
And then I took my laptop to my friend Doug Hammer’s studio, where he added a few more layers of sound — including spring peepers! — and I recorded (I think) a few more vocal tracks.
After Doug mixed it, I spent time at the Apple store on Boylston Street in Boston, getting help in terrific “one to one” training sessions (which Apple used to offer) about how to make a video to accompany my song.
The final product is pasted above.
Here are more crocus photos to savor…
There is a yard at the top of a hill between Harvard Square and Central Square in Cambridge.
I go there every spring because their front yard is PACKED with crocus, snowdrops, and miniature iris.
It is very similar to this photo except much smaller in total square footage.
I wonder how many years of planting bulbs it takes to create a field like this!
I am waiting to see my first pollinator of the season.
It is amazing that bees can survive our New England winters — and then they appear as soon as the first blossoms open their petals to the sun.
There are so many important causes to which one can devote time and care and love and money these days.
I am a fan of environmental advocacy — because without functioning ecosystems, the human species will collapse.
Just like our populations of pollinators (bats, butterflies, bees, etc.) have been collapsing in recent years…
All sorts of factors may be causing this collapse — including our human use of pesticides and herbicides.
So I no longer use any products like RoundUp or wasp spray.
And I pay extra money to buy organic produce and meat — mostly because it is healthier for the people who plant the food, who cultivate the food, who harvest the food, who clean the food, who package the food, who ship the food, and who handle it in our stores.
I also support organic farming because the hedgerows and bacteria and trees and streams and animals who co-exist with — and in the case of pollinators are partially responsible for — our food crops are not being poisoned either!
May all beings bloom and grow and flourish in an ever-changing balance…
Thank you to Mother Nature for inspiration.
Thank you to Apple engineers for creating laptop computers and Garageband.
Thank you to the former “one to one” teaching team at the Apple store in Boston.
Thank you to Doug Hammer for his musical and engineering expertise.
Thank you to Pixabay for beautiful images of crocii.
And thank YOU for reading and watching and listening to another blog post.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It may not always be easy to feel, but it’s always there somewhere — or perhaps everywhere? — waiting to be tapped into.
In the two years since I was laid off from my day job, I have come to understand that music is one of our most accessible — and brilliant — technologies for re-connecting with love.
I experienced another love-filled gig with pianist Joe Reid last Saturday at a retirement community to the south of Boston.
It was the first time we had been there; so I didn’t know what to expect.
I was also feeling a bit concerned that our choice of “Make Someone Happy: The Songs of Jule Styne” — rather than a program of songs by the more familiar Cole Porter or Gershwin Brothers — might have been too risky for a first visit.
But we were warmly welcomed, ushered to a lovely performance space (not too big, not too small — a “just right” Goldilocks fit) with a small grand piano, a good PA system, and an audience of American Popular Songbook aficionados.
The size of the room — and the lighting in the room — made it possible for me to make eye contact with everyone.
Many audience members knew the words to the songs we were performing — and I, inspired by my Music Together classroom experiences, exhorted everyone to hum, tap, snap, or even dance if the spirit moved them.
There is something about the structure of a well-written song that allows — even encourages — one to put one’s heart into the singing of it.
And knowing that a song has a beginning, a middle, and an end somehow makes it safe for me as a singer to experience a wide range of feelings while I am singing it.
I think I have written in previous blog posts about how amazing subtext can be — how simply changing what or whom one is thinking about as one is singing can completely alter one’s interpretation of a particular song.
I have even begun to wonder — as I sing and make eye contact during performances with as many different audience members as are willing to connect in that surprisingly intimate way — whether I start connecting on an unconscious level with some of THEIR subtext, THEIR history, and THEIR associations with a particular song.
Whatever is transpiring energetically, it certainly opens MY heart — and re-connects me to feelings of joy and heart-ache and love and fear and desire and hope and pain.
Afterwards Joe and I listened to the stories that these songs evoked in the residents — tales of huge summer parties near Westport, CT in the 30s and 40s, or of seeingBarbra Streisand in the original production of Funny Girl, or of listening to these songs on the radio with loved ones in the living rooms of their past.
One woman said something like, “We have to have you and Joe back again right away — your singing reached inside and touched my soul.”
This is what I live for.
This is what music can do.
Two strangers can, in a safe and well-boundaried way, touch each other’s souls.
John Lennon knew that.
He wrote the song “Love Is Real” — which I recorded several years ago with Doug Hammer at his Dreamworld Studio. Then I monkeyed with those tracks using Garageband to create the version at the top of this page.
Thirty four years ago John Lennon was killed as he got out of his car and headed into his apartment in NYC.
According to Wikipedia, he had chosen to get out on 72nd Street (rather than the driving into the courtyard of his building) so that he could chat with any fans who might be waiting to say “hi” and ask for an autograph.
In fact, earlier in the day he had autographed a copy of Double Fantasy — the life-affirming album he had recently released with Yoko Ono — for the man who later shot and killed him.
After I heard the horrible news of John’s death, I remember walking along Massachusetts Avenue in Harvard Square, feeling very sad and upset that this could ever have happened.
One loss often awakens previous losses — like a metal chime rippling and echoing through the layers of one’s emotional body and memory.
So, with hindsight, it is very likely that I was also grieving other deaths, other losses, other assassinations — as I grieve tonight…listening to John’s music and reflecting on his inspiring life.
You can click here for a link to a comforting essay I found online which offers perspective about why so many of us continue to be so deeply moved by John’s murder.
I loved John Lennon.
I continue to love his music — as well as the music of all The Beatles.
Last weekend I saw a dad herding two small boys wearing rubber boots.
They were delightedly stomping their way across a very large puddle.
The sun was shining.
Snow was melting everywhere.
The air almost felt warm on my face.
Ahh, the intoxicating approach of spring!
Robins have landed twice on the bushes outside my bedroom window, eating berries that — miraculously — remain on the branches.
Two male cardinals have been jousting in the airspace around our house — flashes of scarlet fluttering from fence to roof to branch and then back to fence — all the while uttering a passionate selection of hormone-infused songs.
Soon tiny frogs will wake up and start peeping in the wetlands behind my friend Doug Hammer’s studio to the north of Boston.
A few years ago Doug found a great sound sample of spring peepers, and we added it to my Snow Flake Song (playable at the top of this post).
Right now the peep frogs are still hibernating under a log or behind the loose bark of a tree.
When they are full grown, spring peepers are only an inch and a half long.
I started playing the ‘ukulele three years ago after attending a class in Harvard Square led by the marvelous Danno Sullivan.
Since then I have been strumming on an almost daily basis — thanks to Danno’s lyric/chord handouts, the wonderful Daily Ukulele songbook, and the amazing group mind that is the internet (where one can find chords and lyrics and probably a demonstration video for almost every song under the sun!)
Soon after discovering the chords for a Coldplay song on line, I realized that many of my favorite pop songs have a surprisingly simple structure. Four chords! Sometimes three chords!
And thus my humble life as a budding songwriter took root…
I had written lyrics in the past with a friend who is a pianist, and I had collaborated on a couple of songs with another guitarist friend (again as a lyricist).
And many years ago I had co-written a couple of songs with bandmates in a pop/rock band.
But until I picked up a ‘ukulele, my songwriting efforts had been restricted to what I could cobble together using Apple’s blessed GarageBand program — songs consisting of my vocals accompanied by various loops and samples from the Garageband library.
In the past three years I have written a bunch of ukulele-based songs.
And in the past month I have attended three singer-songwriter open mics — daring to perform my original songs while accompanying myself (solidly but not very gracefully) on the ‘uke.
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
In addition to helping me tap into a stream of songwriting creativity, the ‘ukulele has also given me a new way to hang out with my mom, with my dad, and with other friends and family members.
I just pick up a ‘uke, open up a songbook, and start strumming. Almost invariably the mood in the room shifts to something lighter and (literally) more harmonious as everyone starts to hum and sing along.