A Beating Heart

A Beating Heart

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I recently spent an afternoon at Doug Hammer‘s studio, recording songs by Rodgers & Hart and then working on one of my original compositions, called “A Beating Heart,” which you can play by clicking on the left side of the bar above this paragraph.

A careful reader of this blog might recall that I included a Garageband version of this song in a post on April 9, 2014…

Since then Doug and I have begun creating piano/vocal versions of many of my songs so that we can perform them at places like Third Life Studio in Union Square, Somerville.

We got a lot of positive feedback after our debut performance there in December with guest vocalist Jinny Sagorin — and we’ll be returning at the end of April to reprise that show.

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With so many huge and important things happening on planet earth right now — such as climate change, the loss of biodiversity, our human over-consumption of shared resources, and even the astoundingly unlikely presidential campaign here in the US — I often wonder how my original songs fit into the larger equations of life on planet earth.

Is my desire to share them with a wider audience (“Me, me, me, me! Look at me! Listen to me!”) simply another manifestation of the grossly self-oriented human trend in behavior which is currently tipping our larger ecological feedback loops further out of balance?

To re-center myself, I think of a poster in the bathroom where I get acupuncture which features some of the Dalai Lama’s wisdom:

“Ultimately, the decision to save the environment must come from the human heart. The key point is a call for a genuine sense of universal responsibility that is based on love, compassion and clear awareness.”

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He has also written:

“Today more than ever before, life must be characterized by a sense of universal responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human, but also human to all other forms of life.”

However, we human beings still tend to think and plan and speak and act with human ‘tunnel vision.’

I often listen to a radio program on Friday afternoons, and last week the host, Ira Flatow, was discussing asteroids and comets. He mentioned one which flattened 770 square miles of forest in Siberia on June 30, 1908 — adding that luckily no one was hurt.

Wikipedia uses similar language in its description of what is called the Tunguska event, saying that it “caused no known casualties.”

I would modify that to read, “no HUMAN casualties.”

770 square miles is roughly the size of the entire greater Boston area.

All sorts of living beings — trees, eagles, ants, berry bushes, wolves, beetles, moose, falcons, reindeer, elk, plants, bears, storks, robins, bees, nightingales, mushrooms, bacteria, etc. — must have been hurt and/or killed.

Why do we human beings so easily ignore or dismiss non-human death and suffering?

How can we be so deeply ignorant of the profound and crucial ways our human lives are interconnected with the lives of innumerable non-human beings here on planet earth?

The most obvious example of this is the fact that we animals breathe out what plants breathe in. And vice versa. It’s an extraordinary bond between plants (trees, shrubs, phytoplankton, algae, grass, etc.) and animals (dolphins, ants, chickens, worms, orangutans, etc.)

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And us.

We human beings are also animals.

We depend upon the health of the plant world for our human health.

Healthy trees and healthy forests and healthy phytoplankton and healthy oceans are not optional.

They are vital to the health of all of us.

I agree with the Dalai Lama that we human beings need to experience and understand on an open-hearted, emotional level that our daily lives ARE deeply connected to the lives of all other beings on planet earth.

And the health of those other beings IS intricately connected with our own health and survival.

This is where I see music playing a part in the larger equations unfolding on planet earth.

I know that music — both making it and listening to it — helps me re-open my heart and get in touch with my feelings.

And I see each week in my Music Together classes how singing and dancing and playing as a group can create a community of joy and humor and respect in 45 minutes which continues to ripple — gently and positively — throughout the week in the lives of the families who attend class.

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So I will take a deep breath (like a whale!) and dive through my ambivalence about self-promotion into a starboard sea full of hope, love, respect, education, playfulness, creativity, compassion, song, and dance.

And occasional blog posts.

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

Thank you for reading and listening!!!

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

Does July Need A Sky Of Blue?

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Hurrah for summer on planet earth.

1) I can again ride my bike to and from Music Together classes.

2) The mulberry trees in Arlington have been particularly generous with their berries this season, and there are many days that my tongue has been colored purple as a result…

3) My sweetheart and I recently visited family in upstate NY, where we were fed currants and bok choy and eggs — all of which were grown on my sister’s farm.

Yum.

4) And jazz pianist Joe Reid and I continue to perform our hour-long programs of songs written or co-written by Harold Arlen, the Gershwin Brothers, Jule Styne, Hoagy Carmichael and Cole Porter at retirement communities, coffee houses, and libraries around the greater Boston area.

After a recent show, I was speaking with one of the audience members about how — before the arrival of amplified sound in theaters — a song had to be crafted so that it could be sung by a performer and heard way up in the highest balcony seat.

Vowels and consonants and words and notes and melodies and ideas all had to travel from one person’s vocal tract to another person’s ear without the aid of electricity.

As far as I can tell from reading dozens of biographies about songwriters over the past couple of years, there were many factors which allowed this to happen.

a) Theaters were designed with great sensitivity to acoustics.

b) Songs were orchestrated to leave some sonic space for human voices to cut through the overall blend of musical vibrations and be heard.

c) The audience was accustomed to leaning forward and LISTENING carefully — compared with today, when I take earplugs with me in order comfortably to withstand the blast of amplified sound that is the norm in today’s pop music and even in today’s musical theater.

d) The singers — Ethel Merman being one of the most famous examples — knew how to generate potent streams of sound.

e) The songwriters knew how to craft songs with vowels and consonants and rhymes in all the right places while telling a story and advancing the plot.

One of my favorite examples of this craftsmanship is the song “Do I Love You, Do I?” which was written by Cole Porter for his musical DuBarry Was a Lady.

It is extremely fun to sing — especially near the end when the melody of the final “Do I love you, do I?” rises to a big, high note with total ease due to the extremely functional (from a singing point of view) vowel sequence of the two words “do” and “I.”

You can listen to this — and sing along if the spirit moves you — by clicking the song bar at the top of this blog entry. It is a recording I made a while back with the great pianist and songwriter Steve Sweeting when he lived in Brighton, MA.

Steve and I have recently finished recording a nine-sing CD of HIS extremely well-crafted original songs which I will very likely be writing about in future blog posts.

May there be lots of music in your life today and every day!

And thank you, as always, for reading and listening.

The Mystery of Neuronal Connections

 

After I take a shower in the morning, I like to wipe the water off the tile walls with a squeegee.

I had never done this until I visited my friend Michael Ricca’s family home in Quincy, MA.

Their bathroom was spotless, and I learned that Michael’s dad always cleaned the water from the shower walls with a squeegee.

So now I think about Michael and his parents almost every morning as I stand — naked or wearing a towel — and use my shower squeegee.

Michael’s parents used to invite me and him and Nina Vansuch and Brian Patton over for huge Italian feasts when the four of us were singing together in a musical project called At The Movies.

So I also think about Nina and Brian and the music we made together each morning as I wipe water from the shower walls.

I love how “squeegee” and “Michael Ricca’s dad and mom” and “Michael Ricca” and “Nina Vansuch” and “Brian Patton” and “Quincy, MA” are all neuronally linked in my memory banks.

And somehow the act of wiping down the shower walls brings all of them to the surface of my consciousness.

Brian and Nina and Michael and I performed together for a few years, selling out Scullers Jazz Club on a regular basis and recording a CD, Reel One, which still — ten years later — sounds great.

I have included a couple of selections from Reel One in this blog. And a couple more (“Wives & Lovers/Coming Around Again” and “That’ll Do”) are in the player in the right hand side bar of this page.

I especially love Nina’s vocal performance on “Theme from The Valley Of the Dolls” and the vocal harmonies Brian crafted for us to support her.

 

I don’t know if At The Movies will ever perform together or record again, but I am very grateful that we have such lovely audio documentation of our time together.

I was talking with a fellow singer about the fascinating power of neuronal associations the other night as we drove home from an open mic in Natick.

Sometimes what transforms someone’s song interpretation from good to great is simply how many neural associations they have woven into their memorization of the lyrics.

A song may remind them of a loved one who once sang it to them, or an intense crush they once had in high school, or a particularly tumultuous (or poignant or peaceful) period in their life.

Or all of the above.

And those images, those memories, those associations somehow bring the song to life when they perform it.

I try to inoculate songs that I am learning with as many different layers of memory associations as I can muster.

Then when I am performing, I can tap into different constellations of memory associations as the spirit moves me.

One night a song about love might evoke a strong image of my nephews and niece.

On another night I might find myself remembering my former voice teachers — or the first person with whom I fell head over heels in love — or my sweetheart of 22 years — or one of my siblings — or the horse our family owned as a pet for over 30 years — or the corgi we had who once raised a litter of abandoned kittens — or the heron who sleeps at night on an abandoned shopping cart in the middle of a stream which runs along a busy road near my house.

Or huge Italian feasts with Michael and Brian and Nina and Michael’s parents at his childhood home in Quincy.

Or squeegeeing my shower tiles.

Or all of the above.

What’s It All About?

Last night I attended a party at a home in Medford, MA.

The host had invited a couple of pianists and a bunch of friends who like to sing to celebrate his birthday.

After some delicious food and inspiring conversation — including how the Boston Beer company decided to withdraw its support of the St. Patrick’s Day parade in South Boston — we all moved from the kitchen into the living room.

And then we made music together for three hours.

Sometimes it was one singer accompanied by a pianist.

Sometimes it was the whole room singing together.

Sometimes one of the pianists sang.

At one point each of the pianists even accompanied the other — who was uncharacteristically standing to sing.

The daily news from our mainstream media brings so many unhappy stories into our homes and into our hearts — planes which mysteriously crash; snipers who fire on civilians; species being wiped out by poachers; wars being waged over natural resources and political power and religious beliefs…

I often wonder what we human beings are doing here on planet earth — and how music fits into the larger equations and patterns unfolding on a daily basis.

Are we here, as some teachers suggest, so that our souls can experience fear and love?

If that is the case, we are certainly doing a great job with the fear component of this cosmic experiment!

Maybe music is one of the tools we can use to respond to fear.

I know from my own experience that listening to music — and making it with others — can lift my spirits.

And can reconnect me with my deeper feelings.

And can bring my energy — for lack of a better word — into harmony with others.

Last night someone at the party sang the great Bacharach/David song “Alfie.”

It reminded me of a recording (embedded at the top of this blog post) which Doug and I made a few years ago at his studio in Lynn.

I am reassured that other human beings, such as Burt Bacharach and Hal David, have pondered similar questions, too.

And I am very, very grateful that my life is now focused on making and sharing music with others.

PS: Let me know if you notice which word I sang incorrectly. Maybe someday Doug and I will go back and fix this small error… or maybe we will leave it as I have heard some weavers of rugs do…

And So It Goes

Another Valentine’s Day is here.

Lots of snow.

I bought a box of cards at CVS yesterday so that I can hand out child-sized Valentines to the little ones in my Music Together class.

There were cards which featured wrestling action stars and others with garish visual special effects.

There were cards publicizing children’s movies and TV shows.

I showed my final choice — puppies and kittens with accompanying tattoos — to a mom in the card aisle.

She assured me that most parents are OK with temporary tattoos.

We shall see…

I have long admired the song I included at the beginning of this post.

“And So It Goes” is one of Billy Joel’s most beautiful, wise ballads.

I recorded it with Bobbi Carrey — who provided harmony near the end — and Doug Hammer — who played piano and engineered simultaneously — at Doug’s great studio outside Boston.

It is one of the tracks on our CD, If I Loved You.

There are more tracks from that CD in the music player on the right hand column of this blog, including “I’ll Be Here With You,” “What Is This Thing Called Love?” “Dog At The Pound,” and the title track, “If I Loved You.”

I realize — not surprisingly —that almost every song in the right hand column of this blog is about love.

Music has an uncanny power to re-connect us with our hearts.

May you have much music in your life on this — and every — day.

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!

Singing Together

I just spent a day rehearsing for a performance in Tiverton, RI.

It’s a new show called “In Perfect Harmony” with fellow singer Bobbi Carrey and pianist/composer Doug Hammer — in which all the songs being sung include at least a partial harmony somewhere.

Since we have been performing together for ten years, and since one of our favorite things to do is sing in harmony, we have a lot of material to choose from.

The show also includes quotations and anecdotes about the process of collaboration — which for us has involved a great arranger, Mike Callahan.

From time to time we send Mike recordings from our rehearsals, along with detailed notes about which harmonic ideas we think show promise and which need help.

Invariably he sends charts back to us that both improve our ideas AND surprise us with some great new musical impulse.

Here is an MP3 of our version of Mercer/Mancini classic “Moon River” if you are curious to hear the fruits of this collaborative process.

There is something very intimate and satisfying about singing with someone else — whether in unison or harmony.

And since electricity entered our daily lives in the last century, our patterns and habits of singing have changed.

Crooning along with the radio or a CD or an MP3 is great — yet it’s different from singing with another real live human being.

I just returned from a week in upstate NY at a wonderful, ramshackle family cottage with no internet access and no TV.

One of my cousins told me about songs she heard as a child from her parents and grandparents — some of which were originally sung by people working outside in gardens and fields as a way (according to my cousin) to pass the time and remain connected with their neighbors.

What a different era of human civilization!

Thanks to my ukulele and the great “Daily Ukulele” songbooks, we sang together most nights on the beach around a camp fire — while the younger members of our family roasted marshmallows and made s’mores for all to eat.

I could do this for hours — and in fact on the last night I did play without a break for over three hours.

Music. Stars above. Friends and family all around. Lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore.

Bliss.

The Subtle Power of the ‘Ukulele

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.

I find this to be amazing.

And I am very grateful.

Hurrah for the subtle power of the ‘ukulele!