It’s a beautiful building — with lots of stained glass windows and gently curving pews — and the congregation is very welcoming.
One of the longstanding members of the church is someone I worked with at my very first job after dropping out of college. He and I have reconnected a little bit in recent years due to a shared interest in music and poetry — and it was a pleasure to see him before and after the service.
The minister, Reverend Marta Valentin, was planning a sermon about the value of observing some sort of Sabbath in one’s life.
I immediately started thinking about standards which might fit this theme, such as “Up A Lazy River” by Hoagy Carmichael and Sidney Arodin or “Bidin’ My Time” by the Gershwin Brothers.
But it also occurred to me that a couple of my original songs might fit the theme, too.
Much to my delight, she liked them and forwarded them to Reverend Marta, who also liked them.
In fact, Reverend Marta visited my blog and found another original song, “May Your Life Be Blessed,” which she asked us to include in the service.
Needless to say, I found this entire experience to be a much-needed affirmation that my original songs can be meaningful to people other than myself…
It was also exciting because I had been thinking that I could only perform my original songs in public with Doug Hammer (who is playing in the recording at the top of this page) at the piano with me.
I write songs using a ukulele — which I play very rudimentarily — and then flesh them out with Doug at his recording studio north of Boston. And Doug has performed many of them with me in different showcases during the past few years.
So it was a revelation that another pianist would be able to bring them to life as well as Molly did (with very little rehearsal)!
The service itself was very satisfying, too.
My songs — especially “Can We Slow It Down?” — almost seemed as though they had been written to complement the Reverend Marta’s sermon.
As I have probably noted in previous blog posts, there is a thriving ukulele Meetup community in the greater Boston area.
I attend a group which meets the 2nd and 4th Wednesday night of each month and another which meets the 1st and 3rd Wednesday afternoon of each month.
Most ukulele Meetup groups include a humble — and very supportive — open-mic period where attendees can share a song they’ve been working on.
This is the main place I have dared to share my original songs during the past few years.
After I played “Can We Slow It Down?” two weeks ago, a couple of fellow ukulele attendees asked me if I might post it somewhere.
So this post is created for them!
Thank you to Molly Ruggles, Reverend Marta, Doug Hammer, and my ukulele-playing peers for their enthusiastic support and encouragement.
Thank you to Pixabay for some lovely images.
And thank YOU for reading and listening to another blog post.
I welcome any thoughts/feelings you might have about the pace of life these days…
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 is a perfect example to me of a “wisdom song” — which helps me to re-align with my better, wiser self whenever I sing it.
Writing this post inspired me to search on Pixabay for some butterfly images, and I was astounded by what I found.
The idea that earthbound caterpillars can transform themselves into winged butterflies — that they can literally dissolve themselves and re-form their molecules into a new type of being — has fascinated and inspired us human beings for millennia.
I am also inspired by the paths they take — paths which do not travel in a straight line from point A to point B yet manage to cover vast amounts of mileage none-the-less.
Butterflies have a inner sense of where they are headed, but they also follow and respond to whatever flowers and breezes appear along their journey.
This seems to be how I, too, am moving through my musical life here on planet earth.
I looked online to learn more about the current health of our butterfly populations.
First I was directed to a relatively new company called “Butterfly Health” that seems to specialize in adult diapers…
Then I found a lovely story about vineyards in eastern Washington which “stopped using harmful pesticides and created natural habitats with native shrub-steppe plants around the vineyards to keep out harmful insects (e.g., mealybugs) and attract beneficial insects (e.g., parasitic wasps) that feed on pests.”
These vineyard saw a significant increase in butterflies — from an average of five different species to more like twenty different species!
The article noted that “butterflies don’t protect the vineyards or provide wine growers with economical benefits, (but) they are pollinators and an important element of the ecosystem. Furthermore, having butterflies flutter around a vineyard increases its aesthetic appeal and provides proof of earth-friendly pest control practices.”
It reports that “more than three-quarters of Britain’s 59 butterfly species have declined over the last 40 years, with particularly dramatic declines for once common farmland species such as the Essex Skipper and Small Heath…
‘This is the final warning bell,’ said Chris Packham, Butterfly Conservation vice-president, calling for urgent research to identify the causes for the disappearance of butterflies from ordinary farmland. ‘If butterflies are going down like this, what’s happening to our grasshoppers, our beetles, our solitary bees? If butterflies are in trouble, rest assured everything else is.'”
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
What, I continue to wonder, will it take for enough of us human beings to wake up and take significant actions so that the extraordinary species extinction we are now experiencing on planet earth can slow down…and maybe even stop?
Why are so many of us seemingly oblivious to what is happening to our ecosystems and unable/unwilling to make wiser choices?
I recently visited a friend’s house (his/her second home, actually) and saw a small vat of RoundUp that I assume s/he is using to take care (??) of weeds in his/her lovely garden.
It was sitting alongside an aerosol can of pesticide to kill wasps.
This is an extremely well-educated person who loves the views of nature from his/her home overlooking a beautiful river.
Yet s/he is completely oblivious to the increasingly well-documented scientific research linking herbicides and pesticides to all sorts of profound disruptions in the overall health of a wide variety of ecosystems. And disruptions to our own human metabolisms — since we human beings are deeply rooted in nature from an evolutionary perspective and share many of the same biological pathways/systems as our animal and plant cousins..
I know that beautifully photographed and persuasively written advertising messages from the makers of herbicides and pesticides contribute to our human ignorance..
And lots of us think, “Oh it’s just a little bit of RoundUp or a little bit of wasp spray…”
But it all adds up and takes a cumulative toll on a wide variety of plants and animals and bacteria and fungae which we dearly need to be functioning in balance with each other.
Another deep breath in.
And another deep breath out.
Thank you to Pixabay for these wonderful photographs of butterflies.
Thank you to Doug Hammer and John Bucchino for their tremendous musicality and songwriting expertise.
And thank YOU for reading and listening to another blog post.
What steps — small and/or not-so-small — have you taken in your life to help keep life in balance here on planet earth?
I just opened up WordPress and was happy to find a post about gratitude from The Snail of Happiness in my daily feed.
There are a seemingly-ever-increasing number of energies and actions on planet earth that we can be aware of — due in large part to the magic of electricity and our wide-ranging embrace of modern media — yet which we can do very little to influence directly.
And I am easily overwhelmed by this onslaught of information.
However, we CAN re-align our own energy/perspective by doing something as simple as writing down three things for which we are grateful.
And then — from a more grateful, grounded emotional space — we can send a card to an elected official, give a little money to a compelling cause, or volunteer our time at a local non-profit.
Or make some art.
Or write a song.
Or simply sit and breath.
Today I am grateful that a friend’s husband is alive in New Orleans.
I don’t see this friend very often (our paths used to cross because of work) and have never met his husband.
I learned about his husband’s recent assault and robbery — while he was attending the Unitarian-Universalist annual general assembly being held at the end of June in New Orleans! — when I checked my Facebook page.
Apparently it is all over the Boston and New Orleans news — since our media have (sadly) functioned for decades with a mindset of “if it bleeds, it leads…”
But I have been out of town and away from the local news.
So today I am grateful that my friend’s husband is finally out of the hospital in New Orleans and back at home in Boston.
And I am grateful that the other person who was (less severely) attacked is also recovering well.
And that two of the four young men who perpetrated this crime (some of whom had been staying at a Covenant House shelter for homeless/troubled youth) have turned themselves in.
I hope they — as well as the two people whom they attacked and robbed — are being treated with compassion and respect by the judicial system so that some unexpected healing might take place as a result of this sad and brutal event.
And I am grateful for the basics: health and patience and delicious food — more and more of it organic — and a roof over my head.
I am grateful for people who visit my blog even though I haven’t posted anything new for four months.
I am grateful for progress (sometimes very sloooow) and persistence (sometimes almost imperceptible) on larger tasks such as letting go of un-needed possessions, processing complicated emotional situations, and crafting a CD of original songs.
Which leads me to the song at the beginning of this post.
I wrote it last summer while I was camping with family in heaven a.k.a. North Truro, MA.
Some of the words came from a little piece of paper I picked up after one of my cousins was married a few summers ago on a hill overlooking Cayuga Lake in upstate New York.
The little piece of paper turned out to be a crib sheet that the mother of the bride had used when she spoke during the ceremony.
I expanded her words a bit, consulted my trusty ukulele to find chords and a melody, and eventually brought it to pianist Doug Hammer’s studio on the North Shore of Boston to record.
Thank you to anyone and everyone who reads this blog post.
I am grateful for your interest.
I am also grateful for the beautiful images from Pixabay that I have used in this post.
My cousin who got married loves horses and is an excellent — and very hard-working —equestrian.
She and her husband also just had their first child.
What is it about Vincent Van Gogh’s painting “The Starry Night” that touches so many of our human hearts?
At the end of December I was wandering through the Museum of Modern Art in New York City when I happened upon his masterpiece.
First I noticed the scrum of people who were jockeying for position in front of it.
Then I noticed the guard who had the extraordinary responsibility of making sure that none of the members of the scrum got close enough to damage the painting.
And then I saw it…The Starry Night.
And tears immediately appeared in my eyes.
Even with a crowd of people taking photos of it, taking photos of themselves in front of it, and tweeting and texting their friends about it, “The Starry Night” was serenely, astoundingly beautiful.
I don’t know if I cried partly because I, too, love to gaze at the night sky — amazed at the beauty of the stars and the vastness of the universe — and Van Gogh captures it so well in this painting?
Or if I was reminded of Don McLean’s song “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night),” which speaks so poignantly about how little respect or success Van Gogh earned in his lifetime — as well as his eventual suicide?
The juxtaposition of the clamoring crowd of art-lovers in the 21st century and Van Gogh’s downwardly mobile existence in the 19th century was odd.
And yet we all still share the same huge questions — about how our finite lives relate to the unimaginably vast realms of space, about what happens to us when our bodies die, about how our wonderful blue-green planet fits into the swirling patterns of the universe, about time…and space…and love…and loss.
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
If you are curious to learn more, here is a link to MOMA’s web page for “The Starry Night.”
Special thanks to pianist Doug Hammer, at whose Dream World studio we recorded the version of “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” you can hear by clicking at the top of this blog entry.