The Holy-day Spirit

The Holy-day Spirit


Another delicious Thanksgiving has come and gone.

Days are short.

Nights are long.

And increasingly cold.

Last week jazz pianist Joe Reid and I shared our program of winter holiday songs written or co-written by Jewish lyricists and composers at a retirement community in Newton.

As I have probably noted in previous blog posts, a significant number of great winter holiday songs were written or co-written by Jewish lyricists and composers.

In 1942 Irving Berlin gave us “White Christmas.”

In 1945 Mel Tormé and Bob Wells gave us “The Christmas Song.”

In 1949 Johnny Marks gave us “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

In 1950 Jay Livingston and Ray Evans gave us “Silver Bells.”

In 1959 Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen gave us “The Secret of Christmas.”

In 1966 Jerry Herman gave us “We Need A Little Christmas.”

In 1995 Jason Robert Brown gave us “Christmas Lullaby,”

And the list goes on and on!

In this political moment here on planet earth — when many are working to arouse a righteous sense of “us” versus ‘them” in their followers — I am grateful to be reminded of the folks who bridge cultures/identities and bring people together.

Mel Tormé’s parents were Jewish immigrants who fled Russia for a new life in the United States. Although he is most famous as a jazz vocalist, he also co-wrote 250+ songs, many of them with Bob Wells (born Robert Levinson), who was also Jewish.

According to Tormé, the song was written during a blistering hot summer day in an effort to “stay cool by thinking cool.”

mel-torme

As Mel recalled, he “saw a spiral pad on Bob’s piano with four lines written in pencil: Chestnuts roasting… Jack Frost nipping… Yuletide carols… Folks dressed up like Eskimos. Bob didn’t think he was writing a song lyric. He said he thought if he could immerse himself in winter, he could cool off. Forty minutes later that song was written. I wrote all the music and some of the lyrics.”

The forty minutes that they devoted to creating that song certainly paid off extraordinarily well for Mr. Wells and Mr. Tormé!

Many songwriters aspire to create a holiday standard, which will then be recorded and performed year after year — generating an ongoing stream of revenue.

When I was first putting together a program of winter holiday songs written or co-written by Jewish composers and lyricists, I worked with the wonderful pianist Megan Henderson — who is now the musical director for the Revels organization, which creates the beloved Christmas Revels held at Sanders Theatre each December.

As we were musing about the different reasons that these winter holiday songs came to be written, we came up with the term, “Christmas ka-ching!” to describe the economic motivation that no doubt was driving some of the songwriters.

Several winter holiday songs were created to be performed in films.

One of my favorite holiday standards, “Silver Bells,” was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans for a 1950 movie, The Lemon Drop Kid, where it was sung by Marilyn Maxwell and Bob Hope.

I always associate it with my mother’s mother, a hard-working private nurse who lived in the borough of Queens for most of her life and no doubt did a lot of her holiday shopping on “city sidewalks, busy sidewalks — decked in holiday style.”

Jay Livingston, who wrote the music for “Silver Bells,” and Ray Evans, who wrote the lyrics for “Silver Bells,” were a famous Jewish songwriting team with many hits to their credit including “Mona Lisa” and “Que Sera Sera.”

ray_jay

Jay was born Jacob Harold Levison in 1915 in a small industrial suburb of Pittsburgh, PA, and Ray was born Raymond Bernard Evans — also in 1915 — in Salamanca, not far from Buffalo, N.Y.

They met at the University of Pennsylvania when they both joined the university dance band, and their songwriting partnership endured until Livingston’s death in 2001.

I love the verse — not always sung — they wrote for “Silver Bells.”

“Christmas make you feel emotional. It may bring parties or thoughts devotional. Whatever happens or what may be, here is what Christmastime means to me…”

A contemporary Jewish songwriter, Jason Robert Brown, wrote another one of my favorite winter holiday songs — “Christmas Lullaby” — for his first musical revue called Songs for a New World.

 


Mr. Brown is an extremely gifted human being who sometimes works as music director, conductor, orchestrator, and pianist for his own productions — and has won Tony Awards for his work on the Broadway musicals Parade and The Bridges of Madison County.

JasonRBrown

“Christmas Lullaby” honors one of the deepest miracles of all — how a woman (with a little genetic input from a man — or, in the case of Jesus’ mother Mary, with the help of the Holy Spirit) can grow an entirely new human being inside her body.

I think about this miracle in my Music Together classes, because I have been teaching long enough for many mothers — who originally attended with their first child — to become pregnant and return for more music with their second (and even third) child.

Neil Postman wrote at the beginning of his book, The Disappearance of Childhood, that “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.”

Although this sentence also appears in a book published the following year by John Whitehead called, The Stealing of America, it appears to have been coined by Postman.

And regardless of who gets credit for it, I LOVE this idea.

One of my sisters-in-law — who has parented two children and worked with hundreds of others in the public schools of Western, MA — incorporated this quotation into a work of art which I see hanging on her wall every time I visit.

Sometimes I remember during my Music Together classes that part of my modest legacy here on planet earth may be the spontaneous and affirmative musical fun I shared with these extraordinary little souls — who will grow up to face unimaginable challenges stemming in part from the ignorant (and at times utterly greedy) choices that we grownups have made during the past 100+ years.

Perhaps some seeds of improvisation and collaboration and harmony and community and inter-connectedness and playfulness and creativity and love and respect will have been sown during our musical time together — which will blossom to help solve/resolve future challenges in a time that I will not see.

And perhaps these wonderful holiday songs will also travel into the future, continuing to touch and guide people’s hearts and minds for generations to come…

Let’s keep singing and humming and whistling and playing them!

Thank you to all of the songwriters who have created such a great legacy of music for us to share.

Thank you to Joe Reid for performing 47 shows with me in 2017 at retirement communities, public libraries, community centers, memory cafes, and synagogues around New England.

If you are curious to see what’s on our calendar for 2018 you can click here.

Thank you to Doug Hammer for recording — while playing the roles of both pianist AND engineer — the songs in this blog post with me.

Thank you to Nate Bloom, a writer who has made it a personal quest to track down and figure out which winter holiday songs have been written or co-written by Jewish lyricists and songwriters.

And THANK YOU for reading and listening to another blog post!

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Count Our Blessings

Count Our Blessings

 

I am writing this blog post, appropriately enough, in the middle of the night.

I just woke up from a nightmare in which I was attempting to rush a group of children away from a place full of dangerous people who wanted to hurt all of us.

The children — blessedly and also appropriately — did not understand why these people were dangerous, and I did not want to explain.

I just wanted them to keep moving as quickly as possible away from the old warehouse where I knew the dangerous people were hanging out.

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

I woke up with a burst of adrenaline coursing through my bloodstream and a mixed feeling of panic and relief.

Panic that maybe I hadn’t been able to rescue the children in my dream.

And relief that it was “only” a dream.

Fox Sleeping

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

Except — obvious to anyone who reads the news or watches TV or listens to the radio — my blessed nightmare is the horrific reality for hundreds of thousands of human beings on planet earth.

Syria.

Nigeria.

Afghanistan.

Mexico.

Iraq.

Cameroon.

Turkey.

Niger.

Chad.

Somalia.

Pakistan.

Libya.

Yemen.

Sudan.

Egypt.

Ethiopia.

Ukraine.

South Sudan.

Israel.

Palestine.

Myanmar.

Thailand.

Columbia.

The list of countries with ongoing bloody conflicts is long.

And here in the USA we mostly don’t think about them.

And that’s just the human-to-human devastation…

There is also an extraordinary wave of extinction of other forms of life on planet earth unfolding right now… and most humans don’t want to think about that either.

bear-sleeping

We are ignorant — choosing to ignore the complicated and heart-breaking repercussions of our actions because it is too painful.

And because the challenges of how we might change some of these patterns seem too vast.

And because our media tends to give us a very limited glimpse of what is happening here on planet earth.

And because our media — which at its most basic level exists to entice human beings to BUY THINGS — has very little incentive to do anything other than reinforce the allure of fame and wealth and celebrity and insane over-consumption.

Over-consumption of cars and alcohol and clothing and accessories and medication and food products and music and fossil fuels and hair dye and eyeliner and TV shows and lipstick and sunblock and pesticides and movies and plastic bags and electronic devices and travel and “entertainment” and a myriad other things that most of us do not need.

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

piglets-sleeping

“When I’m worried and I can’t sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep,” the songwriter Irving Berlin once wrote and set to music.

According to Wikipedia (and a book edited by local musical expert Ben Sears called The Irving Berlin Reader) it was based on Berlin’s real life struggle with insomnia.

He wrote in a letter to Joseph Schenck:

“I’m enclosing a lyric of a song I finished here and which I am going to publish immediately… You have always said that I commercial my emotions and many times you were wrong, but this particular song is based on what really happened… The story is in its verse, which I don’t think I’ll publish. As I say in the lyrics, sometime ago, after the worst kind of a sleepless night, my doctor came to see me and after a lot of self-pity, belly-aching and complaining about my insomnia, he looked at me and said ‘speaking of doing something about insomnia, did you ever try counting your blessings?’”

koala-sleeping

Mr. Berlin certainly had experienced many things that might have hung heavily on his heart.

He emigrated to the US when he was a small child to escape the anti-semitic pogroms unfolding in Czarist Russia.

His father died when he was young, which catalyzed Irving (or Izzy as he was called by his family) into leaving school and earning money as a paper boy on the streets of lower Manhattan.

His own son died when he was less than a month old on Christmas Day.

Mr. Berlin served in both the first and second World Wars, producing (and performing in) theatrical revues to raise money, lift the spirits of a country at war, and comfort soldiers fighting all around the planet.

soldiers-and-dog-sleeping

As a Jewish man, he must have been deeply affected by the unimaginable reality of the Holocaust… and atomic weapons… and so many other astoundingly destructive human creations of the 20th century.

Mr. Berlin used the song in the 1954 film White Christmas.

Bing Crosby’s character sings it to Rosemary Clooney’s character to comfort and (it being a Hollywood movie — perhaps to begin a romantic relationship with) her.

I join with millions of people who have sung this song in the past 62 years to restore a sense of peace and gratitude in their lives when they are tossing and turning in the middle of the night.

And as 2016 slouches towards 2017, I also count my blessings:

Clean water at the twist of a faucet…

A functioning furnace…

Fossil fuels to power the furnace and stove and water heater…

My sweetheart of almost 25 years…

flying-foxes-sleeping

One remaining parent + a wonderful step parent…

Siblings who love and communicate with each other…

Friends…

Employment that involves relatively modest consumption/destruction of natural resources (CDs of music to the families in Music Together classes, electricity to play them, fossil fuels to heat and sometimes cool the karate studio where we lead classes, gasoline to power the hybrid car in which jazz pianist Joe Reid and I drive to gigs, electricity to run the PA systems where we perform)…

Music…

The magic of digital recording…

My trusty iPods for learning songs…

My ukuleles and laptop computers for creating new songs…

My rhyming dictionaries for inspiration…

The amazing interlibrary book/CD/DVD loan system for more inspiration…

seal-sleeping

How our bodies can heal themselves…

White privilege…

Male privilege….

US citizen privilege….

Human privilege…

Curiosity….

Once one starts, the list of blessings goes on and on and on.

puppies-sleeping

Thank you yet again to Pixabay photographers for the lovely images in this blog post.

Thank you to Irving Berlin for his musical and poetical genius.

Thank you to Doug Hammer for his reliable studio plus his exquisite rapport while playing the piano (and simultaneously engineering our sessions).

And thank you, brave and hardy soul, for reading — and listening to — this blog post.

human-infant-sleeping

Let us all fall asleep counting our blessings…

Let Me Be Strong (again)

Let Me Be Strong (again)


I shared this song by Barbara Baig a couple of years ago in a blog post.

Today I found myself thinking about it a lot.

Many people in the USA are very happy today.

I honor their sense of excitement and accomplishment.

Many people in the USA are very surprised and scared and shocked today, too.

I honor these feelings as well.

I don’t know what comes next, but I am pretty sure that the effects of yesterday’s election will ripple for weeks and months and years to come — not just here in the US but all over our planet.

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

I dearly hope that the horrible coincidence of learning the results of our election with the anniversary of Kristallnacht is just that…a horrible coincidence and not an uncanny foreshadowing of what may lie ahead in our not-very-united-states.

corridor

It is very sobering to read about Kristallnacht in Wikipedia.

As soon as we start viewing — and scapegoating — fellow human beings as “other,” we are heading down a very unhappy and slippery slope…

I was very glad that jazz pianist Joe Reid and I were booked to perform our hour-long program of songs co-written by Harold Arlen this afternoon at a retirement community in Newton.

We all needed to sing together — beautiful, timeless songs which touched our hearts and connected us with each other.

Not surprisingly, one song moved us to tears — “Over the Rainbow,” which Mr. Arlen wrote with Yip Harburg in 1938 for MGM’s masterpiece, The Wizard of Oz.

ladybug

Filming for The Wizard Of Oz began on October 13 1938.

A month later Kristallnacht occurred in Germany, Austria and parts of Poland, Russia and the Czech Republic.

The emotional resonance of “Over The Rainbow” — written by two American-born, fully assimilated Jewish songwriters for a movie produced by a Jewish-owned film company — cannot have gone un-noticed at the time.

No wonder so many of us are still moved to tears by it, almost 80 years after it was written.

I love “Let Me Be Strong,” too.

Barbara Baig wrote it when she lived in Somerville, MA and was an active member of the Boston Association of Cabaret Artists (BACA).

I recorded it many years ago with Doug Hammer on piano at his wonderful Dreamworld studio in Lynn, MA, plus Gene Roma on drums and Chris Rathbun on bass.

Thank you, Barbara, for writing this song.

May all of our hearts remain open in the days and weeks to come… as we move through our joys and our fears here on planet earth.

hedgehog

Let us be strong.

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

Thank you to Pixabay for the photos.

And thank you to anyone who reads and listens to this blog post!

white-flower

Magic To Do…

Magic To Do…

 

I have loved Stephen Schwartz’s music ever since I heard the cast album of Godspell in 1971.

I don’t remember how I came to own it, but I played that record over and over again.

So I was wildly excited and nervous when — at age ten — I auditioned for a new musical being directed by Bob Fosse with songs written by Mr. Schwartz.

I sang Cat Stevens’ song “Father and Son” at the audition. (My aunt had given me and my siblings many of Cat Stevens’ albums, which I also loved.)

I vaguely remember standing on a stage, singing to a few people in a darkened theater.

At one point during the audition — or maybe during a callback? — the pianist played a particular section of “Father and Son” in different keys in order to get a sense of my vocal range.

I gamely sang higher and higher until my voice finally cracked.

I must have also have read from some sort of script, but I don’t remember doing any dancing during the audition.

Much to my delight and terror, I ended up being cast as the standby for the role of Theo. I did not attend the first few weeks of rehearsals, but joined the cast midway through the creative process in NYC.

Members of the original Broadway cast of Pippin

I remember that Ben Vereen was very friendly and welcoming, even though he was one of the stars and was working his butt off during rehearsals.

Mostly I watched from the sidelines and kept a low profile.

I moved with the cast and crew to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, where Pippin previewed.

The Kennedy Center had only recently been built and was enormous. I spent a lot of time exploring the different theaters and backstage areas — as well as the snack room where I often heated up a slice of pizza using an amazing new (to me at least) technology called the microwave oven.

I also spent a lot of time hanging out unobtrusively in the back of the theater, watching rehearsals and mimicking all of the dance routines to the best of my ability (which grew over time…once we were living in NYC year-round I studied tap and jazz at the Phil Black dance studios on the corner of Broadway and 50th street).

The role of Theo — Catherine’s son — was never large and grew smaller as the show was tightened up and re-written out of town.

And then, much to my parents’ surprise — since so many Broadway shows close out of town or last only a few weeks once they open in New York — Pippin proved to be a big hit.

Original Cast Album of Pippin

I had to be backstage for every performance, but I never played the role of Theo on stage.

The various standbys — me, the standby for Irene Ryan, the standby for John Rubinstein, and the standby for Ben Vereen — along with the understudies for the other main roles would rehearse our parts with the stage manager on matinee days between the afternoon and evening performances.

Ben’s standby was a lovely man named Northern Calloway, whose day job was playing the role of “David” on Sesame Street, which was filmed in a converted theater on the upper west side of Manhattan.

Jill Clayburgh’s understudy was Ann Reinking, who was then a member of the chorus (but who may have begun dating Bob Fosse during Pippin and went on to all sorts of success afterwards as a performer and as a choreographer).

A boy named Shane Nickerson played the role of Theo each night.

He and I became friends.

Shane’s sister Denise had played the role of Lolita in an unsuccessful musical version of the Nabokov novel and then was cast as Violet Beauregarde in the original movie of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. Except she was not really Shane’s sister. She was actually his aunt. But that is another story — and a fascinating example of how we human beings often play roles in real life as well as on stage.

Other than an ever-present anxiety that I might have to perform the role if Shane were to become ill, I had a lot of fun backstage.

I fetched hot beverages for some of the dancers before the show began at the coffee shop across 46th street (where the stage door was located).

I learned how to play chess with one of the younger stage hands.

I watched endless poker game conducted by dressers, musicians and stage hands at a big table behind the orchestra pit while the show was running.

I became friends with the back stage hair dressers and helped brush out the many different wigs which the chorus members wore during the show.

And I hung out with the wonderful animal handlers, Jack and Mary, who took care of the duck and the sheep who appeared nightly in the show.

Among other duties they had to walk the sheep up and down 46th street and along 8th avenue in order to encourage it poop before it went on stage.

The sheep liked to eat cigarette butts, which was not conducive to its health; so I would keep an eye out for them when we strolled around the theater district, chatting with surprised passersby.

I remained as a standby in the original cast until I grew too large for the role. (Theo enters in the second being carried on the Leading Player’s shoulders, and this was a very direct way to gauge my growth month by month…)

I was not the first to leave the company — that was probably Jill Clayburgh, who was replaced by Betty Buckley early in the run, and also dear Irene Ryan, who died about the same time — but it was a very sad and awkward experience for me.

Irene Ryan and other original cast members of Pippin

Show business can be very confusing regarding matters of the heart.

A cast and crew come together to create a show or film a movie — or even just a TV commercial — and everyone strives (at least while on stage or when the cameras are running…) to be friendly and part of a team/family while they are attempting to make some magic together.

And then, when the shoot of the movie or the run of the play is over, everyone becomes a free agent again.

And one may never see any of them again.

Were any of those people my friends? Did any of them think about me when I was no longer part of the cast? I certainly thought about them for years afterwards.

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

It is humbling to learn on Wikipedia how the lives of various Pippin cast members unfolded before and after their time on stage at the Imperial Theater in the early 70s.

Some are still involved with show business as performers or choreographers or teachers.

Many are dead.

And composer Stephen Schwartz, bless him, has continued to write wonderful songs for Broadway and Hollywood.

I recorded his song “Magic To Do” (the opening number in Pippin) several years ago during rehearsals for a show I put together called Will Loves Steve, which featured songs written by Stephen Schwartz, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Foster,  Steve Sweeting, Stevie Wonder and Steven Georgiou — a.k.a. Cat Stevens a.k.a. Yousuf Islam.

Doug Hammer played piano — while simultaneously engineering the track — and Mike Callahan played clarinet.

For many years after Pippin I carried within me a sense that success meant starring on Broadway, or in the movies, or on TV.

Yet now I am amazed that anyone is able to perform EIGHT shows each week, month after month, repeating the same songs and dances and lines and emotions with as much authenticity and enthusiasm as they can muster on any given day.

And the life of a star — with folks asking to take selfies with them wherever they go in public, and having to repeat the same stories over and over again during media junkets while maintaining their  youthfulness and beauty and fitness and marketability year after year — seems less and less appealing.

I am slightly surprised to realize that I have learned the same lesson as the title character In Pippin: that a normal life without a lot of fanfare is AOK.

And there is still plenty of humble and unpublicized magic — like what happens in my Music Together classes and during performances at retirement communities and singing along at ukulele meetup groups —  to be done each day if one is so inspired…

Thank you, yet again, for reading and listening!

Grateful

As 2015 comes to a close, I find myself singing John Bucchino’s wise song, “Grateful,” a lot.

I love the entire song from start to finish (and you are welcome to listen to a version I recorded during a rehearsal with Doug Hammer a few years ago by activating the player at the beginning of this post).

I think my favorite lyric may be, “It’s not that I don’t want a lot, or hope for more…or dream of more — but giving thanks for what I’ve got, makes me so much happier than keeping score.”

It is very easy to fall into the trap of “keeping score” and comparing one’s accomplishments to one’s peers, to people on TV, to celebrities, etc. etc. etc.

But that path tends to be a dead end — and a recipe for dissatisfaction, unhappiness, depression and discouragement.

So here is a list of things (in no particular order) for which I am grateful.

Health…and health insurance.

A devoted and supportive life partner.

Dr. Charles Cassidy and his surgical team at Tufts Medical Center, who successfully pieced together the shattered bits of bone in my left elbow using several titanium screws of various sizes at the beginning of March.

WillXRaysElbow

Opiate drugs — which were a daily blessing during my elbow recovery.

Jazz pianist and composer Steve Sweeting, who invited me to record a CD of his tremendous original songs with him and then did two performances to celebrate “Blame Those Gershwins” in Manhattan and Somerville.

All of the families who have chosen to make Music Together with me in Belmont and Arlington — as well as my MT bosses.

Doug Hammer — for his engineering wizardry at Dreamworld Studio AND astoundingly collaborative spirit at the piano.

Jinny Sagorin for lending her voice and heart and diplomatic feedback to “The Beauty All Around” performance.

Jazz pianist Joe Reid, with whom I put together programs of music about Jule Styne, Hoagy Carmichael, and Jerome Kern — and with whom I also performed programs of music about Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, and the Gershwin brothers at retirement communities, libraries and synagogues around the greater Boston area.

Exceeding my (modest) financial goals for 2015 — thanks in part to two well-paid musical projects at the beginning of the year.

Kyra and Briony and Jill for a heartful musical adventure in honor of an old friend.

Bobbi Carrey, who is embracing new (although not very musical) challenges in Kuala Lumpur.

A grant from the Bob Jolly Charitable Trust to support my work on “The Beauty All Around.”

An ecstatic first performance of “The Beauty All Around” at Third Life Studio in Union Square.

Very supportive friends and family.

Very devoted and enthusiastic fans.

All the folks who have hired me and Joe to bring music to their retirement community, their library, their condo complex, their synagogue, etc.

Visits to Lime Rock, Connecticut; Ithaca, New York; Toronto, Ontario; and the upper west side of Manhattan.

Susan Robbins, who invited me to perform at Third Life Studio and maintains a very sweet Steinway grand piano there!

Photo by Anton Kuskin

Photo by Anton Kuskin

All the people (most of whom I will never meet) who planted, cultivated, harvested, sorted, packaged, shipped, unpacked, displayed, sold (and sometimes cooked and served) me the food I ate in 2015.

That our planet orbits a modest star at the perfect distance for life to unfold in astounding cycles of expansion and contraction over the course of millions of years.

North of Highland campground.

The Atlantic ocean.

Cayuga lake and the Rice Heritage cottage.

A wonderful web of cousins.

The Boston Association of Cabaret Artists community.

The Ukulele Union of Boston Meetup groups with a welcoming spirit and humble open mic section (during which I dare to share new songs…)

A new ukulele handmade — and given to me! — by Patrick Collins, a gifted musician, inspired woodworker, and dedicated teacher who lives in Toronto.

Megan Henderson, who has become my newest musical ally.

Rain and sun and dirt which create the conditions for plants to grow and flourish here on planet earth.

My trusty, slightly rusty, bicycle.

Electricity.

My two, increasingly aged, lap top computers which continue to function with grace and reliability.

Apple’s Garageband program.

The freshly paved, extremely smooth — with bike lanes! — stretch of Massachusetts Avenue from the Cambridge border to Arlington Center.

And, of course, music, music and more music — new songs or beloved standards, live or pre-recorded, spontaneous or well-rehearsed, solo or ensemble — it’s all a blessing.

Thank you for reading and listening to yet another blog post.

If I have forgotten to mention you in this list, please accept my heartfelt apologies…

A happy, healthy, and musical new year to you and yours!

Photo by Joe Turner

Photo by Joe Turner

Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing

Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing

Exuberance.

Joy.

Playfulness.

Improvisation.

Not having to sit still.

Clapping.

Snapping.

Tapping.

Dancing.

Bouncing up and down.

Singing.

Laughing.

Doing whatever one wants to do as long as one is not hurting oneself or anyone else.

These are all daily occurrences in my Music Together classes.

They contrast vividly with my work as a child and teenager in NYC — modeling for catalogs, doing TV commercials and voice-overs, working in a dinner theater production of The King and I, and even co-starring in a few made-for-TV movies.

Here is what I looked like as a child.

willb

As one of my childhood role models, Jack Wild, explained in an interview I found on Youtube, children who work in show business are not treated like children.

They are treated like small adults and are expected to behave as well as — and often better than — the grownups on the job.

Here is another shot where I am behaving more like a small adult.

willc

Jack Wild was The Artful Dodger in the movie version of the musical Oliver and also starred in an odd TV show which aired on Saturday mornings called H. R. Pufnstuf.

I realize now (after watching an old episode via Youtube) that it was very loosely inspired by the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” and that it was a pretty horrible show — relying all-too-heavily on a laugh track to seduce us into thinking that what we were watching was actually funny.

But each episode usually provided Jack with an opportunity to sing and dance, which is what I particularly admired.

One song —”I’m a mechanical boy” — had enough resonance to me as a child that I remember it with bittersweet fondness to this day.

You can watch it if you are curious by clicking here.

Jack may have also been aware of the painful ironies of this song…

From Wikipedia, I learned to my sadness that Jack died ten years ago from mouth cancer.

He had apparently been smoking ever since he was 12 years old and drank very heavily starting in his 20s when work in the entertainment industry dried up for him.

He was 53 years old — my current age.

Deep sigh.

There but for the grace of g-d…

My career as a child and teen actor happened before the era of VHS recording devices — so I have very few watchable artifacts from that period of my life.

I have a few head shot photos (which I have sprinkled into this entry), a resume which I think might have been typed using what was then a new technology (an IBM selectric machine owned by good friends), and a VHS copy of one of my last films, Goldenrod, which was made in Canada and was eventually purchasable in VHS format.

Every few years, however, I spend an hour searching on Youtube for possible remnants of my childhood career.

Recently I got lucky!

I found an audio file for a voiceover I made when I was 11 or 12 — promoting Oreo cookies —  as well as a Dr. Pepper commercial I made as a teenager in which I sing in the background on a fishing boat.

At least I think it’s me…. I know I made a Dr. Pepper commercial which was filmed on a fishing boat, but I don’t remember much from the shoot except that I was grateful not to feel too nauseous while we did take after take in what must have been the Long Island Sound.

Here’s my teen-era head shot.

willd

You can click on the links below if you are curious…

Dr, Pepper Commercial.

I am pretty sure I am the teenager wearing a baseball hat who dances behind David Naughton on the THIRD boat (a fishing boat) in the sequence and leaps onto a railing when everyone sings,”Only Dr. Pepper tastes that way.” If you look at the timing bar, I appear about 29 seconds into the clip…

Oreo Cookie Commercial.

I am the voice saying, “Then you get two crunchy chocolate outsides to eat last!” and also one of the voices singing, “‘Cause there’s not a better middle you can fiddle with” at the end of the spot.

I titled this post “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” because I recently found a lovely take from a rehearsal (with Doug Hammer on piano and Mike Callahan on shaker) I did several years ago at Doug’s studio in Lynn when putting together a show called “Will Loves Steve” which featured all songs written by people named Steve or Stephen or Stevie.

Not only am I uplifted and reassured by Stevie’s melody and words, the rhythm instrument that Mike is playing reminds me of the plastic eggs which we use — with great delight — in my Music Together classes.

Right now I am putting together a show of all songs I have written or co-written called “The Beauty All Around.”

And I am discovering that it is a much more intimate and doubt-filled process than a show which features songs written by other people.

So Stevie Wonder’s great song is going to be my mantra for the next six weeks…

Thank you, yet again, for reading and listening to another blog post!!!

Love who (and what) you love…

Love who (and what) you love…

I just returned from thirteen days of heaven on earth a.k.a. camping at North of Highland Campground in North Truro, MA (near the tip of Cape Cod).

One of the things I most love about camping is the lack of interruptions and distractions.

Life is distilled down to basics — and things like TV and America’s Got Talent and Netflix and Orange Is the New Black simply disappear from one’s awareness.

I did not speak with anyone via the telephone.

There was no internet tempting me to visit Facebook or Linked In.

I had no emails reminding me each day about a deeply discouraging array of horrible things happening all over planet earth which I could possibly help by signing a petition and/or donating money.

I listened to no radio.

I read very few magazines (mostly back issues of The New Yorker).

I received no snail mail full of solicitations from environmental defense organizations and prograssive lobbying groups and hard-working political candidates.

Instead I savored the rain and the sun.

And birds.

And wind in the pine trees overhead.

And random sounds of fellow campers in the distance — sometimes the beep of a car with keys left in the ignition, sometimes the cry of a small child having an emotional melt down.

And BLUEBERRIES.

Blueberries1

This year we arrived at the peak of blueberry abundance.

Little scrubby bushes which in past summers might have offered a few berries were now covered with them.

Each morning before the sun became too hot, I picked a mug-full to eat — first with oatmeal and then as an anti-oxidant treat throughout the rest of the day.

Some bushes had small berries, and others were loaded with whoppers.

On the morning of our departure, I picked one final mug’s worth to bring home to Arlington, and I am eating the last of them as I type this entry.

Yum for summer!

Blueberries2

At first I was concerned that I might be depriving the local wild life of much-needed sustenance.

One morning I watched a small red squirrel pick blueberries, climb up on a small tree stump to eat them, climb down to pick more, climb back up to eat more until she or he apparently had eaten their fill and frisked off into the trees.

But that was the only animal consumption I witnessed.

And I saw many wrinkled, older berries on the ground under the bushes — so plenty of them were ripening and falling to the ground untouched by anyone.

I decided it was OK to revel in this unexpected, beautiful, delicious gift from mother earth.

And there were many berries I did not manage to pick and eat when we left our camp site…

Maybe the two wild turkeys we saw as we were packing up camp would return to savor them?

This morning I was given a link to a slide show that a father had put together to play at the memorial service for his four-year-old son, who had died as a result of complications after an unsuccessful heart transplant operation. 

This radiant little being was a student of a fellow Music Together (MT) teacher, and she had reached out via Facebook to a bunch of MT teachers when he was about to go into surgery so that we might pray for him and his family and his caregivers.

Despite the massive amounts of time Aiden had spent in hospitals during his short, sweet life, he was able to stomp in rain puddles and play at the beach  and attend Music Together classes with his parents.

Apparently he loved singing and dancing — and his parents included several MT songs as part of his slide show and memorial service.

From the slide show I could see how loved he was by his extended family.

And as a result of watching it, I brought an aching awareness of love and loss with me to my Music Together class this morning — and did my best to welcome and celebrate each being who came though the door.

The song at the beginning of this post was written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty for a musical called A Man Of No Importance.

I recorded it with Doug Hammer playing piano and Mike Callahan playing horn several years ago as part of my “Will Loves Steve” show — which featured songs written or co-written by people named Steve or Stephen or Stevie.

For me it captures some of the poignance of being a loving human here on planet earth.

Thank you for reading and listening!

Blueberries from Truro

Does July Need A Sky Of Blue?

fluffy-white-cloud-on-deep-blue-sky-725x544

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.

Who Could Ask For Anything More?

 

Today I sit on our back porch, savoring a gentle breeze and warm, spring-like weather.

Ahhh….

A careful reader might notice that I haven’t posted anything since December.

We had a long, snowy winter here in the Boston area — and at the end of February I managed to fracture the bottom surface of my left humerus (upper arm bone) by tripping over a very enthusiastic 18-month-old student who got behind me (without my realizing it) during one of my Music Together classes.

Six titanium screws later, my left elbow is mostly functional — and a few more months of painful therapy may, in frustratingly small increments, restore full functionality.

We shall see…

One of the blessings of my recent encounter with the world of Western medicine is that I found a great surgeon — the head of orthopedic medicine at Tufts Medical Center! — who was willing to screw the various chunks of my humerus back together again. He is also a terrific listener who makes unwavering eye contact during conversation.

And the anesthesiologists who took care of me during my surgery were also willing to listen to my request that they NOT intubate me. Instead they used an alternative device which didn’t poke through my larynx, bless them.

So I experienced no inadvertent bumps or scratches on my vocal cords while I was under anesthesia.

Now a very patient and sweet-tempered occupational therapist is helping me persist in my quest for a fully functional left elbow.

Through this entire process I have been blessed with music — healing tracks by Libana, Bobby McFerrin, Annie Bethancourt, and Bill Glassco (to name a few) — as well as a very soothing guided meditation by Peggy Huddleston to help prepare for and recover from surgery.

Although my left arm aches 24/7 — especially after I have done my stretching exercises — listening to music, practicing music, learning new songs, performing music, jotting down new musical ideas, and leading my Music Together classes all, thankfully, distract me from the sensations in my arm.

I have included a fun version of the Gershwin Brothers’ song “I Got Rhythm” (originally debuted by a very young Ethel Merman in her star-making performance as part of the Gershwin Brothers’ musical Girl Crazy) at the beginning of this blog post.

I recorded it with Doug Hammer on piano at his studio on the North Shore. You can hear him laughing at the end of the take because he didn’t know I was going to hold a particular note as long as I did in a spontaneous homage to Ms. Merman…

It sums up my outlook during this recovery period, and it certainly fits the mood of today, as birds swoop through our back yard and bees of all sizes diligently gather pollen from the flowers blooming around town.

Thank you, as always, for reading my blog entries!

Very gratefully yours,

will

 

Let Me Be Strong

 

I was riding my bike home in the rain this week and remembered a song written by a New England author and songwriter named Barbara Baig.

“Rain beats at the window as I stare into the night…”

I recorded it a while ago with Doug Hammer playing piano — and, I think, Chris Rathbun on upright bass and Gene Roma on drums — at Doug’s Dreamworld Studios on the North Shore.

That was when I was hosting a performance series in Harvard Square called “Will & Company.”

Each show featured a local songwriter and a local singer about whom I was excited.

I recently learned that one of the songwriters, Ernie Lijoi, has written lyrics for two songs in a musical called It Shoulda Been You which is opening on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theater in April of 2015 starring Tyne Daly and directed by David Hyde Pierce.

Go, Ernie!

“Let me be strong and moving through fear….”

One of our friends, Peter Watson, has used “Let Me Be Strong” in the Opening the Heart workshops he co-leads.

Although a lot — a blessed lot — of stuff is going well in my life these days (a devoted life partner, robust Music Together classes, more performances at retirement communities and libraries, basic health, no debt, a functional bike, a wonderful web of family and friends for whom I am very grateful, and the list goes on and on), I also find myself standing from time to time in deep puddles of fear.

And I berate myself for feeling scared — aware that billions of beings on planet earth are not as fortunate as I am.

What do I have to feel scared about?

Yet I am also aware — without reading the paper, listening to the radio, watching the news, or tapping into various social media — that our human population continues to climb, that more and more species of animals and plants are becoming extinct, that our economic models are based on an advertising-created desire to possess more and more things, etc. etc. etc.

Thinking about these global challenges leaves me feeling scared, or sad, or angry — or all of the above.

How do we not become mired in fear?

How do we keep our hearts open?

How do we change our lives to respect and honor and nurture the amazing web of life currently unraveling on planet earth?

And how does music fit into any/all of the above?