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

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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.

Getting In Tune with The Infinite

I have been been blessed to sing wonderful songs written by other people for many decades — as the MP3 player on the right hand sidebar of this page can attest.

And every now and then I have helped to write or co-write a song.

But it wasn’t until a few years ago, when I bought my first ‘ukulele, that I started writing songs on a regular basis.

I love reading about how other songwriters have created their hits.

Composer Harry Warren and lyricist Johnny Mercer wrote “Jeepers, Creepers,” “On The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” and “You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby.”

Warren gave Mercer the nickname ‘Cloud Boy’.

As Warren explained, “A lot of times when I would play a melody for John… particularly if it was after a good lunch… he’d stretch out on a couch and just lie there with his eyes closed and his hands folded across his stomach. He was way up there some place in the clouds. Of course, what came out later was just great.”

When asked by his father about his creative process, Mercer once said, “I simply get to thinking over the song — pondering over it in my mind — and all of a sudden I get in tune with the Infinite.”

Many songwriters have expressed a similar sentiment — that they feel as though they are acting as a conduit or channel for something greater than themselves.

The lyricist Ira Gershwin said that the composer Harold Arlen would never “approach the simplest musical requirement or idea without first calling upon ‘the fellow up there’ — jabbing his finger at the ceiling.”

I cannot say that I have experienced this phenomenon yet.

I have, however, noticed that lyrical themes sometimes emerge which surprise me and lead a song in a different direction than I had originally intended.

And I have had the inspiring experience of writing a song which gradually became true.

It is called “Can We Slow It Down?” — and I wrote it a couple of years ago when I was working full time at my day job in Harvard Square.

I realized recently when I was practicing it at home that my life has in fact slowed down since I began singing this song.

If you are curious, you can listen to “Can We Slow It Down?” by clicking on the audio player at the top of this page.

I will be singing it plus two other originals as part of a mini-set at a lovely open mic in Lexington — hosted by Nourish Restaurant on Massachusetts Avenue — on Tuesday, November 5, 2013, starting around 7:30 pm.

Perhaps you can join us.

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!