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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Church Singing

I went to St Paul's Baptist Church today in San Angelo, Texas. My friend Craig Myers, a retired Presbyterian minister from San Angelo, took me. He's built an amazing relationship with people in the church, which is all-black, over the years, sometimes guest preaching, and working on a host of social justice projects in San Angelo. When I was last working here, he said that if I returned, I should go to the church with him. I did, and we did.
It was truly amazing. The singing was from something out of my dreams. In particular, one man named Oscar got up and led a gospel number. It was almost like watching James Brown. He shouted, raised his hands in the air, prowled the pulpit and pulled responses from everyone in the congregation. I was fortunate enough to talk with Oscar afterwards. He's almost 70. He's had offers from bands to sing with them, but he says that his only reason for singing is God. And I can tell you, he was filled with the spirit.
The congregation sang some, but mostly it was the choir. I had a talk also with the minister, Fredd Adams, a wonderful man who also put on quite a presentation when he was preaching. A long way from the churches of my youth. His sermon was about praising God, and he quoted Bible text that talked about how Jehosephat (sp?) put the choir in front of the armies, when there was battle. "Lead with praise," he said. "Make a joyful noise."
I realized that it was not unlike the civil rights movement, where music was one of the few "weapons" or tools that people had in their struggle. Music led the way then. Given all of the struggle African-American's have faced in their history on this continent, I understand in a new way now why music has had such a powerful influence on their culture, and on ours.
I went to the church almost as audience member, but came away profoundly moved by the unbridled emotion and the wide open singing from the heart that filled the room. I wish that all of us could experience that kind of singing on a regular basis, not just as audience, but as participants. It's life changing, and life sustaining. Most of all, I just hope I get to go back again.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


I love libraries. My second book honored an incredible Wisconsin librarian named Lutie Stearns. And in summer, I perform in libraries as part of the summer reading program.

Last week I performed in Waukesha at the library, where Kate Fitzgerald-Fleck and her colleagues have created an amazing children's department. There's a fine performance space, too, and it allowed for the kind of show that I like best - lots of interaction.

There are many excellent children's performers of all types, but my favorite has always been my dear friend Tom Pease. Tom is a master of interaction. It's rare for him to do a song where the audience doesn't participate. As he and I talk, we often discuss new ways to get people involved.

Some family shows have the kids sit up front on the floor, while grownups are mostly behind them, in chairs. Although this might seem to make sense, it makes it harder to get families interacting together, which is the point of a family show in my opinion. The set up in Waukesha was just like that. Grownups were involved, but they were in the back.

While doing "Mi Cuerpo," a favorite song in Spanish with lots of movement, I suddenly got inspired and had the kids stand up and go back by their parents, and do motions with them. The wall was broken, or at least cracked for a moment, and kids and grownups were all in the same reality, having fun, making faces at each other, and laughing their heads off. Singing, too, of course.

It's one thing to get kids to do something. The challenge is to get kids doing something with their grownups. This was one small solution.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Last Day of School Show

Over the years I've done lots of shows on the last day of school. I always enjoy them. Everyone is in a good mood. Actually, the teachers are in better moods than the kids. Today, at Summit View Elementary, several teachers talked about seeing the ambivalence in kids about school being over. You can imagine that the home life they will be immersed in for the next two and half months may not be as positive or consistent or even affectionate as what they receive at school.
In any case, these shows tend to be high energy gigs. There's no pretense of tying into the curriculum, or singing songs that have to do with respect or the environment. It's just about fun, giving teachers a bit of a break, and, ultimately, celebrating together the end of another year. And in that sense, the most important piece is recognizing and building on the sense of community that's hopefully already there. Today, it was. Kids were pumped to sing, and teachers had fun, too.
So did I. And after the show, I had a wonderful conversation with Leah, the music teacher. We wondered together about the future of school assemblies, as we both acknowledged the importance of just singing together. Will the experience of singing joyfully together be relegated to camps and the rare concert where group singing is central? And the good music class, where teachers know that building delight in music is their main job. Kids will figure out what quarter notes are, but it's hard to reclaim the love of singing once it's lost.
I am grateful that Summit View, and many other schools, still recognize the importance of singing together.
If you're off for the summer now, take some time and sing with a group somewhere. Just for fun.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

I'm a Teacher, Not a Babysitter

Yesterday I was talking with Denise, who is one the finest childcare providers I know. She has dedicated her life to working with young children, and she takes her work seriously, even as she has a good time with kids. She has used my recordings with her kids for years, and she brings them to concerts, so we are old friends. She said that she didn't like the song on my new CD, "I'm a Teacher, Not a Babysitter" because she felt that the parents of her kids understood that and treated her with respect. "It feels old and out of date," she said. I had to laugh. While I believe that's true for her, I had to tell her that when I play that song at Early Childhood events, I am greeted with shouts of "Amen" and loud applause. For most of the country, child care providers continue to be viewed with little respect or understanding about the importance of their work. And they sometimes don't feel much self-respect, either. So, Denise is lucky. But we still have work to do for millions of other providers around the world.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Intergenerational Singing

For over five years I've worked occasionally with the Oakwood Retirement Community to create intergenerational programs. I began by working with Sarah Sprague who started a wonderful project called Treasured Times designed to bring seniors and pre-school aged children together to engage in meaningful activities. Sarah asked me to work with her on some musical parts of the program. We did a couple of years of grant projects around specific themes, which turned out well. In particular, we were working at Covenant Oaks at Oakwood, a unit for people with memory issues, like Alzheimer's.

From the beginning, Sarah was interested in projects that provided genuine interaction across the ages. For example, I've done many concerts labeled as "intergenerational" but they mostly consisted of older folks and younger folks in the same room, listening to and singing songs. Good events, but not a huge amount of interaction.

Sarah and I created projects that had people of different ages sitting and working at tables together, talking to each other and helping each other with art work, quilting, and sensory experiences. The benefits were immediate and obvious. Both sets of generations needed help, but delighted in the opportunity to share time.

Sarah has moved to Brazil, so for the last three years, when I return to Oakwood, as I do once a twice a year, I sing with older folks from the unit and young children who come from child care or family settings. Today was one of those concerts.

We are all in the activity room. There were maybe 25 residents and as many children, with some grown up care providers and parents mixed in. My job is to have fun, and get folks interacting with each other.

Throughout the concert, I made sure to give directions and provide opportunities for kids to get up off the floor and go hold hands with residents, or hug them, or dance by them. These are mostly kids who are used to coming to Oakwood for other activities, but I was struck by how at ease they were, and how the mood in the room was light and joyful for all.

Finding common ground musically is sometimes a challenge. I did some kid songs, but also a few old favorites, like "You Are My Sunshine." At one point, I asked for requests, and a young boy, not more than three, asked for "Working on the Railroad." We all sang it together, and then, on a hunch, I asked him if he wanted to sing it by himself. He made it through the whole song, with only a few rhythmic anomalies, and was greeted at the end of the last line, which he made "strumming on the BIG banjo" with wild applause and laughter.

One of the residents wanted to sit next to me, so as I sang, she gave a running commentary with words and hilarious facial expression. At one point she did a dead-on solo version of the ABCs in chicken, complete with head bobs and clucks.

Anyone in the room would recognize the power and joy of young and old sharing genuine moments. Music has a particular power to facilitate these times.

This is a unique show for me. Oakwood is a great place to live: if I could afford it I'd reserve a spot for myself right now. The children are coming from great child care settings, or arrive with very involved parents. It's not big enough and it doesn't demonstrate the kind of need that would attract funding. And yet, I wish that these kind of opportunities were available for every facility for aging people, and for all young children. It's not about being a full employment act for musicians, but about providing what should be every human being's rights, whether they are young or old - to enjoy making music together.