Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Suffering of Abundance

And the theme today is: Too Much.

That's what's been keeping me away these days. The point of restarting this blog was successful, meaning that I wanted to ignite my "writer's mind" and get to a place where I am observing life like a writer again. (Definition:  Walking around smirking and muttering to myself in a witty narration of just about everything that happens all day.)

The writer's mind has been ignited. And that means I have a new thing to suffer with: The weight of "not doing." Because, like, I'm doing so many other things, dude. Too many things. Too much.

Like:

Christmas shopping. Last year, when it came time to wrap gifts, I could not believe how much I'd bought for everyone. Swore I'd never do it again. I'm doing it again. Hi.

House full of shite: About seven years ago, we visited the immaculate home of one of our musician friends. Feeling that I could possibly enjoy a very clean home, I borrowed his Feng Shui book. On about page 3, it said, "First, you must declutter." I put the book down and made lists of everything I'd throw away and in what order. Once I had decluttered, I'd get back to the book. So, I started with the bathroom closet. It was good for like a week. And the book? It's still on my shelf. Unopened. And please, we must not speak of Marie Kondo. She is a sadist.

News: Oh, it's just too much. Don't go there.

Kids: We are never good enough parents. We have short tempers, we say "NO" too loudly and too often. (By the way, it feels really good to yell it; try it now. I'll wait.) We ignore them sometimes when they stub their toe in the kitchen because we are cooking and we really don't want to burn the garlic. Plus, they keep talking all day. Like, frigging constantly... so... you know. Point: There are too many ways to be better. Maybe we can just accept our failures and move on. That's my motto.

Music: No sane person should be a parent, have a new job, and keep doing concerts for which one must learn new repertoire, practice, send out press releases, make posters, put the posters up around town, and continually put crap on Facebook. Friends, I beseech thee: It's a good idea to wait until your kids are all over 18 before you start making CDs and doing concerts and stuff, when you already have a regular day job. It's a good idea to focus on how to be a good parent, and less on whether you can really exercise rhythmic accuracy on that awesome Liz Carroll tune. (See "Kids," above.)

Failure accepted. Journey proceeds.



Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thankful

Seriously. THANK GOD (or whoever) that we have this day to make us stop for a little while, like about 10 minutes between the stuffing preparation and the turkey insertion, to think about what is good in life.

What I am thankful for most this year is that I left that big job in the city to come do a little job teaching music in a school five minutes from my house—a little job that is much bigger than the other job because it matters more. And because it allows me to get back to my kids, be around more, and be home. Big.

One of the biggest reasons I left that big job was because my big girl, I thought, was maybe struggling and maybe needed Mom around more. I wanted to be there for her, and also to be a little more present for my little boy.

Well, I'm teaching in her school and you know what I've discovered from watching her in action and also talking to the other teachers a little bit? That she's just fine. Not just a little fine, but a lot fine. A big fine. And that she always has been.

And there's nothing I'm more thankful for than that.

Wishing you all a wonderful Thanksgiving Day!

~~~~~

While you're waiting for the turkey to cook this morning, visit the Lindsays new website at www.irishmusic.us! It's what I did this week instead of writing to you, and what I finished this morning between 6-7:30 am, when I should have been preparing dinner for 8. Oops. Time to make the turkey...

~~~~~


Sunday, November 20, 2016

Chris Smither and That Old Pa Rum Pa Pum Pum...

"If every town had one of these, we could weather any political storm." So said performing artist Chris Smither last night to a sold-out crowd at the Spire Center for the Performing Arts in Plymouth. He was talking about the venue, a former house of worship turned performing arts space—a more appropriate fit for the transformative experiences we need so much, in the language we speak today. Music just might be one thing that can help keep us from collectively jumping off a cultural ledge. Well, Chris Smither's music certainly will, at least in this house. A bluesman, a songwriter, the voice of a poet fitted over acoustic guitarwork that is impeccably, precisely natural: the musical incarnation of freedom. He's been writing and performing for more than 50 years, and owns the stage with the poise of a statesman, only with open eyes and an open heart. Ego checked at the door. Thank God he lives, so we can too.

Watch him here by clicking this link. I tried to embed the video but Blogger took it away. You'll have to follow this link. And please do. It's worth it. But come right back.

And so with that said...

I haven't been writing much since November 9, because I've been stuck for what to say. No words, and too many words.  I've been trying not to close off. Forcing myself to read the news. Forcing myself to hear what my activist friends have to say.

"Organize," they say. They have petitions. I signed some.

"March," they implore. I probably won't.

"And call the hell out of Washington! Tell them this is not right!"  Will I call any of these reps? Probably not. (But I do agree. It's horrific and devastating, and it keeps me up at night. Then again, so does...um... everything?)

Someone I know posted a color-coded spreadsheet with the numbers of all our House and Senate members, with phone numbers and suggested days to call each. So she wouldn't forget who to call and when. So she wouldn't get overwhelmed by the task at hand. So we could do it too. So much to do. Such a big world to save; such small shoulders.

You see, I am a poor boy too.

I have no gift to bring, that's fit to give a king.

Shall I play for you?

Mary nodded.
The ox and lamb kept time.
I played my drum for him.
I played my best for him.

Then he smiled at me...  Me and my drum.

Click here to listen to Alex Boyé sing it with his African choir.




Thursday, November 17, 2016

Flower Power in the Classroom

Just one caring adult can change a child's life. That was the message sent to all teachers in my school from our principal yesterday. He asked us to watch a video from a former foster kid about how one person who cared about him had ensured his later success in life.  Watch it, if you have time. It's inspiring. In sending us all this video to watch, our principal was reminding us of how important our jobs are.

My friends, this new job of mine, teaching music to very young school children, is probably the most important job I've ever had, and also the most challenging. One reason it's challenging is that some of the kids in every class have behavioral challenges. They haven't learned yet how to sit still and listen, or perhaps they are really not able to. So keeping a classroom in control is very hard. Very.


But what's the most challenging? The mental work and the spiritual work. The internal work that has to be done every day to remind myself that it's not about me. Training myself not to get angry or frustrated at the child who is not listening and who is disrupting the class, and to remember that this child is not intentionally trying to ruin my class, or my day. Remembering to respond to him or her in love, not anger. Sometimes it helps to speak sternly to a child, but my experience is that whenever the stern moves into angerland, someone ends up crying (not me) and only acting worse. Worse! My childhood memory is that a teacher would yell at the student, the student would clam up in fear, and the problem would be solved for that day, or that hour. But this is not what happens today. That was the past. Now, what I see is that when a teacher yells at a student, most of the time the student seems to only get more disruptive.

What I'm seeing is that the thing that seems to be most effective in the long term -- the thing that shocks a child into full engagement, at least SOME of them -- is a response from a loving place.

Do you know how hard it is to be loving when 19 kids are mostly singing along to "Simple Gifts," and 1 is doing cartwheels and making silly faces behind you, or crawling along the floor on the way to the conga drums, which he or she intends to bash as loud as possible? This is after you've already told him or her to sit down about 4,000 times.

Serenity now. Om. Om. Om. Om. Om. Om. Om. (This is not working.) Om. Om. Om. (What time does this class end? Five more minutes... phew.) Om. Om. Om. Om.




Friday, November 11, 2016

No words, and too many words.

Day 32.

I have no words. And I have too many words. Thank God for music.

I had the great honor of seeing Shawn Colvin perform last night at the Spire in downtown Plymouth. A brilliant concert, and shockingly, I had not really heard her music before. A songwriter, poet, and musician of the highest order. She had just come off a two-month tour with Steve Earle, another brilliant soul, and was going this one alone. She said she was a bit disoriented, as she began.

Oh, really? I wonder why. Her first song was Paul Simon's American Tune. Sheer power. (Lyrics)



Sang it with a power that broke hearts open with the first strain. Floodgates.

After performing, at the end of the night, she said thank you. She was recentered, she said. The music had helped to heal her. And this is what it is about.

What I've seen from artists in the last few days: A redoubling of purpose. We must continue, with ever more strength, they are saying. It matters now more than ever, they say. We must offer our love. We must stick together.  We must overcome.

To return to Karl Paulnack's words in Wednesday's post:

...my friends, someday at 8 P.M. someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft. 

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used cars. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well. 

Our work is cut out for us now. Let's keep making. Never was it more important.











Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Finding a Way Forward

Day 30

Last night's election results signify a triumph of all of the very worst parts of American culture. I am speechless, but mostly deeply afraid.  I woke up at 3 am and checked the election results and I couldn't fall back to sleep. So I did what I often do: I went to work. It just so happens I had to proofread something this morning that helped me find just a little bit of hope. I share it with you here. It's long but worth it.

Being an artist, a musician, a poet, may be more important now than ever. This article reminded me of that, and helped, a little. Maybe it will help you, too.

An Excerpt from Music Division Director Karl Paulnack's welcome address to incoming Boston Conservatory students, 2004: 

One of my parents’ deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn’t be appreciated. I had very good grades in high school, I was good in science and math, and they imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer, I might be more appreciated than I would be as a musician. I still remember my mother’s remark when I announced my decision to apply to music school. She said, “You’re wasting your SAT scores!” 

On some level, I think, my parents were not sure themselves what the value of music was, what its purpose was. And they loved music: they listened to classical music all the time. They just weren’t really clear about its function. So let me talk about that a little bit, because we live in a society that puts music in the “arts and entertainment” section of the newspaper, and serious music—the kind your kids are about to engage in—has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment; in fact, it’s the opposite of entertainment. Let me talk a little bit about music and how it works.

One of the first cultures to articulate how music really works were the ancient Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you: the Greeks said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. Let me give you some examples of how this works.

One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the Quartet for the End of Time, written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940. Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940 and imprisoned in a prisoner-of-war camp. 

He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose, and fortunate to have musician colleagues in the camp: a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist. Messiaen wrote his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison camp. Today, it is one of the most famous masterworks in the repertoire.

Given what we have since learned about life in the Nazi camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture—why would anyone bother with music? And yet—even from the concentration camps—we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”

In September of 2001, I was a resident of Manhattan. On the morning of September 12, 2001, I reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world. I sat down at the piano that morning at 10 A.M. to practice, as was my daily routine; I did it by force of habit, without thinking about it. I lifted the cover on the keyboard and opened my music, put my hands on the keys, and took my hands off the keys. And I sat there and thought, does this even matter? Isn’t this completely irrelevant? Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely lost.

And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again. And then I observed how we got through the day. 

At least in my neighborhood, we didn’t shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We didn’t play cards to pass the time, we didn’t watch TV, we didn’t shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity that I saw in New York, on the very evening of September 11th, was singing. People sang. People sang around fire houses, people sang “We Shall Overcome.” Lots of people sang “America the Beautiful.” The first organized public event that I remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The U.S. military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night.

From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is not part of “arts and entertainment” as the newspaper section would have us believe. It’s not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pastime. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds. 

Some of you may know Samuel Barber’s heart wrenchingly beautiful piece, Adagio for Strings. If you don’t know it by that name, then some of you may know it as the background music which accompanied the Oliver Stone movie Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War. If you know that piece of music either way, you know it has the ability to crack your heart open like a walnut; it can make you cry over sadness you didn’t know you had. Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at what’s really going on inside us, the way a good therapist does. 

Very few of you have ever been to a wedding where there was absolutely no music. There might have been only a little music, there might have been some really bad music, but with few exceptions there is some music. And something very predictable happens at weddings—people get all pent up with all kinds of emotions, and then there’s some musical moment where the action of the wedding stops and someone sings or plays the flute or something. And even if the music is lame, even if the quality isn’t good, predictably 30 or 40 percent of the people who are going to cry at a wedding cry a couple of moments after the music starts. Why? The Greeks. Music allows us to move around those big invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides so that we can express what we feel even when we can’t talk about it. Can you imagine watching Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the dialogue but no music? What is it about the music swelling up at just the right moment in E.T. so that all the softies in the audience start crying at exactly the same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with the music stripped out, it wouldn’t happen that way. The Greeks. Music is the understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects.

I’ll give you one more example, the story of the most important concert of my life. I must tell you, I have played a little less than a thousand concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I thought were important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important; music critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in a small Midwestern town a few years ago.
I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out and play the music without explanation. 

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was clearly a soldier—even in his 70s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw, and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert, and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.

When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.

What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute cords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?” 

Remember the Greeks: Music is the study of invisible relationships between internal objects. The concert in the nursing home was the most important work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.

What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year’s freshman class when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I will charge your sons and daughters with is this:

If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at 2 A.M. someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 P.M. someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft. 

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used cars. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well. 

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force, or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.


###

Monday, November 7, 2016

Day 28, and Where Are You? BAKING.

Thank you, friends, who believe me when I tell you that I am going to write to you everyday. Because then when I don't, you ask me, "Are you ok? I didn't get your blog!" Thank you for listening. Here's why you didn't get it: I DIDN'T WRITE ONE! Wait, no. I didn't write FIVE. Eek. (I'm not yelling, it's the caffeine.)

Reason #1: I'm wicked busy being a parent, a spouse (sometimes), and working too much. Repeat: Working too much. See Day 1.  It's wicked hahd, as we say in Massachusetts. And we do say it.

Reason #2: Self-doubt. As in, "Who do you think you ARE, writing about your life in a way that others might actually get inspired by?" and "Why do you think you have ANYTHING to offer anyone anyway?" and also "Shouldn't you be [playing blocks with your son • helping your daughter with her homework concerns • hanging out with your husband • practicing your instrument • cleaning the bathroom • vacuuming the living room • sending a birthday card • paying a bill • prepping for tax season • raking leaves • ironing socks • getting cardio • eating fiber • calling your father • calling your brother • doing your other brother's resume • calling your sister • calling your husband's mother • calling your friend's brother's mother's sister's mother's father's son] right now?"

So, I have plenty to say, but this week I feel that I am not worthy to say it, because art is actually not necessary. That's why it's so damn hahd to keep doing it. And yet we do.

If all else fails, bake. I made this last night with a few adjustments, and Oh. My. God. You must make:  Raspberry Ricotta Cake.



My substitutions:

1) Use only 1 cup of flour. Instead of that last 1/2 cup flour, use 1/4 cup flax seed meal and 1/4 cup unsweetened coconut.
2) Use one extra egg.
3) Use only 1/2 cup of sugar.
4) Use only 1/4 stick butter, not a whole stick.
5) Consider lightly sugaring the raspberries and letting them sit for like an hour.
6) Use one entire 14-oz container of part-skim ricotta. That's the small one; I think it was 14 oz. Confirming would require me to get up, so I'll leave you on your own, with that one.

Dessert, then breakfast. Trust me.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Unbroken Ribbon of Concentration Sometimes Breaks

Day 24

It is true that the writer's mind stays engaged when daily practice is followed. It's true that daily musical practice creates what the late flutist and saxophonist Yusef Lateef once called "the unbroken ribbon of concentration." It is also true that the dearest of friends sometimes visit from overseas, and that practice ribbon is broken, only to leave room for other, stronger and way more fun ribbons of connection. It's ok.

Your friend's writer's mind is a little disengaged today, but her musical mind is not. So, here's a daily song for you... If you haven't heard of contemporary Irish singer/songwriter Damien Dempsey, I'd like to fix that for you: