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bobby mcferrinLast week Debbie and I were lucky enough to see Bobby McFerrin perform in Central Park. It was a beautiful evening, it was a free show, and we got there early enough to get good seats, spreading out a blanket as the sky darkened for his ninety minute performance.

Watching McFerrin sing is a revelation – most striking is how relaxed he is on stage. I’ve often felt that a performer’s greatest strength comes from being relaxed and open to the moment, and McFerrin is the king of that. From the second he came on, it felt like the stage was his home and we were visiting him. He sat easily in a chair, or wandered casually among his band members, as he went through most of the songs on his new album, “Spirit You All”, a deeply religious recording that recasts a number of spirituals and numbers from the Black church, as well as original compositions and a take on Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”.

While McFerrin is a virtuoso and  a master he does not show off –  while he has an incredible range and great falsetto,  most of the time his voice is a relaxed, easy, normal sounding voice. Many performers spend a lot of time building up a wall between themselves and their audience through their virtuosity – the message is “Don’t try this at home – you’re not like me”. Not McFerrin –  he’s not trying to blow you away – although he does every once in a while with some amazing displays, all done with humor and class. Instead, he uses his art to build a bridge. Out of this relaxation and comfort on stage comes his improvisation – you get the sense he is really playing – playing with his own voice, with the musicians around him, and with the audience.

Especially with the audience. In interviews, McFerrin talks about his interest in taking the focus off himself and putting it on the audience, so they are part of the experience and performance. If you’ve seen him live, you know how good he is at this – better than anyone else, even my guiding light, Pete Seeger. Wandering into the audience while singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” (including verses where the gender shifts to “She’s got…”) he held up the microphone to a half  dozen people. EVERY ONE OF THEM SANG. REALLY WELL! They sang well because he knew they could. Their success made us all feel part of it, and also affirmed McFerrin’s message – we all have a voice.

In a great interview with Krista Tippett  Bobby talks about American Idol and says, “They have good voices. They sing in tune. But so what? What are you saying?”

I think about all these things when I do a show. I think about how I can make the audience part of what I’m doing, so it’s something we’re doing together. Those of you who have seen my story “Build Me Up Buttercup” will know what I mean. Like McFerrin, I want to do something that says “We all have a voice.” Watching Bobby McFerrin makes me want to do it better.

Here’s another link to an amazing demonstration he gives of the pentatonic scale. 

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bach_portraitOver the past several months I have been playing piano almost every day. One of the pieces I’ve been working on is Bach’s A minor two part invention. I am a pretty sloppy piano player – more comfortable with blues progressions and playing “close-enough” to what should be happening. But Bach doesn’t really put up with that  – it’s precise and intricate and demands a steady tempo and attention to detail. Not my forte. As a result, to get it right, I’ve had to continually slow myself down and play some passages over and over again. Every passage really. I still haven’t played the whole piece through once perfectly – I probably never will.

All this piano practicing has gotten me thinking about the practice – or rehearsal – of stories. Rehearsing stories by one’s self is very, very difficult. When I do practice a story without an audience, my mind tends to wander and I’ll find myself standing there, staring into space, thinking about something, anything else.  A story really needs an audience – it won’t grow or make sense, or have meaning, until it has one.

But I need to practice a story, somehow, before I offer it up to an audience.

Musicians can find enjoyment in playing with no one else in the room – I’m not exactly sure why this difference is there. But I find myself interested in the notion that I could play the Bach piece over ten times and enjoy myself, while practicing a story by myself, over and over again, is just plain hard.

One thing that strikes me is that in both cases – the playing of an instrument and the telling of a story – we’re striving for an innate body knowledge. We have to practice enough for our mind to get out of the way. When the body knows what it’s supposed to do (and I mean even the mouth muscles), then we can open ourselves up to a better expression of the material we’re offering. We literally watch ourselves perform and guide the performance.

I think practicing a story requires more mental discipline than practicing an instrument and one mark of being an accomplished teller is that dedication in the early stages of developing a story. In particular, I’m interested in the notion that there are passages in a story, like in the Bach piece, that require repeating over and over again to get them right. In particular, we practice to clarify the order of things and the language used to express and describe.  Story is about ordering – giving form – and our first job is to get order right – the order of events, the order of speaking in a dialogue, the order in the way the narrator or character lists things. That order is essential and requires practice. Language is crucial through the whole story, but in particular there are some points in a story when we need to get the language just right – a well considered phrase or choice of particular noun or verb or adjective will make a clearer picture in the listener’s mind.

I have been wrestling with a story  for a long time now (a year and a half) that requires that kind attention to detail. Getting the sequence of the story has been particularly troublesome to me, because it’s assembled from a number of different experiences, and also involves a long passage in which I’m having an internal monologue. Although internal monologues tend to be jumpy and apparently non-linear, in the case of the told story, the sequence is very important. In the middle of the piece, I have an argument with myself – actually there are four different parts of myself – and I have to get all those parts just right. And at the climax of the story I’m bringing all the disparate elements that I’ve brought into the story together, and they have to be introduced in just the right way. This requires practice.  And it’s hard to do. Which is why I’m still working on it. When I’m not practicing Bach. Which is easier.

Like many storytellers, I regularly use performance as rehearsal. If the story’s bones are strong and I’m relaxed enough, I can get through the story in front of an audience and will find a lot out. I prefer to do that (I’m lazy). But I also know that I get to my best storytelling when I’ve worked on particular places to make sure the order, language and delivery is just right.

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I had a busy and interesting week last week. I went to a workshop with Nick Rabkin, an arts educator who speaks eloquently about the importance of arts in the schools. You can check out one of his columns here. Then I presented at the Fall Forum of the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) in Providence. I love what CES is doing, and it’s a comfort to me to know there are educators who are really thinking through what makes a good school.

I’m no fan of No Child Left Behind, nor of Race to the Top. I’ve been in schools a long time and seen a lot of things, and I don’t think these programs are much of an answer. They don’t really frame the question right. This of course, deserves a longer discussion, and I’ll post more. But for now, I want to post a song I wrote a year or so ago about testing. It’s not on any recording and I don’t know if it will be. And this is just me and guitar. I wrote it after listening to one teacher after another lament the effect of high stakes teaching on their work. LIke I said, Race to the Top doesn’t really shift the focus much from No Child Left Behind. Testing has its place, but it’s no answer. And like I say in the song, it sure isn’t teaching.

Here’s the song. Hope you like it:

Click here – The Ballad of Janice Miller

My name is Janice Miller and teaching is my trade

A lifetime in the classroom here in seventh grade

Twenty-six  years of teaching, I’ve tried to do my best

I love my work, I love these kids so I won’t give this test

You say you need to measure, that testing’s how you see

If the kids are learning all the things you think they should from me

But testing isn’t teaching, don’t tell me they’re the same

I think all you really want is to find someone to blame

Some pencil mark won’t measure  the life that someone leads

And some number in a box won’t show what it is that that kid needs

And all your faith in testing it has a hollow ring

If some kid’s poor and hungry, the tests don’t mean a thing

Take all the men on Wall Street who think they know the score

And all the politicians who cut our budgets more

Put ‘em in the classroom with thirty hungry kids

Come back in nine months and ask them how they did

My name is Janice Miller and teaching is my trade

A lifetime in the classroom here in seventh grade

Twenty-six  years of teaching, I’ve tried to do my best

I love my work, I love these kids so I won’t give this test

You say you need to measure, that testing’s how you see

If the kids are learning all the things you think they should from me

But testing isn’t teaching, don’t tell me they’re the same

I think all you really want is to find someone to blame

Some pencil mark won’t measure  the life that someone leads

And some number in a box won’t show what it is that that kid needs

And all your faith in testing it has a hollow ring

If some kid’s poor and hungry, the tests don’t mean a thing

Take all the men on Wall Street who think they know the score

And all the politicians who cut our budgets more

Put ‘em in the classroom with thirty hungry kids

Come back in nine months and ask them how they did

There’s a point of no returning

There’s a point where something breaks

There’s a point where someone’s taken as much as they can take

There’s a point comes when you know that what you’re doing’s wrong

That’s the point where you say no and refuse to go along

My name is Janice Miller, a teacher’s who I am

I’ve never made much trouble, I’ve done the best I can

There’s a million more like me out there, I can’t speak for the rest

But I’m sick of what we’re doing, so I won’t give this test

©2012 Bill Harley and Round River Music (BMI)

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Well, it’s taken years – way too long – but I finally have a professional video of one of my song (Not destined to be the video star, I suspect). Along with Rhode Island Public Broadcasting we’ve produced a video of my song “Wash Your Hands”. Working with Maria and Scott Saracen and kids from Henry Barnard School and Paul Cuffee School, we took the song I wrote a couple of years ago and it’s now being played on Rhode Island public television, and hopefully will go to others around the country. The RI Department of Health is promoting it and getting the word out to other state health departments.

If you go to my website, you can download the song for free, and also free posters here.

Making the video, and working with so many talented people, has reminded me of what my work is. I want to make good music, and good art. But I also want to say something. I have never been one for lecturing in my work – I would rather be descriptive of a kid’s experience rather than prescriptive of how they should behave. But in some instances, particularly ones of public health, it just makes sense to tell it like it is simply and directly. This is one of those.

A number of years ago I served on an advisory group for the Harvard Center for Children’s Health. I would go up to Cambridge and sit in a boardroom every couple of months and listen to public health professionals and researchers talk about their findings and then try to figure out how to let people know what they had learned. There tends to be a separation between the academic world and folks on the street and we were trying to bridge that gap. One of the things I learned about public health is that no one ever sees the plague that didn’t happen, and public health programs are concerned with stopping the plague before it happens.

If art (however you want to define that…) helps, so much the better.

This is nowhere more true than washing hands. It seems so ridiculously simple and stupid you almost don’t want to say it. But it has to be said. Over and over again.

As an aside here, I might say, at the risk of grossing out a number of people, I am always amazed at the large number of people (adults, males) in airports who do not bother to wash their hands in the restrooms. Astounding. Eeek. Ewwwwww. ‘Nuff said.

So we can spend billions of dollars on expensive procedures, but health is mostly preserved through simple things. Like washing hands. The problem is no one makes money at it. That’s the problem with our health care system – it wants to make money, not preserve health.

So here’s my offering. I wrote it as simply as a I could. It is not high art. In fact, I purposely used the melody of the typical children’s taunt for the hook in the chorus (na na na na naaa!). That minor third is the children’s interval.It will drive you crazy if you let it. And if it keeps some kid from getting sick (or the adults, too), then I don’t mind at all.

Hope you like the video.

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I got the word last night from a friend that Thom Enright had died. While it wasn’t a surprise, it still hit me in the gut and he’s been on my mind all day, and will continue to be – appearing in my thoughts at times I least expect it and staying there for a while until he goes away and comes back later on.

Thom was a guitar player’s guitar player. He played on three albums of mine, and if he hadn’t gotten sick, he would still be my go-to guy when I needed electric guitar. He played on “Blah Blah Blah” which won a Grammy, “I Wanna Play” (nominated for one) and my latest “adult” album, “First Bird Call”. He could play all different styles of music and was up for anything. I’m always trying to figure out how to do something I have no business doing and depend on the musicians around me. “I want it to sound like this,” I say, “and I don’t know how.” The musicians around me help me figure it out. Thom was one of those.

I love the Providence music scene. It is not a big scene, but there are a lot of really great players. Duke Robillard, Marty Ballou, Vinny Pagano, Bill Miele,Dan Moretti, Greg Abate John Allmark. My pal Martin Grosswendt. Keivin Fallon. Cathy Clasper-Torch. Many, many more. I love watching them. Like I said, Thom was my go-to guy for electric guitar. Before Thom recorded with me, I had Paul Murphy play on my albums, and then he died suddenly – way, way too young. Both of those guys were good as it comes. I have a distinct memory of Paul laying his guitar on the floor of the studio and rolling marbles up and down the strings, trying to get a sound we could use when we recorded Roger McGuinn’s “Hey Mr. Spaceman”. And I’ve called on Duke, one of the very, very best, to record with me, and he was happy to do it, making suggestions about sound and arrangement. One of the blessings of recording music for kids is that musicians, who can be very private and reserved people, open themselves up and really give their best. Given the chance, they are very playful. I read an interview with Mark Knopfler once and he said that when he’s making an album, he tries to be the worst one in the room. That’s hard to imagine, but with all these guys around me, that was easy for me to do. It always freaks me out when they ask me what I want.

I’d seen Thom play many times before I ever talked to him. He was a member of the Young Adults, THE Providence band in the late seventies, a breath away from making it to the national scene (David Byrne auditioned for them, and they passed….). He was in the Raindogs (am I right on this??) which was a monster band including the great Scottish fiddle player Johnny Cunningham that got screwed by their record company and self-destructed. He played bass with Duke, I think. He was a killer blues player, and knew reggae like nobody’s business.

And he was a great acoustic player and singer, too. Sitting in nick-a-nees, the very funky bar in the jewelry district of Providence, I heard him do a killer rendition of “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right”. Just right, not too much, letting those amazing words do their work, really rock-solid singing, with his very heart-felt and clean fingerpicking. He knew how to pull the strings with his right hand to get a percussive sound, but not lose the tone, which is a very difficult thing to do. I know.

I first called Thom to play on “Blah Blah Blah” – I wanted a soundscape for my story “Joey, Chloe and the Swamp Monsters”, which is kind of a child’s “Heart of Darkness” story. The kids have to go into the swamp to retrieve sneakers. It’s funny, but scary, too, and I had no music written out – i was experimenting with sound and knew some of it should be slide and there should be bent notes and weird stuff. it was atmospheric (and also a twisted version of “The Hokey-Pokey”). We didn’t know each other and I put him in the booth and everybody was playing while I was just telling the story in a separate booth, knowing I would go back and do my part again – I just wanted sounds.
At a certain point, he lost it. “I don’t know what the……. you want me to do.” He was pissed.
(And I should say here, everyone who knows Thom knows that he had a very dark streak in him. I only had inklings of it, but I saw it then for the first time, and several times after. He could be a tough customer.)
“It sounds good, I said. “Just play along and we’ll figure it out.”

Actually, I was shitting in my pants. But like I said before, I just put the best musicians in the room and hope they can figure out.
Thom nodded and went back to work. And he came up with great stuff. After the session he called and asked if he could come back in, saying he had some more ideas. He knew that I trusted him. How could I not?

Thom got diagnosed with cancer several years ago – he started getting headaches while he was driving the shuttle bus at the Providence airport (further proof that justice is hard to come by in this world) It was a bad kind, and he lived longer than the doctors said he would. He played more music but knew he was going. I wasn’t really close to him, so mostly heard through others what he was going through, though we did talk several times.
I should have called him more, but like I said, he was a private person, and it’s difficult to name things, sometimes.
Which is why I’m doing this here.
Thanks Thom. I’ll miss you.

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Keith Munslow and I drove down to New York last week to be on the radio with Mindy Thomas (well, okay, she was in Washington, and we were in New York). On the way we talked about songwriting and made a list of things we’ve learned over the years. It’s not complete at all, and in no particular order, but here are a few.

1. Do it any way you can – like my mom used to say, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat”, and I’ll use any approach that might work. Someone speaks a line that sounds good, or has a deeper significance, and that might be what the song is built on. My song “I Wanna Play” came from an insistent third grader who wanted in on the playground game. Or not a spoken line, but an idea you want to talk about or story you want to tell. Or a melodic line – some little bit of melody you find yourself humming. Or just a rhythm track. Paul Simon said that with “Graceland” he approached songwriting in a completely different way than he ever had, using rhythms instead of melody or chord progressions. I figure a good songwriter has all those tricks in his/her bag.

2. Carry a notebook, because you’ll forget.

3.For Pete’s sake, don’t edit yourself before you’ve started. Tell the little voice in you that says you’re an idiot to go away while working on the song. Yes, your idea is a stupid one. So what? The heart of creativity is about wandering around in a non-juried space where you’re allowed to make connections or leaps of logic that don’t apparently make sense. If your critical mind is hanging around when you start, you’ll never get started. Tell it to shut up.

4. Create more than you think you’ll need – you can edit later. I usually write seven or eight verses of a song, then come back to three or four, sometimes combining. I read somewhere Dylan would write way too many verses, because he couldn’t help himself. So volume counts. And then….

5. Editing does have a place, and like they say, you’ll have to kill your babies. I often have a verse or phrase that I absolutely love, but it doesn’t fit in with the song. If I keep it it’s just an indulgence.

6.A lot of creative work gets done when you’re doing something else – approaching something obliquely often opens up a new avenue (again, the small minded internal critic isn’t paying attention). My friend Jon Campbell, a great songwriter, says he keeps the radio off in his car and makes up a lot of songs while he’s driving. He figures out the chords later. Folding laundry. Walking the dog. And of course, the shower, where I am often a genius, if I can remember what I was thinking when I get out.

7. The rhythm of a line is at least as important as any rhyming going on. When I work with songwriters, I often find them struggling with the line scanning – and it HAS to scan well, so it can sing well. Alliteration helps with making a good line to sing, too. So don’t ignore the awkward phrase that’s hard to get out of your mouth – you’ve got to fix it.

8. Stand on someone else’s shoulders. All songwriters refer back to other songs and songwriters in their work. Like Woody Guthrie said, “He stole from me, I stole from everyone.” And Elvis Costello, one of our best, regularly cops styles, hooks, and rhythms from other people’s songs. So try on someone else’s hat. I went to see Ray Davies last month in Chicago, and I was very struck by his chameleon-like abilities as a songwriter – this is a Stones song, this is a Beatles song, this song borrows from Brian Wilson, this is a disco song. Of course, they’re all his songs. One of my better moments as a songwriter was taking a lando rhythm from Afro-Peruvian music and wedding it to a chord progression from Marshall Crenshaw. The lyrics made it a list song, something I learned from Gershwin and Porter – “Everything is Music” is mine, but I used everything I had.

Just a bunch of ideas – what are yours?

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My pal Keith Munslow and I have foisted ourselves upon Mindy Thomas at Sirius/XM’s Kids Place Live with a song title contest. I’ve done this before myself (which is where “Barbie’s Head is Missing” came from) and it should be even more fun with Keith and Mindy involved.

Keith and I will be on Kids Place Live today at 4 pm (EST) if you’re a Sirius/XM subscriber. We’ll be talking about songwriting, sing some new songs (including something from my soon to be released “High Dive”. And we’ll be back in a couple of weeks. I’ll post some thoughts on songwriting as we go along.

The truth is, it’s usually easier to write when there’s something specific to write about. The teacher’s directions to “write about anything you want” is always enough to give a student brain freeze. So having someone else come up with a title is actually a help, as long as exactly what the song should be about is not prescribed. It’s like the first rule of improv, which is to take what’s offered and work from there. We’ll see.

You can enter the contest if you want on my page. And here’s a video of Keith and me kind of explaining ourselves.

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