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Posts Tagged ‘music education’

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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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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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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Me and Ed Murrow - and a thousand others....


I’ve been a fan of This I Believe since its reincarnation by the incomparable Jay Allison a number of years ago. That said, I never got around to submitting one. But finally I did, on the Rhode Island NPR station, WRNI, which has continued the program under the direction of Rick Reamer. My offering played last week. It’s very close to what I’ve been writing about in this blog for the past couple of years, so I thought it made sense to share it here.

Click HERE to hear the piece:

And here’s an Old Year’s resolution – before the new one starts: More blog posts. Honest. Let’s see how I do.

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When I was seventeen and a senior in high school I decided I wanted to play piano again. I had taken lessons until I was twelve, then got bored with my teacher and practice – not untypical for a sixth grader. By senior year, I had rediscovered music, but wanted to play it on my own terms. My parents agreed, in that it was clear if I was going to take lessons, I was paying. They already had one son studying music in college, and I think, at least subconsciously, they were reluctant to have another.

A kid I knew at school suggested I take with his teacher. I was thinking rock and roll – I loved Nicky Hopkins on the Stones records and his performance on the Quicksilver Messenger Service’s “Just For Love”.

I didn’t get rock and roll. The teacher was a jazz teacher, and a formidable one at that. His name was John Mehegan, and he had literally written the book on jazz piano improvisation. I didn’t know any of this about him – I was an idiot seventeen year old. I showed up at 10:30 on a Saturday morning and he put me through the paces. He had me return to classical piano to learn fingering. He taught me voicings and a modal approach that I still carry around with me today, even though most of my songs are three chords and a little bit of the truth.

He wasn’t interested in me if I hadn’t practiced. One week I hadn’t done anything, and he walked out in the middle of the lesson. I stayed there until my time was finished and left. The next week, an assistant appeared, and I had the assistant for a month. One week I worked extra hard on “All The Things You Are”, and the next week, Mehegan reappeared, as if I had passed some test.

He also had me listen. He gave me a list of records to go out and buy. I went down to Klein’s on Main Street in Westport, CT and Sally, the queen of the record shop, guided me to the jazz section, where I bought music that was very foreign to me. I lay down on my bed at home, put on the cheesy earphones I bought at Radio Shack and listened. Over and over. Blowin’ the Blues Away by Horace Silver. The Blues and the Abstract Truth by Oliver Nelson (monster album). Maiden Voyage by Herbie Hancock (another monster album). I had already fallen in love with Les McAnn and Eddie Harris’s “Swiss Movement”, and of course the song “Compared to What”, which defines blues/funk jazz, with his amazing vocals on it, recorded right at the height of the Vietnam War.

A lot more – all kinds of stuff I never knew existed. I listened to all of it over and over again, trying to understand what was happening.

And then there was Kind of Blue by Miles Davis – with Coltrane, and Cannonball Adderly and Wynton Kelly (for one song), and the impressionistic playing of Bill Evans, defining modal harmonies. Paul Chamber’s bass notes – that soft, ascending riff that opens up the whole album – were like a secret, a hint of what was to come. Mehegan gave me the chord progressions and voicings of “So What” and I almost wet my pants when I played those amazing chords and the sound came out of my own fingers.

I’ve been thinking about Kind of Blue lately, and the other music I listened to that year, late in high school, because it strikes me that it’s rarely that I listen to music so intensely anymore. I could sing every solo that Miles played (still can, when it comes on). I knew the first note of every tune before it played, and could also predict exactly how much space was between each track on the recording. Because I listened to that stuff so intensely, it influenced the way I thought about music and played it. It made me a better musician to know every note, every hesitation and slur and chord change involved.

And of course, it wasn’t just jazz, though jazz was terra incognita, and therefore more impressive to me. I wore out the grooves on Crosby Stills and Nash’s first album. And Who’s Next, too. My girlfriend gave me Blue by Joni Mitchell (one of the truly great albums of all time, to my mind), and I learned every phrase. Love helps, of course.

Are there albums out there today that will define a genre of music, or a trend, or a period, like Kind of Blue did, or Blue, or Rubber Soul, or even Graceland? What new recordings bear a hundred listenings? Do we listen that closely any more?

Very rarely. There seems to be too much music, even though much of it is unbelievably wonderful. Now, music serves as soundtrack, not as a proposition demanding center stage. I have tried, lately, to just lie down and listen to one recording. I should just choose one album and listen over and over, and give it the care that the musician gives to it, until I know every note – then I would learn from it – something different from what I get from a cursory listening to see if I “like” it. I suppose part of it is that my hard drive is full, and my mindset is more rigid than it was when I was seventeen. But part of it, most of it, is time – which is, after all, what music is made of. Music requires time. Just like life. Just like love.

What recording does it for you?

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I’m working on the list of songs for a family folk song album I’ll be recording this summer and am thinking back to the songs I liked to sing when I was in elementary school. One that I loved was a version of “The Titanic” I learned from other kids on the school bus. They learned it at camp.

“Oh they built the ship Titanic
And when they were all through
They thought they had a ship
That the water wouldn’t go through
But the Lord’s almighty hand
Said the ship would never stand
It was sad when the great ship went down

It was sad (so sad)
It was sad (so sad)
It was sad when the great ship went down (to the bottom of the…)
Husbands and wives
Little children lost their lives
It was sad when the great ship went down

And that’s just the start. It’s all downhill from there. There’s drinking (“the captain said, bring the whiskey from the hold!”) and class strife: “the rich refused to associate with the poor, so they put ‘em down below, where they were sure to go”.

I loved this song – very singable (great descant on “husbands and wives” when it goes to the dominant chord). And the story was so compelling – completely fascinating for an eight or nine year old. The lesson of hubris taught in four or five verses – the horror of the headlines put to melody. When I read “A Night to Remember” a year or two later, I already knew the broad outlines of the story and got more out of the book.

But – does it go on the recording? I’d like to put it there – I know many kids would love it – and grown-ups too, for that matter. But is this family fare? It would be (and was) for my family. But lot of families probably don’t want death and destruction on a family album, and I understand that. The three year old is listening with the nine year old.

“Who died?” comes the little voice from the car seat in the back.

“No one you know,” says the dad. “It’s just a song.” Hoping that is enough.

“Why did the ship sink?” the voice continues.

“It hit an iceberg.”

“Are there icebergs here? How many people died? Did we know them?”

An insistent voice, because, well, death is compelling. Who wants to explain it all to a four year old? Especially when you’re tired at bedtime.

But I also know that putting these things in the context of a song presents them in a way that people can look at them. Children deal with mortality and hubris, loss and injustice all the time, and songs like “Titanic” give them a framework to begin to think those things through.

And who’s going to sing those songs if we don’t? Is it all rainbows and ponies?

I don’t have the answer to this question, but I have to answer it in the next couple of weeks. At least for this recording.

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I’ve put a video of this boy up on my facebook page, but had to put this one here. He’s five years old now and has been playing ukulele for a year. He’s Japanese, so if you don’t understand the words to his original song, it’s okay. Check out his other videos, too! As I’ve said before, all children should be given ukuleles at birth.

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