January ended with a trip to Charleston to perform LinkUp: The Orchestra Moves with the Charleston Symphony. Below is the Sword Gate on Legare Street, a spot I walk by on my trips from my Dad's townhouse on Queen Street to the Battery. It is always good to go home: to eat some oysters, visit with family, and then eat some more oysters.
The new opera house auditorium, the Gaillard Center, is beautiful, and when the lights went down for the show, the kids were just as excited as they are in Carnegie Hall.
Charleston is at an interesting crossroads. After Mayor Joe Riley's 40 year tenure, there is new leadership. His farewell speech, which you can watch here, is more Zen meditation than political speech. Truly, we were blessed. John Tecklenburg will most likely continue many of the former mayor's policies, but as the people who worked under Riley begin to retire, the city of Charleston will eventually have a new cast and crew. The influx of new people and the amount of growth in the surrounding areas is testing (and changing) the city's character. Still, I am impressed with Charleston's relative economic and cultural health, even as it struggles with change. And every time I am able to steal into a hidden corner of the city that is just as I remember it from childhood, it is nothing short of miraculous.
Yesterday, we did two performances of The Orchestra Moves with the Charleston Symphony at the new Gaillard Center. One more today. By all measures, they were successful shows. The students were well-prepared, and the orchestra played brilliantly. It is a lovely new concert hall; the acoustics are terrific.
But the overriding thought I had during yesterday's performances was how important it is to have a place where different schools from all over the Lowcountry can come and sit together. Just share the same space with a common purpose. There were schools from Summerville and North Charleston, from McClellanville, and James Island -- and from Buist Academy just next door. And yes, it's true that there are still schools that are predominantly black and predominantly white, but there are also schools where there is a pretty even mix, and LinkUp has a lovely way of making the playing field even. Prepared is prepared. If you know your music, you are in the game. Students and teachers can tell who knows their songs and who can sing in one or two or three parts. And when the kids were all singing in Portuguese to the strains of "Cidade Maravillhosa," yes, it was a Brazilian samba party, but it was also a moment of shared artistic achievement. How often do different schools have a chance at that?
Yesterday morning I walked to my LinkUp events in Charleston, one at the Buist Academy and the other at the Gaillard Center.
Both are in the newly named Mother Emanuel Way Memorial District.
Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC
There is no escaping that fact.
Buist Academy was terrific. I worked with Hannah Mashburn, a devoted music teacher, and her third graders were at the top of their game. We sang, we played, we created a motive for the morning:
Then it was off to the Gaillard for rehearsals with Ken Lam and the orchestra:
All on the street that bears the name of John C. Calhoun, one of the most virulent defenders of slavery in the history of the U.S. His statue is suspended high above Marion Square, less than a football field away.
The world is a funny, complex mixture of the innocent and the unconscionable. Young children contemplate beauty just a stone's throw away from the scene of unthinkable violence. You don't always think of arts education as a way of answering the challenges of bigotry and hatred, but of course, when done well, it can be. And it can't help it in the Mother Emanuel Way Memorial District.
I'm in Charleston, South Carolina tonight, preparing for rehearsals and performances with the Charleston Symphony. We'll be doing The Orchestra Moves, part of our LinkUp program from Carnegie Hall. Lots and lots of kids singing and playing their recorders - probably about 5000 of them.
Speaking of service, as we did recently over MLK Day, I volunteered for the gig. My hometown band has had it rough over the last ten years. The former music director, David Stahl, died in 2010, and soon thereafter the orchestra folded. It has now come back to life, thanks to some persistent musicians and supporters. The new music director is Ken Lam, and there is great new energy around the reboot. When Charleston decided to take on LinkUp, I offered to host the first set of concerts here at the new Gaillard Center (the same place where Porgy & Bess will be performed as part of Spoleto USA). I knew the Charleston Symphony had been having a hard time, and hey, it's home. I can only boast so much - it's also an excuse to visit with my 91 year-old father.
If you want to learn more about LinkUp - check out this short film.
New stuff! New app! New way to record that budding song!
I should be excited. I should be grateful. Apple has launched a new app that helps you record your song idea, and it even adds a backing band for you. It will suggest a harmonization and a beat, too. It's called Music Memos, and I downloaded mine yesterday afternoon. I'm sure we will use it in our songwriting workshop at Carnegie Hall. We already pull out our smartphones and record musical ideas as it is. This is just the next step up. Right?
Maybe. But it's also possible that it might offer a little too much. I realize the Luddite in me may fear being replaced by the machine - OK, OK, could be. But sometimes it pays to wait, to listen harder before jumping in with a formula to fill out the texture. And boy, oh boy does Apple give you formula. Like the loops function in GarageBand, it can make everything begin to sound like itself. So I downloaded it, and I'll use it. But the jury is out about whether it can wait and listen and entertain possibility. We'll see. Jury?
The weather forecasters rang the alarm bells all last week. We waited, anticipating the snow and the wind. We were not misled. The promise of a storm was, if anything, surpassed by reality, in inches and intensity. Records were set. Many events were cancelled, and we all experienced the suspension of time.
In New York City, we covered the entrances to our caves and hunkered down. We passed through the storm blissfully, with the electricity on and the wifi flowing. We made stews and chilis and caught up on projects that called for quiet focus.
In our Timebenders class at Juilliard, I've been thinking a lot about how you suspend time in music. Whether it's a fermata, or a static harmony, or the disappearance of pulse, music has a a rich vocabulary when it comes to abandoning progression. At least for a moment, the goal of a cadence or the achievement of a task becomes secondary. Savoring the present sound becomes the only thing.
Late Saturday afternoon, as I began to prepare dinner, I turned on Keith Jarrett's album of the Handel Suites. It's a favorite recording of mine, and I often turn to it when I am feeling both contemplative and in need of an encouraging energy. I've always loved the way Keith Jarrett combines his sense of the groove - more of a jazzer's backbeat -- with the elegance of the baroque dances. For a moment, in the suspended time of the blizzard, it started the clock again. Is it possible to suspend a suspension?
Why has it become so hard to play? To be playful?
I thought about this today while singing with Emily Eagen and Onome at our weekly Moving Star session. We spent our time exploring a variety of games and songs, and I'm almost ashamed to say, it was fun.
It is not easy to make time for improvisation, for invention that might go nowhere. It is difficult to make room for the potential to fail.
Play is the opposite of work. It has become synonymous with frivolity and wasting time. But as musicians and teaching artists, it is our bread and butter. If we can get people to play, we are halfway there. We'll talk about it (and play) during our Arts in Education class today at Juilliard. As Bobby McFerrin reminds us, "we are the luckiest people in the world - we are paid to play!"
This week the third international teaching artists conference (ITAC3) was announced.
It will be held in Edinburgh, Scotland from August 3-5. Here in the U.S., the announcement came to many of us via our greatest advocate and cheerleader, Eric Booth. I am planning to attend. I wasn't able to go to the earlier convening (Norway in 2012) or (Australia in 2014), and I am excited to see what it's all about. Lucky me, I'll receive support from Carnegie Hall.
We don't really have a similar gathering in the U.S. Teaching artists generally tag along at everyone else's service group conventions. We get hauled out to run the interactive sessions or witness a bit, but it's not our show. There are some great organizations, like the ATA (the Association of Teaching Artists), run by Dale Davis and a bunch of terrific colleagues here on the east coast. The west coast based Teaching Artists Guild (TAG) is building some steam, but as a field we still don't have the membership or the money to throw our own party at the same level as The National Guild for Community Arts Education or the like.
One model we might want to look to is an upstart in the field of new music. It's called, simply, the New Music Gathering. It's run by a collective that includes Daniel Felsenfeld, whom I've blogged about before. The event is in its infancy, but it's already been held on both coasts, and they have shrewdly found space in conservatories in early January. They hold sessions that they design for their own benefit, and the networking seems terrific. So far, my own teaching has prevented me from going, but I love the grassroots nature of it and the opportunities for leadership it provides.
Those composers and performers of new music looked at their field and asked, "are we doing all we could to support each other?" Answer: "No." Response: "Let's do something!"
Teaching artists (and friends of teaching artists): "What should we do?"
As part of The Somewhere Project at Carnegie Hall, there is a songwriting workshop that meets once a week. There are about 20 teenage songwriters working on on new material, most of it inspired or prompted by the famous song from West Side Story. We talk a lot about the craft of lyric writing and the art of poetry --- strong beats and weak beats and what brings an idea home to an audience. One thing we haven't talked about specifically yet is the power and function of the opening line. Maybe we will today.
Because last night I came upon this opening from one of our young writers:
The weather's changing,
I'm not the same.
You can see why I love it. Simple. Compact. It does what great opening lines are supposed to do. Makes you want more. Makes you curious about what the story will be. Draws you in. And immediately makes use of metaphor to reflect an inner state. Human beings are always changing, so what's this change about?
It makes me think of other great openings:
Hello darkness my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Who makes darkness their friend? And what will the conversation be?
Don't know why there's no sun up in the sky
...to stay with our change of weather theme. Or, from the namesake of our project:
There's a place for us
Somewhere a place for us
Do you have a favorite song opening?
The internet was abuzz yesterday with the latest bit of improvised wizardry from HAM4HAM, the little squibs of entertainment and tribute devised by the folks at HAMILTON, THE MUSICAL. Lin Manuel Miranda organized an MLK Day tribute to his elementary school music teacher, Barbara Ames. I can't think of a teacher more deserving. She wrote a wonderful MLK song which the kids not only sang, but remembered -- as the adult alumni gathered in the school auditorium proved. I had the opportunity to work with Barbara in the late 80s and early 90s when we were starting a new chamber music and jazz program for the K-2 set at the 92nd Street Y. She was always a passionate advocate, taking her choristers to Washington DC for annual tours and giving them fabulous rep to sing. Her classroom was a chaotic mess of Orff instruments and scattered bits of sheet music -- all of it in the service of giving the kids a very rich musical education.
The thing about music teachers is that, of course, Barbara is not alone. Recently, I had the chance to work with about 45 wonderful NYC music educators at Carnegie Hall, and it's not hard to imagine each one of them having an Ames-like tribute in their future. It's not music in the schools month yet, but it certainly felt like it was yesterday.