Thursday, July 25, 2013

World music at the local club house

Years ago I studied tabla drums in Chicago which are commonly played in Indian music. Once my teacher asked me to play my guitar in a concert in a style like that of the Tambura  (pictured above in the far right corner) which is an instrument  is used to play a drone,  an essential part of Indian music.  It turns out these studies came in handy yesterday at the  Club House where I play.

One woman at the club house  is from India and when I went over to her with my guitar, she began to sing in Hindi.  I remembered the way I played my guitar that night in Chicago in the Hindi band and I started playing like that to accompany her singing. I thought we sounded pretty good!  It is great when two cultures can blend like that.

Another fun moment came when I was outside with the group when someone asked for that song by America, "A Horse with No Name". I started making up songs about the club house and our day and we all laughed.

"I been to the club house they call the Blue Ridge
it felt good to be out of the sun
at the club house, you don't need to know names
cause everybody knows everyone..

La la la la la la..."

Do you remember the song?

Some places I just never know what will happen when I take my guitar out.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

I got rhythm, I got music, who could ask for anything more?

Yesterday I sang for a group at a senior center and our favorite song of the set was Gershwin's "Summertime."  On my way out, I was asked if I knew more Gershwin and came home and looked up more of his songs.  He was one of the composers you see in the Great American Song Book .

I downloaded the song, "I Got Rhythm" and was hooked when I started playing it.  I first heard it by a band called The Happenings   who sang it live on the Smother's Brothers show.  But surely you would recall Ethel Mermin's version or how about Gene Kelly in  An American in Paris?  The song was written in 1930 and it is still a song that feels catchy  and it's great fun to play. So what is it about this song that makes it so interesting?

I did some reading up about it and found out that the song employs a chord progression called the rhythm changes which began a trend in the 30s with songs using that rhythm. How clever is that--a song, "I Got Rhythm" uses a new rhythmic change that starts a trend?

I also think that the language being in a colloquial street person voice ("I got rhythm instead of I've got rhythm) is some of the appeal as it gives off an urban feeling. A carefree life with all the glitter and neon lights, smokey jazz bars, the exciting night life in the big city. As I grew up in Chicago, this song does bring these images to mind.

There is also something about the melody being part of a pentatonic scale--now I am getting very music theory oriented on you here--but basically it is an modal and older form of music that is  common with Celtic, Gospel, Greek, Asian music, jazz too.   I think though that singing this modal melody brings us back to our deep roots and that is part of why the song is kind of addictive. It is like a food that once you eat it, you crave more of it.

Even my cat Jasper likes it and I have a version just for him,

"I  got Jasper, I got Jasper, I got my cat who could ask for anything more."

Ok I might have just outed myself as a crazy person here but it's a fun kind of crazy.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Anticipation of Syncopation

Rhythm. That's the first thing we hear while in our mother's womb, her heartbeat. It's why rhythm is such a primal force in our lives.  We all have a rhythm of life that feels best to us. Some people have very little structure in their day. Their meals are taken at different times and they sleep when they are tired. Others have meals at a set time pretty much each day and rise in the morning around the same time.  Then there are others still who combine a set rhythm and an improvised one.

Rhythm is a metaphor for living true to our own needs. Time for silence and solitude, time for connection and being with others.  So when I am drumming with others, I think of these things. How some of us keep to the original beat and do not stray. Others want to do their own constant solo, others play quietly, others loudly, some rush, some drag behind.

Today I led a couple of beats at  drum circle at JABA and one of them had a lot of syncopation. We talked about how that felt--the disruption of a constant rhythm, the unexpected hesitation, a surprise accent out of nowhere. It brings a feeling of anticipation. What will happen next? A good way to start the day.

Have you hugged your rhythm today?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Beauty is everywhere

I went hiking at Ivy Creek Foundation  yesterday and came upon some interesting mold formations that looked like flowers.  I also saw some bright orange mushrooms out there but I regret I didn't take a picture. (will do next visit!) 

So what does this have to do with music? To me, it is a metaphor in finding beauty all around us. Even a clump of fungus can be beautiful if we see it that way. 

It's the same with music. Not all songs I sing with others at the nursing homes are the most earth shattering gems you hear in concert halls. But that is what makes it beautiful for me when I sing with others . The unpolished, unadorned, muddy shoes, earthy old folk songs.  The beauty is how our  voices blend and create music out of simple melodies.   Some voices more like flowers, others (like mine :) more like mold--they are real and true and even mold can be beautiful.
Don't let anyone ever tell you that you can't sing. It is not true. We need the weeds as well as the leaves, the roots as well as the branches, the flowers as much as the fungus. Beauty is everywhere.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Joys & Benefits of Singing

There is a great new book out that I am reading called, "Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others" by Stacy Horn. In it she tells the story of her 30+ years of the joy she has experienced singing in a choir. Her book also goes into some scientific findings of the medical benefits from singing. Here are some quotes from the book:

(p 146)  "Everywhere I look I find confirmation that music is having a positive physical effect. It excites all areas of the brain that have to do with emotion and memory. It brings atrophied back to life. People who can't remember information for more than a few seconds at a time can sing a long, complicated piece of music. Stroke victims who can barely speak can sing. People who can't talk at all can still sing. After being shot in the brain, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords learned to talk again by singing. Finally, when all other memories are gone, victims of Alzheimer's are still able to sing songs from their long-distant youth. Music is the last thing to go. "

I have seen this in my work with people! Here is another thing she says that I really liked:

p 148 "The emotional effects of participation in group singing are similar regardless of training or socioeconomic status. Group singing can produce satisfying and therapeutic sensations even when the sound produced by the vocal instrument is of mediocre quality."

Yes! That is such a testimonial of things I have felt for many years.  For instance, I've had discussions with people of the difference between having a "good voice" vs being a "good singer". A good singer does not necessarily have to have a good voice. Neil Young, Bob Dylan come to mind. A good singer is someone who sings from the depths of their heart and soul and can express emotion in such a way that others can feel and empathize with the sentiment.

Those who have heard me sing know that my voice is not at all one that would be described as "pretty" or "beautiful" ... some have described it as "compelling." But what i have is the love for singing and bringing people together and enjoying the group process and sharing.

In fact, I need to get going soon to a nursing home for our weekly singing session :)

Do you like to sing? Would you ever consider joining a choir?

Monday, July 8, 2013

Blackbird, bye bye

Today I sang out at a senior home that is still pretty new and the personnel has changed so many times that I am still learning my way around there.  I have sung there a few times before, so some of the residents look familiar but they have been pretty shy in terms of response to me until today.

Sometimes a new group takes some time to warm up to me.  They look at me for the first few songs as if to be sizing me up and I think that is fair. In a place where so many have come and gone, I can understand their hesitancy to sing with me. I think singing is a very personal thing too and many are shy in public to do it.

So is it a great moment when I  choose a song that brings a smile of recognition and eyes alight. That song was "Bye, Bye Blackbird." It is a song I don't sing a lot but I will from now on. Check out the lyrics below. I think the lyrics speak of finding your way in a new group, "no one here can love or understand me" At least for me that is a line that stands out.

From there I sang other songs that were also well received "Sentimental Journey", "I'm Looking over a Four Leaf Clover', " Five Foot Two".  When I finished playing, many told me it was "tremendous", "wonderful" and their applause and smiles made me see the music had won them over. 

Sometimes I wonder, when I am their age, what will the song(s) be for me that will make me smile?

How about for you? what song would make you smile?

Bye, Bye Blackbird

Pack up all my care and woe
Here I go, singing low
Bye bye blackbird

Where somebody waits for me
Sugar's sweet, so is he
Bye bye blackbird

No one here can love or understand me
Oh, what hard luck stories they all hand me
Make my bed and light the light

I'll arrive late tonight
Blackbird, bye bye

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Glory Glory Hallelujah

Just look at that beautiful view of the mountains.  This alone can  tell you why I leave extra early to get to this nursing home where I play each month. Located in rural Madison county, it is a balm for the soul to be there.  Not only the beauty of the area but also the people at the home, run by Mennonites, are so full of kindness I leave feeling inspired. Yesterday was no exception. All this plus there is the monthly pilgrimage to Yoder's Country Market that has a lama farm on the premises. The full lot of cars in the parking lot tells me it is a popular spot for many. I stock up on their broccoli & cauliflower cole slaw and BBQ that lasts me for some days after. Singing at the home I always stand in the middle of a big circle  while the residents sing and relax and sometimes doze.

From there, I went to my other favorite place in Gordonsville Two favorite places in one day.  When I arrived, one of my favorite friends from the home stood up to greet me. "Oh, look who it is!  she said, "It has been such a long time!" and as I walked over to see her, she took both of my hands in hers and said, "You are just so radiant! you never age, you are so filled with vitality!"  I smiled and said, "well, I try."

Then I went to talk to Mr. Larsen who I know is a WWII veteran and loves to sing patriotic songs.  The day before, being the 4th of July, I asked him what songs he sang for it and I started to sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic:
"Glory glory hallelujah
Glory glory hallelujah
Glory glory hallelujah
His truth is marching on."
He joined in and then I told him that the other day, I noticed someone sang, "His troops are marching on"  and he said "No --it's "The Truth is marching on!" and I said, "Yes it is 'truth' not 'troops'--that is what makes it such a great song." He nodded in agreement. However,  in my case, I sing, "His Truth" but he sings, "The Truth". That gives it a different meaning.  I am always learning new things from these people.

Which do you sing?

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

This land was made for you and me

With the 4th of July in the air,  I've been singing a lot of Patriotic songs with people. Today I went to an under served nursing home in the area and found many of the residents smoking outside on the back porch.   I decided that would be a great place to do our singing and very fitting to be outside in the hot July sunshine.  I was told by one of them that they are only allowed to go outside a few times a day. To some it meant having to go hours without a cigarette, so they made the most of the opportunity by chain smoking the whole time we sang. I was sorry to see Miss Marlene out there smoking, since the last time I saw her she had told me she quit. I was polite though and did not remind her of this.

We sang old camp and school favorite songs and patriotic songs too. I'd say of all of them the song, "This Land is Your Land" struck me as the most appropriate. Written by Woody Guthrie during the Depression, he wrote it in response to the song, "God Bless America." He felt this song portrayed America in an unrealistically optimistic view and did not tell of those who struggled and had nothing.  Woody traveled around and met people from all walks of life, some rich and some poor. He felt it was unfair that some had big homes and lived extravagantly while others had next to nothing.

The nursing home where I sang today is a place where folks do not have much.  Yet what I love about the people there is they never complain nor do they seem unhappy from their simple and stark home. They always thank me many times for coming to sing and they seem to have more gratitude then many I see with much more prosperity. It is true that happiness is not about what we have but what we appreciate.

Monday, July 1, 2013

La Ceiba, the Ocean and the Elemental Voice

Yesterday I treated myself to a workshop called, "The Elemental Voice" which was lead by a teacher from Chile.  We sang scared songs and chants and explored the elements of nature and how we can tap into their energies in our voice.

One of my favorite songs she taught us was about the Ceiba which is a huge tree growing in Ecuador that is said to be so large, no axe can cut it. (as the myth goes).  Most of our songs were sung while dancing in a circle. Have you ever been to the Dances of Universal Peace?  It was just like that. They are from a Sufi tradition and they are simple dances that are so uplifting to do.

We explored each element: water, earth, fire and air and sang songs for each of them. Each element brought out different qualities in our voices and made me more aware of how much nature is in each one of us. Our bodies are made up of all of these elements.

For water we sang and danced this chant:
"The ocean refuses no river, no river
The open heart refuses no part of me, no part of you.
I am one with all that is, one with all;
All that is is one with me, one with all."

 For the Fire element we each wrote a poem for it and then read it aloud. Then we sang it too. I loved hearing everyone's song of fire. Here was part of mine:

"Spirit flame warm my heart
hear the voice of change
to all who listen, do your part
feel the fire within

Light of light, essence of passion
bring the words forth to hear
blossom in Life's Garden
bearing no fear"

It was a wonderful day of creative exploration and friendship, being in nature and sharing music.
Ahhh.... loved that.