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Let Them Play On

Every time you hear about school districts having budget problems, the first thing they seem to cut is their music and arts programs. Now, I’m a guitar teacher and musician, so I’m biased. But why are these programs always the first to get cut? Why isn’t it football? Basketball? Home Economics? Typing? (Yes, I know, I’m dating myself now.)

But seriously.

I don’t think some people know how important music is. For everybody, I mean. Not only is it great for you to learn an instrument at any age, but it does amazing things to your brain, even if you can’t play brilliantly! A lot of people consider playing chess or doing sudoku puzzles as a great brain exercise, but playing an instrument is actually a full brain work out.

I’ve seen it in action. Sometimes it takes all of a person’s focus and energy to learn a new piece. They are in the zone, and the rest of the world, all of their problems, are on the other side of the closed studio door. Sometimes they are in shock when they realize the lesson is over.

Being able to play an instrument stays with you all of your life, regardless of your mental capacity. There are countless stories of people with dementia, unable to remember what they had for breakfast, but well able to play the piano or the flute as beautifully as they did when they were younger.

According to classicfm.com in their article explaining why you should take up an instrument, it enhances verbal memory, spatial reasoning and literacy skills. The science says it makes you smarter. Isn’t that what we all want?

Beyond what it does for your brain, playing an instrument can relieve stress, build confidence and can even help you improve your social life. Well, maybe not the social part right now, since we’re trying to keep physically distanced.

But why would school boards or districts even consider taking all of these positives away from their students?

Maybe some of them think playing an instrument is only for musical snobs. Or the exceptionally talented. They’ve probably never paid much attention to their school bands, like the one I played clarinet in when I was in school.

We were pretty mediocre. We occasionally entered into competitions with other high school bands in the district. But as soon as the other bands would start playing, we knew where we stood. Dead last.

Mr. Parkinson, our high school band teacher, was in the British military for a long time and did his best to keep us together playing those marches he loved. The theme to Hogan’s Heroes was my favourite. We didn’t actually march when we played, yet we still managed to have two musical left feet. But that wasn’t the point.

Because what I remember the most was the feeling of being in the middle of all of that music, especially when we had those moments where we pulled it together almost perfectly. It was not only uplifting, it was transformative. We played, we laughed, we tried again.

Some of the friends I made back then I still keep in touch with to this day. In fact, I married the snare drummer.

Both of my daughters used my clarinet when they had their turn playing in the school band. They also tried the strings program, and took private lessons in other instruments.

But not all parents can afford to send their children for private lessons, which is why the music programs in schools are so important.

It isn’t about children becoming virtuosos, it’s about giving them the chance to have a really positive experience. It’s about taking them away from their electronics for just a little while and doing something that they may very well remember for the rest of their lives. If music is not for them, that’s okay. At least they had the chance to try.

I’m hanging onto that clarinet and waiting for the day when I can pass it on to my grandkids. Let them play on!

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A Game Of Tag

Sometimes when I’m out on my daily walk, I find hopscotch boxes or messages drawn in chalk on the sidewalk that make me smile. In the first few weeks and months of COVID-19, there were a lot of messages, especially positive and encouraging ones. Sometimes you’d even find goofy Dad jokes. It was graffiti of the best kind.

Graffiti has been around for thousands of years, discovered on the walls of caves, in ancient Egypt and Greece and the Roman Empire. Most of it was in the form of etched inscriptions or figure drawings. In fact, the word “graffiti” comes from the Italian word “graffiato” which means “scratched”. The things you learn, eh?

Although it was also found in abandoned buildings and bombed out areas in Europe during World War II, what we think of as graffiti today was mostly born out of popular culture and the political movements of the 1960’s and 70’s.

It is not necessarily the same as street art, but the word “graffiti” is often used for both. These days, graffiti is usually word-based, where as street art is image-based. There have been wars between some street artists and graffiti artists for years, especially because street art has been accepted and even invited in certain sections of cities and towns. In most places, however, graffiti and street art are both still illegal. Some of you will recognize the name Banksy, a very famous, British-based street artist whose real identity remains unconfirmed. If you’ve never seen his documentary “Exit Through The Gift Shop”, I highly recommend it.

In and around my neighbourhood, graffiti of the not-so-great kind seems to have become more abundant lately. Tagging, which is more of a way of marking territory, is especially noticeable.

I really don’t like it. I mean, I get it. Freedom of expression and all that. But to me, it’s just plain ugly.

Tags show up on walls, street signs, utility boxes, on buses, fences and pretty much any blank surface outdoors. The tags themselves mean nothing to most of us, only to the small community of people who do it. And the illegality of it doesn’t seem to phase the taggers.

Spray paint has been their medium of choice for many years because of its portability and permanence. It is a pain in the butt to clean because it’s mainly oil-based, so painting over the graffiti is often the only way to clean it up. I’ve seen the same wall of one corner store graffitied and tagged, then painted over and repaired time and time again. It has become some sort of “game of tag”. As soon as the mess is cleaned, they’re at it again.

At one time, Canada Post boxes were one of the blank surfaces constantly targeted by taggers. But you may have noticed in the last few years that mailboxes are now plastered with a jumble of postal codes on all sides, meant to make tagging less visible. Not only that, but the postal codes are actually on an adhesive, which can be peeled off and replaced if it gets too messy. Very clever!

Utility boxes have also been a tagger temptation. But the City of Victoria has started “wrapping” these blank boxes with photos and other scenes to discourage graffiti. Box wraps have also made an appearance in the Burnside/Gorge area, with the Burnside Gorge Community Centre inviting members of the public to come up with designs for utility boxes there. I’m sure this idea will soon become commonplace in most communities.

A “wrapped” utility box in the Oaklands neighbourhood of Victoria. (Irene Jackson)

Not only are the box wraps nicer than graffiti, they are also interesting. The photo on the utility box above is the 2800 Block of Scott Street here in Victoria, circa 1947, with its brand new wartime homes. A lot of those old homes are still standing!

A neighbourhood mural in the works (Irene Jackson)

In my neighbourhood, the wall of one small block of retail stores is now painted with a colourful mural depicting “What Makes A Community”. A group of neighbours started painting it last summer and it is now complete. So far, the taggers have left it alone.

And so it seems that one way to beat them at their own game is to simply be a step ahead of them.

Nothing is going to completely stop taggers from defacing property. In a perfect world, they would have a place where they can legally make their mark, and stay away from everything else. But I think taggers are far more rebellious than that.

Maybe we can convince them to try chalk?

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The Soundtrack To Your Life

What kind of music do you like? This is a question I ask every new guitar student on our first meeting, so I can gear what we learn towards what they listen to.

Interestingly enough, most adults will answer “I like all kinds of music.” There is the odd one who will be quite specific in their taste; country, jazz, rock. And some will only tell me what they DON’T like. “I like everything except country. Don’t make me play country.”

When it comes to the younger students, these days I’ll ask them where they find and listen to new music, and the answer is most often on YouTube or from their friends. In fact, a lot of the time they don’t even remember.

My generation, the Boomers, and the next generation, Gen X, mostly found our favourite music on the radio. Whether it was on the old radio/record player cabinet our parents owned, on the family car radio, or our own transistor radios, we were always plugged in to the latest hit songs.

If we really liked a song, we’d buy the 45. The single. If we really liked the band, then LPs, or “long playing” albums, were the next step up. I bought my first LP at the local drug store. It was a Three Dog Night record. I wasn’t particularly fond of Three Dog Night, but that’s what the drugstore had. I think I still might have it somewhere.

A.M. radio was pretty popular when I was a kid, and the mix of songs, now called “Free Form Radio”, could be quite eclectic. You might hear a pop/rock song like The Guess Who’s “These Eyes”, then a country song like Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”, followed by the Edwin Hawkins Singer’s gospel song “Oh Happy Day”, and Bob Dylan’s folk/rock song “Lay, Lady, Lay”, all in the same afternoon. It was a great format because you were exposed to a long list of different genres. The DJs were the ones who decided what they wanted to play, based on their whims and their listener’s requests.

Eventually, radio stations started to create playlists. They would target specific audiences or ages and, in my opinion, they kind of ruined a good thing.

I actually worked at a radio station for a year back in the early 1990s. The playlist was only about 500 songs, targeting people who were teenagers in the 1950s and early 60s. 500 songs sounds like a lot, but when you listen to it all day, every day, your eyes start to roll to the back of your head.

I got pretty tired of Elvis. Forgive me.

Ten years ago when I would visit my Dad, who had Alzheimer’s, at his care facility, I would bring a CD player and CD with some of his favourite songs for him to listen to. What always struck me was that, even if he was in somewhat of a stupor when I first arrived, as I turned on those songs, it also turned on his brain. He came alive. He’d smile, sing along, and start chatting away.

Even after the music was turned off, he would still be engaged and chatty. It was wonderful.

What I learned was that music is a “full brain” experience and that, in Alzheimer patients, there are studies that show that their brain activity and function increases when they hear their favourite songs.

When you learn to play a new instrument, it’s like exercise for your brain. In later years, many people can still play their instruments perfectly well and sing along, even if they can’t remember what they had for breakfast!

Most of you would probably include the songs you listened to as a teenager in your list of favourites. There’s a physiological reason for that. According to an article in Psychology Today, “we grow more attached to the music we hear as adolescents than at any other time in our life because of our neurons. When we love hearing a song, our brain’s pleasure circuits get activated and the brain releases dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and other neurochemicals that make us feel good. Our prefrontal cortex retains the personal memory music evokes.”

You’ve probably had that experience of hearing an old song that you love and remembering a very specific time, a scene, or an experience from your youth. Like it was yesterday. The infamous Dick Clark claimed that “Music is the soundtrack to your life.”

In the last few months, I have been gathering all the cuts to my life’s soundtrack, just to have them in one place. I play those songs in my car when I’m out for a drive, just trying to get away from the craziness that has been happening in the world. Give me some of that serotonin! The feelings and memories those old songs evoke are uplifting, and remind me that there have been better times.

And there will be better times again. Play on.

99 Cents or Nuthin’

It has been a rather strange summer.  First of all, it (summer) didn’t show up until about August.  Before that, it was cool, grey and sometimes rainy all the way through the spring and into July.  And although I took the month of August off from teaching, I worked all the way through it trying to come up with a new music theme for CHEK Television.  I’m very happy to have the work, but it certainly kept summer at a distance for me.  My studio is in the basement of my home, and it is dark and kind of secluded, so although I took breaks by going out into the backyard and going for walks, I was locked up in there working for hours at a time.  Next week, many of my students are returning and that’s the end of that “break”!

I consider myself very fortunate to do what I love to do for a living, but the truth of it is that it often isn’t enough of an actual living and if I was on my own without a spouse who supports me, I’d probably not be able to do what I love as much as I have.  Young people who are just starting out as musicians or in bands and who want to make a living at it, have a long road ahead of them.  The simple truth is that the general public does not want to pay for music.  Every time you see artists out there performing, 90% of the time they are either making very little in terms what the venue pays them, or they are making nothing at all!  If they have a CD to sell, they’d be lucky to sell a handful at any one performance.  It’s almost impossible to get on traditional radio unless you’re either Lady Gaga or an oldies band from the 50’s to the 70’s, and if you try to sell your music through iTunes or other digital services, you have to pay for your songs to be there and normally see very little return on actual sales.

I lost a lot of money as a performer.  I spent thousands on the recording and manufacturing of my CDs and traveled quite a bit to the mainland and here on the island to try to sell them, but not nearly enough to break even.  I could have worked harder at it, I could have joined other groups or had longer road trips but I would have been a female on my own out there and that didn’t appeal to me, especially with a young family at home at the time.  But that’s just my own story.

As a whole, the music “business” has struggled terribly in the last few years.  A lot of record labels and publishers went under in the past 10 years for many reasons, including the fact that many of them had lived high off the hog for many years on the backs of their artists, and suddenly traditional CD sales tumbled.  They didn’t figure out how to embrace new technology (ie, internet downloading) before it overcame them.  If you give people the opportunity to have something for free, or to pay for it, what do you think most people will do?  Instead of using the technology to their benefit, record labels and conglomerates were reactionary, simply suing people like single parents with teenagers who did a lot of downloading, for millions of dollars, hoping to discourage the activity.  This made them out to be bullies and didn’t scare anybody.  Not great publicity.

There is now a whole generation of people, my adult children included, who know how to download music on their iPods and other devices, and who have not paid a cent for any of it.   Most of them believe that all music should be free, not because they hold a grudge against the business of it, but because for their generation it has always been that way.  All of this leaves bands and artists at a huge disadvantage.

While we all thought that the internet was going to provide an even playing field for artists and bands, in that anyone in the world could find us and become a fan of our music, instead we have become lost in our sheer numbers.  We got sucked into the idea that “millions of people” would hear our music, which wasn’t anywhere near the truth.  Millions of people were overwhelmed at the amount of music on the web and had no idea how to find something that they liked.  This is what record labels used to be good at (other than just make big money off their artists);  they were a kind of conduit for good music, giving the cream of the crop an opportunity to rise.  Radio stations are also to blame for abandoning the original intent of “just playing good music”;  a lot of them became a part of a huge conglomerate (think Clear Channel in the US), where some executive far away decided what music would be played instead of it being the decision of the local radio station’s music director.  This made it nearly impossible for artists or bands in a community to be heard on their local radio stations.  Besides that, instead of radio stations playing a variety of music, their playlists became narrower and narrower as they hired consultants to tell them what kind of music would bring in the big bucks from their advertisers.

Some social media websites have tried to become “the place” to find new music, and iTunes and Pandora have come up with technology that takes your choice in music and tries to find other artists or bands that might appeal to you.  But those artists and bands have to pay money to be there and many of them simply can’t afford it, or have no idea where to start.  YouTube is a place to freely share your music in the hopes of getting some attention and even some sales, but the majority of these viral musical acts are 10-year-old phenoms who can sing like Rhianna or Justin Bieber, himself a result of millions of YouTube hits, and again, the artist or band gets lost in the cacophony.

I don’t think the future is so bleak that music will disappear, of course.  People LOVE music and they love all kinds of it!  We just haven’t found a model yet that will make it feasible for more new artists to earn a decent living at it.  I admit, I downloaded a lot of music in the “free” way until I finally realized that I was really just defeating my own purpose.  Now I pay the 99 cents or, more often these days, $1.29 for every song that I desire to own.  And even though I know most of that money is only going to iTunes, at least I know I am morally supporting the artist or band who wrote and recorded that song and spent money out of their own pockets to do so.  In these difficult economic times, the arts are the first to have any kind of government funding pulled, so it’s even more important to support artists on an individual basis.

And that’s my appeal to any of you out there reading this blog…do your favourite artists a favour and pay for their music so they can continue to produce it!

Off the soapbox now :-)….and back to the studio for me…

IJ