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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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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.

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October Storm

One day last week, I was in my basement studio finishing up a lesson with a guitar student. He started to pack his guitar in its case when POW!! There was a huge bang and the lights went out.

The wind had been blowing pretty fiercely all morning, so the power outage wasn’t really a surprise. But when we both walked outside, I could see that this was more than a blown transformer. The power lines to our house were almost touching the ground and the thingamajig holding those power lines to the side of the house was ripped right off the exterior wall. Oh, oh.

I texted my husband who had been working from home but who had gone in to the office to work that day. No response.

I looked for the number for BC Hydro and called them instead. I reported the issue and hoped for the best.

When I looked out and down the street, I could see lots of neighbours coming out of their houses, and I realized that this was a whole chain of events affecting us all. Just down the street, another power pole had snapped right in half and was hanging precariously above the street by the wires. The domino effect had yanked the power lines all the way up to our house, which caused the whatsit to rip off the house.

Someone had called the fire department and a couple of trucks responded. Firemen began to block off the roads, and I knew this wasn’t going to be over anytime soon. Using my phone, I emailed all of my students for that day and cancelled their lessons.

Having lived in the same house for 32 years, I can count on one hand the number of times that we’ve had power outages. It’s been many years, in fact, since the last one. I know that people living in rural communities or on the smaller islands go through this all the time, especially during our winter storm season, but I felt like a kind of a newbie at this. What do I do?

It was almost lunch time, but I didn’t want to open the fridge. I foraged for anything that I could find in the cupboards. I decided it was a good time to start gathering candles and flashlights, even though it was the middle of the day.

I went outside again to survey the situation and saw a young firefighter at the corner.

“I guess I get an extra long weekend!” I laughed. “I like your attitude!” he smiled. From our short conversation I found out that it was going to take at least 6 hours to get this mess straightened out. I went back inside.

A short time later a very friendly BC Hydro guy knocked on the door, and with a big grin he told me that because the whats-a-ma-call-it was ripped from the house, I was going to have to call an electrician to repair that before BC Hydro could repair the line. An electrician! I panicked. I called my husband again and was finally able to get through to tell him what happened.

He took it upon himself to get a hold of an electrician who could respond quickly.

My phone was about to run out of power. I got a text message from my phone provider that I had already used up half of my data for the month. And it was only day 2 of the cycle.

I have a battery booster that I bought for my car when it had a battery leak that my mechanic couldn’t figure out. Fortunately, the booster was fully charged, so I brought it upstairs from the basement. It has a USB connector and one of those cigarette lighter chargers, so I managed to find plugs and cables to plug in my phone and a couple of other battery packs. I was even able to plug my laptop in so I could do a little work.

I was feeling pretty good about my resourcefulness. The electricians showed up and set about fixing things. And then they handed me the bill. Gulp. More than thirteen hundred dollars.

The stormy day dragged on and BC Hydro worked continuously up and down the street repairing the wires and putting in a new power pole where the old one had snapped. It grew darker in the house so I lit up the candles. My husband brought home some fast food for dinner and we ate by candlelight. We took turns using the battery booster to charge things up.

Every now and then I would pop outside and look down the street where most of the work was being done. There were fewer and fewer trucks. Part of me worried that they’d just give up and go home for the evening. But they didn’t.

At 8:25pm, almost nine and a half hours after the power went out, the lights came back on. Sigh.

Thinking about the whole event, I decided to take note of what I had learned from the experience.

  1. I can be pretty resourceful when I have to be.
  2. There are never enough candles. Or flashlights. Or battery packs.
  3. When a BC Hydro guy comes knocking at your door with a big grin on his face, it isn’t necessarily a good sign.
  4. That whatsit thingamajig that holds your power lines against your house is actually called a mast.
  5. The character trait that serves you best in a situation such as this is called a sense of humour.
  6. The firefighters, electricians and Hydro people out there working for hours and hours in miserable conditions to get things up and running, are real pros. Thank goodness for them.
  7. When you don’t want to open the fridge for the white, you can always open a bottle of red.
  8. I’m nowhere near prepared for the Big One.
  9. Because, you know, it’s 2020.

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The Grand Re-Opening. Sort of…

I made the decision a couple of weeks ago that this would be my week to venture back into teaching guitar. I teach out of my home, so I pretty much had to decide for myself how things might be changed around to allow for the protocols that need to be in place now; physical distancing, keeping everything clean and disinfected, and signage to remind students of everything they needed to do, too.

When you’ve been doing things a certain way for 30 years, it takes a fair amount of brain function to change it up, but I think I’ve figured it out. I’m sure there are a lot of people, especially in smaller businesses, who are doing their best to wrap their heads around this new reality. We’re in different times.

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One of the first things I did was go to the WorkSafe BC website where they have a section called “Returning To Safe Operation” for businesses and facilities opening up, to know what protocols need to be in place. I downloaded some posters to use as signage, I marked out the proper spacing between myself and my students on the floor in the studio. I bought new music stands that are easier to clean, got cleaning supplies ready, and I worked out a plan for students to follow when they arrived back. I even recorded a video to send to them so they could see what changes I was making and would know what to do when they got here.

I emailed them all and sent a link to the video.

So far, so good.

About half of my students have returned, which is more or less what I expected. Some of them would have been in classes of 3 or more, and so far, that’s too many people to have together in my small studio yet. Maybe one day soon.

Some students are more nervous than others, or not ready to return for various reasons. I understand that. It’s been rough for a lot of us.

And some may never return. I’m prepared for that.

I’ve been rescheduling returning students with a little time in between each one so I can clean and disinfect between lessons.

So they come in the door, they sanitize their hands, they leave their guitar cases out in the waiting area, they bring their guitars and music into the studio, they tune on their own or with my help, and we begin to play. Then we start to smile a little as the music kind of lifts us up. We can’t help but share some of our stories in between songs. It’s a little like coming back to life.

I’ve been thinking about all the students, clients and customers that have been returning to different businesses this past week. The conversations they must be having, the laughs (behind face masks in some cases!), the getting back to something that almost feels normal. For small businesses like mine, our clients are not just our source of income, they sometimes become good friends. I’ve been teaching some of my students for 10 or 15 years.

These are relationships we’ve all been missing.

For those of you with small businesses or who are self-employed like me, I’m rootin’ for you. If we do everything as we’re told by those in charge, over time it’ll get better. Even if we have that dreaded second wave, I think we can anticipate what to do, and ride it out.

And thanks to my students who’ve done everything the way I asked them to.

Some of them even practiced a little 🙂

IJ

If I Had It All To Do Again


I was 12 when I wrote my first song, and songwriting has been a big part of my life ever since then. It helped me to cope with a lot of life’s events, and gave me a way to express my desires, my opinions, and my sense of humour in some cases. As it turns out, many songwriters start writing at about that time in their lives, and for the same reason. The angst-filled adolescent and teenage years are truly a creative (or destructive, in some cases) hotbed for all kinds of things.

I’ve written dozens and dozens of articles on all aspects of songwriting since I first put up a website in 1995. I’ve met a lot of other songwriters over the years because of that website, and participated in other online sites, some of which are still very active. They include the Muses Muse, a huge songwriting community created by a fellow Canadian Jodi Krangle, and SongU, a kind of songwriting university designed by Danny Arena and his wife Sara Light from Nashville, both of who are very involved in teaching and who have also written songs for a Broadway musical. It was really exciting to watch when they were nominated for a Tony!

I’ve performed hundreds of times for the smallest of events to big ones, for all kinds of people. My smallest audience was an audience of one :-). It was at a coffee shop in Burnaby a few years back in the middle of winter. The evening started out as a poetry reading, and I was supposed to be the second act. Well, once the poetry reading was over, the audience all left too! All except for one. She sat on a couch and patiently listened through a whole set of my songs. We laughed in between at this odd, private concert she was getting. Outside it was dark and raining pretty hard…no wonder there were no stragglers off the street, it was a terrible night!

It would be hard to say what my largest audience was…but I’ve performed for audiences at festivals where there were literally hundreds and probably thousands of people within earshot.

There was a time when I didn’t even perform my own material, I basically just played cover songs at bars in order to make some money. I’d slip the odd original song in, but I had little confidence in my own songs then. I didn’t like that kind of performing much…driving alone up to Duncan, about an hour’s drive from my home, over a pretty tricky part of the highway called the Malahat, playing three hours, and then driving back again after midnight, was not my idea of a good time. I just about gave up performing for good after that!

In the early 90’s I discovered recording and that was the beginning of a whole new aspect of music for me. I began by recording my own songs, of course, but I also got to record others, and had an opportunity to record some music for a television series called “Home Check with Shell Busey”. When I listen now to those first recording attempts, I cringe :-). I didn’t take any training, all of my learning came hands on. And I made a lot of mistakes! Eventually, I got better…the highlight came when I was asked to write the theme music along with many other music beds for CHEK News here in Victoria.

Another aspect of music that blossomed for me was teaching guitar. I made a proposal to a local community organization to teach adults guitar in an eight week program and I did that for a couple of years beginning in 1989. Then I was approached by a woman, Becky Bernson, who was also a guitar teacher, to become a part of an organization called the Whistling Gypsy. It was meant to be a kind of teaching umbrella, but part of the mandate was to put on folk music concerts featuring better known artists and groups travelling through our area. Becky and I would each teach guitar classes and private students out of our homes, and she gathered up other teachers in voice, bass, mandolin, and banjo among others.

At its peak, the Whistling Gypsy did very well, but it was a non-profit organization and it was hard to keep enough volunteers involved to manage the events and keep it going. Still as the Whistling Gypsy came to an end, I continued teaching. These days I average anywhere from 30 to 50 students, some private, some in classes, and teaching continues to be one of my main functions. I can’t tell you how much fun it is for me to watch someone learn to play their first chord on a guitar :-). I do have times when I get a little burned out, but find me a class of adults who have never been near a guitar before and I’m happy as a pig in mud! When I get them playing their first song, the smiles on their faces are priceless.

My Dad didn’t know what to think when I talked about playing guitar and performing when I was a kid. He didn’t see that as anything more than a hobby. And it took many years for me to find the confidence to pursue the many avenues of music that I did. But if I had it all to do again, I wouldn’t change any of it. The song in the video above, however, tells a different story.

There is a poem out there called When I Am An Old Woman, I Shall Wear Purple, by Jenny Joseph. If you’ve never come across it, you might find it a treat to read. What it meant to me when I first read it, was the idea of believing that old age would bring with it a kind of liberation from having to do what we have to do now. At the end of the poem, the writer considers that perhaps she should start doing those crazy things in the present so that people won’t get too shocked when she begins to wear purple in her old age.

The underlying message I think is the idea that we really want to live our lives fully and completely NOW. When I was writing this song, I was imaging getting to the end of one’s life and having regrets. I sure hope I don’t. Quick! Get me the purple clothes and the red hat!

IJ