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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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The Company Christmas Party

Remember company Christmas parties? Ah, yes. Good times, good times.

My first work Christmas party was when I was employed at the Vancouver Public Library many years ago. I was pretty excited about it until I realized that it was not really a party at all. It was a tea. Well, they had cookies.

But tea.

A couple of years later, I realized where the REAL party was at the library every year. It was in the bindery department. The bindery was where books were repaired, fumigated, prepped for life on a library shelf, or anything else that books might need. The bindery was not a public place, which made it the perfect spot for a staff Christmas party. This is where the laughter sprung and the liquor flowed. Sshhhhh!!!

If you were lucky and worked on what was always a half day shift on Christmas Eve, you would take your break and spend it in the bindery. Needless to say, we took a lot of breaks. Some of us were soused by noon.

For lots of people, staff or company Christmas parties are a highlight of the year. For others, well, maybe not so much. The first Christmas party I attended with my husband at his new job was nothing like the library.

Instead of tea, there was plenty of wine and beer and whatever you wanted to drink. Instead of cookies, it was a full buffet dinner complete with amazing desserts. And they had PRIZES! Not just company prizes, but union prizes and staff association prizes. You could win a TV. I was dumbstruck.

They also had speeches. Lots of speeches. Well, many of those I could have lived without.

At that first company Christmas party, I noticed that as soon as the dinner was over with and the first few beats of canned music began, the “old” people left. The rest of us took to the dance floor all the rest of the night.

Now, almost 40 years later, we’re the “old” people. I refuse to leave right after dinner, however. I’ll dance as late into the night as my hips will let me. Just as long as we don’t have to dance to the music those damn kids want to play…

Over the years, I’ve learned a few things about the company Christmas party. Here are my observations:

OUTFITS: It’s okay to wear the same thing two years in a row. It really is, ladies. I fretted and fussed so many times over the years, worrying that somebody was going to recognize the same dress from the year before. Truth is, nobody cares. They’re far more worried about how THEY look. I’m not sure the males care at all. Lucky them.

THE BAR: Get to it early. Don’t say hello to anyone, get to the bar immediately upon arriving. Just in case they run out of booze. It could happen.

MC’s: I know, I know. You’re trying to be funny, witty, amazing. And many times you are. But when you see the first head nodding off to sleep, it’s over. Get to the food part.

THE FOOD PART: At my husband’s company party, it’s usually the luck of the draw which table gets to the buffet first. But one year, the MC’s placed questions on pieces of paper on each table, and the first table to answer correctly got to go up. Okay, so that’s fine, but don’t leave the questions to those young whippersnappers. I don’t know what “an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation” is. Do you? Just ask me the capital of Denmark!

THE SPEECHES PART: Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

THE MUSIC PART: Over the years we had both live bands and canned music. There are great things about each of them, don’t get me wrong, but there’s nothing like a live band. I’m a musician, so of course I’ll say that. At any rate, there’s an energy and an aliveness that you just can’t get from canned music, although we’ve had some pretty good DJ’s over the years too.

There’s one year I remember well when it came to the music. Because of certain circumstances, we had neither a band or a DJ. One of the employees took her iPod and downloaded all of our requests, pairing the iPod up to the speaker system that was already in place. That was one of the best years we had because it was so spontaneous, and just about everyone got a song they wanted!

I’ve been to Christmas parties at hotels like the Empress and the Laurel Point, parties at restaurants, clubs, and at golf courses. Every one of them was so much fun. Sigh. But I’m thinking that the company Christmas party of 2021 is going to surpass them all, because we’ll appreciate being able to be together so much more. Let’s hope we’re able to.

Oh, by the way, an “element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation”, is a “meme”. I’m old…how was I supposed to know that word?

And Copenhagen. The capital of Denmark is Copenhagen.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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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