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A Little Good News

I was stopped at a red light near a busy intersection recently when I noticed a man run out into the crosswalk just as the light was about to change. I was three cars back so I couldn’t quite see what he was doing, but when he came back into sight, I realized he was helping another older man across the street. The two didn’t appear to know each other.

The older man’s legs seemed to be collapsing out from under him so the younger fellow was practically carrying him along the crosswalk. It took awhile, but they finally made it to the other side. All of the cars waited until they were safely across.

It was so lucky the younger man was there to help. What occurred to me later was that social distancing and wearing masks suddenly went out the window in that moment, because it was more important to jump in there and give the older man a hand. The selflessness and compassion made my heart swell.

It reminded me of all of the health care and front line workers who do the equivalent of that a hundred times a day, every day. Jump in there and help someone out. We are so lucky to have them.

And a pox on those who dare to protest them! Yes, I know what a pox is…

There’s a song that Anne Murray released about 40 years ago called “A Little Good News”. The gist of it was that it would be great to have just one day where nothing bad happened. Anywhere.

Mostly, it was about being tired of the bad news. We’re all feeling that.

But the odd thing about human beings is that we’re drawn to bad news. Sometimes we even seek it out. The psychology of it is that our brains are wired to help us survive by being more attuned to the bad things happening around us. It’s called “negativity bias”.

It’s just that there’s been so much negativity lately, that it has become overkill. Literally.

Quite often these days when my students first come in to have their guitar lesson (socially distanced, of course), we sit there for five minutes and just vent with each other. But when the music begins, all else is forgotten.

There IS good news out there. I recently posted a link to a New York Times article on my Facebook page about how scientists say that the coronavirus will eventually just resemble an annoying cold. I mean, it’ll take time, but won’t that be great?

Something to look forward to. Never thought I’d say that about a cold.

The thing is, that post didn’t get one response. Maybe it was because people know the New York Times is behind a paywall, or they tried and couldn’t read it. But maybe, just maybe, their brains were experiencing negativity bias, or they were tired of reading, period.

We always hear the phrase “work/life balance”. I’ve decided to apply that my own way. Instead of ignoring the news completely, I’ve been working on trying to make sure I find a good news/bad news balance. I know it exists.

Because you know…

We sure could use a little good news today. ~ Tommy Rocco, Charlie Black and Rory Bourke

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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