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A Naden Band Christmas

Without wanting to sound like a Grinch, November is just too early for Christmas music for me.

I mean, COME ON. Two months of nothing but Christmas music?? It’s on the radio, in the stores, at the mall, on my husband’s car playlist. It’s omnipotent.

And it drives me nuts.

Not only that, but every artist and her uncle has to release their version of every single Christmas song ever penned.

Why? Because Yuletide music is a big money maker. Just like all of the Christmas merchandise showing up on Costco shelves in early October.

Okay, so I AM a bit grinchy.

But now that I’ve got that off my chest, there is one Christmas music tradition that never disappoints. And it’s usually in the appropriate month of December too.

It’s the annual Naden Band Christmas concert, which has been a tradition in Victoria for more than 40 years. Even when COVID was cramping our style, the Naden Band streamed their concert so we wouldn’t have to miss it.

We often think of the Naden Band as part of our local parades, but they have performed all over the world for many different events, along with their more traditional performances.

Only days before we attended this year’s concert, the Naden Band had been at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt to welcome back two navy ships, HMCS Vancouver and Winnipeg, as hundreds of sailors returned from months of deployment in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Naden Christmas concert was in conjunction with the Salvation Army’s holiday toy drive. The ticket price was very reasonable (are you paying attention Taylor Swift?), and each audience member was encouraged to bring one unwrapped toy.

The theme of this year’s concert intrigued me. It was “Hygge”.

Most of you have at least heard of hygge over the last few years, but for those of you who haven’t, let me exercise my Scandinavian heritage.

Hygge, which originated in Norway but was made popular in Denmark, is all about getting cozy and finding comfort. It might be found in a hot toddy by the fire, or curling up with a good book. It has a similar origin as the word “hug”. Whatever brings you contentment, that’s hygge.

Mostly, I was curious as to how the Naden concert people would pronounce it. Scandinavian languages have a sound all their own and the word hygge is no exception. Online you’ll see it described “hoo-ga”, but that’s not really it.

No, it’s more like a hacking sound from deep in the throat, followed by “gi” as in the word give. Okay, that doesn’t sound very cozy-like, does it?

So we’ll move on.

This year’s musical evening was fabulous, as usual. The Naden Band performed everything from traditional Christmas songs like I Saw Three Ships and Joy To The World, to less traditional ones like Fairytale of New York.

Among my favourites were songs from A Charlie Brown Christmas (Linus and Lucy gets me every time) and I’m Dreaming of Home, which featured the Pipes And Drums of the Canadian Scottish Regiment. There’s nothing quite like the sound of the pipes, is there?

The Royal Canadian Navy’s Naden Band, if you don’t already know, is a group of amazing, top notch musicians. Whenever a musical piece calls for a solo performance, you really get to hear how talented they are. And playing music is a full time position for 34 military musicians, so they practice A LOT.

Another highlight of the evening was when an audience member was chosen to conduct the band for the song Sleigh Ride. During the intermission, anyone who was interested could add their name to the draw.

A few minutes into the second half, a name was picked out of the box. It was a magical moment for all of us. The name drawn was one of the sailors who had returned from deployment only days before. It was something right out of a Hallmark movie script.

If you have never attended the Naden Band’s Christmas concert, I highly recommend it. There are usually several performance dates to choose from, including a matinee show.

And now I want you to mark this day and time on your calendars: December 26, 12:01am. That’s when the Christmas music ends, okay??

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We Love Music – But Who Pays For It?

There are so many bad things happening in the world these days that a lot of news stories end up even lower on the radar than usual.

It certainly didn’t receive anywhere near the attention that Will Smith’s incident with Chris Rock did, but did you know that last year, Canadian songwriters made an average of only $67.14? Talk about a slap in the face.

Ever since music ventured into the digital realm, more and more people have been using streaming services to create their playlists. And many find ways to create digital copies of songs so they don’t have to purchase them.

But, of course, it didn’t start with the internet.

When cassette tapes were the big thing, we would record songs off the radio or make copies of our albums to play in our cars. And with the advent of recordable CD’s and the internet, we found a way to download and record songs that we wanted copies of.

With everybody streaming music these days, I decided to research how much a songwriter actually makes from streaming their songs. It turns out that they get, on average, about $0.005 per stream. That means their song would have to be streamed 200 times just to make one dollar.

One dollar. For 200 streams.

Spotify is reported to have about 406 million subscribers. About half of those pay $10 a month for the service while the “free” service includes ads.

That means Spotify rakes in about $2 billion a month just from subscribers. Never mind the ad revenue. Where does all that money go?

If you’re a Rihanna or a Justin Bieber, you’re not too worried about money. But if you’re a songwriter trying to make some kind of living from your work, well, don’t give up your day job.

Don’t get me wrong: it has always been a challenge making a living as a performing songwriter. Never mind how COVID has impacted live performances in the last couple of years.

But when I was doing that back in the 90’s, at least I could sell a CD or two.

I can’t tell you how many times I was told that not getting paid for a gig was okay because it would be great “exposure”.

Sometimes I was lucky and they would pass a hat during my performance.

On one occasion, I was asked to play right after a poetry reading night at a coffeehouse in Burnaby. They were going to pass the hat that night, and they did so during the poetry readings.

When the poetry was done, the poets and the patrons left and took the “hat” with them. I was left with empty pockets and one person to play to for an hour. She sat on the couch politely listening, probably too embarrassed to walk out and leave me all alone.

If you got your song on the radio back then, which I did a few times, you were at least fairly compensated. And if you were really lucky and the song caught on, you were on your way.

When the internet became a thing, I remember thinking that this would be a great way to reach so many more people without having to go on the road.

I was partially right.

In fact, in the very beginning, I got a couple of my songs on one of the first digital music platforms, mp3.com. A lot of businesses played mp3.com stations, and if your song got into rotation on one of those, you were doing well. I made some real money from that.

According to Wikipedia, “At its peak, MP3.com delivered over 4 million MP3 formatted audio files per day to over 800,000 unique users on a customer base of 25 million registered users.”

It was a great venue for independent artists to not only get that “exposure”, but make a little money at it too. And then everything changed, mp3.com was sold, and it morphed into something else. 

Big digital companies caught on to mp3.com’s success, and now here we are with streaming services that, once again, have no respect for content creators.

SOCAN, the Society for Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada, is trying to do something about this by pushing for Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act.

But I really think more needs to be done to force digital streaming services to pay actual money for the content they use to make their fortunes.

Now THAT would be music to my ears.

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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.