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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!

The Wrath of Auto-Tune

A few years ago, an acquaintance of mine who had a recording studio in Nashville was telling me a story about an experience he’d recently had in the studio. Every year, all of the smaller recording studios used to hold open houses on the same day, where artists and managers were invited to come and check out the facilities so they would potentially record their next project there. This guy told me that at one point during the day, several well-known country artists were sitting in a room in his recording facility, jamming together as a couple of them played guitar. What struck my friend at the time was that some of them could sing, and some of them really couldn’t! He made a quip about how you could tell which ones needed Auto-Tune when they were recording and performing :-).

Some of you may have heard the word “Auto-Tune” before, but most, if not all of you have heard its effects if you listen to music. For those of you who don’t recognize the word, Auto-Tune is a digital technology that corrects musical pitch. To simplify that, music producers use the software to “fix” the pitch of vocals or instruments so that they are perfect. Even the best singers can be slightly off pitch when they are recording or performing, so the software could save lots of time and effort by simply correcting it either while it is being sung, or afterwards in post-production.

The first time you might have heard Auto-Tune in its extreme was in Cher’s hit song “Believe”, recorded in 1998. It was used as an effect to make her voice sound robotic in a few places in the song’s chorus, particularly on the line “do you believe in life after love?” If you remember that song, then you’ve heard Auto-Tune. But the fact is that Auto-Tune is used in pretty much every single pop song these days. Everything you hear in this genre has been “fixed” with Auto-Tune. In fact, if you go to a live performance, particularly pop or rock, rap or hip hop, Auto-Tune is used as part of the performance. At music awards shows, many “live” performances of songs are run through Auto-Tune. You don’t hear the actual, raw, live voice of a performer.

You might think, well, what’s wrong with perfect?

A few years back, there was a music awards show broadcast live on television where Taylor Swift did a live performance. She appeared to be one of the only performers who DIDN’T use Auto-Tune that evening. As a result, her voice was raw and real, and it was not pitch perfect. Immediately afterwards, social media came alive with comments like “Taylor Swift can’t sing!” and other, more critical responses to her performance. At the time, I remember applauding her for her guts, but I think since then she has probably given in to the use of Auto-Tune in her performances.  The pressure to be perfect these days, has become too great.

From a performer viewpoint, anyone and their dog can “sing” now, and YouTube has had many, many videos with animals or public figures “singing” songs that they actually aren’t, the creators using Auto-Tune and some fancy editing to create these videos.

But what has happened to listeners, particularly younger people, is that their ears are now conditioned to desire “perfect” sounds, and when they hear something that isn’t, it’s aurally offensive to them. Anything that is real and imperfect sounds like a mistake.  Not only that, but it becomes impossible to tell real talent from manufactured, certainly when it comes to recording.  And performers become so reliant on the software, they can’t live without it.

There are, however, artists who refuse to use it and a campaign against Auto-Tune that is growing.  In a 2009 performance on the Grammy Awards, for example, Deathcab For Cutie wore blue ribbons to protest the use of Auto-Tune in the music industry.  Even some recording engineers and producers are now trying to wean artists off the thing in an attempt to bring “real” back into recordings and performances.

So what’s wrong with perfect?  It makes everything sound the same.  Perfect pitch, perfect timing, perfect everything, creates perfect garbage.  And who needs more of that?  Let’s keep it real!

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