Why Do Musicians Write Songs?

In the medieval era, there were the troubadours who traveled the country performing songs they had composed. Nowadays, that’s the life of the folk singer/songwriter.

Woody Guthrie was one of the earliest in the modern era to write songs about social issues, current events, or just everyday life. “I look through your eyes to see the hill you’re standing on,” he wrote. “My job is to tell you something you already know.” He then inspired musicians in the ‘60s folk revival such as Bob Dylan and Tom Paxton.

Tom Paxton

Tom Paxton at Golden Link (photo: Bill Gamble)

Paxton says, “I wanted to write like Woody, with his directness and honesty. Woody was, to me, the guy who stayed true to the tradition and brought it forward, like Pete Seeger did. But I listened to how Woody mirrored his own time and realized I wasn’t to write a folk song from 1947. The subject had to be from my life, my time.”

So what compels musicians to become songwriters? For some, it’s a way to express themselves, put their poetry to music, or talk about what’s going on in their lives. For others, it might be a chance to tell a story or to develop a certain character (see this video of Tom Paxton’s “My Pony Knows the Way” for an example).

And then there’s Paul McCartney. He explains in an introduction to the album The Beatles: On Air – Live at the BBC, Volume 2 that they were trying to find repertoire different from the other bands. They would listen to the radio, or B-sides of records; then he and John Lennon started writing songs. “This was the only foolproof way that other bands couldn’t have our songs. There was no great artistic muse that came out of the heavens and said, ‘Ye shall be a songwriting partnership.’ It was really just we had better do this or everyone else is going to have our act.”

If you want to know more about modern-day songwriters, come to the weekly singaround at the Golden Link Folk Singing Society (Tuesdays 7:30-10 pm, 12 Corners Presbyterian Church). Local musicians regularly attend and perform the songs they have written. Or you can attend one of Golden Link’s monthly concerts featuring touring musicians. Visit www.goldenlink.org for more information.

This story was also published on the Golden Link Folk Singing Society’s blog as part of the Arts Community page of the Democrat and Chronicle web site. Click here to view the Golden Link blog page.

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What is Traditional Music?

I periodically ponder this question, since I guess that would be the best description of the type of music I like to play, those old songs that people sing when they get together, whether sitting around the campfire, at a party, or in a pub.

A quick online search for the term <traditional music> brings up this definition: “music transmitted by mouth, music of the lower classes, and music with unknown composers” (Wikipedia).

So this is music of the common folk, marking moments in people’s everyday lives – courting, loving, living, working, and dying. Songs such as The Water is Wide, Pretty Saro, and Red is the Rose. It was mostly passed on orally, with people rearranging verses or making up new words when they forget how the song goes (the “folk process”).

For me, traditional music is even broader than that. If you look up <tradition> in the dictionary, you’ll find that it is information that is handed down by word of mouth or by example. In that case, the songs I heard on the radio growing up, songs my mother sang to me (mostly Broadway show tunes), or those silly songs from summer camp can all be part of the tradition.

Tuesday night singaround, Janice playing dulcimer

Tuesday night Golden Link singaround, Janice playing dulcimer

So my musical repertoire now includes songs by the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkle, and the Monkees, as well as folk revival songs by Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and more contemporary folk music. As Duke Ellington is reported to have said (according to Peter Schikele), “If it sounds good, it is good.”

And if you want to hear some great traditional music, whatever your definition, stop by the Tuesday Night Singaround at Golden Link (7:30 pm, Twelve Corners Presbyterian). All different kinds of folk songs are welcome – bring a song to share, or request something you would like to hear. Someone is bound to know it.

This story was also published on the Golden Link Folk Singing Society’s blog as part of the Arts Community page of the Democrat and Chronicle web site. Click here to view the Golden Link blog page.

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Building Your Community is Worth the Effort

Recently, I came across a blog discussion about LinkedIn groups, and some possible changes coming for how they are managed. One of the posters commented, “building a community is the best alternative.”

rolodex_8127Some people may call it networking, but I like the term “building a community.” It’s more than just shaking hands, exchanging business cards, and adding names to a database (or the old-fashioned rolodex, see picture at left). It’s about building actual connections with people and then staying in touch through multiple mediums (social media, email, phone, or snail mail) or just good old face-to-face interactions.

So here are a few tips on building your community.

Engage them: On meeting someone you already know, think of some piece of information about them – they have two kids, or they really like soccer, if they like to cook or travel, or maybe a shared acquaintance. Something you can use to engage them in further discussion.

More is better: The bigger your network, the more people you know. That may seem trite, but really the more people you know, even if only slightly, it’s that many more extended connections. (It’s like that 70s shampoo commercial – “and she told two friends… and so on.”) Try to attend one networking event per week to grow your community.

Be patient: You never know when connections are going to bear fruit. When I first started my proofreading/editing business, I reached out to several people I knew who worked in similar areas to find out how they had been successful. Several of those connections have led to actual projects, but it took a year for that to pan out.

Volunteer your time: I regularly volunteer my time and energy with groups that interest me – primarily the Golden Link Folk Singing Society and Rochester Professional Consultants Network. So in addition to getting to play music (in the first case) and learning from interesting business people (in the second), I’m also expanding the network of people who know me.

Be nice: The last thing you want is someone to remember you only because you were rude to them.  As Maya Angelou has said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

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Holiday Music Picks for 2012

Holiday CDsIt’s time for an informal review of holiday music from my personal CD collection. Every year I pick up a couple of new holiday CDs, and at this point have almost 100. It means I get to revisit some favorites every year, and discover some new music as well. (Note: I wrote about some of these CDs for the RPO blog back in 2008 and 2009.)

(Click on the album links below for a place to listen to audio clips…)

I started off my holiday listening this year with A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. This includes all the classic music from the TV special, including the “Linus and Lucy” theme and “Christmas Time is Here.” It’s usually one of the first CDs I listen to, since it just personifies Christmas for me. I still have my hardcover Charlie Brown Christmas book from when I was a kid.

In recent years I’ve discovered the Canadian band Barenaked Ladies. Their holiday CD opens with a very morose sounding “Jingle Bells,” which suddenly goes up-tempo. It’s sort of manic-depressive, and very funny and unpredictable, which I’ve come to expect from this band. In addition to the traditional Christmas songs, they have a number of originals, including “Elf’s Lament” with Michael Bublé – which puts an unusual twist on how we typically picture the North Pole, with the elves threatening to unionize – as well as a beautiful Hanukkah song.

Speaking of Michael Bublé, his holiday EP showcases this jazz crooner in a terrific version of Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song,” as well as “Let It Snow,” “White Christmas,” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Last year he came out with a full-length holiday album, and I was pleased to see it had a couple of original songs in additional to some of the classics.

Yo-Yo Ma’s Songs of Joy and Peace features a number of guest artists, including Dave Brubeck, James Taylor, Natalie MacMaster, Alison Krauss, Renee Fleming (along with Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile – quite an unusual combination!), hotshot ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro, Chris Botti, and the Assad Brothers. Mingled throughout are various interpretations of “Dona Nobis Pacem” (“Give Us Peace”), which is a nice touch.

Chris Botti’s December has a few unusual selections, besides the typical holiday music. He includes a very sweet version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and a jazzy interpretation of “Perfect Day” by pop/rock singer Richard Marx. Botti’s smooth trumpet playing is always great for setting the mood, and he also sings on a couple of songs. He’s coming to Rochester next month for a concert with the RPO – I’m looking forward to that one (already have my tickets)!

Another long-time favorite is Nowell Sing We Clear, featuring the English folk singers John Roberts and Tony Barrand. Their “Best Of” collection has lots of classic Christmas carols – among them “The Holly and the Ivy” and “Coventry Carol” – as well as many you probably haven’t heard. At least I hadn’t, until I saw one of their concerts, which is along the lines of the Christmas Revels. It includes the kind of yuletide songs you might have heard carolers singing in England 200 years ago, as well as a Mummers play, and usually wraps up with “Lord of the Dance.”

I always like to listen to Handel’s Messiah. When I’m singing along at home, I can join in on all the different solos, and I love the song “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted” for the way the music illustrates the text. When the tenor sings “the mountains and hills made low,” the music starts on a high note and then drops down on the word “low.” The choral parts are especially glorious – especially the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

For something a little different, there’s Sunday Music 5: Holiday. These collections are put out by Barnes & Noble and feature a wide range of music by various artists. This holiday mix includes Norah Jones, Ingrid Michaelson, Sufjan Stevens (I love his CD Illinois), Ray Charles, and Lou Rawls. There were also several artists I didn’t know, but was pleased to discover – The Bird and the Bee, and Imogen Heap.

Folk singer Christine Lavin’s Christmas album features a number of a cappella rounds including the traditional “Dona Nobis Pacem” as well as the more unusual “Tacobel Canon” (yes, it’s what you might guess). She also has some wonderful stories on here, including “The Runaway Christmas Tree” and “Polka-dot Pancakes.”

And of course every year I play the RPO’s A Holiday Celebration. I love Jeff Tyzik’s “Chanukah Suite” – with its lush orchestration and sweet melodies, it sounds like it could be a movie score – and “The Twelve Gifts of Christmas” makes me chuckle. “Three Songs from Home Alone” are surprisingly touching, considering how funny that movie is. The CD was recorded at the RPO’s annual Gala Holiday Pops concert.

Happy Holidays, and here’s to more great music in the New Year!


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Take Time to Proofread Emails

Looking to make a good impression with a new client? Or maybe you just want to send a clear message to a colleague.

Good communication skills are a key component in any business correspondence. The last step before hitting the send button on your email should be to review what you just wrote.

Put yourself in the seat of the person who will be reading your message and check the tone. Have you addressed their needs or concerns? Think of the one or two salient points you wish to convey. Are those prominently featured at the top of your message?

Here are few more suggestions for applying that finishing touch:

  • Don’t trust the spell checker. Word processing programs are not infallible, and sometimes they can miss a word that is spelled correctly but doesn’t fit in the context of a sentence. If you’re not sure, check the word in a dictionary.
  • Know your own stumbling blocks. Are there some words you know you have a hard time spelling or using correctly? Keep an eye out for them.
  • Double-check dates on a calendar. Even if you’re just setting up a meeting, pull out your calendar and check that the day of the week matches the date.

Rochester freelance writer Chris Swingle offers these additional suggestions:

  • Print it. You will spot mistakes on paper that you don’t see on the screen.
  • Read it aloud. Hearing your words is different from seeing them.
  • Listen to your gut. Don’t ignore that feeling of hesitation about something. If you think to yourself, “That’s how he spells his name, right?” — imagine alarm bells clanging. Go check the spelling.

Taking a few extra minutes to review what you wrote can improve communication, head off misunderstandings and avoid a costly or embarrassing typo.

(Published in the Democrat and Chronicle’s “Women at Work” column; Tuesday, November 27, 2012.)

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Mind Over Matter: The Power of Visualization

Watching the Olympic men’s gymnastics trials this past weekend, I noticed one of the athletes getting ready for his pommel horse routine. His eyes were closed, and his hands were moving in the air in front of him as he went through the routine in his mind. When he approached the pommel, you could see that he was relaxed and totally focused, and he went on to do a great routine.

A guest essay in Saturday’s Democrat and Chronicle entitled “Clearing Mental Hurdles” explores the importance of mental preparation. SUNY Brockport professor Dana Voelker says, “It is no surprise that to win gold, athletes must be in peak physical condition and possess superior technical skills. But when some of the world’s best athletes crack under pressure, we are reminded that elite athletic performance isn’t all physical – it’s mental, too.” Coping with stress, goal-setting, a keen ability to focus, imagery techniques – these are all part of their strategy.

This isn’t just for athletes: musicians can also use these techniques. It may take many hours of practicing until your fingers have the muscle memory to form the notes and you get the sound you’re looking for. But there’s also a certain amount of mental preparation to stay focused and not get stage fright or lose your place in the music.

Violinist Fritz Kreisler said, “To rely on muscular habit, which so many do in technique, is indeed fatal. A little nervousness, a muscle bewildered and unable to direct itself, and where are you? For technique is truly a matter of the brain.”

A few years ago, I had the privilege of being in the sound booth as WXXI Music Director Julia Figueras interviewed Van Cliburn Award-winning pianist Alexander Kobrin. She asked him what he did right before he went on stage, and he said he just kept going over the music in his head, which helped him stay calm and focused.

According to an article in Making Music magazine, “Improve Your Playing By Letting Go” by Aaron Pelc: “When you imagine yourself performing perfectly, you are physiologically creating neural patterns in your brain, just as if you had already physically performed the action. The clearer you can visualize it, the better.

One of the most famous examples of visualization is this story about Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe. On his way to the 1912 Stockholm games on board an ocean liner, instead of actual physical training, he spent much of his time just sitting on the deck, visualizing himself winning the long jump. He went on to win the gold medal in the pentathalon and decathalon.

Golden Link Fifth Tuesday Member Showcase Concert, 7/31/12, photo by Bill Gamble

This sounds a little like something from a fantasy or sci-fi novel, but I can attest to the power of visualization. I sing and play folk music on ukulele and mountain dulcimer. Right before a performance, I try to slow things down and just think about the music, going over in my head the parts that are likely to be the most challenging, reminding myself of the structure or shape of the song. This helps me to feel prepared so once I go on stage, I can relax and enjoy making music.

The Olympic athletes right now are in the world’s spotlight, and as we are seeing in event after event, they are competing not only with the players from other countries; they are also competing with themselves, their weaknesses, their doubts. As swimmer Rebecca Soni said after her gold medal-winning 200m race yesterday: “I need to keep my mind in my own lane and focus on myself.”

In my mind, the winners are those who can stay focused amidst all the noise and media attention, and who also are clearly enjoying what they do. Just look at that big smile on Gabby Douglas’ face when she won the gold medal in the all-around gymnastics competition!

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Tweet Seats and the Concert Experience

Following up on last week’s post about how social media affects your experience of the world around you, I decided to look into a new trend I only recently heard about: “tweet seats.” This is where a section of a concert hall, movie theatre, or performance space is set aside specifically for people who want to post Twitter comments via their mobile devices.

I came across a great article about this on the NPR blog: ‘Tweet Seats’ Come To Theaters, But Can Patrons Plug In Without Tuning Out? The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra offered a small section of tweet seats and got a generally favorable response from concertgoers. During the concert, they had someone backstage tweeting their insights into the music you’re experiencing. Patrons could follow a specific concert via a hashtag (#), post their comments, and read what other people thought about the performance.

This is not a totally new concept. Back in 2004, I attended a Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert where they were testing the Concert Companion, a handheld device similar to a Palm Pilot which provided real-time program notes during the performance, and I tried it out. On the program was Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, one of my very favorite pieces of classical music. As the device identified the various elements of the piece, which instrument was playing the solo at that moment, etc., I found that I did listen to the music in a new way and didn’t find it too distracting from the actual concert experience.

For another look at the Concert Companion, read this 2004 New York Times article about a New York Philharmonic concert: A Concert You Could Read Like a Book. This writer’s experience was similar to mine, except that his device locked up right near the end of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, so he missed reading the notes about the ghostly cackle (one of the best parts of that piece).

I think technical glitches were an ongoing problem with those devices, which may explain why they never became widely used and have gone the way of the Palm Pilot. And the Concert Companion was only for that specific purpose, and didn’t offer two-way communication. With today’s smartphones and the newer technology, I could see where orchestras could find a way to use a handheld device to engage the audience and improve the concert experience.

Back to the concept of tweet seats. In March, The Guardian (UK) did an online poll asking this question: “Would you welcome ‘tweet seats’ in theatres?” And the poll results:

  • 10% Yes: All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely tweeters
  • 90% No: Out, damned tweets

This article – Could Tweet Seats In Theaters Be The New Smoking Section – goes a little deeper into the pros and cons of tweet seats. Among the advantages: engaging younger patrons and getting some free publicity for a show or movie. Disadvantages: breaking the essential link between the performer and the audience, encouraging people’s notoriously short attention spans in today’s digital universe.

I think most telling is a comment posted at the end of the NPR story about tweet seats: “Why can’t you just enjoy the performance and talk about it with humans after the fact? I’m 23 and all too familiar with F’book and twitter, but seriously, we need to be able to put our smart phones down. Maybe I’m just old fashioned.”

That comment had the most recommendations of all the comments posted on that story, and I’m inclined to agree. What’s your take on it?

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Staying Connected – But Not Through Social Media

The cover illustration of this week’s issue of The New Yorker (“Capturing the Memories” by Mark Ulriksen), is particularly appropriate for this time of year. It shows a family on vacation in a beautiful tropical setting, all decked out in the usual sunglasses, Hawaiian shirt, straw hat, and sandals. They are all looking down at their iPhones and Blackberries, probably tweeting, posting, or texting about their experience. In the foreground, you see the shadow of someone taking a picture of them with a cellphone (and he’s the only one actually enjoying the scenic view).

Now that I am using social media more, both for business and pleasure, this image got me to thinking about how using social media affects our actual experience of our surroundings. Today’s smartphone makes it so easy to share what we’re doing with others. But while doing so, are we somehow missing out what’s going on in the here and now? Continue reading

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The Merry-Go-Round of Life

On a recent trip to my hometown, we stopped by the local park, and I was pleased to see that they still had the old-fashioned wooden merry-go-round.

I know it probably isn’t as safe as the newer playground equipment, but I have fond memories of riding on it, spending what seemed like hours seeing how fast we could get it to go and watching the world (well, my little corner of it) spin by in a blur. Continue reading

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The Simple Joys of Contra Dancing

Contra dancers at the Champlain Valley Folk Festival in 2006.

Do-si-do and swing your partner. Ladies chain. Gypsy. Hey for four. …

If these phrases are familiar to you, chances are you’ve been to a contra dance sometime in your life.

With some of the same steps as square dancing, contra dancing is done all over the U.S. to mostly traditional folk music (fiddle, guitar, keyboard, accordion). It grew out of English country dancing and the French quadrille, but is primarily an American style of dance and has strong roots in New England. After I started attending contra dances, I learned that my grandmother went to contra dances at the grange hall in northern New Hampshire in the 1920s. Continue reading

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