Timmy Deane and I

Oh me… Oh my… there we were… the King and I.
Just a couple of regular guys we were having the time of our lives.

That’s my line. I should be singing that lyric. I’m at the front of the room, playing the
guitar. I’m the one with the amplifier and the microphone. But… it’s Timmy Deane
singing, from the third row. Timmy Deane is singing loudly and frankly I find myself
unable to sing just this second, relieved that Timmy can carry the entire chorus.

You probably don’t know Timmy Deane. Timmy Deane is twenty-couple years old. Dark hair, thin face… hell, he’s thin all over. He wouldn’t be so thin and he would stand pretty tall if he could ever get out of that wheelchair. But he’s strapped in.

Timmy Deane is quadriplegic. He’s developmentally disabled, and I’ve never heard him
say a thing, but I know he can make sounds. He laughs, and I know he likes music and
loves Elvis. The King and I is a song about seeing Elvis at the airport and the laundromat
and the bowling alley, and it’s Timmy’s favorite song from my repertoire.

It’s not popular, not a song you’d ever hear on the radio. I’ve never met anyone that has
heard it prior to hearing me play it, which I’ve done here once a month, for the last three
months. This is exactly the fourth time Timmy Deane has ever heard this song, and here he is singing the chorus fully through as loudly and clearly as a lead singer. His enunciation is impressive, his timing flawless.

I should be singing the second verse now, only I can’t recall the words so I continue
strumming the C-minor chord where Timmy left me hanging. Timmy Deane has knocked
me for a loop; snatched the rug fully out from under a host of notions about people and
music, ability and disability and life itself.

It’s air conditioned here but I find myself heat-stricken by an adrenalin near-overdose. It
feels great in an uneasy way – in that way that things feel great when they are great but
you’re not sure that you are really entitled to feel this great. Like driving a Porsche
undetected at triple digit speeds down the Blue Ridge Parkway, or winning the lottery.
Like an inmate set free.

I notice now that about half of Timmy’s friends in the audience are looking at him, some
turned fully around in their chairs. Most of the staff members present are also staring at
Timmy, and then I notice Christine, the director, is smiling at me. I notice it peripherally,
for I’m not about to make eye contact with anyone just yet. I will cry if I do.

Cm…. Cm…

…and I draw a long, slow breath of this rarified air deep into my lungs. It
works. I recall the line and pick up where Timmy Deane left off.

I saw Elvis Presley… and John Belushi..

Grandma Wants A Watch Tattoo

I should get a watch tattoo, close to the truth
where the hands only point to Now.
The concepts are cool but
they’re short of the truth and
the truth about Then is Now.
I only can be, then Now I will be
all I will be then Now.

The grandchildren are the hope for the future, to put a spin on a popular cultural idea. It’s a catchy cliché, but also the underlying reason that so many seniors are musically ignored by our culture.

This truth is most dramatically highlighted during the holidays, when “the grandchildren” come around to senior homes and nursing homes to bring a snowflake of cheer to “the grandparents”; one that will quickly melt in the new year leaving the grandparents shivering alone in musical silence. And while I’m grateful that the grandchildren and their adult music mentors make a point of dropping by with a few carols, it also breaks my heart.

I understand that our culture desperately hopes beyond hope that the future will be better than the present, but I’m mystified by that because two things seem so obvious.

1) Dissatisfaction with the present rolls endlessly into the future. No matter what Americans bring into their present lives they seem perpetually dissatisfied.

2) The future does not exist. Those grandchildren are never going to do anything in the future. They can only affect our future by acting now, in the perpetually unfolding present moment.

But we don’t like the present moment, which is in a very real sense the gift from those who came before. This present moment that we simply must get away from is an unrecognized outgrowth of what has “been done to us” by those who came before. And those people are “the grandparents”. They did this to us. Not our children’s grandparents of course, but someone’s.

And that is why, when it comes to music and the arts, the grandparents don’t matter much. Except, of course, at Christmas time when God and Santa Claus are watching ever so closely.

It is sad, to me, because what happens is that we arm the grandchildren with implements of the arts, but rarely share the results with the grandparents. We find ways to get musical instruments and instruction to the grandchildren, but we leave the grandparents in musical silence. We never stop by to say, or play, “Thank you!”

We forget that were it not for the grandparents we would not have factories that build musical instruments, nor schools with music classrooms, nor churches for choirs. We would not have musical venues nor the streets that connect all of these things, nor the transportation that gets us around.

And perhaps most importantly, were it not for the grandparents, we would not have the freedom to create these musical programs that arm the grandchildren with implements of the arts.

And that is why the grandparents are worth it; why the grandparents should not be left in musical silence day after week after year after decade.

May the spirit that arises from desperate hope for the future find a way to manifest in every present moment of your new year.

Happy Holidays from Alice and Greg

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On Co-Writing a Song for the Next CD

After my November Horizon House show a young man from the audience asked me if I could turn something he’d written for his girlfriend into a song. I said I might be able to and asked him if he had written it down.

He says “Yes. I’ve got about 5 pages.” Yikes!

I’ve been having the most incredible songwriting fun for the past two days!

After my November Horizon House show a young man from the audience asked me if I could turn something he’d written for his girlfriend into a song. I said I might be able to and asked him if he had written it down. He says “Yes. I’ve got about 5 pages.” Yikes!

But then he pulls out these little pieces of paper about the size of that notepad that Columbo used to keep in his coat pocket. Whew! I looked them over for a minute.

“I know it’s a love song, but you need a consistent theme. It kind of goes all over the place, and a good pop song has a focus; a recurring theme. Does that make sense?”

Shannon, a staff member, was listening and when Daniel said “Yes, that makes sense”, she said she would help him as he worked through a rewrite. Then I asked them to type it so I wouldn’t misread something. I was a bit nervous since it’s enough of a challenge for me to write my own songs.

After the show this past Thursday Shannon handed Daniel a piece of paper from the printer, and as he turned to me I recalled our chat. He looked a little shy now that the moment had come to share these intimate thoughts in this new way, or maybe he felt like he would be imposing on me.

“Are those your lyrics, Daniel?” I smiled, and he kept the piece of paper at his side.

“Yes.”

“Is that my copy?”

He looked up with a smile. “Yes.”

“Okay, I’m on it. No promises about how long it might take though. Okay?”

“Okay. Thanks.”

I scanned the page and saw a lot of repetition; a LOT of repetition. He had taken the theme idea to heart. But I knew right away I could work with what he had written, because he had some really great lines in there; some really great poetry.

“Okay. Look, I might have to shift some things around, and cut some of the repetition out. I might change some words to help with the way it flows, or the way it rhymes. But I’ll keep it true to what you’ve written. Once I get my adaptation done I’ll let you look at it, to be sure it’s what you want. Cool?”

He had lit up like a Christmas tree. “Yes. Thank you, Greg.”

Friday morning I grabbed the guitar and started banging out some chord progression ideas that worked with his theme then set to work on the lyrics, honing and shaping them into a pop song sort of verse/chorus format.

It’s been a little over 24 hours since I sat down with it and I’m rather in awe of how easily it went. My own songs take days and weeks to craft and shape, but this one really came together – a testament to the quality of the poetry he gave me, and his dedication to theme.

I’m not due back until January, but I may well make some time to drive down and sit with him to give it a test drive. If he likes it I’ll have some time to rehearse before the next show, and if all goes well I’ll debut the song for him and his friends, and especially his girlfriend, in January.

What an honor this experience has been. Thanks Daniel! Hope you like it bro…

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Therapy Dogs: Music to the Hands and the Heart

You’ve said it before yourself, that therapy dogs bring their own sort of music; therapy dogs are music to the hands and hearts of those they touch. And you were right. Remember?

A few weeks ago Alice’s buddy Hannah Bannanah Puddin at Natural Pet Essentials (NPE) in Charlottesville started up the Holiday Pet Food Drive. NPE takes donations of pet food for the dogs and cats at Ring Dog Rescue and Caring for Creatures.

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Here at SongSharing we were busy building awareness for the website and our continuing efforts to Make Music More Accessible ™, and so Alice, who is wise beyond her ears, comes to me with this brilliant idea…

Let’s do a win-win thing with Hannah Bannanah, dad.

“What did you have in mind, Alice?”

Let’s donate $1 per LIKE that they bring to our SongSharing facebook page.

“That sounds easy enough. You think we’ll be able to raise much money, though?”

Yup! Especially if we offer to double it to $2 per like if they get us 100.

“I like it, but we have to keep the budget in mind, Alice.”

I know. So we put a lid on the ol’ cookie jar, so to speak. We can cap it at $200. That’s an awful lot of kibble for the hungry pups, and all her people have to do is visit our page and click a button. What could be easier? She was right, but I did have one reservation.

“The thing is, Alice, Natural Pet does pet related stuff. We do music related stuff. How do they tie in? People like to be able to make a connection when it comes to this sort of thing. What interest would pet lovers have in an organization focused on Making Music More Accessible?” There may not be any dumb questions, but I was about to be schooled.

Excuse me? Who hangs out in the guitar case at Community Venues? Who greets everyone after the shows? Who’s the most adorable part of the act?

“Guitar case? You. Greeter? You.” I grinned. “But most adorable, that would be…”

Soft grrrr…. Don’t even try it, dad. You’ve said it before yourself, that therapy dogs bring their own sort of music; therapy dogs are music to the hands and hearts of those they touch. And you were right. Remember?

It had slipped my mind. I did say that.

SongSharing was founded in 1994, and Alice joined in 2006, not long after we rescued each other. It was clear from her first concert that she elevated the impact. Months later, when we were writing songs for It’s Time That Time Was Overthrown, I said that.

That’s your tie-in, dad. Wise… wise beyond her ears. I handed her a cookie.

And we’ve got another way to help with our music, dad, if we get 100 LIKES.

“Yes?”

We’ll donate some copies of It’s Time That Time Was Overthrown, since my picture is in there, and that story about the day that Arlo and Quincy and all those marvelous MadCo Agility people drove down to Horizon House and put on that big agility demo! It’s a perfect tie-in, and Hannah Bannanah can offer them up to help bring in some more donations.

God, I love this dog.

You talk about music to the hands and hearts… They still talk about that day, and it was… how does that work? Dog years and people years? It was like 49 years ago or something, for me.

“Yes, exactly. Seven people years ago. 2007, in the summer. They do still talk about it.”

And then our friends from Horizon House came to the Misty Mountain MadCo wedding, and folks from the Cedars. And this fall the MadCo people put on a demo at The Cedars. It all ties in, Dad. It’s all music, the dogs and everything.

Yesterday we dropped by NPE with ten copies of It’s Time That Time Was Overthrown and left them with Miss Hannah. We’re not sure what she has in mind, but we hope it will inspire some folks to donate to the Holiday Pet Food Drive. Ten warm-hearted souls will get a copy for themselves, or perhaps they can give it as a gift to someone special in their lives this holiday season.

**

Here’s a link to some songs from It’s Time That Time Was Overthrown – any of the songs with the image below are from the cd, which features ten songs that Alice and I co-wrote. It also includes cover versions of REM’s It’s the End of the World As We Know It and Dolly Parton’s Jolene – both REM and Dolly have shown their support for SongSharing over the years. gregallenmusic2

And if you want to help feed some wonderful dogs who did nothing to deserve the fate that has become them, then please stop by or contact Natural Pet Essentials right away and make a donation. Hannah will let you know what the deal is if you want a cd. Thank you for helping us all close out 2014 and ring in the New Year with a woof and a song!

Natural Pet Essentials is located at 3440 Seminole Trail – Suite 105/106, in Charlottesville. Their phone number is 434-979-9779. Ask for Hannah Bannanah Puddin.

npe 2014 donation

Of Sacred Space & Audiences Starved

Take me now, baby, here as I am
Pull me close, try and understand
Desire is hunger is the fire I breathe
Love is a banquet on which we feed.

Patti Smith / Bruce Springsteen

              DON’T SHOOT ME
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                                                                           I’M ONLY THE MESSENGER

In the summer of 2014 I sat with Kent Williamson of Paladin Media at Charlottesville’s Golden Living / Cedars for an interview, part of which is linked below.

I talked about the artistic space created when a musician performs a song – the sacred space wherein the listener can be precisely who they are in the moment. The song has no judgment; the song just does not care if it’s a world leader or a homeless person. The song and the space have no concern for the listener’s race, creed, physical situation, sexual orientation or anything else. This is true also of a painting, photograph or sculpture on display – the space is open to all.

So I wonder why so many musicians wield discriminatory and exclusive judgments about who they entertain. It might not sound so great when I say it but the fact is that this is the systematic practice of audience discrimination, and it’s astoundingly widespread in America. It’s doubly mystifying since musicians routinely sing out against discrimination, claiming to stand for equal opportunity & fairness. Weird, huh?

When I first began the SongSharing effort I heard time and again that musicians did not have time to volunteer music in Community Venues ™ because they were aspiring professionals, struggling financially to remain dedicated to their craft. As SongSharing found ways to pay musicians the song remained the same, with a sickening twist. They still did not have time because they were professionally busy, but now they said “Oh, dear. I couldn’t take money to play for those people.”

I have grown to despise the classification of Community Venue audiences as “those people”, as though somehow they are to be pitied. I don’t pity folks in senior and nursing homes, nor do I pity the disabled children & adults I share music with. I feel for them, very deeply & profoundly. But I regard them as artistically equal to anyone that might bask in the sacred space as themselves, fully and unapologetically.

And I feel for the musicians that do pity Community Venue audiences and believe that I am driven by pity, because they know not what they do. The result of this artistically condescending mindset is that these human beings are systematically excluded from the domain of musicians and artists, but the musicians and artists think someone else is at fault. “Those people” become the domain of charity workers, and the social services, and strange people like me who end up ostracized.

And if you want to confirm your hunch about what sort of artistic exposure this yields then visit a nursing home in your area. Wait in the lobby every day for one week – a fraction of the time the residents wait. Bring a pencil and sliver of paper and wait for the music. Make a little mark for every musician from your town’s “thriving music scene” that entertains for even 45 minutes; a mark for every artist that incorporates Audience Inclusion ™ in their professional bag of tricks. Make a mark for every musician that lives their lyrics in this way. Trust me, you won’t need more than a matchbook cover because you won’t be making many marks in America.

Alice’s pal Les Iszmore says “You know, out here on The Road Les Travels ™ it’s not right and it’s not wrong. It’s just the way we do it.” And I am not saying that it’s wrong to practice audience discrimination. It is what it is, and I, like the space this writing creates, do not stand in judgment.

But I don’t understand, because all I hear about these days are starving artists and declining demand for music, while the audiences starved in Community Venues represent staggering, rewarding marketplace demand and therefore professional opportunity. But the valuable demand they represent for live and recorded music is not even recognized as such, which has to do with why so many musicians wonder what the hell I’m talking about and think I’m crazy.

But I’m not. The sacred space has been forgotten, forsaken in pursuit of money and a distorted sense of recognition. And the result is the sound of silence.

Fools said I, you do not know
Your silence like a cancer grows…

Simon and Garfunkel

WWDOG DO

Last night I spoke out on behalf of a dog that went missing. A dog that had bolted before, but for some interesting reason is allowed to be off-leash in situations precisely similar to those in which he has bolted before.

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Lynn’s rendition of Alice’s ears

Alice the therapy min-pin is a huge part of today’s SongSharing effort. She brings a different sort of music, but it is music nonetheless; a different sort of healing, but healing nonetheless.

When I found Alice in Buckingham County, VA in 1995, after I had left a note on a couple of nearby houses and we headed home, I asked her a question that many of us dog lovers would have asked of a stray that we’d just picked up.

“What’s your name, little girl?”

In those days I honestly was not expecting an answer, but immediately she responded with “Alice”. I heard it clear as a cloudless full-moonlit night.

“Did you say Alice?”

“Alice.”

Admittedly I was a little taken aback, but I said “Well, then, Alice, you’re going to meet some new friends tonight. When we get a signal I’ll call ahead so Lynn can tell the pack that you’re coming.” We had six other dogs at the time.

In the next few years it became very clear to me that Alice is one of the wisest voices in my head, which is one of the sources of her Canine Messiah nickname, for she is wise beyond her ears. She’s also my co-writer, and together we’ve written many a song and are working on our second book.

And so, yes, I talk to dog, and dog talks to me. And that, I have learned is a gift, and an enormous privilege that is not to be taken lightly.

Last night I spoke out on behalf of a dog that went missing. A dog that had bolted before, but for some interesting reason is allowed to be off-leash in situations precisely similar to those in which he has bolted before. What I said in a very matter of fact, honest tone was taken as a little bit harsh by someone, although I still don’t think it was a harsh statement. It’s like when you shoot an arrow from a bow. If there is no target, or it sails past the target, the target feels nothing. But if it strikes true, well then…

So I fired an arrow of honesty if you will, from an aching heart on behalf of an animal that relies upon its humans for certain things. Among those certain things it is clear to me that our dogs rely on us to treat them precisely as the dog that they are. And that’s not a hurtful arrow. It’s just an arrow.

The “dog that they are” is often drastically different than the dog that some humans imagine that they are, or pretend that they are, or wish that they might one day be. We all fancy how wonderful it would be to have an off-leash dog that never leaves our side, and never responds to instinct and suddenly bolts in pursuit of a deer or a squirrel or a car as we holler they do not hear, and call them “bad dog”.

But many of us do not have the dog we wish we had in that sense. We have the dog that we have. Alice is a flight risk, and I respect that and treat her as such, and I love her all the same. And she is either on-leash, in a crate, in the house, the camper or a hotel room with Lynn and/or me, or in the fenced yard. That is my responsibility to her.

Alice and I hope the dog that bolted yesterday is found safe. Every ounce of our mutual being hopes that. And we hope that the humans learn something, and assume an added measure of responsibility for this dog they love. Because, in my book, until they do so, they are not even close to being the fabulous dog owners that they make themselves out to be. That’s a fantasy they hold about themselves, and it can turn expensive and it can turn deadly.

Look, I’m not claiming some sense of perfection here. I too have had dogs run off in my past. I have had dogs that I allowed to roam be killed by cars. I too have blamed the dog, and the neighbors, and the way people drive. And no one ever said to me, “You know, when your dog takes off after a deer and you scream and holler its name and tell it to come, that dog does not even hear you. That dog’s brain has effectively shut you and the non-instinctual world out in that moment.” Lynn taught me that a decade ago.

Dogs evolve us, if we only hear them and listen. And sometimes I understand now, people like me must speak up for them, because alot of people only hear “woof” or “whine”, which is a vocalization, and only a minute fraction of the extensive communication that they are capable of.

So I am going to continue to speak up on behalf of dog whenever the opportunity arises. Because dogs are an incredibly important part of this world and our lives. I see it everywhere that I see Alice the therapy dog in action, whether it be a nursing home or a store like Harmony Moon this past Saturday, or a restaurant patio.

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Alice, wise beyond her ears

Would You Like Fries With Your Oil Change, Ma’am?

…imagine that Exxon thought that they were in the “petroleum business”, since petroleum is the resource they work with. And so imagine that Exxon eventually gets to a place where there are so many petroleum extractors bringing petroleum to the petroleum business that the price falls drastically. What would the Exxon people do? Well of course they would all learn suggestive selling, and you’d walk into a fast food restaurant and the Exxon people behind the counter would say “Would you like fries with that?”

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Here’s the thing.

The thing is that musicians have no clue what business they’re really in. I have yet to meet a musician that understands the market demand that music supplies; the consumer desire that music fulfills.

And that explains a lot about what we have going on today, where musicians believe that music is undervalued by consumers. But it’s not. If it was undervalued it wouldn’t be everywhere in the marketplace. Everywhere you turn there’s music, and you can bet your sweet bippy that someone somewhere is capitalizing upon that in America.

And musicians know this of course. They complain about it. They are well aware that this vague, miasmic thing called “the music business” is making gobs of money from their music. And musicians do not like that. And I understand.

Here’s an analogy I came up with earlier this fall. We all know that Exxon is quite good at extracting a resource from the ground. That resource is petroleum. And we know that Exxon is very good at crafting this resource into certain forms that consumers desire – gasoline, motor oil, diesel fuel, home heating oils, etc.

But imagine that Exxon did not know what business they were really in. Imagine that Exxon thought that they are in the “petroleum business”, since petroleum is the resource they work with. This is analogous to musicians thinking that they are in the music business since music is their resource. And so imagine that Exxon eventually gets to a place where there are so many petroleum extractors bringing petroleum to the petroleum business that the price falls drastically. That’s Economics 101 – if demand grows very slowly or remains about the same or declines, and supply rises and rises and rises, then prices fall.

So, further imagine that Exxon really wants to be noticed, and really wants to be a petroleum star, so they begin giving their petroleum away for free in hopes of getting noticed. You know, musicians call it exposure. One of the funniest things I’ve heard from a musician who misunderstood what I was saying in a presentation in Atlanta a few years ago, thought I was telling the group to do things for free so they would get exposure. And he said to me, in a very defiant tone, “You can die from exposure.” And the group laughed and laughed, and so did I, albeit not for the same reason. But that’s another story…

So Exxon is giving away all of this resource that they have worked for years to develop and craft, and they watch while the petroleum business rakes in gobs and gobs of money from their petroleum, and they get a mere pittance, if that. What would the Exxon people do?

Well of course they would learn suggestive selling, and you’d walk into a fast food restaurant and the Exxon people behind the counter would say “Would you like fries with that?” And they’d keep on digging up petroleum and doing things with it, in hopes of getting their break one day, but their main source of income would be from the day job they hate – perhaps even from two jobs they hate.

Musicians should be able to relate to this. Because this is precisely what musicians are doing, in droves. Hordes. And it really sucks because musicians have been gifted, at birth, with their natural resource. They don’t even have to dig it out of the ground, or cut it down with a chainsaw, or grow it in a field before they can take it to market. It just flows out of them. They can’t stop it, which is why it is so frustrating to not know what to do with it in a lucrative, rewarding life sense.

I mean, sure, they have to craft it before they take it to market – they have to develop and refine the resource, and that is work in a sense. The labor of love sense. But for crying out loud, musicians are blessed with one of the most highly utilized resources in the American marketplace, and they give it away to other people who understand its true value. Then they bitch. And starve. And learn suggestive selling…

Herein lies the key. Musicians, most of them, simply do not understand the true value of music. And since they do not understand they have a very naïve notion that the valuation problem is with consumers in the marketplace. So you get what we have today, and have had for eons – musicians who want everyone else to change. They want consumers to pay up because “Dammit, music is valuable, and you should pay me. Dammit.”

Well, music is valuable. And it should be glaringly obvious that American consumers value it and pay lots and lots of money for it, year in and year out; decade in and decade out. I mean, music is everywhere. You can’t get away from it. It’s in stores and on tv shows and on the radio and on elevators and beaming down from satellites and…. Need I go on?

It’s clearly of great value or it would not permeate the market as it does. The “music business” sells music to just about every single aspect of the $18 trillion American economy.

Because the “music business” has a much more clear idea of the demand that music supplies. And of course they don’t tell you. It’s proprietary knowledge. “Figure it out, sucker…” That’s where they’re coming from. And as long as musicians buy into the illusion that music is not valued by American consumers, the “music business” will happily take their resource for free, sit and cry into a beer with them about how bad things are, and then drive home in their Benz chuckling.

Well, the true value of music is, quite simply, what I teach. I don’t really teach it, I just remind musicians. Because they know what it is, at some cellular level, and I have remembered and crafted a very rewarding musical life around this ‘remembering’.

And sometimes I’m pretty certain I am the only one in America who knows. The only one on the musician’s side of the “music business” I mean. It’s a scary, giddy sort of sensation at times, being in this position. But it’s fun. Mostly…

So I’m writing about it, and a couple years ago I put together a very simple, easily grasped program for musicians interested in evolving with an evolving marketplace. BnW Alice Oval cropped I’m not sure how many that encompasses, because so many seem to want to stay stuck in that place where the rest of the world needs to change – and damn well ought to – to make the musicians happy; to honor their true value.

Which has some validity, I suppose, except in the marketplace. In the marketplace that’s bullshit. People don’t buy too much stuff because they feel sorry for the purveyor. They buy stuff that they value.

That, dear musician friends, is Economics 101, and you know it. Because that is precisely what you buy – stuff that you value enough to pay for.

So, when and if you and your professional cohorts would like a little insight, drop me a line. Alice and I would love to meet you and talk to you, and help you build rewarding, lucrative professional careers wherein your art comes first – wherein you put the music first, relentlessly and without apology, then stand astounded as the money follows.

Until next time…

A Reflection on 20 Years of Making Music More Accessible

I wondered how different these past two decades would have been if just 50% of the musicians in our area had dropped by 3 or 4 times a year for a 50 minute show. You know, bring your guitar, sit down, play, leave. No big deal.

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Today Alice and I visited Charlottesville Health and Rehabilitation for one of our two monthly performance visits. This is the place where it all began for me in 1994. It was known as Heritage Hall then. I was working with the fine folks at Lakeland Tours (now known as WorldStrides) in those days and the community outreach committee organized a holiday party for the residents. The mom and aunt of my pal and co-worker Nedra shared a room at Heritage Hall then, so that’s how we ended up choosing that facility for the event, which was a continuation of their Make A Difference Day efforts that year.

In those days I had a pretty regular acoustic gig at a little coffee shop called Blackstone’s, so I had become known around the office as the music guy. The outreach committee had groups of Lakeland workers doing various things – some of them were making cookies and other goodies, some of them were making little ornaments that they could hang on the door of every resident at Heritage Hall, some of them were making and wrapping gifts for the residents, and so on. They brought me a list of office folks that either played an instrument or liked to sing and asked me to coordinate the music effort. So I printed up chord charts to a handful of Christmas songs that we would present, made up an agreeable schedule of rehearsals that would take place in one of the conference rooms at Lakeland, and things got underway.

One of the fun memories of the whole thing was the fact that one of the company Vice Presidents was part of the group – a good natured chap who I had gone toe to toe and face to face with a few times over the years on various points of differing managerial and administrative philosophy. Now here I was, making sure he got his part right for a few weeks. (Whuttup Jim? ;*)

So the holiday party came and went, and our little group of performers did a most wonderful job with our part of the deal. I have to tell you it was an incredibly moving experience for me, being the softie that I am. After the formal concert in the dining hall a few of us went room to room and sang a song here and there for folks who couldn’t get out of their beds.

When 1995 dawned Nedra came to ask if I would – or should I say insist that I would – continue bringing music to her mom and aunt Alice, and after plenty of attempts to wiggle out of it, I began to visit them weekly, on Wednesdays at lunchtime. I honestly believed that I didn’t know a doggone thing that two ladies in their 70’s or so would want to hear, since I played some original songs and covered bands like REM and KISS and the Beatles, and folks like Paul Simon and Gordon Lightfoot. How naïve of me.

Within a few weeks folks were coming to Alice and Clara’s room to listen – one or two at first, then five, then eight or ten. Soon they were spilling out into the hallway, creating an obvious safety hazard – if something happened and medical staff needed to reach someone in that room, precious time would be lost getting past the crowd.

That’s when Iris, the Activities Director, asked me if I would begin to stage a regular show in the dining hall on Wednesday evenings for anyone that wanted to attend. And the rest, as the French say, is histoire. I’ve been doing two shows a month there for most of the past twenty years.

So today… today Alice and I were there. I bet I’ve played more than 200 shows in that facility, which is pretty noteworthy I suppose. But there’s something even more noteworthy, something that makes me a little proud and at the same time rips my heart out.

There, today, at a table in the front row sat a lady who was at that very first show in December of 1994. Today, at Charlottesville Health and Rehab are two people, actually, who were at that first show. They don’t attend very often these days so it was a bittersweet delight to see her there, to be in her presence and share the joy and power of music with her.

It thrills my heart to know that I have brought this little speck of light to her for twenty years.

But it kills me to think that in some ways I’ve let those folks down, because I spent one of the past two decades trying to get Charlottesville’s “thriving music scene” to embrace the simple idea of Audience Inclusion ™. I built a non-profit that at its peak received in-kind support from REM, Billy Joel and Dolly Parton. International performers like Paul Rishell & Annie Raines, David Wilcox, Greg Howard, Dave Crossland, Zoe Mulford, Slaid Cleaves and Andrew McKnight played shows at area senior and nursing homes when I asked them. A very dedicated small group of local musicians including Tom Proutt, Thomas Gunn, Julie Goldman, and The Rusticators from Staunton played many a show in an effort to help make SongSharing successful.

But it never truly caught on here – in fact it was pretty steadfastly shut out by our, uhhh, our uhhhh… geez, I’m trying to be nice here… our uhhh… well you know… the people who sing about love and peace and getting along and taking care of each other and changing the world and all that. The people who played benefit after benefit for Katrina and tsunami and earthquake victims while they kept telling me they didn’t have time.

I don’t really like to harp on that era in such negative light, but I bring it up because here we are 20 years later, and I am not aware of anyone from our thriving music scene that includes these audiences in their musical vision. And as I played music today I could not get away from the painful little jab in my heart that comes from thinking about what it must be like to live in a nursing home for 20 years in a town like Charlottesville and be systematically excluded from the joy and healing power of music that so many could so easily bring.

I wondered how different these past two decades would have been if just 50% of the musicians in our area had dropped by 3 or 4 times a year for a 50 minute show. You know, bring your guitar, sit down, play, leave. No big deal.

But of course to the residents it is a big deal. Huge. Because recognition and inclusion are healing things that bring joy. And sharing your gift with your fellow beings is a sign of recognition – the recognition that these folks too are part of the community, even if they can’t drive a trendy car to the trendy bar and buy trendy beers. It’s a recognition of their humanity, and of the contribution that they have made to bringing this world precisely where it is today.

And while some might think the world’s a mess and they need to get out there and sing songs to “fix it up”, in one sense that’s bullshit. It’s bullshit because this world is also a place where musicians have unprecedented access to so many things – nice guitars, nice cars, nice venues, nice roads between their nice home and the nice venue, nice restaurants and nice radio stations and these people are a big part of why this world is so nice in so many way, and… and… do you see? Am I making sense here? How can they not see?

Or is it me? Maybe I’m crazy to think that people who sing about giving a shit might one day actually live their lyrics and act as though they give a shit. Maybe I’m nuts to think that the people who sing about what the rest of the world should do to change things, might actually start doing those things themselves. Maybe these musicians justifiably roll their eyes behind my back when I say that this is serious music, and when I call them Community Venues ™ and label the shows concerts. Maybe I’m just crazy to play for old people and sick people and disabled people.

Maybe….

No. No I’m not crazy. But I’m sorry. I’m sorry I was not more successful, for the sake of the residents.

And mostly I’m sorry for so many musicians. I’m sorry they’re in such a dark place, struggling to find the light. I’m sorry they’re struggling as they chase a vision so far away and so much later, while the success their heart seeks is right here, right now. I’m sorry they drive past it every day.

Happy Holidays, from Alice and me! _MG_9835

R.I.P. Aunt Gina

In 2009 I self-published a book that rather beat around the bush with respect to what I truly have to say to so many of the world’s posers – those who label themselves and fancy themselves to be musicians, artists, and spiritual teachers. But they are cheap imitations of the beautiful things they lay claim to. Perhaps they mean well but they are hollow shells ringing empty, likely doing more harm than good. The mirror needs to be held up to them, and for them, and in some cases slammed in their faces. And that is why I have come.

But I didn’t want to offend anyone then; I wanted readers and fellow musicians to like me…

My Aunt Gina read my book and quickly penned a stinging letter to me, calling me out and telling me to quit fooling around and say what it is I have to say. She told me how important my realizations, insights, actions, and message to this apathetic world is, and how I’d best get my ass in gear and be true to myself, my heart, and that divine thing that drives me, and to which I owe it all.

I’ve revisited that letter over the years, and it is a driving and inspiring force to me as I move into this next book, which will be written with all of the compassion I can muster, but will mince no words, and provide no safe haven for the posers who too often seem to dominate our world.

I spent the day celebrating my mother-in-law’s 85th birthday today, then came home to learn that my Aunt Gina passed away today at age 91. Life can be like that…

This lovely tribute was written by her daughter Bianca, who is an inspiration in her own right.

Luigia Philomena M. Miller
1923-2014
Artist.
Playwright. Poet.
Writer. Songwriter.
Painter. Professor.
Dreamer. Doer.
Athlete. Advocate.
Searcher. Survivor.
Insister. Resister.
Fixer. Fusser.
Fighter. Fearless.
Rescued her dad from Nazis.
Then stole supplies off their trains.
Unaware of her bad assness and other’s disapproval.
Unafraid to break rules, norms and balls.
Ignorer of all official signs, expectations and conventions.
Innocent in a million ways. Wise beyond most of us.
Mother to many. Friend forever to a few she loved dearly.
Believed in people’s potential and pushed them towards it.
Especially those unaware of their own powers.
Believed family was the most important thing.
Extended, of choice, of love. “You’ll see”. Yes, I do.
Believed in me, and taught me how to observe, always, closely, in the quiet.
That is where the good stuff lives, and art starts.
Believed she had exquisite taste.
Yet was an unashamed KFC lover.
Drove me crazy.
God I loved her.
On to her next big production.
And, finally, free.
She is light.
It’s all love.
There is peace.

I only hope that my life and my work will stand as some small fitting tribute to my Aunt Gina from this day forward. I am forever grateful for her unique honesty to me in that letter. In that regard she stood, and stands, alone.

It’s a good day to cry…

IF I HAD A FLOOR BUFFER

“It’s like this. This kid who is quadriplegic, nonverbal rolls into the room. We’ve never met him, he’s never met us. He’s never done any art. I don’t think he really ever went to school. And here he is.

We find out his signal for yes and no then tell him, in this flat serious professional tone, how the A.R.T. techniques work.

One of the staff leans in to speak, quietly suggesting, ‘I don’t believe he understands anything you’re saying.’

I was talking to my mom about this last night, so maybe now’s a good time to post something here…

One of the prominent mindsets that keeps musicians away from Community Venues™ has to do with how the audiences are perceived. It’s unspoken perhaps, but the fact is that Community Venue audiences are looked down upon. They are pitied and they are not considered artistically equal nor viable, and that explains why they are systematically ignored by contemporary musicians. They are considered “charity cases”, which is horribly exclusive.

If a musician should happen to entertain a room full of developmentally disabled children or adults, it is not for the same reason they entertain traditional audiences. They book a gig in an acoustic club because those are “their people”, their genre, the people who “get” their music; the people who tap their feet and sing along and cheer and applaud when the song is finished. They’re the people who look up, and musicians like to be looked up to.

But musicians comes to play for developmentally disabled folks out of a sense of charity; a sense of pity. They generally do not regard or approach these audiences as being artistically equal to a more traditional audience. Charity audiences are not “their people”, they don’t really “get” their music, and so many of them are incapable of tapping their feet or singing along or applauding with hand claps. And they’re most certainly not regarded as being one’s genre, or target audience. “Mainstream” (for lack of a better word) musicians play for the disabled (and the infirmed and the aging) because they pity them. They feel sorry for them. It’s condescending, honestly, because they are held in lower esteem than “normal” audiences.

It’s a truth that has had me shaking my head in disgusted wonder for 16 years now.

And what is even more mystifying to me so often is the fact that most of the staff members in so many Community Venues act precisely the same way. They do not regard those in their care as being artistically equal or viable.

I know this because I do consider these folks artistically equal. When I take music into a Community Venue I consider it every bit a sincere performance, not a charity gig for “poor them”. And when one attends a sincere musical performance, one does not carry on chatting and talking and vacuuming and buffing the goddam floor just down the hall, while the performance is underway. But it happens to my audiences all the time. We get stuck in a room where people are walking thru chattering away and laughing and carrying on, and of course there’s music going on and so they have to talk more loudly to be heard. Or we get stuck in a dining room after lunch while the staff is cleaning up and dishes are clanking away and silverware is being tossed into tubs.

Years ago, in a facility I was asked never to come back to, I arrived at the appointed time. My audience was waiting, and so was the lady with the floor buffer. She was pushing people out of her way so she could slide tables to the wall, clearly aggravated that they were here. You know, residents: the people who employ her and pay her wages; the people who are the reason that the bloody facility exists, and thus the reason she has her damn job.

This was the second time it had happened in three months. The first time I had asked the activity director to simply schedule me at a more convenient time. I understand work schedules. I wasn’t put out at all, that first time. But the activity director fumed when she heard that they were buffing the floors at 1:30 on a Wednesday, and she grabbed her little desk phone and she called housekeeping and she grumbled at whomever answered, and she slammed down the receiver and said “That won’t happen again.” And I walked out wondering why the residents and I should be caught up in a petty turf war.

So this time I said something to the buffer lady. I told her that I was here to stage a performance and that I had been told that the floor buffing would wait. And she stormed away grumbling obscenities and in a couple minutes she showed up with some supervisor type person. And this supervisor type person told me that the buffing would go on, and if I wanted to play music then I would do so in the hallway, where they would line the residents up along the wall to listen.

And I leaned towards her and hissed through my teeth, “That’s bullshit. These people pay your fucking wages. Get a clue.” And I turned my back on her and picked up my guitar and began to play, and they did not buff.

And the next day I got a call from the arts organization that sponsors me telling me that I had been asked not to come back. And this nice lady tried to make me understand that I was out of line. And I thanked her and said “That’s bullshit. Those residents pay the wages of those jackasses; those residents are the customers and they are entitled to be treated as such. I will never stand down on that point.”

Because I don’t understand. In every facility I entertain it is quite clear that the people who pay the tens and hundreds of thousands of annual dollars to be cared for are about fourth or fifth down on the organizational chart of priorities. But I believe that a resident should sign everyone’s paycheck, from the administrators on down. Residents should hand those paychecks to the staff face to face, every pay period.

This article from the fine folks at Artistic Realization Technologies, which I ran across years ago, is refreshingly supportive of my observation on staff attitudes.

“It’s like this. This kid who is quadriplegic, nonverbal rolls into the room. We’ve never met him, he’s never met us. He’s never done any art. I don’t think he really ever went to school. And here he is.

We find out his signal for yes and no then tell him, in this flat serious professional tone, how the A.R.T. techniques work. One of the staff leans in to speak, quietly suggesting, ‘I don’t believe he understands anything you’re saying.’

I think but do not say, ‘We’ll see about that.’ What good is it to presume this young guy won’t understand? How will we know until we let him show us he does?”

It was nice to find someone else who not only sees it and is mystified by it, but who also chose to speak up about it – albeit not in the moment. (Frankly I admire that the author of this piece held his tongue, which I did not. It’s arguably more professional and you end up not getting kicked out. Point well taken.)

And so this quadriplegic child paints their long-ignored heart out, and produces an impressive work of true art, and…

“The piece was far better than most of the stuff you’d see in a fancy art school. Much better. It was a real painting. Very direct, no fru-fru. It had power. It was clean.

One of the staff coming through the studio asks, ‘What is it?’ I say, ‘A painting.’ And he shakes his head the way you do to dismiss something you think is bogus, like shaking his head ‘no’. He couldn’t see the painting. There was nothing there, or at least nothing that struck him as art.

So I see the irony that the thing we figured would prove the depth of these young people’s inner lives: painting, didn’t register as true, awesome, serious, pro level high art.

The kid no one thought capable of sophisticated thought or feeling just fired out this gorgeous painting, it clearly proving the kid is more than whole inside. It proves the kid has some exceptional powers no one’s letting him tap. And this staff-person can’t see it. It doesn’t prove anything to him.”

“What it proved to him,” Solman says, “is that the abstract expressionists were a bunch of retards.”

Read the article.

This is a direct parallel to what I encounter all the time from Community Venue staff. They do not consider their charges to be worthy of a true musical performance. They do not realize that a dining hall becomes a theater when a musical performance is taking place. A TV room becomes a music hall when a concert is taking place. If you can’t see it look again. Walk a minute in their shoes… rather, sit a minute in their wheelchair.

It’s a huge lesson to be learned by the people that run and work in these facilities; it’s a huge societal paradigm that I am trying to displace. And sometimes it feels like it’s only me, which feels lonely, but I know it isn’t only me. There are those who get it, and I am so thrilled when I run across them.

My mom was taken aback last night when I began to share this insight, and she asked me if it was going to make its way into Play Something Pretty That You Like. I said that it is.

The book would not be complete without it, because the truth is that this is one huge reason why musicians who might once dare come to a Community Venue may never return, and it’s a huge opportunity for the staff and administration of these venues.

Stop treating live music as though it’s plastic bowling or bingo, for God’s sake.

Or I swear I’m going to bring my floor buffer to the listening room next time you go to an intimate music performance.

A.R.T. – Painter of the Month: Danielle Conti