Archive for The Book

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

Play Something Pretty That You Like

Play Something Pretty That You Like is my in-progress memoir of the past two decades entertaining Community Venue (TM) audiences – the folks who spend their days in senior homes, nursing homes, facilities for the disabled, hospitals and prisons.

The title derives from a request that I used to get from a sweet little lady at Heritage Hall in Charlottesville, VA where this all began. The ladies there would always ask me to play songs that I didn’t know and had little desire to learn…

“Play The Old Rugged Cross!”
“Gosh, I don’t know that one.”
“Play In the Garden”
“Gosh, I don’t know that one either.”

And then this sweet little lady showed up in the audience one evening, and for her few remaining months with us she would always say…

“That’s okay, young man. You play something pretty that YOU like!”

One day, not long before she left this earth she confided in me that I always got those same requests for ancient gospel songs because “…that’s all we ever hear”. I nodded.

“Aren’t there a lot of young musicians in this town?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“But you’re the only one that comes to play for us; the only one who seems to know we’re not stuck somewhere in our past. Thank you for that.”

To this day I continue to honor that lady and her lovely request, because I know that if I play something pretty that I like, the musical magic takes over.

Play Something Pretty That you Like must also touch on the ten of those twenty years that I spent advocating on behalf of these audiences, demonstrating their professional and artistic viability. I must wonder, in print, why contemporary musicians systematically ignore and deprive so many music lovers of music’s true life value.

In twenty years I feel as though I’ve got a pretty good handle on the deeply ingrained American artistic mindset that yields this undeniably inhuman result, and Play Something Pretty That you Like will both speak to that and, I hope, serve to begin to shift the paradigm.