Perspectives on music education. Have a point of view? Let us know. You're amongst friends.
How Did I Get Here?
That’s a David Byrne quote—now you hear it, maybe—but anyway, hi again. I’m back to continue this conversation about the Music Empowers theme. I am hoping to have this become something of a dialogue, even if that is not quite technically possible in this format. I am interviewing some touring artists at music festivals I am attending this month, and will be sharing those videos on our YouTube channel. I would also very much love to hear your stories or comments in response, and on other social media, but more importantly, I would love for you to share your own stories with people you care for, especially kids, be they music students or just kids who are crazy about music.
In the last blog, I posited that “...music is personal. We have all been moved by music and empowered by music in ways we may not have considered.” Then I asked you to “think for a minute about the importance of music in your own story”. Well, that wasn’t a rhetorical question, and since I have been buttonholing some of my old friends and clients asking what “music empowers” means to them, I figure it’s only fair to share my own story. While I don’t feel that it is profound or enlightening, intrinsically interesting or illustrative of anything, really—it’s just one guy’s story—it will probably explain why this SpreadMusicNow mission is so important to me.
Although music ultimately led me to where I am today, I didn’t benefit from the type of programs that SpreadMusicNow supports. As a result, I didn’t have much in the way of formal musical education or training, and music didn’t empower me in the ways addressed by the countless scholarly articles and studies extolling the benefits of a rigorous musical education. However, music gave me the confidence to face adversity and embrace myself. Music helped me to better understand and deal with the world and the people around me, and find my own path forward.
Apparently, I was in love with music from the start. My mom tells me that, as an infant, I used to bounce up and down to the beat whenever I heard music. As a 3-year-old, I would race around the house chirping and tweeting when “Rockin' Robin” came on the radio. I was mesmerized by “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”, and I understand I was also enamored with Bobby Vinton’s “Roses Are Red (My Love)”, but let us not dwell on that… I was very young, and fortunately, have no memory of any of this. Somewhere around the 2nd grade, my parents had the good sense to get rid of the TV in our home, so I read all the time and listened to the radio fairly obsessively. I also pored through my mom's record collection: a couple of Beatles anthologies, Carole King’s Tapestry, Janis Ian’s Between The Lines, Jackson Browne's Saturate Before Using, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and my own prized possession, K-Tel’s Dumb Ditties collection. In the Summer of 1979, I even wrote down all of the lyrics to Billy Joel’s 52nd Street album on a trip to the beach. I am pretty sure I got car sick.
My parents certainly appreciate music. My dad played piano as a kid and even had a band in high school. When we had a piano in the house, he used to sit down and dust off some of his old boogie-woogie riffs to get my brother and I fired up, which generally led to total chaos. My mom has always had a cool record collection, and as an avid listener, she played an important role in supporting my love of music. Her father, however, was utterly consumed by his love for music. He wanted to be a jazz pianist, and even performed at Carnegie Hall when he was 12 years old! As a teen, he would sneak out of the house, and cross the Hudson to see the legendary big bands, in their heyday, perform at The Cotton Club and elsewhere in New York City. Watching him listen to his records was entertainment in itself, as he was transported to another time, if not another planet. His parents pushed back against his dreams to play music professionally, however, and I think his greatest regret was that he let them win that battle of wills. I actually never even saw him play piano—I think it broke his heart to do so. When he passed away, he gave me his record collection, which spans the entire big band era, and it is one of the material things I treasure the most.
I probably wasn’t pushed to study and play music as much as I could have been. To cut my parents some slack, by the time I should have been prodded a little, in response to my obvious love of music, I was already enjoying a busy, fulfilling childhood. I was often in my own little world with a book and a radio. I was getting into painting and visual art but—as much as I needed to listen to it—I don’t believe I really thought a lot about playing music. I was a serious hockey player, and knowing what kind of commitment that requires of a parent, I’m sure they would have supported me if I had asked to play an instrument at this time, but I don’t think I did. Listening to music was something I did whenever I could, but playing music was something I did in school.
I got a reasonably good mid-1970s / 1980s public school music education, but I wasn’t one of those kids who studied music outside of school. I did love music class, though, and were it not for a great music teacher, I likely would have always just played the radio. It was 1st-grade and we were supposed to whistle in a song we were learning, but I couldn’t whistle. I had no front teeth. Ms. Sullivan asked if I could snap my fingers, and I could, so she had me snap while the other kids whistled. That simple kindness and excellent teaching made me feel included, and even special. This truly may have been my first moment of personal empowerment through music, and maybe it unconsciously led me to play percussion. Thankfully, it was not the last instance of a great music teacher having a positive impact on me.
My parents separated around the beginning of 5th grade, and my younger brother and sister and I moved to Avon, CT with my mom. This was an adjustment period, and I struggled to fit in. I was the new kid, and didn’t have many friends. Hockey had been an important part of my life from the age of five, but I really only hung out with those kids on the ice. More than ever, music was a source of comfort, a friend I could rely on to cheer me up and keep me company. My identity was being shaped by the music culture I hungrily sought out, not just through the radio and turntable, but also through magazines like Rolling Stone, Circus, Creem and Hit Parader. Concert tee shirts and ripped jeans completed the outward manifestation of my newfound, adolescent identity as a wannabe 5thgrade rocker. This was in stark contrast to the Izod Lacosse shirts all around me, and I grew more confident with each new music-inspired step towards individuation. Within a few months, I made friends with a handful of other bookish geeks and misfits with whom I played Dungeons & Dragons. We all shared a passion for music, but we weren’t all into the same stuff, which generally led to an argument. Thus, we got pretty serious about knowing what we were talking about, digging into our little idiomatic fortifications, arguing the merits of this band or the other, identifying with our choices, and— in the process— inadvertently learning to appreciate each other’s musical preferences (but not enough to stop arguing, of course). Music was a profoundly powerful core component of our individual identities, and this gave us the confidence we needed to confront the challenges of adolescence and middle school.
It was right around this time that I experienced my first moment of true self-awareness. Maybe it was the unhappiness and the alienation I was feeling, maybe I was just the right age, but the self-awareness was nearly instantaneous, like a veil being lifted, and it was triggered by a song on the radio: The Who’s “Who Are You”. I know that sounds a little trite and obvious, but I remember it clearly, as if it was yesterday, in minute detail: I was lying in bed, reading "The Upper Berth"— a short story in a collection entitled Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery— and the song came on WAQY (“Wacky 102”), a classic rock radio station in Springfield, MA. I even remember the radio: an AM / FM / lamp combo my grandfather had given me. As I said, it may be too convenient, but when Roger Daltrey sang the words “who are you?”, I actually put down the book and asked myself the same question. The fact that this was brought on by a song likely speaks to my already well-developed connection to music, and it is a great example of how music (like scent) is deeply intertwined with memory.
The primary focus of this essay was on how music contributed to my sense of self at an early age. Alhough I certainly got in trouble for some pretty typical teenage stuff, and dealt with the same emotional highs and lows as every other kid, high school was possibly a little easier for me than for a lot of other kids, because I liked to learn and read and I had a pretty clear idea of who I was, all thanks in no small part to the power of music to motivate and inspire. More than music, however, it was the people around me who helped me to succeed on my musical path, despite my not having a rigorous or exceptional music education. What music education I did have was supplemented with small acts of empowering compassion and kindness that ultimately provided me with the confidence to press on: Ann Caton, a music teacher living across the street when my parents were in the process of separating, who invited me to come over and learn a little, even though she knew I would soon be moving; Chuck Meese, a talented, Mississippi John Hurt influenced finger picking guitarist in Glover, who saw my passion for music and gave me some free lessons to see if guitar was something I wanted to pursue (I couldn’t, there was no money, but he extended his hand anyway); my friend Sean Harkness, a remarkable guitarist, who gave me a little tutoring when I was struggling with an Intro to Music Theory class at UVM, then—when I was feeling frustrated—telling me how he really appreciated my ability to comp, which is something he found to be rare in harmonica players; the UVM percussion ensemble professor who appreciated my ideas and let me approach the scores with a little “flexibility”, shall we say, because my sight-reading was so weak.
There were so many other instances, but like that music teacher I had in 1st grade, Ms. Sullivan, each of these small acts of kindness worked to support the person—not just the player—and in doing so, made both the player and the person more confident and empowered throughout my formative years. That confidence led me to performing in bands in college and afterwards, which led to me getting more heavily involved in my community and grass roots education and activism, then the music business, all of which ultimately led to me having this incredible opportunity to “do good work” in the world through this remarkable organization.
In writing this blog, I spent a lot of time thinking about my childhood, considering the profound impact of music on my identity and consciousness. Whereas discussing my personal empowerment through music may have been somewhat cathartic for me, I definitely have wondered if or why anybody else would or should even care. I concluded that, although my story may not be enthralling or particularly unique, that in itself may be the point: if the music and the people in my story inspired me to dedicate myself to helping kids through music, then maybe-- if other folks can relate to my simple experience-- it can help them to see how important music was on their development, in their own personal stories, and inspire them to “play it forward” a little bit. Considering this coming week is National Arts In Education Week, I cannot think of a more perfect time to put this modest theory of musical empowerment to the test. With this in mind, I invite you to please find a musician or a music student and give them a hug. Tell them they mean something to you. Encourage them. Make their day. Empower them. You will feel a sense of empowerment, yourself, in doing so...