The Music Lesson

I’m sitting on the cold tan metal folding chair in the narrow hallway. The hunter green carpeting looks fairly new, but the cream colored vinyl moulding has seen better days. Although as I scan the white wall across from me, I see that the scrapes, nicks, and handprints littering the paint blend nicely with the scuffed moulding. Apparently the wall has its own story.

I am twenty minutes early for my mandolin lesson. Behind the closed classroom door next to my row of chairs the sounds of electric guitar chords mix incongruently with the trumpet blaring a halting version a Mendelssohn tune from a room two doors down to my left. The piano tinkling a show tune in the last room down the hall is interrupted …

… “Good job,” the guitar player’s instructor enthusiastically blurts …

… and the violin to my right chirps happy notes agreeing with him.

Three chairs to my left the mom of the budding guitarist reads her novel. She periodically coughs into her hand and then turns a page. She seems to be oblivious to all that is happening around her. It must be a very good story she is reading.

To my right a black Epiphone guitar case stands lonely against the wall. Its owner is MIA, probably perusing music books, maybe buying a set of strings or some flat picks, occupying himself before his lesson starts.

It’s Tuesday afternoon.

This story is about waiting your turn surrounded by sounds, patience, and creatively killing time. It’s a story about the drive to learn, the need to prove you can do it. It’s about never thinking you are too young or too old to create music.

In the Company of Songwriters

It’s funny how you can walk into something with certain expectations but walk away with something you didn’t bargain for – something much better.

I spent mornings last week attending a songwriting class from Common Ground on the Hill. Josh Hisle, an Iraq war veteran, led the sessions along with his friend Dan Collins – both accomplished songwriters with an apparent passion for sharing their skills (links to their sites are below). I signed up for the class thinking I would learn about crafting songs – structure, form, and how to connect to your audience. We didn’t really touch on how to actually write songs in the context of verse-chorus-bridge-hook-etc., but my takeaway was that songwriters write about things that speak to them. Those things could be war, family, memories, feelings, characters, or even chickens. The other takeaway was that it’s okay to be nervous when you perform in front of people and that nervousness will probably diminish as you perform more often.

It turned out that everyone was expected to participate, whether singing or speaking his or her song/poem. Since I haven’t written anything since high school (expect for that Martin Lifespan strings contest entry a couple of years ago), I had to dust off a couple of songs. Actually, I not only had to dust them off but also had to add to and update them. Which brings me to another interesting fact about the class – everyone provided the story behind how the song/poem came to be written. That was awesome, not something we usually get when listening to a song on the radio.

I explained that the first song I was going to share with the class was written in 1974. I had been telling the women where I worked a summer job that I wrote and performed a song for the high school talent show. One of the women told me to write her a love song. I told her to give me a line, and at that moment she looked down at her smock and said, “My uniform is dirty.” I said, “Great, that will be a line in the song.” I believe she thought I was nuts.

I wrote the song, although it was short and not structured well. I pulled this song out of my binder, added a bridge and some new words in the verses, and sang it the next day for the songwriters. After class, one of the girls came up to me and asked if I ever told the women I finished the song. I don’t recall if I did. So the girl said I should let her know. After a little Internet searching, I found that the woman passed away several years ago. So now I guess I’ll flex my songwriting skills and write a song about missing the opportunity to let the woman know (her name was Joann, by the way) that I finished her song.

The thing I enjoyed the most about the class was being around songwriters, listening to them as they told us about and sang their songs. I can understand why artists form communities. It’s a rewarding experience to be around someone who knows what you’re going through as you explore ways to express yourself through word and song.

Oh, and one more huge takeaway – I plan to do this again next summer but may take even more classes from Common Ground on the Hill.

Josh Hisle – http://joshhisle.wix.com/music#!

Dan Collins – http://www.reverbnation.com/dancollinsmusic

Common Ground on the Hill’s Music & Arts Festival

We spent last weekend at the Carroll County Farm Museum attending the Music & Arts Festival. Yes, it was terribly hot, especially on Saturday, but we had a god time. The variety of live music was exceptional. Bluegrass, blues, Celtic, old time, classic rock … just about anything. Here are some pictures with more to follow in a separate post (these were taken with the iPad; the others on my phone).

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Who Turned up the Music?

I have gone instrument crazy over the past few weeks – musical instruments, by the way.  I guess I could blame this on The Deer Creek Fiddler’s Convention early in June, or I could throw the fault on Common Ground on the Hill and their Roots Festival last weekend.  But honestly, it’s all me.

I bought a used hammered dulcimer after the Fiddler’s Convention, and last weekend I bought a mountain dulcimer.  Jamie plays both (you recall Jamie, my boyfriend who is a musical wizard and who provides for my auto needs since he works at Mr. Tire).  All told, there were three trips to House of Musical Traditions in Takoma Park, one trip to Appalachian Bluegrass in Catonsville, and the weekend (yep, both days) at the Roots Festival at the Carroll County Farm Museum.  Lots of miles, lots of money.  Okay, not an exorbitant amount of money, but enough where I guess I’ll be going back on my Weight Watcher’s diet now (salad, salad, and more salad).

I love the string instruments.  Guitars are still my first love, of course, but now I’m going to open up my hands and fingers to other strings.  (Oh, did I mention I bought a mandolin last year after the Fiddler’s Convention and haven’t even started trying to learn that yet.)  Oops, I forgot about the ukulele I picked up also (thanks to Dee, my nephew’s wife who now plays).

Look at it this way – even if I don’t learn these fine musical things scattered all over my house, at least Josh will be able to sell them and get some money after I’m gone – right?  So I guess you could say I’m helping provide for him after I die?  Okay, that’s a stretch.

Anyway …

Thanks to Jamie I’m already learning a few songs on the hammered dulcimer.  And just like Jamie, I’ve become a hammer whore (his term, not mine).  Yep, you read that correctly – we are both hammer whores.  I think he’s got something like twenty or so pairs of hammered dulcimer hammers.  I’ve got ten pairs.  All different woods, all different handles, all different styles – all for different sounds on the strings.  The pair I’m loving right now is single-sided rosewood with a heart cut-out and circles on the hammer heads.  Stunning.  Handmade by Bob Bedard in Catoosa, OK.  Sweet guy – included a handwritten note when he shipped my other two pair of hammers.  I highly recommend his hammers – beautiful in looks, magnificent in sound.

And if you’re interested in hearing some great music on both types of dulcimers, check out Dan Lundrum (hammered dulcimer) and Bing Futch (mountain dulcimer – totally awesome!).

It’s 8:30 am, Saturday morning.  Buddy (my 9-year-old dachshund) is barking in the basement at the squirrels under the bird feeders.  I’ve got the deck door open.  Sunlight is filtering in through the trees behind the deck, crickets (locusts?) are doing their noisy thing in the woods, birds are chirping and singing to each other.  My coffee is still decently warm as I sip in-between writing this blog.  I’m waiting for delivery of my new mattress.  Josh is coming home from Atlanta later today.

Life is exceptionally good.

A Peaceful Setting in Vermont

One of my Facebook “friends” is Martin Guitars.  I have a Martin HD28V which I named Aiden which has incredible depth of sound.

Today Martin Guitars posted a question – “Sometimes it’s nice to be peaceful on your own and play – where would you like to take your Martin when you need to get away?”

I posted my comment without any hesitation …

One the last day of school in May, Josh took me to a spot on the outer rim of Castleton’s property where there’s a little wooden bridge that crosses a stream.  The water in the stream is the clearest I’ve ever seen.  It runs over rocks of all sizes and sounds like peace.  Josh and I sat on the bridge, feet dangling close to the running water, and we listened to the sounds around us.  Water, birds chirping, leaves rustling in the slight breeze – it was so calming.

We plan to go back there when we move him back up to Castleton. I can’t wait. I’m thinking maybe this time I’ll take my Little Martin with me. Maybe that sounds a little corny, but what the heck. I think I’ll get inspired and maybe write a song – something I haven’t done in mega-years.

The Only Living Gal in the 70’s

Honda is using the Simon and Garfunkel song THE ONLY LIVING BOY IN NEW YORK in one of their commercials. I think it is so awesome when a company picks an old song like that. When I first saw the commercial it stopped me in my tracks. I was like, “I know that song – what the heck is it?” And after running it through in my head a few times, I figured it out.

Of course, then I had to download my S&G 4 CD box set. Previously, I had only downloaded a few of their songs onto my iTunes. You know how it is (maybe) – you want to put the new songs on your iPod and show how cool and current you are with today’s music – especially when your kids are going to peruse your playlist. Right?

It takes something like Honda’s commercial to jolt me back to the music I loved when I was growing up. Once I get started with a tune in my head like THE ONY LIVING BOY IN NEW YORK it is only a matter of time before I’m reliving the days when I used to listen endlessly to groups like S&G, The Beatles, Elton John, Neil Young, The Rolling Stones, Boston, Cat Stevens, and all those other wonderful artists. Oh, for the old days of putting an LP on the record player, flopping into my yellow beanbag chair, gazing endlessly at my yellow and orange bedroom walls, burning incense, and singing along ‘til I was exhausted. Where have those days gone? If I tried doing half of those things today, would it feel the same as it did back then?

Sounds like a good segue to songwriting itself. Come on, people – pull out your guitars or pianos or whatever and start writing a song about the old days and reliving them through music. Pump yourselves up – put on some great old tunes and remember what you were doing when you first heard them. Put yourself into the song and then let yourself out and then start writing that song!

Yeah, man … cool! Maybe I’m THE ONLY LIVING GAL IN THE 70’S!

What More can I Say (or Sing)?

I love music.  Most genres (rock, classic rock, alternative, bluegrass, folk, classical, new age, some country), not all – although I’m not so closed-minded as to not listen to something if it’s striking in any way.  I admit I used to be one of those who just said no to hip-hop and rap, but then one of the results of having a child (if you’re anything like me) is that you listen to what your son or daughter listens to.  And that can change your mind if you’re open to listening, if just for one or two songs.

I remember growing up with the music of The Beatles and how my parents (especially my dad) tried desperately to keep my sister and me from listening to them.  Luckily, my uncle (only four years older than me) would play Beatles and Rolling Stones until the LPs and 45s (yes, LPs and 45s) would, I assumed, get scratched and unplayable.  I understand what my parents went through because I almost fell into the same trap – I wanted to keep my son from listening to what I categorized as “not worth listening to.”   But do you find that if kids what to do something they will, no matter what their parents say?  Well, one day I found myself listening to my son’s music and thinking, “hmm … that’s not really so bad.”

I admit that sometimes I can find messages in music I would have ignored years ago.  Eminem is a prime example.  My pre-teen son was adamant about listening to him, and at first I blocked the music out, but slowly, I started listening to the words.  Read that again – to the words.  Maybe you don’t particularly enjoy the type of music others do, but sometimes you might find that there really is a message behind the “noise.”

Of course, some people like rap but hate bluegrass.  Or like country and despise heavy metal.  But if you can open your mind for even one or two songs, a new dimension of the music may find its way into your mind.

So why the theme of music for this blog?  Well, last Saturday night I was at Birdie’s Café in Westminster waiting for Transcendent Third to take the stage.  Okay, it’s more a corner of the room than a stage, but all the same … in my opinion, T3 is really, really good.  Check out their website if you’re so inclined (www.t3music.com).  What makes them good?  They write their own music; they play multiple instruments (guitar, violin, bass); their lyrics are insightful; and just as important – they know how to connect with the audience.  Did I mention that they’re identical twins?  Matthew and Michael.  Folksy.  Simon and Garfunkel-ly.  Good music, good lyrics.  Time well spent.

But even more than all of that, I’ve got the bug.  I want to play the guitar and sing and connect with an audience.  I used to love doing that when I was in my late teens and early twenties.  There is something so damn cool about connecting with people.  The hesitation to get up there and do it is that I don’t know if I can any more.  It’s been thirty years and I’ve changed a lot.  I have to give presentations at work sometimes and I get nervous in front of people I work with everyday.  So what would it be like getting up in front of strangers?  Is it that it’s easier to perform in front of people who I don’t know and may never see again than it is to give a presentation in front of people I know?

In 2006 I was making plans to take the guitar out if its case and sing at The Pour House (now Birdie’s Café).  I was pulling myself up and out of a shell I crawled into in 2005 (a very long story for another time).  But The Pour House closed towards the end of 2008 and I was devastated.  I put the thoughts of singing back into the case with guitar and stood them all against the wall in my living room.

Now Birdie’s is open and T3 is singing and the bug is back.  Will it become a reality this time?  Time will tell, I suppose.