Sunday, March 30, 2008

Thoughts on the symphony, youth and diversity

Last night at the Alabama Symphony concert I studied the audience--as I usually do. Although my survey was in no way exhaustive, it still was indicative. I saw one young black man and no one else as young as my Girl Scout companions.

I will admit that an audience full of the very young would likely be squirmy and noisy, but there are many children who would be enraptured by the music and the musicians, whose lives will be changed by the experience of a symphony or might be inspired by a soloist. And for many of these children, the only way to light their fire for classical music is to take them to a concert. Not a children's concert, but one where there is an obvious expectation for them to behave well and show respect for the performers. And if they can interact with the symphony musicians as my charges did, the impact would be profound.

Yesterday I spoke with a mom who brought her daughter to Cave9 for music lessons. We discussed the lack of diversity in our youth orchestras and whether the city has enough passion for music to support a program like Scrollworks. This mom said there's plenty of passion in her community--just not the money to pay for lessons. In fact, the three families that came to Cave9 this weekend want to take lessons in everything we offer--eager to dabble in every genre the way they have tried every sport until discovering their favorite.

We have two young men beginning viola lessons at Cave9. My goal is to get them and their families to the symphony. And I want to find the interested few at Hill Elementary who would benefit from the experience. Someday I want to go to an ASO concert, survey the audience and discover that it better reflects the population of Birmingham. I think that will be good for the city and good for the ASO.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

A different kind of music

Yesterday at Cave9, we met Celia and her tiny dog, Little Man. Celia stopped by on the way to and from her neighborhood errands. Little Man is a long-haired chihuahua, small enough to fit in my hand and as sweet as can be. In our conversation, Celia mentioned that she lived in public housing and that someone was threatening to take Little Man away from her because she couldn't afford heartworm pills and thus was considered to be mistreating the dog. With tears in her eyes, she explained that before she was moved to this area, she had a job and could afford the treatment. She also told us about how everyone in her family had died, most recently her sister in December. Little Man is her family.

So today I am going to arrange with my vet for Little Man to be tested for heartworms and get the necessary treatment.

Scrollworks is not just about music.

The white and brown puppy in the photo is not my dog. That is Sniper, the neighbor's dog who comes to visit every morning. Either I let him in, or he digs under the fence. He's made himself quite at home.

And the miniature dachshund on the other side keeps slipping under the gate into our yard. It's nice to be popular!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Passion, dedication and bravery I cannot hope to match

The Wall Street Journal updates us on the status of the Iraqi National Symphony:

Mr. Wasfi launches into a bewildering tale. The symphony performed at the Al Rashid theater downtown for years, but soon after the invasion the place was looted and burned. So the orchestra moved to Al Ribat Hall, which was merely vandalized. But it was officially given Al Shaab Hall, which was attacked in '06 and has been ineffectively repaired twice, while the Convention Center popped open briefly before that deal was rescinded.

So now the symphony performs regularly at the Hunting Club in Mansour, a kind of haute-suburban country club with a large ballroom, and anywhere else they can. It uses Al Shaab Hall for rehearsals. For many orchestra members, that requires driving down Haifa Street: Its once-elegant bullet-pocked apartment blocks saw some of Baghdad's most intense sectarian firefights before the Surge and pro-government Sunni militias had an effect. As in much of the city, open streetfighting has abated. Suicide and car bombs are the new threat. During one trip I took with friends to the auditorium, an Iraqi soldier shot a car behind us.

That the symphony has kept playing appears nothing less than heroic to the outsider. Aside from location, Mr. Wasfi has to worry about the audience, orchestra members, instruments and sheet music, funding, punctuality, electricity, bathrooms, air supply -- every aspect of the job. He is also the orchestra's solo cellist. Many essential professionals have fled the country, from musicians to technicians.

"Any of us could find a job abroad," Mr. Wasfi says. "In fact, I moved my sisters to Sweden -- they think I'm crazy to stay. So why stay? To fight back against the malevolent and the ignorant. I like to think that we inspire people -- they see us and they see the barbarism everywhere. It gives them a choice: It could be like this, or like this."

Ultimately, though, Mr. Wasfi is disdainful of the heroic; every day he faces a highly complicated and distracting logistical challenge that gets in the way of the music and its quality. He has also launched a nationwide composition contest and his wife, who lives with him in Baghdad, has just had a baby.

"Of the 70-something orchestra members, we have some 50 left in town. Of those, on any given occasion, you can't tell how many won't show up, especially for rehearsals -- most do, thank God. We adapt. We play pieces that favor the orchestra we still have . . . a lot of Mozart and Haydn. Instead of a harp we use the piano and so on. Also our library was badly looted so we choose pieces from what sheet music we can muster. I've developed a number of new young players and others have had to become proficient in second instruments -- finding music teachers is another problem.

"We need new instruments, cases, maintenance tools. Things wear out here quickly what with Baghdad's weather, the absence of heating or air conditioning, the dust storms, and the like. At one point, carrying around a musical instrument was such an invitation to disaster -- to kidnapping, robbery or attack from a religious fanatic -- that we all had to keep one at work and one at home."

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Picasso: Never been done before

From the Full Circle Associates blog:

Thus when we used to make our constructions, we produced “pure truth” without pretensions, without tricks, without malice. What we did then had never been done before; we did it disinterestedly, and if is worth anything it is because we did it without expecting to profit from it. We sought to express reality with materials we did not know how to handle and which we prized precisely because we know that their help was not indispensable to use, that they were neither the best nor the most adequate. We put enthusiasm into the work, and, this alone, even if that were all that there were in it, would be enough: and much more than is usually put into an effort — for we surrendered ourselves to it completely, body and soul. We departed so far from the modes of expression then known and appreciated that we felt save from any suspicion of mercenary aims.

Pablo Picasso, reported by Jaime Sabartes in, Picasso: An Intimate Portrait, New York 1948

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Music lessons want to be free?

Ran across some discussion about the implications of giving away technology and products for free.
I think this applies to what we're attempting with Scrollworks, as well. What do you think?
I'm still processing how it might work in the long run if we made music lessons available for free to everyone who wanted them. How could we sustain the program? Should tuition to the ensembles be free?
I have a feeling it might work.
From Kevin Kelly's Technology wants to be free:
As I have argued elsewhere (see my 2002 New York Times Magazine article on the future of music for example) the great attraction of “free” music is only partially that it does not cost anything. The chief importance of free music (and other free things) is held in the second English meaning of the word: free as in “freedom.” Free music is more than piracy because the freedom in the free digital downloads suddenly allowed music lovers to do all kinds of things with this music that they had longed to do but were unable to do before things were “free.” The “free” in digital music meant the audience could unbundled it from albums, sample it, create their own playlists, embed it, share it with love, bend it, graph it in colors, twist it, mash it, carry it, squeeze it, and enliven it with new ideas. The free-ization made it liquid and ‘free” to interact with other media. In the context of this freedom, the questionable legality of its free-ness was secondary. It didn’t really matter because music had been liberated by the free, almost made into a new media.

Technology wants to be free, as in free beer, because as it become free it also increases freedom. The inherent talents, capabilities and benefits of a technology cannot be released until it is almost free. The drive toward the free unleashes the constraints on each species in the technium, allowing it to interact with as many other species of technology as is possible, engendering new hybrids and deeper ecologies of tools, and permitting human users more choices and freedoms of use. As a technology grows in abundance and cheapness, it is more likely to find its appropriate niche which it can sustain itself and support other technologies in commodity mode. As technology heads toward the free it unleashes the only lasting thing it can: options and possibilities.
From Kevin Kelly's Better than Free:

When copies are free, you need to sell things which can not be copied.

Well, what can't be copied?

There are a number of qualities that can't be copied. Consider "trust." Trust cannot be copied. You can't purchase it. Trust must be earned, over time. It cannot be downloaded. Or faked. Or counterfeited (at least for long). If everything else is equal, you'll always prefer to deal with someone you can trust. So trust is an intangible that has increasing value in a copy saturated world.

There are a number of other qualities similar to trust that are difficult to copy, and thus become valuable in this network economy.

And there's an entire (free!) ebook by Miikka Leinonen on the subject called the Strategy of Giving.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Casals on Teaching

For the last year, I've bombarded Nick with books to read. Now I've asked him to return the favor, choosing those books that might educate a non-musician from the recommended reading lists he has posted on his blog and on the main MYO blog.

The first book is Joys and Sorrows by Pablo Casals. It is a wonderful book, expanding my admiration, my empathy--and giving me an example to live up to.

Here's Mr. Casals' comment on teaching:
To be a teacher is to have a great responsibility. The teacher helps shape and give direction to the lives of other human beings. What is more important, graver, than that? Children and young people are our greatest treasure; when we think of them we think of the future of the world. Then consider the significance of nurturing their minds, of helping form their outlook on the world, of training and preparing them for the work that they will do. I can think of no profession more important than that of teaching.

Big Ideas

From Ben McConnell's Church of the Customer Blog:

The big ideas of today, like making all of your intellectual property available for free, or launching a social network for customers or developing an extreme niche like space tourism, are easily dismissed because they're not safe bets, and they upset the existing balances of power -- two additional sources of skepticism.

Just as they did 13 years ago, the big ideas of today don't have simple and clear pathways to fruition that anyone can understand, but someone probably does. You'd better believe that virtual communities dismissed by Stoll in 1995 are breeding grounds for idea generation in 2008.

The big ideas Stoll dismissed required years of evolution to become viable. They went through a period of natural selection and homeostasis, where the idea remained intact but the external forces around it changed.

These days, a big idea person has to be a biologist just as much as a marketer and a technologist.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Old news

Click on the image to read the email at the bottom.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Met with Resistence

Seth Godin on persistence:
If it were any other way, it would be easy. And if it were any other way, everyone would do it . . .
Thanks, Seth. Persistence needs the occasional inspiration.

Chopin and the Fourth Dimension

Science News reports on Dmitri Tymoczko's work with music and the geometry of hyperdimensional objects:
Music theorists have long found Chopin's E minor prelude puzzling. Although the chord progressions sound smooth to the ear, they don't quite follow the traditional rules of harmony. When Tymoczko looked at the piece and watched the composition's motion through his geometrical space, he saw that Chopin was moving in a systematic way among the different layers of the four-dimensional cubes. "It's almost as if he's an improviser with a set of rules and set of constraints," Tymoczko says.

What's particularly amazing, Tymoczko says, is that the mathematics needed to describe these spaces wasn't even developed in Chopin's time. Nevertheless, he says, "it is unquestionable that he had some cognitive representation of the space. So there was this period of history where the only way Chopin could express this abstract knowledge was through music. His knowledge of four-dimensional geometry was most efficiently expressed through piano pieces."

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does. 
-William James,psychologist (1842-1910)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Infamous Infrastructure

The previous post has made me wonder. Is the ASO only interested in attracting an audience that can donate? While I'm sure that's not true officially, actions speak.

We've heard a lot about the need for Scrollworks to develop an infrastructure. I have personally witnessed an organization shift from focus on the original mission to focus on raising enough money to support the infrastructure.

Scrollworks will not go there. While we insist on paying our teachers fairly, we will keep the infrastructure lean to ensure that the mission remains the focus.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Passing the Test

Ashari's dad, Benjamin, wanted Ashari to attend the symphony with me last night. He and his wife were thinking about going, too. As I've mentioned on the main MYO blog, Benjamin studied piano, cello, and violin with his aunt when he was young and is very musical himself. He asked me what Ashari should wear. I told him church clothes. He asked if he could wear shorts and a polo shirt. I told him that there would be some college students there in jeans. He decided he could do jeans and a polo shirt. He's a truck driver and lives in the housing project across from Cave9. He doesn't have a suit. But I would be proud to go to the symphony with him no matter his clothing.

I rushed home to Alabaster from Cave9, changed, and then rushed back to the Alys Stephens Center. As I stood outside the box office waiting for Ashari and her family, I looked around me with their eyes. As I paced between the pillars, a man in a suit kept checking on my whereabouts. The older couples and the volunteers arriving to work raked me up and down with an examination and evaluation. My clothes were nice, but my messenger bag doesn't match. However, I am confident in my place at the symphony, so I faced the trial without flinching. But, had Benjamin and Ashari arrived before me, I cannot imagine how they might have felt standing there, waiting to attend their first symphony concert and being scrutinized with critical eyes.

They never came. I was neither surprised nor disappointed. But I was disappointed in my new perception of the Alabama Symphony. I think the ASO needs people like Ashari and her family to be in the audience. Ashari is smart and musical. Her family is working hard to improve their economic situation. They value culture and someday someone in that family might not just attend the symphony but become a patron.

But even if I can get them to one performance, I doubt they would come back of their own accord. And I do not see how the ASO can easily change to make the concerts welcoming, the music accessible to people like Benjamin and his family. I think that is a sad loss on all sides.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Inspiration Despite the Flaws

Nick and I began talking about Scrollworks in August of 2007. At the end of that month we saw the video of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra at the Proms. I have Nick's email response posted above my computer screen: "It can happen here."

Like anything, I'm sure El Sistema is not perfect. I'm sure Jose Abreu has flaws. I know 'Tocar y Luchar' presents the best possible view of the program. Some of the articles I have read pointed out Abreu's dictatorial personality and that the most talented children are taken from their families to give them access to the best instruction.

However, that does not mean we cannot take inspiration from El Sistema and Mr. Abreu, or implement the best and most applicable aspects of the program. And the 'Tocar' documentary is a moving way to illustrate what we would like to accomplish.

Details on El Sistema are difficult to come by. Many who are trying to start similar programs have gone to Venezuela to see it in action. But the program that currently serves a quarter million children cannot resemble the program that began with a handful of children in a garage 30 years ago.

We continue to be inspired by the persistence and the results. But we are not foolish enough to think that our efforts should exactly copy theirs to succeed. In fact, the core aspects of our vision is totally different. It will be exciting to see our documentary in 30 years!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Answer is Love

The answer is love. Love is for you, from you, and because of you. Just give it.

From "Why Good Things Happen to Good People" by Post & Neimark.

Extreme Altruists

Creativity in the moral realm can transform itself into a kind of genius. Only a few of us are overcome by this profound sense of calling. These are the folks we call extreme altruists: they are the Bachs and Beethovens of the moral world, the ones who are so single-minded and focused that they willingly make great sacrifices. . . For these folks, giving has a momentum of its own that is unstoppable

From "Why Good Things Happen to Good People" by Post & Neimark.

Bringing out more

Eric Roter, an emergency room physician and master cellist:
"A few months ago, I played for a lady who had cancer. She died a few weeks later. Playing for her was so amazing, and I feel indebted to her because she brought out more in me than I could've brought out by performing alone."
Drumming in groups can boost the immune system, according to a study involving more than one hundred participants . . . According to . . . Dr. Barry Bittman. . ., an increased number of infection-fighting immune cells wa found in the drummers' bloodstreams. The drummers also had an improved . . . hormone balance that is beneficial to immune function. A control group that simply listened to drumming . . . had no change in either measure.

From "Why Good Things Happen to Good People" by Post & Neimark.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Needed Inspiration

"...At L'Arche, there is almost an asymmetry of communication because the members are disabled and so you enter into their space and end up discovering what's really important in life. We all tend to inflate our own importance." Listening and being present for another actually reveals the three lies that we often live by and that cause us pain, says Reimer: the lie that we are what we have, the lie that we are what other people say about us, and the lie that we are what we do for a living. In listening, we reveal deeper truths about the primary force in relationships: today I trusted someone. Today someone trusted me. Today I was able to give something significant to another.
from "Why Good Things Happen to Good People" by Post & Neimark

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Work on

"Never despair, but if you do, work on in despair." -- Edmund Burke

Monday, March 3, 2008

Music prevents crime?

From Jacksonville:

Cuff says exposing children to music at a young age will rescue them from a future of crime.

"If we can begin to emphasize culture in our kids, we're going to change our community."

He reaches out to many children through the Jacksonville Symphony Youth Orchestra.

It has been around for 15 years. There are 220 children, between the ages of 6 and 22, who make up the orchestra.

When he isn't working with JYSO, Cuff is reaching out to under-priviledged and at-risk children, through the Jump Start Strings Summer Camp.

The Potter's House Christian Academy has partnered with JYSO for the annual camp. It gives about 100 underserved children between the ages of 6 and 11 years old the opportunity to learn to play a string instrument.

He also joined forces with Dr. Richard Kersey, a member of the NASEMBA Business Alliance.

Dr. Kersey sponsors a group of children, known as Kersey's Kids, who are participating in the summer camp. He allows the children to use his Northwest Jacksonville office after-hours to practice music.

Through these efforts, Cuff hopes to see a change in the youth culture in Jacksonville and help spread the joy that music has put in his children's lives.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Looking for a deep reservoir

Above and beyond what we've asked of you, Nick and I are going to have to ask people for money.
We are both extremely reluctant to do so.
I don't know why. I think it's because we find it so much easier to give than to take.
We've already had so many friends give in so many ways. We truly appreciate every single one of you.
It makes us uncomfortable to be needing still more.

We have really talented people helping us create and define Scrollworks. They say we will be ready to apply for grants during the fall cycle and that they will help us get there.

We are teaching at Cave9, Hill Elementary, and will begin soon at the Jazz Hall of Fame. We have funds available to pay our teachers and buy instruments--for awhile. But soon we will need more.

Nick and I are giving Scrollworks every bit of time, energy, and money that we can because we believe so deeply in what we can accomplish through this program. But Scrollworks needs more.

I figure we can do it. We can find the courage to ask others to believe as much as we do.
Nick's father fought in World War II. Going into battle requires more courage than I can imagine.
My father heard a bullet go past his ear. While working on his PhD thesis, he climbed on top of a rock fall in a mine entrance only to discover that the rocks harbored a rattlesnake nest. He was my ideal of bravery.
So we've got the genes and the examples to guide us.

We've had the courage to create the youth orchestras, with many voices telling us we shouldn't and couldn't.
We've turned a summer day dream into Scrollworks despite many (much appreciated, if ignored) cautions from reasonable people.
My guess is we'll jump off this next cliff, as well, and discover another deep reservoir of courage.

Saturday, March 1, 2008


Philip's description of trying to find the Altamont School:
What were they thinking? "Let's draw a duck with the roads?!?"