Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Definition of Life: Time to Reproduce?

Scrollworks at Cave9 is not simply exploding, it's alive and growing:

The Cleverdons have been spreading the word. Many of their friends came in to get a few lessons and check us out. Now the main floor of Cave9 is filled with music stands and lessons. I don't know how many stands we have in the red bag, but they were all in use. We ran out of chairs, with parents standing against the wall. Elliot had a break around 2:30. He commented to me on the way to get something to drink that it was the most intense hour and a half of his life. I didn't bother to point out that it had been 2 and a half hours.

Sami dropped by, offering to teach when he can and getting a quick flute lesson for his daughter. He was amazed at the noise and general chaos. Nick agreed that it looked like an impossible place to learn, but he said that when the connection is made between teacher and student and instrument, the chaos fades into the background. You can see that as you look around. Everyone is focused and intent, from youngest to oldest.

The Vestavia Hills High School Music Honor Society came through at Cave9 yesterday. Matthew Kundler taught guitar. Alex Kyle and Heather Eggleston taught flute. Nick felt bad for these two. We didn't have many budding flutes on Saturday--but they would've had a line on Friday. Matthew, on the other hand, didn't get a break until after 4, even with Nick and Elliot helping teach guitar. Sarah Collins and a friend brought by a clarinet and sax donated by VHHS families. We can definitely use these at Hill Elementary this week! We so appreciate their support!

What struck me yesterday was how the parents of both students and volunteer teachers arrive to collect them at a pre-arranged time and then have to wait...and wait. Then they try standing right beside their child. Then they try persuasion and extortion. How often are music lessons like that for either student or teacher?

The Siglers were working with AnLeia and Eric to help Eric write a song. Their mom came and stood behind for awhile, finally going back to the car because the chairs were all taken. Matthew called his mom when the line for guitar students was gone. While he was waiting, he started working with Jarrell on the piano. His mom arrived and had to wait.

Another important development: I am now having teachers and students come to me because they've worked through the beginning method books and need the next one. Or they want sheet music to sight read.

Scrollworks has become a growing, living thing. The next step is reproduction. We're having a community meeting at Cave9 on Saturday, October 11 at 6 pm to 8 pm to brainstorm how to make this happen. Please join us.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Mining Gold

Perhaps you all are tired of hearing the Scrollworks tales. I've never had any experience like this before. Almost daily I have some encounter that touches my heart deeply. To me, this is a sign that we're doing something right. I want to share that feeling with you.

As I was getting in the car at the office, a lady came up to ask me about free music lessons. She has taken in three street kids who have been living with her for the last three years. She would love to give them music lessons--something they long for--but she can't stretch her budget any further. (She was on her way into the thrift store.) I gave her a brochure and the low down on Cave9. She said, "This sounds too good to be true! We'll be there tomorrow!" I cried all the way to Cave9. And I got angry as I unloaded the car. Then I went back to the office for a second load of instruments. (Last night I dreamed that a clerk was giving me a hard time so I grabbed his arm and squeezed. He was surprised at my strength. I told him I was a roadie for Scrollworks.)

When I finally was loaded in at Cave9, Brandon came in. It was well before opening time, but he took the trombone upstairs and played for a minute. Then he came down to talk. He said he'd put a CD for sale ($9.99!) on the internet. He explained that it started out as electronic music of his own composition, but ended up being mostly him playing the trombone. He's going to ask Bill Gates to promote it for free. (!)

Brandon asked me if anyone would come that could play duets out of the method books with him. I said I didn't know. Later, Thurston came and pulled out his sax. He's a middle schooler that plays sax and violin. Wonderful kid. Brandon asked him to come upstairs. They sat side by side for more than an hour, working their way through the method books. At one point they spent some time clapping rhythms. When I asked Thurston if he wanted a lesson, he said he'd gotten one from Brandon. So Thurston, who goes to private school, felt he learned something about music from an almost-indigent, slightly askew trombone player in a stained shirt. And Brandon, who frightened everyone with his strong rejections not too long ago, patiently shared his knowledge with a child.

Thurston's sister, Shaina, came in a little later. She spotted a young girl that she'd worked with on flute a few times. They hugged and broke out their flutes. They worked for a long time. As they finished up, Shaina bought this young lady one of our fund raising lollipops as a reward for good progress.

Two little girls came in with their grandmother for their piano lessons. They sit at the keyboards practicing until someone can get there to teach them. Nick finally got to work with them. Afterwards, he went to talk to their grandmother to tell her that these tiny girls are making excellent progress. He never compliments unless it's deserved. He went back to teaching. The grandmother started to cry. She thanked me for what we are doing. She said the girls' mother has MS and that these music lessons enrich the whole family in a special way. I gave her a hug.

Rick Nance, who we just met last weekend, substituted for Jimmy. He protested that he plays classical guitar and wasn't sure he could teach beyond that. He walked in the door with two students already setting up the electric guitar and bass. I told him to dive in, he'd be fine. And he was. He taught continuously, often grouping two or three students together or alternating between individuals on opposite sides of the stage. One of our regulars, a mom who brings her daughter for piano, said he offered her a new way to memorize the notes: say them out loud as you play. That seemed to be a breakthrough for her. (That's why Nick advocates swapping out teachers every so often.) Rick obviously felt at home. Having only briefly spoken to Nick last week, he ran up and grabbed a pencil out of Nick's hand to mark some music and then threw it back. Nick loved it.

Macey Taylor dropped by after a recording session to check us out. I waved my arms a bit. He offered to teach drums and I accepted. Nick was very grateful as the kids had put together the drum set rather haphazardly and were having a great time making their own explorations of rhythm. I noticed some of the good drummers come in from the housing project. Macey told me as he was leaving that he was really impressed by some of these kids. He'll try to come back today.

Once Claudia arrived, she was busy teaching violin constantly. She finally had our tiniest violinist at her station. His grandmother and I watched as Claudia worked on his posture, moving his feet, hands, shoulders. She gently adjusted everything over and over until his body adapted to the positions. We were so busy that we taught well past 6. I turned around and noticed that Claudia was still teaching this little boy. It'd been more than an hour. He's only 6, but he and Claudia were totally focused on teaching and learning. I reminded Claudia of the time and she was shocked.

I didn't have time to take photos yesterday. I hope I've made some pictures in your head. I hope you can feel the power. Nick and I talked for a long time afterwards. He said that Cave9 is a gold mine. He isn't even remotely thinking about money. He's thinking about music. He's thinking about community. A community music gold mine. Having some experience in gold mines (real gold mines, seriously!), I'd agree.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


NorthStar Youth Ministries is next to the McCoy church which now houses adult day care. Often when I pull in to the alley behind the church, the parking lot is full of these adults waiting for the van ride home.

One gentleman, not very much older than I am, paces restlessly and quickly but with an odd rocking gate. He circles endlessly down the parking lot and back up the alley and around again. As he walks, he seems to be mumbling to himself and making repetitive motions with his hands that remind me of conducting or even playing an instrument. The day I sat in the parking lot contemplating Diamond's situation, I watched him go by many times, his neck glistening with perspiration below his fringe of white hair.

It doesn't matter how carefully we all plan for our future. Any one of us might end up pacing endlessly in circles. The IRA and the nice home full of stuff mean nothing to this man. Perhaps his years of hard work have allowed him to pay for good adult day care, but I'm not sure he would know this or even care.

My mom has just retired in her mid-70's. She carefully planned her finances for many years. The recent financial crisis has had a significant impact on her and I'm sure worries her deeply.

For me, it's much more important that I make a difference while I can than to be prudent and cautious in the expectation that this will ensure my happiness in the future. The only moment we can be certain of is this one right now. Our only chance to live is now. The past is gone and the future is not going to be what we plan for, no matter how careful we are. And there are children to help in this moment, so I will help them.

From BellaOnline:

The Starfish Story
adapted from The Star Thrower
by Loren Eiseley
1907 - 1977

Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.

One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.

He came closer still and called out "Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?"

The young man paused, looked up, and replied "Throwing starfish into the ocean."

"I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?" asked the somewhat startled wise man.

To this, the young man replied, "The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don't throw them in, they'll die."

Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, "But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can't possibly make a difference!"

At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, "I made a difference to that one!"

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Investing in Diamond

This is Diamond. She's the latest to break my heart with her tears over not being chosen for the piano class at Hill Elementary. I told Diamond she would be in Dwight's wind class on Wednesday. The tears still came. I showed her a photo of the Wednesday class and she recognized some friends. The tears slowed. I offered to take her picture and the tears stopped, but you can still see a few unshed behind her smile.

Diamond didn't want to explain her return to class, so she asked if she could sit with me. As I rummaged through my crate for something she could help me with, I found the 'Opus' magazine that Craig Hultgren had given me. 'Opus' is the Alabama Symphony Orchestra's program and Craig is interviewed in this issue, including a nice mention of MYO and Scrollworks.

Surprisingly, Diamond read Craig's interview. Then she started browsing through the pages. For her, this was a window onto an alien world. Indeed, the contrast between her neighborhood and the ad content belies the few blocks between Hill Elementary and the Alys Stephens Center. The Halloween concert caught her attention. We read the names of the pieces together: Night on Bald Mountain, Danse macabre. Childhood favorites for me, mysteries for her.

As I sat in my car a few blocks away, waiting to begin piano classes at NorthStar Youth Ministries, I decided to try to scrape together enough personal funds to take Diamond to that Halloween concert. Financially things are tough for me right now. I made my big donation (Which my mom says I mention too much. Sorry!), but then we needed more to buy instruments and pay the teachers. So I tapped every financial cushion I had. Now there's nothing left and I'm living paycheck to paycheck for the first time in my life--except there's no paycheck.

As I contemplated this, I started to smile. If I had not cashed in my IRA mutual funds and index funds at the beginning of the year, I would still be worried because their value would be plummeting. I can listen to the latest Wall Street news and feel personally free (although that does impact our fund raising efforts!).

Instead of losing value, my investment has paid dividends far beyond any returns Wall Street could give me. Look at Diamond's smile. Look at the photos on this blog and on the main orchestra blog. Look at Armani's videos on YouTube. Come to an orchestra rehearsal. Children are the best investment and music is the perfect investment vehicle.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Commuting in the Slow Lane

I saw that huge slug crossing the sidewalk again as I left for the office this morning. He (She? How can you tell?) must commute, too! Wonder if slugs have 'rush' hour? Guess it would be 'rush' hours and hours. Sometimes coming home on I-65, it seems a slug would beat me to Alabaster!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

My Turn to Cry

I always enjoy editing the photos from our lessons and rehearsals. The faces make me smile and the learning, teaching and playing evident in every picture are my inspiration for the day.

This morning as I worked my way through the photos from yesterday at Cave9, I started to cry. This is a miracle. I cannot believe I have the honor of helping to bring these teachers (old and young), students, musicians--people--together to share and grow and bring our community together.

Yesterday a young man sat down at the piano and played 'Fur Elise' from memory, turning heads. This cheerful 6th grader lives in the housing project and has been in many times. Armani says his name is Durell (sp?) but I can't find him in our roster of students. (Of course, we don't pressure the kids from across the street to fill out forms because we don't want to create even the smallest barrier to their visits.)

Durell came up to me and announced that someone at ASFA(?!?) told him to talk to me about auditioning for music. Wow. Nick took Durell over to the keyboard and they explored his knowledge. He has talent, but is entirely self-taught. He can read some, but plays by ear. He's never taken a private lesson in his life. Nick taught him some basic jazz. Durell started playing around with that--and soon was grinning to himself with the joy of these new ideas.

I suggested that Durell go to ASFA's open house on October 4. He looked at me with despair--obviously that's unlikely to happen. So Nick wrote out a plan of study and told Durell that he had to come to Cave9 as much as possible. We will do everything we can to help him realize this dream. Durell sat at the keyboard for the rest of the afternoon practicing scales.

I've talked about Claudia before. She's now become one of the family. Yesterday she brought drinks for the snack table and her video camera. She and Armani worked on a video. She taught. She and AnLeia and Brian practiced orchestra music together. As she was leaving, she stood by Durell and called out songs for him to play--which he did effortlessly. She shook her head in amazement and promised to see us at MYO rehearsal today.

Curtis has also come many times. Now he brings his sister and they dabble in everything. Last night Curtis helped us pack up and load out. As we shut the last car door, Curtis stood on the sidewalk hugging his Scrollworks notebook to his chest. "Are you leaving?" he asked in a tone that belied his age and squeezed my heart. I patted him on the shoulder and told him we'd be back next week.

Is it just me, or is something really special happening here?

Thursday, September 18, 2008


Sometimes something beautiful brightens my day and reminds me to slow down.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Help STOP Piano Tears

Yesterday at Hill Elementary, we called down the 6 students from each grade that we'd selected for piano lessons. Each time, several other students came, too, hoping to be part of the class. But we had to turn them away. We only have 6 keyboards, and in one day that's about all Deborah Helms can teach. We'd have to add another piano day, but we haven't yet funded the teaching days we're already doing.

Demiah begged me to let her be in the piano class. She's interested in violin, too, but her mom told her she had to play piano because they already have one at home. They can't afford a violin. When I told her the class was full, huge tears started rolling down her cheeks. She sobbed and pleaded. My heart broke. But what can I do? All the children want to learn music and it is tragic that we can't serve every one. This is something that is good for their brains, their soul. And it's a way to enrich these children in ways far beyond material wealth.

Please help us give these children the music lessons they want so badly! We're managing to provide that for $2 per child per lesson, or $72 per child for the whole school year. If you donate $10, that's more than a month of lessons for Demiah!

DONATE HERE. This is our Facebook drive to raise the funds for the classes at Hill.

Thank you.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Scrollworks: Changing the Frame of Reference

From the Observer: Why are our orchestras so white? by Elizabeth Day
...the racial conformity of our orchestras points to a lack of non-white players coming up through the system.

...the ethnic composition of our orchestras is more a question of class and social deprivation.

'The problem is that the model of taking your instrument home and practising every day for an hour doesn't apply to inner city environments; it doesn't apply to a lot of communities, it's not just black communities. For my constituents, the idea they can take an instrument home to their council estate, to a house they share with many brothers and sisters, and practise on their own without the support of their parents, is just implausible.'

For parents to encourage the level of dedication required to reach the top echelons of orchestral performance, says Lammy, they must first be familiar with a classical music tradition that is rooted in a white, Christian historical context. Gladstone Reid was fortunate that his great-grandfather was an Anglican choirmaster and his father taught him how to play the guitar from the age of seven. Lammy, too, was exposed to classical music as a cathedral chorister. But for many young musicians there is no such frame of reference.

Outside Britain there are successful grassroots models for getting underprivileged youths into music, often with transformative results. At 13 Lennar Acosta was living on the streets in his native Venezuela with a crack habit and a .38 calibre gun. At 15 he was in a young offenders' institute in Caracas, surrounded by other delinquents who, just like him, had been abandoned by their families and mainstream society. Then, he was given a clarinet and his life started to change. 'I didn't know what it was,' he recalled, several years later. 'I was fascinated when I saw it.'

Acosta is an alumnus of El Sistema Youth Orchestras Project, a visionary project founded 33 years ago by the economist Jose Abreu. It provides free music tuition for disadvantaged children, and so far over 270,000 children have benefited. For Acosta, the results were indelible: 'Music saved my life. It helped me let out a lot of the anger inside.'

Britain, says Lammy, has much to learn from the Venezuelan model: 'It's about group practice, it's as much about childcare and community as it is about music. We need to be a lot more imaginative about what classical music can offer.' ...

...if a promising black musician decides against a career in classical music, it should, ideally, be a question of choice, not necessity.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Orchestra Against Ignorance:
MYO and MCYO are also
"a realisation of the impossible and a metaphor for the possible"

An article on the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in the Australian (emphasis mine):

...although music, as merely "sonorous air", is powerless in and of itself, it can "teach us to think in a way that is a school for life".

In music, so the argument goes, you cannot express yourself without listening to others and respecting their voice. Legato denotes boundaries. Tempo, the speed of a process. Dynamics, the volume at which your voice may or may not overpower another. The symphony orchestra, Barenboim deduces, is therefore an alternative "template for democracy"; and his particular orchestra -- comprised as it is of 120 young Israelis, Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Jordanians, Egyptians and Iranians -- perhaps the unlikely archetype.

Described as both a realisation of the impossible and a metaphor for the possible, the West-Eastern Divan was originally conceived by the Israeli Barenboim and the Palestinian academic Edward Said...

"When playing music, it is possible to achieve a unique sense of peace," he insists. And beyond the temporary harmony of a Brahms symphony, say, is hope for something more enduring. Nobody involved with the orchestra is naive enough to think that sonorous air can stop tanks in the Middle East. But knowledge. Understanding. "There is complete and total ignorance on both sides," states Barenboim with typical candour. So this is not an orchestra for peace, as it is often billed, but an "orchestra against ignorance", because ignorance, as Said declared, "is not a strategy for sustainable survival".

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Alabama Butterbean Festival

Saturday Philip and I left Alabaster at 4 am to make our 5 am check-in time at the Alabama Butterbean Festival in Pinson. We stopped at WalMart for the cheapest source of shade and cruised by the office for the Scrollworks banner.

The pre-dawn hours saw us trying to figure out how to drive stakes in asphalt. We ended up using various parts of the Scrollworks drum set to weigh down the canopy ties. The expert festival vendors on either side were kind but skeptical as they smoothly erected booths in five minutes flat.

We LOVED the festival. There was a huge crowd. We ran out of brochures and fliers for Barrage. People were interested and the children loved Philip's decorated instruments.

Board member Craig Hultgren brought his grandnieces and helped Philip man the booth while I ran back to help Nick open Cave9. We greatly appreciate his time and hope the girls enjoyed the spectacle.

We got to see celebrities Bucky Butterbean and Cornelia Cornbread and taste delicious fudge by parent/Scrollworks teacher/ABBF organizer, Deborah Helms (Klinton's mom). We sure appreciate her help securing a booth! And we got an invitation to play at the Covered Bridge Festival this fall in Oneonta.

When I returned to help Philip pack up, I was surprised to find him really enthusiastic about the festival and the impression MYO & Scrollworks had made on the crowd. Must've been good to get more than a shrug from a modern 19 year-old!