Thursday, June 25, 2009


The past couple of days I've been bringing the books for MYOCA up to date. I have never enjoyed this chore. The picture revealed has always been worrisome. But this time we really needed the final numbers for the fiscal year that ended May 31. As I looked at the reports, my heart lifted. (You can see them here.)

We accomplished a heck of a lot for $53,500*! Most of that was spent on paying teachers: $48,700. But we got a lot of teaching done. Last summer we taught over 500 students, teaching at 2 camps, three Scrollworks locations, plus the ensembles. Over the school year we taught 4 days a week at Hill and NorthStar, the weekend Scrollworks free lessons, plus the orchestras on Sunday and Monday. Of course, many people worked many volunteer hours to make this possible: Nick and Harry last summer. Craig, Jimmy and Dwight this year. Me all the time. And there are many others who donate time: Elena, Claudia, Jessica, William, Jordan, Ben. . . for which we are very grateful.

My total donation to MYOCA for this past year is half the previous year, which means we found other resources--also an exciting and necessary trend.

For the current fiscal year, we'd like to double this budget. (See it here.) Why, when we've accomplished so much on so little over the past two years? For one thing, the staff needs to be compensated on some level in order to sustain their involvement. For another, we need to have the funds to buy and maintain instruments and other equipment. Also, the organization needs to cover expenses that I am paying out of pocket, like the Scrollworks phone and instrument transportation. But mostly, we'd like to serve even more students--and do a better job. Right now we are teaching over 300 students per week at Camp NorthStar, the two Scrollworks locations, and the ensembles. We are finalizing the plans for the fall.

Doubling the budget means bringing in about $10,000 per month, on average. There are many that have serious doubts we can manage this. It will definitely be a challenge. But I am very encouraged by June's numbers: almost $8,500! (A huge thank you to all of those who donated to get us there!) And next month, we will have the $10,000 BACC grant coming in. We CAN do this.

This is so exciting to me. You all know how passionate I am about what we can accomplish through our programs. We saw the musical success at the concert on May 29. Making it happen isn't easy on any level. It is so good to see the organization becoming viable, growing, and thriving.

*after subtracting out Barrage ticket sales, which all went back to the BJCC and Barrage

Saturday, June 20, 2009


Video is here.

Faith comes to Warriors International Fellowship Church on Mondays and Fridays for free music lessons.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

An Abundance of Heroes

Yesterday we had an MYOCA board meeting. Disappointingly, it was not well attended. The agenda was difficult, with the final agenda item requiring us to face our funding challenges.

I came out of that meeting with two heroes: Jimmy Hrom and Craig Hultgren.

Jimmy seems to be a pessimist, but he's actually a realist. He sees the difficulties, and yet he still believes. Every time I hear him speak about our mission, I am amazed that someone else sees what I see and wants to build it, make it succeed. And he works very hard. Very hard. He is invaluable to the organization and to me.

Craig has believed from the very beginning and he is giving more time, money and energy than any reasonable person should. I can't even begin to express my appreciation.

Mrs. Bullock arrived at Hill School just as we were closing early for teacher training. She said she didn't want a guitar lesson because she hasn't been able to focus on learning music for the last month. Her son has been in the hospital for four weeks and is scheduled for heart surgery this week. She handed me $110, all in $1 bills and apologized for not having time to grab the change she'd collected. Another hero.

I came home to find this email:

Dear Jeane Goforth
I saw your e-mail and proud to say that I would love to volunteer as I can. If it doesn't conflict with my work days. My sister and recentley toured your process on pass Saturday, however we are unable to make it this Saturday because of family reasons. We would be interested in teaching the French Horn when we can and participate, in any programs you have. I haven't played many instruments after middle school and need refreshing course so I can play with the Alabama Orchestras. Are there any more music stores down in Alabama so my sister can purchase cellos and violins. I will try to talk to my former band techers, Mr.Carr;Jackson Olin, Mr. Lewis; Bush Middle to thier time as they can.
We need more people like you to keep music in our schools and around the world.

Denise Rice
Dianna Rice

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Video of Quiara performing at the Character Counts assembly

Video is here.

For those that don't subscribe to the main MYO blog, here is the video of the spot that was on Fox news;

Monday, May 18, 2009

Mixed Media

In case you were wondering what Jimmy did in his spare time, he's a chiptune composer. Here is a link to a performance he did last Friday. (Scroll to the bottom.) I played "Chip, Ship & Away" for his students at Hill Elementary today and they were very impressed.

Steve Crocker of Fox6 News was at Scrollworks on Saturday. I just spoke with him and he said the story would air tomorrow (Tuesday, May 19) at 6 pm. Video should be available here eventually.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Messing up

I messed everything up yesterday. But I realized upon looking at these photos that the biggest problem we're having is actually good: students really want to come and then they don't want to leave.

I apologize to the orchestras for misunderstanding who Mr. Houston wanted where for the Art Feast in Avondale Park yesterday.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Warning: Barriers Falling!!

Yesterday was Scrollworks intense. I went to Hill with Molly in the morning. She taught violin in the gym while I monitored students practicing piano, guitar and cello.

We had students come to practice who weren't called: Jasmine, who has a piano at home, but is puzzling out the more difficult music Jimmy gave her. We had students stay to work with the next person called for their instrument: Shamari and Ataria passed the cello back and forth, prompting each other with Craig's very words.

Ja'Cory brought his own guitar for the very first time. It was incredibly out of tune, but he fingered Twinkle smoothly. (Jimmy tuned it after school.) Also for the first time, a few practiced their own instruments and then experimented with another. I love it when they call me over to listen to the piece they are working on.

After school, the free lessons started slowly but it grew so crowded that teachers stayed late to finish up with everyone. We had to recruit students and parents to teach. Little Amy showed even littler Sa'Coria the basics of the violin. Her mom helped Akil on piano. Amia taught guitar, Claudia taught piano. We sent a clarinet home with Tionna.

The staff at Hill Elementary has bent over backwards to accommodate Scrollworks. They are funny and warm and helpful and understanding. There are a couple, though, who have seemed irritated by how our presence adds to their workload. One of the ladies has spent a lot of time chasing me around locking and unlocking and relocking doors. Thursday she came in the gym to chain the doors while Kevin and Jason were working with Quiara. (See a video here.) She stood with an amazed look on her face as Quiara completed her performance with a flourish of sticks and sound. She clapped and could not stop smiling. She asked when she could see Quiara do an official performance. A skeptic became a believer.

We are always inconveniencing the lady who does after-care. We sometimes stay so late in the auditorium that it makes it difficult for her to have everything just so by 3 o'clock. On our first Friday afternoon at Hill, we asked her if she wanted to send any students to take music lessons. She responded with a curt negative. Yesterday I heard a professional-sounding performance on the drum set out in the school yard. Jordan, a very passionate volunteer, was demonstrating for a half-dozen drum students from the after care program. Mrs. Spivey was watching, nodding and smiling. She said she'd ask the parents if more students could participate. Another convert. I LOVE it.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

To Play and to Fight

When I am walking the halls of Hill Elementary, I'm likely to get unexpectedly broadsided with a hug from a student. I'm bad with names, but I am surprised how many of these children I know. Even now, near the end of the school year, students beg to take music lessons at Scrollworks. It's a relief to be able to tell them to come to their own school on Friday or Saturday afternoons for free lessons.

All of these children are treasures, but some of them have wormed their way into my heart. They are the ones who want to do music so badly that no obstacle is too great. The motto of Venezuela's El Sistema is 'Tocar y Luchar' -- to play and to fight. That's what these children are doing: fighting to play music. They come even if they don't hear their name called. They bring their music folder, battered and bent with shredded sheet music sticking out. They endure the teacher getting on them for not practicing when it really wasn't their fault. They persist even when they have no support at home. They try and try and keep trying. Ja'Cory. LaDeja. JaDerius. JahHara. DiMario. John. Brian. It's a long list. Almost as long as the list of difficulties they will have to overcome to succeed even in a small way. Given any kind of edge, these young musicians would blow some of their privileged suburban counterparts out of the water.

We are not giving them enough of an edge. We have accomplished some things. Just showing up every day, every week for a whole school year is significant to these children. Consistency is not common in their experience. But what these children need is more time to learn, practice, and play music and their own instruments. We're going to adjust and we're going to help these children--and as many more as we can--succeed in music and in life. The world will be better for it.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Gift of a Rose

After an intense Friday, we were expecting the same Saturday. But instead we had the quietest Saturday since the weekend after Christmas. I relished the calm as I watched the student teachers having time to get lessons themselves and the entire teaching staff bonding more deeply.

Tionna once again was the first student to arrive. Her teacher had brought her straight from an award ceremony where Tionna had gotten a certificate for participating in a mentoring program. Tionna walked in the door and gave me a rose. Then she got out a clarinet and barely put it down for the rest of the afternoon.

Tionna is why this program is important. Last Saturday I asked her to call her mom after she and her cousin Sa'Coria had been at Scrollworks for 3 hours. They weren't causing trouble, but Sa'Coria was bored. I was worried that I couldn't keep track of her as she wandered in and out of the school. Tionna had tears in her eyes and a stubborn set to her jaw as she left. Friday Tionna asked me how long they could stay without an adult. I said an hour. Tionna negotiated for an hour and a half. After all that, she brings me a rose.

Armani is another reason this program is important. He started calling me as I left for the office at 9:30 to see how he could arrange to get to Scrollworks. His mom had to go to work far too early to drop him off at the school. He ended up getting dropped off at the office and riding to Hill with Jimmy. Armani is a bit lazy, but he has music in his blood, so I put him to work teaching winds. He needs to learn more himself but he can get beginners started.

Tionna's hunger for musical knowledge burns bright. As the crowd thinned, Jimmy noticed. Even though he doesn't play any wind instrument, he sat down with Tionna to work on music reading and theory. Then Dwight came by. He was enchanted by this young lady, teaching her and her cousin for more than an hour. He was so impressed by how much both of them learned, but more impressed by the passion.

A special thank you to Craig for holding his cello circle and Elana and her student Louisa for teaching piano. Since it was quiet, Elana discussed piano curriculum with Jimmy and helped he and Claudia improve their skills so they can do a better job teaching. Elana gave Jimmy a few pages of scales. They were labelled with the Cyrillic alphabet, so I had fun remembering my Russian lessons and picking out the words 'major' and 'minor'.

An update on the fund raising:
Claudia made $12 selling the cupcakes she baked. She should have made $13, but Armani asked to put his on his tab.
Since we discovered that raffles are illegal in Alabama, Mrs. Easter spent some time with me discussing other ideas. We talked about a car wash. She wants to sell candy. But I made her get her piano lesson before we finished any plans.
We've gotten a donation from our webmaster and from Jah's grandma.
If you can spare $10 (or any amount), you can donate here:

Friday, May 1, 2009

Preventing a famine of the spirit.


These are the 24 students who came to Scrollworks for free music lessons today. In addition, there were two little boys--3 and 4 years old--who came for drums and didn't sign in. Tomorrow we will likely double this again.

Everyone in the gym of Hill Elementary today was consumed with hunger. The students are reaching out for the sustenance of the soul that music can provide. The teachers look to be filled with the spirit of giving and the satisfaction that brings.

You can share this generous spirit, the very soul of Scrollworks, by sponsoring next week's lesson for one of these students. Each lesson costs us $10.

Who would you like to sponsor? Here are a few of their stories:

When Lizzie would come to Greencup for lessons, I felt like we were living in an Edgar Allen Poe tale. Long before we were done setting up, she would very slowly climb up the stairs with her metal cane: "CLUNK, thump, thump...CLUNK, thump, thump." Lizzie just turned 74. A stranger on the street asked her if she wanted free piano lessons and her heart leaped. She's been dreaming of learning the piano all her life. (The stranger was Mrs. Bullock!)

Tionna came for the first time last week. She's from a different neighborhood, so her mom drives her to Scrollworks. (It's amazing her mom's car can move.) After two lessons, Rick was comfortable leaving her to supervise Gabriel and Sa'Caria exploring the clarinet. She begged to take a clarinet home today. We have given our extras to students from Hill, so she'll have to wait until we can repair the broken one at the office.

Caitlin and Cameron, pictured at the top with Mary Lee, are long time favorites. Caitlin plays the piano and Cameron plays guitar. Their mom has MS, so their grandma brings them. They practice and make good progress.

Christan and Teresa are also favorites. Like the mother mentioned above, Teresa has serious health issues. But she always has a smile and works hard on learning the guitar. Christan does the teen-age pout almost as well as she plays piano.

Where would your money go if you sponsored a lesson? To our teachers, of course:

To Jimmy, who has been donating back part of his pay check and donating method books and has already written $15,000 in (pending) grants and is working on $70,000 more. If you love me, then you have to love Jimmy because he's given me more than just a day off each week. He's given me back my sanity.

To Amia, a recent immigrant. This is her first job, and it's an amazing choice for her to make, coming from South Africa to teach music to inner city children.

To Rick, and Marcus.

Claudia and Jordan volunteer their time on Fridays.
Me? I don't get paid in money, but my heart is always full.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Stacey Monk on Reassurance

Reposting my friend Stacey's rumination on the Epic Change blog. She and I are traveling parallel paths and her thoughts today really did reassure me!

There are moments of knowing. Tonight I had one - that tingly sensation when it’s as if the universe is shouting wordlessly to tell you some massive secret.

I cry in these moments. I am now.

I don’t know how to describe this feeling, but it is bliss.

I am not sure exactly what the universe is trying to say. I take that back. I do know. Precisely.

It’s saying it knows I’m weary.
It’s saying it knows this is hard.
It’s saying, knowing it doesn’t have to, “don’t give up.” (I couldn’t if I tried.)
It’s promising help is on the horizon.

It’s saying, “what more do you want, little girl?
What more do you need?
What more do you hope for?
It’s yours.”

It’s saying “You’re going the right way.
Don’t turn back.
Keep going.
I know you’re scared.
I know some may doubt you.
I know you doubt yourself more than they possibly could.”

The universe is whispering, in it’s most comforting, reassuring possible voice:

“Good will come. I promise.
Stop pushing so hard. Let it be.”

And tonight I believe. Profoundly.

Because the universe has proven time and time again - every time I look into the face of another human and see love or yearning or light or trust or faith or hope - that good is the only possible outcome when a human heart loves so deeply, hopes so audaciously and works so hard.

I recently found out my friend Jen Lemen won $50,000 in the Name Your Dream Assignment contest to cross the globe and photograph hope.

She’s proof that good wins.

In case you had any doubt.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Mrs. Bullock, Mrs. Easter and Your Two Cents: How to Fund a Movement

This is Cleo Bullock. She called me over yesterday to talk about her fundraising ideas. She says she could make Scrollworks 'bloom' with children, but she's afraid she'd overwhelm our resources. So she wants to help us raise money to do more. Mrs. Bullock has already donated over $700 she collected standing outside her Family Dollar.

As she began to get fired up, Mary Easter joined in the brainstorming. Mary studies piano. Her grandchildren come every Friday and Saturday for violin, drums and piano lessons. Her whole family believes that music education is critical.

Both ladies really want to do a raffle. They suggested that people would readily buy raffle tickets for a dollar, even if the prizes were inexpensive. Mary said she would donate some music cassettes she has that are still in the wrapper.

Cleo turned to the keyboard and lovingly ran her fingers up and down the keys. She wondered if she could convince people to sponsor an instrument:
$.25 for each key on a piano -- $22
$1 for each string on a violin or cello -- $4
$1 for each string on a guitar -- $6

She also wondered if people would match her donations with a pledge of two cents per $1. That'd be $14 so far.

Mrs. Bullock and Mrs. Easter say that Scrollworks is a blessing. Their fund raising goals are modest. And yet Cleo has managed to raise an amazing total in a short time. My friend, Leslie, has told me about ladies like this who were the soul of the civil rights movement in Birmingham. I am so proud that they see the value of what Scrollworks is offering.

Those of us involved in this program know it is a movement with the potential for profound social transformation.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Too many music lessons?

This is Amia and Lourdes at Hill this afternoon. Amia is a recent immigrant from South Africa. She was so excited to fill out her paperwork when we hired her because she'd just gotten her green card. Lourdes has a learning disability, but not when it comes to music. He takes violin, trumpet, guitar and drums. Everyone agrees he should be focusing on one or maybe two instruments. But I've never seen a teacher turn him away. I've never seen our teachers turn away any child passionate about learning an instrument.

Think about it. A warm spring Friday afternoon. The parents tell us they don't make the students come, the students are begging to come. Almost all of them don't take one lesson, they take two or more. Some come back again on Saturday. To be able to indulge themselves, have as much as they want of something, has to feel so good to them. That isn't something that students at Hill School get very often. Where would you rather these children be today? tomorrow?

This is a new Scrollworks student. She came from Hemphill Elementary because her cousin told her about the free lessons. Tionna took drums, a bit of piano and a bit of violin. Jason Swanson, a volunteer on Fridays, taught her clarinet and was very impressed with how fast she picked it up. Then she tried trumpet. Rick said her first sound out of the trumpet was marvelous--something a couple of his more challenging trumpet students hadn't been able to achieve in a month of lessons. After awhile, Tionna offered to show Rick something on the clarinet. So Tionna, clarinetist for barely an hour, sat down to seriously explain the instrument to Rick, who has a PhD in compostion.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Why I do this

These kids don't have to be here. They WANT to be here. They don't have to learn music. They WANT to learn music. Some of them goof around. Some of them struggle to focus. Some soak it up like a sponge and want MORE. Jimmy and Craig demand a lot and don't make it easy. The kids keep coming back. Just when Jimmy thinks he's alienated them all, they run back in to say good-bye to him after the last bell.

All of these children are beautiful.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Sticks & Stones: We WILL teach free lessons every weekend

In the fall of 2007, Aaron Hamilton came to one of our first planning meetings for Scrollworks, our attempt to bring El Sistema to the children of Birmingham, Alabama. Aaron was there to offer us time and space to teach at Cave9, his non-profit all-ages rock club on Southside. He was one of the first in the community to support Scrollworks. He and his colleagues threw a benefit for Scrollworks on February 15, 2008. We began teaching there the next afternoon.

The denizens of Cave9 are a lesson in not judging by appearances. Tattooed and pierced and clad in black, these are some of the kindest people I have ever met. I have seen Aaron take great care with the children from the Southtown housing project. Indeed, he wanted us at Cave9 for their sake.

When Cave9 moved to the space above GreenCup Books at the end of 2008, they graciously asked us to go with them. We were glad to follow. We had few other options. We were soon shocked to discover that Cave9 was not going to stay at GreenCup. The kind folks of Cave9 found it impossible to get along with their new landlord. I do not know the details, only that there was much bad feeling. Mike, the manager of GreenCup, told us we were welcome to stay there, even offering to give us storage space for instruments.

Despite this offer, we planned to move with Cave9 to their new location. Unfortunately, this location did not work and Cave9, out of options, dissolved. This is a profound loss for the community, even though many won't realize it, because this was a safe place for many disaffected young people to go. There was no alcohol and the single rule 'Don't be a jerk' was enforced.

So Scrollworks stayed at GreenCup. We were looking for other space. The stairs were a problem for me and many parents and grandparents. We had many complaints that GreenCup was not family friendly. Not long ago we had hauled the instruments up the stairs and had students streaming in when Mike informed us that we could not teach that day because of a burlesque show that needed to rehearse.

I was extremely upset that we had no notice of this. Mike himself said it had been on the calendar for months. The show, yes, but not the rehearsal time. Seemed to me that even enough notice to prevent setting up would have been common courtesy. We were able to move the lessons downstairs and outside, but the parents were not happy about drum lessons happening in front of a painting of a nude female, no matter how tasteful.

This past weekend we had a similar experience. Because of plumbing problems, Mike canceled our lessons just as our teachers and students arrived. While this is understandable, even an hour's notice would have allowed us to make other arrangements. We so appreciate the folks at the BareHands Gallery for letting us teach there. However, we closed early because I felt awkward making the art patrons dodge music stands and talk over drum lessons.

We tried to forestall such an eventuality this weekend, but this did not go well and Mike informed us in an expletive-laced email that we are 'gone' from GreenCup.

It is critical to our success that we provide consistent access to music lessons. Many of our students do not have ready access to the internet or cell phones. They move often. We cannot tell them about schedule changes. We have people that drive from Alabaster, Wilsonville, Bessemer, Pinson. They will be unlikely to come back more than once or twice if they make the effort to come and find Scrollworks canceled. We have been working hard to build the quality of our instruction and the number of participants. The disruption caused by the random shut down and now eviction by GreenCup has done damage to our efforts and our organization.

You all know how hard so many have worked to build MYOCA and Scrollworks. You all know the tremendous upheavals we have already weathered. I am not about to let a careless and selfish individual drive us out of business as he did Cave9.

This weekend we have found space at Hill Elementary, thanks to principal Taylor Greene, a member of our board. I don't know where we will be next weekend, but know that WE WILL CONTINUE TO TEACH. If you can't find us, just call 908-8843 and we'll tell you where we are. And please pass the word to any who might be interested in our program and want to see how free music lessons can transform our community.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

You win

"First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." ~Gandhi

Provenance and Preconceptions

We had visitors to Scrollworks@Greencup yesterday.
The first was a classically trained pianist from the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory. She is considering teaching for us. We always advise new teachers to come to a Saturday session of free lessons to see if they can handle that teaching environment.
This woman frankly admitted she was shocked. At her conservatory students were taught in a private room with a grand piano. I pointed out that all the equipment in the room has to fit in my Honda Element at the end of the day. She asked how it was possible to learn with the cacophony of multiple lessons on many instruments all happening at the same time. I told her I didn't know, but that it worked. Out of the 40 to 60 students we see each week at Greencup, only a handful are new. I don't think we'd get so many returning students if they weren't learning. She shook her head.
She said that a keyboard isn't the same as a piano. I responded that it worked fine for students that might have no access to an instrument. Better a keyboard than nothing! She was taken aback and said she would not take students who had no piano at home. I told her that for many that we teach, an instrument at home is not possible. We do our best to lend them instruments or to give them practice time at our locations.

As we talked, the students streamed up the stairs and were guided to teachers. It was so noisy that Craig had to draw his circle of cellists close so they could hear. Our Russian visitor watched in wonder. Finally she said that it was obvious from the crowd that there was a tremendous need for what we were offering and that she would consider volunteering to teach a couple of hours each week. She said she wanted to figure out how we were making it work.

Later, another couple came by. They are music majors at the University of South Alabama and we have asked them to teach for us this summer. Having heard much about what we were doing already, they were eager to get involved. Their questions were not about how Scrollworks was possible, but more about how MUCH Scrollworks is possible. The contrast was striking but not surprising. Part of it is generational, I think, and part environmental.

I am excited to get all these people involved, no matter their provenance or preconceptions. What is important is a passion for music and a desire to share that with others, especially those who otherwise do not have ready access to instrument instruction. All of them will be changed by the experience and that will be good for our community.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bob Ramsay, Rest in Peace

My uncle, Bob Ramsay, died unexpectedly last night.
He was a very special person. I will miss him.
Here are two blog posts about him: his legacy and our shared history.

Monday, February 16, 2009

"I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet."

Welcome address to freshmen at Boston Conservatory, given by Karl Paulnack, pianist and director of music division at Boston Conservatory.

“One of my parents’ deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn’t be appreciated. I had very good grades in high school, I was good in science and math, and they imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer, I might be more appreciated than I would be as a musician. I still remember my mother’s remark when I announced my decision to apply to music school—she said, “you’re WASTING your SAT scores.” On some level, I think, my parents were not sure themselves what the value of music was, what its purpose was. And they LOVED music, they listened to classical music all the time. They just weren’t really clear about its function. So let me talk about that a little bit, because we live in a society that puts music in the “arts and entertainment” section of the newspaper, and serious music, the kind your kids are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment, in fact it’s the opposite of entertainment. Let me talk a little bit about music, and how it works.

The first people to understand how music really works were the ancient Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you; the Greeks said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. Let me give you some examples of how this works.

One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the Quartet for the End of Time written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940. Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940, sent across Germany in a cattle car and imprisoned in a concentration camp.

He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose. There were three other musicians in the camp, a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist, and Messiaen wrote his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison camp. Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the repertoire.

Given what we have since learned about life in the concentration camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture—why would anyone bother with music? And yet—from the camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”

In September 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. That morning I reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world. I sat down at the piano that morning at 10 AM to practice as was my daily routine; I did it by force of habit, without thinking about it. I lifted the cover on the keyboard, and opened my music, and put my hands on the keys and took my hands off the keys. And I sat there and thought, does this even matter? Isn’t this completely irrelevant? Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely lost.

And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again. And then I observed how we got through the day.

At least in my neighborhood, we didn’t shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We didn’t play cards to pass the time, we didn’t watch TV, we didn’t shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity that I saw in New York, that same day, was singing. People sang. People sang around fire houses, people sang “We Shall Overcome”. Lots of people sang America the Beautiful. The first organized public event that I remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night.

From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is not part of “arts and entertainment” as the newspaper section would have us believe. It’s not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds.

Some of you may know Samuel Barber’s heartwrenchingly beautiful piece Adagio for Strings. If you don’t know it by that name, then some of you may know it as the background music which accompanied the Oliver Stone movie Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War. If you know that piece of music either way, you know it has the ability to crack your heart open like a walnut; it can make you cry over sadness you didn’t know you had. Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at what’s really going on inside us the way a good therapist does.

I bet that you have never been to a wedding where there was absolutely no music. There might have been only a little music, there might have been some really bad music, but I bet you there was some music. And something very predictable happens at weddings—people get all pent up with all kinds of emotions, and then there’s some musical moment where the action of the wedding stops and someone sings or plays the flute or something. And even if the music is lame, even if the quality isn’t good, predictably 30 or 40 percent of the people who are going to cry at a wedding cry a couple of moments after the music starts. Why? The Greeks. Music allows us to move around those big invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides so that we can express what we feel even when we can’t talk about it. Can you imagine watching Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the dialogue but no music? What is it about the music swelling up at just the right moment in ET so that all the softies in the audience start crying at exactly the same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with the music stripped out, it wouldn’t happen that way. The Greeks: Music is the understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects.

I’ll give you one more example, the story of the most important concert of my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a thousand concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I thought were important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important; music critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in Fargo, ND, about 4 years ago.

I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out and play the music without explanation.

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was clearly a soldier—even in his 70’s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.

When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.

What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute chords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?”
Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships between internal objects. This concert in Fargo was the most important work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.

What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year’s freshman class when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I will charge your sons and daughters with is this:

“If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevies. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.”

Thursday, January 22, 2009

For Leslie Belser

Leslie (Matthew's mom) wants to help the orchestras perform this piece with a vocal ensemble.
(Did you know what a talented musician she is?) What do you think?
Let us know!

This looks fun!!

Thanks, Rick for this link.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Two Fun Links

Experiment with collective composition at Muxicall. arrange the vertices so no lines intersect.