music

If We Build It, They Will Come

chuttersnap-139481-unsplash.jpg

March is “Music in the Schools Month”.

While it is wonderful to promote the importance of music in our schools in this way, it is merely a first step in the effort to focus the public’s attention on how critical music is to our schools’ curriculums and in the lives of students.

Despite nice declarations like this, the question remains: Why do we continue to underfund or cut music programs when the research is so clear regarding their positive educational, community building and economic impact?

The broad-brush answer is,

“Because we haven’t chosen to build it.”

To fully leverage music’s power and potential to educate and change lives, schools and communities, it is not enough to simply talk about it. We must follow our words and platitudes with deeds and funding.

The fact is, if education and community leaders identified music and arts programs as being critically important to schools and communities and funded them accordingly, the public would follow. 

In short, if we build it, they will come.

The research regarding music and the arts’ positive educational and community building impact is clear. Yet, despite that research, too often education and community leaders have yet to fully embrace it. If you don’t accept, embrace and apply the “tools” (research, data and narratives) regarding music and the arts’ positive impacts, you can’t build anything.

That said, the arts community must become more organized and aggressive in holding education and community leaders accountable for their priorities and funding decisions. Building music and arts interest groups is tedious organizational work. And once developed, these groups must no longer shy away from challenging the status quo to drive real change.

The good news, however, is that that work has been made easier through the power of social media with its’ capacity to forge connections and bring people together for a common cause. That,, coupled with the fact that the data, research and narratives supporting the value of the music as an educational, community building and economic tool offers potent fodder for powerful advocacy efforts.

The first step is to move beyond the traditional “arts for art’s sake” narrative. Yes, the arts are uplifting. Yes, the arts are a window into a society’s soul. But in an environment of increasing educational expectations and declining resources, the “arts for art’s sake” argument is no longer good enough.

Further, arts advocacy is no longer simply about education and community building benefits. There is also a very significant economic impact associated with investment in music and the arts. While the common perception of “artsy types” is that they are not comfortable talking about the economics of school and community funding, the fact is, decision makers must be held accountable for not only considering the educational and community building research, but also the emerging data pointing to music and the arts’ economic impact. As arts advocates, we must all become “Creative Capitalists”, unafraid to engage in the down and dirty justifications of economic impact.

Such a shift in approach is necessary because in many cases, those who are in decision making positions do not fully understand and appreciate the importance of “arts for art’s” sake but understand very well matters relating to business, economics and the concept of return on investment.

The educational return on investment in music and arts programs is significant and growing. This is particularly relevant given that the currency of the future in this rapidly changing, global community and world economy will be creativity. The issues and challenges we face as a society are becoming more complex. To effectively address those increasingly complex issues and challenges, we must develop on our populace, a corresponding increase in creativity. Further, many of the jobs of the future don’t even exist yet. That is why the number one skill business leaders are looking for in their employees is out of the box, creative thinking and problem solving. The research confirms that the most effective tool in our educational and community arsenal to nurture creativity is music and the arts. The arts instill that characteristic as they not only allow but encourage students to “color outside the lines” without penalty.

The priorities education and community leaders establish and the funding decisions they make have great influence. If those leaders clearly articulate and then follow through with funding decisions that support those priorities, the public will follow. If music and the arts are viewed as critical and funded accordingly, the public will begin to consider them important as well and, as a result, will support their funding. We expect our leaders to lead. But they must have the courage, vision and conviction to go where the data and research regarding music and the arts’ educational, community building and economic impact takes them.

At the end of the day, if we decide to build it, they will come. 

Giving Youth Sports Back to the Kids

athletes-game-girls-159812 2.jpg

It’s no secret there are significant problems in organized youth sports programs. Incidences of parents screaming at nine-year-old children over a missed basket or misplayed fly ball are commonplace. Youth league umpires and referees are regularly abused and even physically attacked. Brawls have erupted after youth league soccer matches. Obviously, something is wrong.

It’s the adults.

Youth sports programs are no longer about meeting the educational, developmental, health and recreational needs of children. They have become more about satisfying ego needs of adults. Adults have imposed their values and priorities regarding sports upon children’s games, from the organization of player drafts to the imposition of structure, organization and rules to a disproportionate emphasis on winning. Meanwhile children, more than anything, want to play sports, not to win, but to simply have fun and spend time with their friends. It is the adults who are destroying youth sports and it is time to give youth sports back to the kids.

But how will our children manage without adults supervising every aspect of their sports activities and experience?

Quite well, thank you.

Studies contrasting spontaneous youth play versus youth sport organized and run by adults indicate that children, if left to their own devices, will successfully organize, administer and manage their own games. They will choose sides and mediate disputes. They will set their own rules. In some cases, those rules may change from game to game. But they will be rules that work for them. Children will handicap their games to ensure that they are evenly matched, which makes them interesting and fun. Such organizational, mediation and interpersonal skills are valuable characteristics that children don’t truly get the opportunity to develop when adults dictate the rules and that they play the “adult”, supposedly “right” way.

A perfect example of the stark difference between “pick-up” kids’ games and adult run youth games is the common situation where there is one very superior athlete in a baseball game. In the adult organized game, the coach will have that child pitch.  The child proceeds to dominate the game, striking out most of the batters he or she faces, while the children playing in the field stand like statues, or, just as likely, pick dandelions in the outfield, waiting to field a ball that most likely won’t ever be hit, let alone hit to them.

By the end of the game, many players have never touched the ball. If left to their own devices, the children in the “pick-up” game will agree amongst themselves that the dominant player either not pitch or pitch with his or her opposite arm. In basketball, the dominant player may be allowed only a limited number of shots or may be required to shoot with his or her “off” hand.  

Children make adjustments in their games to ensure that the game will be interesting and fun, and thus, continue. Their purpose in getting together to play is to have fun. If the game is not fun, children will quit playing. And if enough quit, the game will end. That being the case, they must work to make the game interesting and fun so everyone will want to continue to play. Without adult enforced structure, dictates, rules and expectations, there is nothing holding the game together other than the kids wanting to play it.  In short, the game would cease to exist if it were not fun. You can’t blame them as “play” is supposed to be fun. In youth leagues organized by adults, the adult imposed goal of winning and dictating that the game be played the “right” way (as defined by adults) overshadows the goal of maximizing fun and participation.

Another significant difference between these two types of games is the way in which the outcome is treated. In adult organized games, the result of the contest is recorded as a win or a loss, regardless of the closeness of the game or the performances of the individuals involved. Further, standing are kept and trophies are awarded. In the pick-up game, while the result may be discussed on the walk home, it is usually considered insignificant and quickly forgotten as children focus more on the most exciting plays and the fun they had. Clearly, children have their priorities straight regarding sports as it is the process (participation, learning and having fun) rather than the end result (winning) that is most important.

How do we restructure youth sports programs to give the games back to the kids?

“De-organize” them.

In such a system, only a relatively small portion of the activities (say 25 – 30 percent) would be devoted to fundamental skill instruction. The remaining time should be turned over to the kids for them to play pick-up games…with no parental or adult involvement! Other than a safety official, adults should not be permitted to coach or instruct. And, if you want to take this concept to the next level, adults and parents wouldn’t even be allowed to watch. Get them out of the gym, field or facility. Let the kids play on their terms for themselves. The real joy of youth sports comes from playing with friends, far from the critiquing of adults.  The adults should just leave the kids alone. Let them pick their own teams, make their own rules and mediate their own disputes. The only rule they should abide by is that everyone plays.

In other words, to make the games “about the kids”, activities should resemble pick-up games. Provide a safe playing environment but let them manage their own games. As a result, they will have the space and opportunity to actually develop the personal skills – organizational, conflict resolution, leadership, personal responsibility, mediation and management – that we claim that sports participation teaches. While adults may cringe at denying their children their “expert” coaching talents, the fact is, children’s interpersonal, leadership and decision-making skills will develop more if they are left to manage their own games. Without adult supervision, the games will be closer, more interesting and most important, more fun for the kids. And don’t we adults always claim that youth sports are “about the kids”? Maybe it’s time to stop paying lip service to that concept and get the adults out of youth sports. Maybe it’s time to let the kids have their games back.

A Stage Name? Why Not Dance A Bit More?

Screen Shot 2019-03-06 at 9.10.23 AM.png

I gently kicked the vintage, boxy suitcase that was on the floor between me and a group of 15 second graders. The suitcase literally vibrated with all types of rattling, clanging and ringing sounds.

“You want to see what’s in there?”, I asked.

They erupted, “Yes!”

I opened the suitcase to reveal more than 20 percussion instruments of various sizes, makes, functions and models. In a frenzy, they began to reach for them.

“Woah! Wait a second”, I instructed. “If you want to play one of those, you have to do something first.”

“What?”, they asked in unison.

“You need to think up a stage name. This is a music class and one of the best things about playing music is that you can make up a new name for yourself. You can have your regular name and you can have your music name. I have one”, I revealed. “My real name is John. But when I play music, I’m Willie Marble. It’s cool to have a stage name. It’s lots of fun.”

One of the best things about teaching second graders is that they believe just about anything you tell them. And they are game to try just about anything.

Some may consider it a bit silly or foolish for a 60 year-old man to have a make believe name and persona. But there is a long history of musicians with stage names. Muddy Waters’ real name was McKinley Morganfield. Howlin’ Wolf’s was Chester Burnett. And that’s simply a start. Jay Z’s real name is Shawn Carter, Stephanie Germanotta is Lady Gaga and Dana Owens’s stage name is Queen Latifah.

Not to be outdone, the names these kids came up with were priceless: Lion Slayer, Crazy Bone, Lightning Bolt, Jeffrey McMoe, Funky Nose, Princess Cotton Candy, Howlin’ Hound Dog and Ruby Jewels to name only a few. And stage names are for adults as well. The three background singers in my current band each has a stage name, Queen Victoria, Honey Bee and Jackie Thunder. Together they comprise the “World Famous Marblettes”.

Having a second name and identity allows a certain amount of freedom to step outside yourself. For performers, that can be an advantage. One of the most important characteristics of music and art is that it allows for the individual to “color outside the lines” without being unduly penalized or chastised. It allows you the extra space to stretch your imagination, vision and sense of self. A stage name and alternative persona allows you to be a bit silly, act a bit foolish and stretch and test the boundaries of creativity. That’s one of the reasons why music is the most effective tool in our educational arsenal to teach out-of-the-box, creative thinking.

And while that is all great and valuable, the fact is, it’s also just plain fun. And if you can’t have fun playing music, what’s the point? As Margaret Renkl recently wrote in the NY Times, “A person who is not afraid of looking like a fool gets to do a lot more dancing.”

Having a stage name and alternative identity can be lots of fun. Although, as a general rule, if you begin to assume four or five alter egos or identities, you might want to seek some professional help.

But one or two? Why not take the opportunity to dance a bit more?


Music and the Arts: A Privilege For a Lifetime

audio-black-and-white-black-and-white-6966.jpg

Something that truly bothers me is when someone believes they have no musical talent or that they used to play as a youngster but gave it up. This is sad because everyone can play music. After all, everyone has music pounding away inside of them in the form of a rhythmically beating heart. That is a solid start and a firm foundation upon which to build. It’s a great reason for people who have never played an instrument, or who, played as a youngster but stopped, to start or restart, playing.  

“Why not?” I suggest. “Fifteen minutes a day and before you know it, you find yourself improving.”

It also bothers me when people say they are too old to begin to learn to play music. 

“What do you mean, too old? You can play music until your last day on this earth.  So why not?” You will be able to enjoy it for a long time.”

It’s also absolutely irrelevant how you “stack up” against other musicians. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is whether you enjoy it.

I’ve always wanted to draw and paint but never made a real effort to learn how. So heeding my own advice, I began taking drawing and painting lessons.

It has been wonderful! Not only has it been loads of fun, but I have learned so much about the creative arts and lifelong learning. I also find myself looking at everything, from flowers, to food, to landscapes and faces, differently – considering colors, composition and perspective and wondering how to go about painting them.

Taking up painting has also reaffirmed that, like music, where you can interpret songs any way you please, in art, it’s okay to “color outside the lines”. That is the greatest lesson of the arts: that you can color outside the lines without penalty. It’s a safe place to test boundaries and explore the unconventional. The fact is, creativity can be taught and learned. But first, it has to be encouraged. The arts are a potent vehicle to encourage such creative, bold and fearless thinking. Mistakes can be embraced, modified and turned into something positive.  For example, as a stream of paint slithered down my canvas, where I saw a “mistake”, my instructor saw an “opportunity”. “Don’t worry about it”, she said, “Embrace it, own it, work off it and use it to your advantage.”

It’s also confirmed my belief that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks of your art as long as you derive pleasure from it. That requires the boldness and courage to put yourself “out there”. I agreed to be a part of an “emerging artists” exhibit, where my work will be shown in a public gallery. This prompted a friend to ask, “How can you do that? You’ve only been painting for a few months?”    

But why not? Who’s to judge whether your art or music is any better or worse than anyone else’s? As long as you enjoy the process, what does it matter?

But the greatest lesson I have learned and come to appreciate is that, like music, painting or drawing or being involved in other creative arts such as theater, is that these are things that you can do for the rest of your life.

The creative arts provide the opportunity and indeed, privilege, of being able to participate, learn from and enjoy it forever. You never have to “retire” from the arts. Unlike other activities, such as sports or sometimes, your career, the decision to “retire” is often not left to you.

I love the game of basketball and after my competitive career ended continued to play pick up games until age fifty. It was a very sad day to arrive at the inevitable conclusion that my body would simply no longer allow me to continue to play. “Retirement” from the creative arts is optional.  You can do it whenever you want and on your own terms. 

And, like a fine wine, you get better at the creative arts the older and more experience you get. Experience builds confidence and courage to continue to challenge yourself to create and put yourself “out there”. It keeps you vibrant and engaged.

One of the most fundamental responsibilities of our schools and education system is to instill in students a love of, curiosity for and mindset to embrace lifelong learning. That is why it is so important that our schools and communities invest in music and the arts.  But it’s just as important to provide exposure to activities that can be practiced for a lifetime. And the institution through which we as a society can provide such opportunities and privilege is through our educational system

Being exposed to and participating in the arts is vitally important as a vehicle to teach creativity, build confidence and instill characteristics such as discipline and personal responsibility. And as such, everyone can and should enjoy that opportunity and privilege…for a lifetime.

Tiny Tim: An American Musical Visionary 

pexels-photo-346709.jpeg

If you are over 50, you surely remember him. How could you not? Certainly you remember his signature song: “Tip Toe Through the Tulips”.

Yes, we’re talking about Tiny Tim, that tall, long, stringy haired, goofy looking dude playing the ukulele and singing in that quivering, falsetto voice.  He was silly, campy and probably did more for ensuring that the ukulele would become one of the more derided instruments of the past half-century. 

But what goes ‘round, comes ‘round because the ukulele is back! And it’s hot! Ukulele music festivals are popping up all over the country.  Even Eddie Vedder recorded an entire album of ukulele songs and won a Grammy for it. Over 1.7 million ukes were sold in 2017, up from 500,000 in 2009.  

 Tiny Tim, as it turns out, was an American musical visionary.

The ukulele originated in Europe and was introduced to Hawaii in 1879 when a Portuguese immigrant named Joao Fernandez jumped off a boat and started singing and strumming his Branguinha. Legend has it that the Hawaiians were so impressed with his playing that they called the instrument “ukulele” which translates to “jumping flea.” The instrument quickly captured the imagination of the islands to where the reigning monarch Kalakaua learned how to play it. By the 1920’s Sears Roebuck catalogues offered ukes for a couple of dollars. Big name performers such as Bing Crosby, Betty Grable and Elvis Pressley incorporated the uke into their acts. 

But by the 1950’s rock-n-roll was sweeping the country and the tinny, toy-like uke was swamped by kids who fell in love with the electric guitar. 

TinyTim (1).jpg

Tiny Tim, however, kept playing it, appearing on television shows like Ed Sullivan. But the image of Tiny Tim and the toy-like ukulele was no match for the electric guitar driven act like the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Rolling Stones and Chuck Berry.  

Beginning in the 1980’s some rock stars such as Paul McCartney began to play it. McCartney was influenced by George Harrison who was a devotee of the instrument. And slowly, the ukulele began to make a comeback, despite the fact the most common image of the instrument was still associated with Tiny Tim.  For a wonderful account of the uke’s history and evolution, (and the main source of the research for this paper), check out “The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Ukulele” by Marion Jacobson in January 24, 2015 edition of The Atlantic

Clearly, there is a major ukulele uprising taking place in the US, not only as evidenced by the exploding sales numbers, but I have been exposed to the rise (again) of the uke through my work with Music For Everyone. Other than my memories of Tiny Tim, I had no idea of the resurgence of the uke until a few years ago when we began receiving requests from schools to provide them with the instruments to start school based uke programs. MFE, through its annual instrument grant program, has been awarding grants to schools in Lancaster County, PA since 2007. 

Over the first six years of the grant program, we did not receive one request from a school to provide them with a batch of ukes. But in 2012 we began to notice the beginning of a trend, where we would receive at least two and sometimes three requests from schools to provide them with 20 – 25 ukuleles to start a program. I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical but in conversations with teachers it became quite clear that the ukulele may very well be the introductory instrument of the future for young children. The more I found out about it and began to experiment with one myself, it became very apparent. 

First, it is small for small hands. Kids have trouble with larger instruments like a full sized guitar, saxophone or viola. Many instruments are simply too big and bulky for young children. Second is that you can begin playing songs on a uke almost immediately as there are only four strings and you can form and play many chords by playing (fingering) only one string.  The faster you can get children to feel that they are producing real music not only by themselves, but to be able to play music with other players, the better. The more excited they will get about playing music.  The uke is excellent for achieve that goal. 

Don’t believe me? Think back to those recorders or the screeching sounds that a beginner saxophonist or violinist produce when learning the instrument. Immediate, positive gratification and connection to the instrument, the music and fellow players is key in sparking a child’s interest in continuing to play music. This is why teachers love them as an introductory instrument. 

And they are inexpensive. While you can spend over $500 for a high-end model a decent uke for beginners costs around $100. Other than a choral group or a percussion ensemble, the cost of providing 20 – 25 instruments to start a full string program or brass ensemble is prohibitive, particularly in these days of tightening budgets for music and art programs. 

And not only are we receiving requests from schools for ukes, we are also beginning to receive them from community recreation programs and senior centers to start groups for senior. To get a sense of their potential impact on seniors, check out this recently released Music For Everyone video: 

https://youtu.be/9eVUrChexLI

The segment on our Ukulele Uprising begins at the 1.50 mark. 

Finally, there is the sheer fun of it as Jake Shimabukuro explains, “There’s something about the ukulele that just makes you smile. It makes you let your guard down. It brings out the child in all of us.” 

And in these times, we can all benefit from embracing our inner child. 

So, long live the uke!  The instrument of the future. And, as we all tip toe through the tulips, we should pay our respects to Tiny Tim, an American Musical Visionary.