Breaking Up the Band

guitar tabWe were playing guitar, last night. My husband is a classically trained guitarist. I’m an untrained disaster. It’s a perfect combination. Sort of like The Monkees, who I loved growing up. One musician and a cute front man. I’m the cute front man. I can strum, play my three country-folk music chords, and if I see a chord I don’t like, I skip it…

“Oh, that’s a B-minor-seventh-diminished-trampled-tenth,” he’ll say. “Simple.” If a chord sounds too much like math, it’s out. There’s a reason I don’t teach math.

Actually, music is a great way of disguising math. I learned this when I was flunking out of music school. I’d lock myself in a practice room, which reminded me like a cross between an old phone booth and a padded room–with my borrowed clarinet–I wasn’t even good enough to own my own–and I’d play the same scales and arpeggios–wrong generally–over and over and over, changing key, adding one sharp here, one flat there–never really being able to solidly read the music, just listening and memorizing as I went. Eventually, I started feeling like I was in calculus class. And I left.

But not before they kicked me out.

I always loved guitar. It gave me creativity. I didn’t need to have great skill or read music. Half the famous pop musicians don’t. I can write songs. Simple ones that make fun of things. When Coach wouldn’t play me–I usually played left-bench or left-out, I wrote “The Benchwarmer’s Blues.” I wrote diddies about people annoying me, things that were wrong, social injustice. It felt good. I used to play a lot, but life got in the way. I wasn’t going to be famous anyway–YouTube hadn’t been invented.

I remember the first time I played with my now husband.

“It’s not written like that,” he said. We were playing John Denver. I love John Denver. I have all his records.

“Oh, I don’t care.” I strummed loudly and sang.

“Can’t you see that rest?” said Rusty, a little more emphatically.

“Yes. There’s no rest on the record.” I had three versions.


“Music is joy! You are sucking away my joy!” I stomped away as only an artist can do. Except I am not an artist. I’m really pretty bad. Rusty is classically trained. He’s so good, in fact, that he got a scholarship to Prestigious Music School, except that no one in guidance told him about it, even knowing that he was signing Army papers before the “surprise reveal” at high school graduation.

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 6.20.32 AMI picture him as one of my students, standing there, dumbfounded, knowing he would have had that choice–a full music scholarship to an amazing place. Maybe he would have chosen the Army, maybe not–but that choice was taken away due adults who didn’t have that vision for him. I picture him standing at graduation with a sinking feeling, knowing music scholarship was dead because his military papers had all been signed. Knowing that the adults in his life made judgments about him and never envisioned him reaching the stars.

I try never to be one of those adults when I teach. Education is about vision. It’s about knowing the full range of possibilities that each student has in front of him or her, and giving the skill set and mentorship to make that happen. It is individual. It’s not standard. Lately, standardization is taking over, giving me less time to be the visionary. Seems it’s more about testing, goals, and benchmarks than looking at that kid and saying, “Hey, you got a music scholarship. Go. Be great!”

When I get discouraged, I think of Rusty. I look at the student in front of me, and I say, “What’s your plan?” And we tweak that idea, adding on hefty layers of time-based action plan to the pile until it’s quite a lot of work, and the students says, “Wow. I never thought I could be that!” You can. That’s the entire point of education, not whether they passed tests or I got a great score on my teacher evaluation rubric. It’s creating vision. Relationships. Continuing the mentoring even after graduation, because that’s when the lessons ACTUALLY set in. “Do…great…things.” Don’t reach for the stars–own them.

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 6.23.52 AMLast night we sat down and played some Creed and Ozzy. It was fun.

“You can’t play that like that–see, only two strums.”

“Where do you see that?” I said

“It’s right there.”

“Oh, I don’t care. I can’t read it anyway. I have it on my iTunes.”

Deja vous.

In case you’re wondering about the end of the story, Rusty turned out okay–visionary even. After an amazing military experience, he went on to be quite the entrepreneur, transforming fitness in the region, with Maybe they should have offered him a business scholarship instead. Turns out, he wouldn’t have needed it. He needed a vision, and to reach for–and own the stars. He’s done both. And if you asked him, he’d say it wasn’t school that prepared him–it was life and hard work, and having the best people around him, people who also had vision and the desire to own the stars. That’s the entire secret.

I’ll remind my students before graduation.

But today, I’m going to skip some chords and sing loudly, even if it doesn’t say that in the score.

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We (Don’t) Got the Beats

Screen Shot 2013-05-16 at 6.23.24 AM“Miss, come here.” I do.

“Can you please explain to him why he’s stupid?” said friend about friend.

“Elaborate? Give me the details of this conversation?” I inquire.

“He’s got $80 headphones.” friend says. Now, I am the queen of coupons, the maven of money-saving, the pinnacle of penny-pinching. They know what I’ll say.

“What do you need $80 headphones for? What could you buy with $80?” I discuss opportunity cost. No one signs up for an economics lecture at 7AM.

“Well at least they’re not Beats, those are expensive.” says the money-waster.

“Beats are big,” I say. “I don’t understand–we are three decades removed from MY Day, when the Walkman was invented…” I notice they are staring at me with a curious mixture of shock and disbelief. When the Walkman was invented…  “It’s true. I remember. We used to run like this…”  I mime running with a hand carrying a suitcase, “Because it was so darned big. We make things small now.”

I continue, “Just yesterday I had my new iPod implanted in my arm. I use a QR code to update the play list so I can run. The headphones were inserted in my brain through my nostril and I only sneezed twice. All bluetooth. Why,” I ask, “Are you people,” I motioning to the collective group of teens, “reinventing headphones that are bigger than football helmets?”

These are stealth,” said the proud owner of the $80 headphones.

“Why are they $80, then? I have to know. I can get a Bose speaker for ten dollars more.” My students often educate me. Seems like something I should learn.

“Well, this part’s gold,” he said.

“Gold?” I ask.  “Is this where you put your gold if you can’t get a chain or a fake gold tooth? Or maybe you’re still uncertain about the economy?” There I go, more economics lesson. Maybe I’m indeed, too old to understand. The teens laugh. I’m reducing this expense to rubble. Opportunity cost one, student zero.

“Well, anyway, Beats are for hip hop. These are for metal.”

“Oh, so now there’s a socio-musical-political underlying implication to this?” I’m happy because at least one student understands what I’ve just said.

The rest need coffee.

Or louder music to block me out.

We never resolve which headphones are best, or why, when they are not permitted in school, half the crowd buys lime green ones the size of Texas rather than the “stealth” ones with the bling, but I agree to stay after and listen to my cheap ear buds next to the Beats and the Skull Candy bling buds.

Because it is time, they advise, “for you to be educated.”

“I agree.” I say. “It’s important to learn something new every day.”

Kletzmer Music, The Farmer’s Market, and Rebuilding Rhode Island

photoI love the farmer’s market. I feel comfortable. There are people like me at farmer’s markets. There are people with canvas bags, no doubt tons of vegetarians, and older parents.  That makes me smile because though I feel young at heart, and I hate it when I’m the only parent around that remembers the Reagan administration.  I love sitting with people who dress their children in colors from the 70’s, including stripes, dots, and patterns in one outfit. I feel at home.

This weekend at the farmer’s market, we were lucky. We got a front row bench to the band playing in the corner–usually it’s a bluegrass trio or Celtic music, both of which I love, but this time we got somewhat of a treat–Kletzmer music. A group called Ezekiel’s Wheels out of Boston, some of whom, I learned, were financing grad school, and a couple of whom were full-time professional musicians.

I love Kletzmer music. It’s entrancing. It makes me feel a combination of emotions all in the space of one song that few other types of music evoke. It’s the only music that can sound joyful even in the minor key.

I think Declan thought so, too.  Irish music holds his attention for a little while, within limits, probably because you are supposed to get a beer. It’s in the Irish Rulebook. Kletzmer kept him hypnotized and dancing for an hour and a half–a world’s record for a kid who flits around faster than the thoughts in my brain.

As soon as the first song ended, he said, “THAT IS THE UGLIEST GUITAR!” I bent down to shush him as soon as I heard the word “ugly,” because I didn’t want a repeat of past public incidents like the “Why is your nose so big?” scandal or the more horrific “Why are you so fat?”  But it was too late–he bolted away toward the quartet. He stopped in front of the bass player with wonder in his eyes.  “That’s a funny guitar.”

“It’s a stand-up bass,” the musician informed him.

I thought that was a good answer. There was another parent there. An older parent.  His little person was dancing too. “Ahhhh!” she shrieked.

“What’s that?” He said, “Right, it is a stand up bass.”  I didn’t want to argue, but there is no way that “Ahhhh!” coming from a pre-verbal child translates to “Daddy, that’s a stand up bass,” any more than Declan’s original applause at the scales played by the fiddle player and clarinetist meant, “Mommy! I love those arpeggios!” But alas, we older parents are ever so hopeful our child will be the next Einstein or Yo Yo Ma. In this economy, it’s our only retirement plan.

By the third song, Declan had forged a solid relationship with the fiddle player, Jonathan, a grad student at BU who Declan apparently booked for his bar mitzvah. Then, being informed he is not Jewish he converted on the spot, reciting half the Torah so that in just seven or eight short years he can have a bar mitzvah and get a fiddle of his own.

The amazing part to watch both as a smiling parent and a failed musician was that the boy really got the emotion of the music–during the slow pieces, he stomped around like a dinosaur, and said, “Mommy, this is sad.” During the fast songs, he was a five-year old whirling dervish spinning toward the heavens reminding me that music truly touches the soul at all ages.

photo copy 3By the end of the farmer’s market, I’d scored ten pounds of B-grade apples and a nice cup of New Harvest Roaster’s “Steamroller Blend,” which, I might add, though delicious, certainly required a “you will move faster today” warning label.  I enjoyed a spinach-feta crepe from The Creperie, a fantastic local restaurant that can turn anything into a flat pancake and have you asking for more.

Declan stuck with the standard fare–kettle corn and a cupcake, both of which had the nutrition police lurking, I’m sure, but a kid needs to keep up his energy to dance and contemplate a career in Kletzmer. He confirmed that he still wants to be a paleontologist, but he does like “this music.” Maybe if Kletzmer had been around, the dinosaurs would have been happier, and a few would have made it–who knows. That will be his job to find out.

There are a couple more weekends of indoor Winter Farmer’s Market, and then we move outdoors for the season of mud and planting. This year, I’ll be busy planting my own large sustainable enterprise. But moments like these will bring me back to the farmer’s market, not just for the musicians, but for the sense of adventure and community–to support the people who made their products for me, who came out to play for me, who fished for me, and grew vegetables for me.  It’s the sense of community in a world where we sometimes forget about such things that keeps me coming back for more.

It’s nice to see Rhode Island building that community once again–it’s definitely gaining momentum here–the small businesses growing, the family farms gaining prestige, the entrepreneurs coming into the state;  I’m glad we’re putting Rhode Island back on the map. I can see it more and more clearly every day–Startup Weekends, storefronts filling, and businesses like my husband’s expanding. It will be nice to see this trend continue. It’s even nicer seeing Rhode Islanders support it with such enthusiasm.

My ultimate goal is that we can sustain this sense of community–where everyone supports each other and takes a moment to chat and smile at places like the farmer’s market, and we all stop and enjoy the music. That is what I find at these markets. And it truly is magic.

Black-listing Friday: Getting Back to What Matters

Christmas appeared early this year in our local stores–about three weeks before the Fourth of July, I think. It’s not that I don’t love the site of a freshly-decorated fake tree with a pine-smelling air freshener trying to convince me it’s real–I do, don’t get me wrong, I love the stuff.  I love mistletoe and wilted cranberries alternating with stale popcorn strung in strands wrapped around light poles.  I love walking down Fifth Avenue looking at the outrageous perfection of window displays planned months in advance and revealed for the season. I love knowing that the largest tree in the world has been hunted down, exterminated, and will be waiting for me in Rockefeller plaza if I get a chance to get down to see it, which I used to try to do annually but haven’t done for some time.

I love all the trimmings of the American Consumer Christmas that was created in tandem by Coca Cola’s plump carbonation-consuming Santa and marketing genius W.H. Macy–the first great entrepreneur to give St. Nick an emolument for sitting in his department store training kids to want stuff on the occasion of the birth of someone else. And then to be ballsy enough to have a parade in honor of that desire. That’s America! And who doesn’t love the movies–the Bing, the Jimmy Stewart, the “Christmas Story” 24-hour marathon. Because I can watch it twelve times. It’s a cult classic.

I don’t mind the secular side of Christmas, or the leftover relics of other holidays so intelligently disguised by the Holy Roman Empire–I love the German Christmas tree, the Yule Log, and the fact that the mistletoe was actually a fertility ritual. I’m even willing to forgive the fact that in the year 350 the Roman Catholic Pope Julius I picked the date of Christmas to coincide with everyone else’s holidays irregardless of the historical birth of Jesus, just to make it easier and more convenient for other religions to convert and still keep their celebrations in tact.

I want to share this holiday spirit with everyone–religious, secular, Christian, non Christian–it’s the season of awesome carols (also a pre-Christian tradition, I might add, but I’ll steal a good song like Vanilla Ice lifting Freddie Mercury when it presents itself). It’s the season of million-calorie egg nog.  It’s the season to give cards, token gifts, and smiles–even to the people we don’t like. They all seem a little nicer to me. And that’s a good thing…


Black Friday.

This is a tradition I just can’t wrap my head around.  I didn’t mind so much when it was the stores opening a bit early to publicize a few doorbuster sales.  But then it got vicious. Stores opening earlier. Stores staying open all night. People fighting over the last Whatever’s Hot That Season and selling it on Ebay for ten times the cost. Almost all of the “seven deadly sins” wrapped up in a – bow for the news coverage to see. One person reported to me that he had to go to Black Friday training to be permitted to work the all-nighter, because stores taught techniques in loss-aversion and crowd control.

Let me get this right–we have to train employees in law enforcement so they can deal with thieving, pushing crowds the day after Thanksgiving–the holiday of gratitude? Workers need to learn how to mediate disputes between people fighting over consumer goods at rock-bottom prices made in countries that are underpaying poorly treated workers? In honor of love and spirituality?

I pause to think.

One year, I did take part in Black Friday–I didn’t set my clock. I’m naturally awake at Dumb O’Clock in the morning.  The reason I decided to venture out was because I lived in the city near the store. We were really struggling that year–we were building a business–the entrepreneurial spirit is never quite as glamorous as one thinks–the Great Recession hit hard, and there was so much uncertainty in the air. I was flat broke and my step-daughter’s holiday list was on the table. I went out to one store, and got the simple things–as many as I could so that I’d have something to wrap under the tree. Things made in countries by underpaid workers made available to me at rock bottom prices.

I started thinking of a time before Black Friday existed. I was somewhere around eight years old.  My father was out of work during that generation’s Great Recession, but there wouldn’t have been box stores offering huge sales at that time, and if there were, my mom would have had to make choices between things like food or presents.  Somehow, there were presents. The gift I remember most was a radio. I now know this came from a tag sale, and it was broken.  It only got one channel–the Spanish station. I think my mother was upset, but I loved the Spanish station–I still love it today.  Por eso, hablo espanol bastante bien, claro. 

Because the things we truly love cannot be measured by money, sales, or consumerism.

As a child, that Christmas was just like any other Christmas–family, community, and fun. Community was much closer in those days. Friends stepped in and helped. They were there in person because computers did not exist. When there was no food, food appeared, when there was no money, it magically grew in the Christmas cactus. When someone was sick, people came and took the kids and gave parents the break they needed.

This is the essence of the holidays and Christmas seasons I remember. My friends Karen, LIsa, and Cheryl–how we used to make Christmas crafts together. All my parents’ friends and their circles of guitars. The traditions at the church and the houses of the people with whom I grew up. As we got older we sang in the choirs. As we got older still, the last people awake and still coherent enough to read the words on the page had to go back to the late Mass to sight sing Latin a capella…I miss that. And you can bet this holiday season, I’ll throw on the sacred music, even if I don’t always land in church in person.

Black Friday–taking employees away from their families and communities–is the opposite of this feeling of warmth I remember.  Although I caved to Black Friday that one year due to the year of fear and uncertainty for my family and for many Americans–I will not be doing it again.

This year, Thanksgiving will be small and peaceful. I suspect my extended family will show up for cheesecake, egg nog, and the list of pies they requested. The day after Thanksgiving, I plan to fence off my garden–I just moved, and I want it to be ready for the spring.  I want to take the weekend to reach out and thank the people to whom I’m grateful–friends new and old, new colleagues, family members I don’t see enough.  I want to make actual phone calls rather than sending texts and emails–I want to hear voices on the other end; just a small attempt to stop the rat race for a little bit.

And if I venture out into the commercial arena, it will be to my local businesses, which have pulled out all the stops better than the stores on Fifth Avenue ever could. I’ll meet the shopkeepers in my new town, and buy some gifts from them–because Small Business Saturday, I think, should not be a holiday, it should be a way of life.  It should be a way of shaking hands and building back the community that the rat race seems to have stolen from us.

I’m guilty of joining the rat race, too. Of seeing how much I can get done in order to defy the physics of time. This holiday season, I want to prepare, connect, build relationships, and enjoy.  Black Friday seems the perfect time to do just that.


Failing at Music–Succeeding at Life: Part Two


Eastman Theatre

I wanted to be a professional musician, but I did not have the chops. So I began my evil plan.

I had two choices for college. One was an Ivy League college that I didn’t exactly like and, as it turned out, didn’t exactly like me.  The second was the University of Rochester in upstate New York. It was filled with friendly people who let me stay with them for a weekend and drink–much better marketing.  And this school just so happened to have a music school attached to it—the Eastman School of Music.  It was a postern of fate.

Had I told anyone—a single soul—about my plan to attend the Eastman School of Music they’d have committed me on the spot.  Eastman was one of the Big Three. It required some element of musical preparation or training. But I was going to take it completely off guard.

In order to go to the Eastman School of Music, one had to apply, audition, and be accepted, which presumably meant it was necessary to be a master of at least some particular instrument. Those who went to Eastman not only started their training two years prior to conception, they practiced every day for twenty-six hours, forgoing even basic nutrition for music, which they considered sufficient nourishment for the soul.  They talked about Beethoven incessantly and threw birthday parties for Mozart instead of for themselves.  Their idea of a fraternity party was to get together at night and contemplate Brahms some more over a bowl of chips that had grown stale because everyone was too busy discussing Brahms  to actually eat them.

I, on the other hand, could neither read nor hand-write music—and as a result, I spent a great deal of my time cheating my way through like an illiterate person reading road signs.  Every once in a while, you get one very, very wrong.  “Sorry, chief—that said ‘one-way.’”

This wasn’t going to be easy—disguising myself as a musician and getting into what I still did not realize was the premiere classical conservatory in the nation. I would need a loophole, and that’s just what I found.  Rochester students could take music courses at Eastman.  What if I just registered for all the good music courses?  Eastman students were there, and the classes commingled.  I could take almost the same classes with the Future Musicians of America, join bands with them, discuss Brahms with them, scoff at the poor slobs majoring in pre-med, economics, and history, and be musically, intellectually, and socially superior to the entire universe.  And I wouldn’t even have to be properly trained—it was a win-win situation by any stretch of the imagination.

Thus, I registered for classes at the Eastman School of Music through the regular university. Totally legal. I studied all the theory I could muster and passed the exam through rote memorization, because that’s what academic people without “proper musical training” do.  Then—on the day of truth—I showed up for my audition.

I was playing what some would consider a challenging piece—Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto.  I couldn’t actually read the score, so I bought a record—the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir George Solti—and read alongside the record—sort of a closed caption for the musically impaired.   I practiced for the entire summer before on my borrowed clarinet, because I was neither good enough nor well-funded enough to own one, and went off to college.

Audition day. Imagine the panel of musical geniuses waiting to hear the next lead of the Boston Philharmonic. Imagine that they have just endured a thousand auditions—the next Yanni, the next Yo Yo Ma, next Chris Botti…and then…there…was me.

Twenty years later, I am truly remorseful for the sorrow I inflicted on these men and I include them in my daily prayers.  I ask the Lord for forgiveness and to make their lives better in some subtle way.  If I were Jewish, I’d track them all down on Yom Kippur and beg them to accept my apology outright, because after hearing me, they were never quite the same.  I’m convinced that I took a little piece of music from each and every one of their souls and trampled on it like Marilyn Manson at a Boston Pops concert.

At the end of what they must have thought was a Candid Camera prank or a CIA torture training mission (miraculously cut short because God Himself sped down into that hallowed hall, and broke my clarinet in half), all the men could do was look straight ahead, pause, and say, “So, you like Sir George Solti.”

I steeped myself in everything Eastman. I laughed at the Beethoven jokes; I walked laps around the Gilded-Age auditorium. I went to concerts.  I breathed in the stale air of the practice rooms.  Even though it took me a 45 minute ride on the blue bus, I took a work-study job at the Sibley Music Library, where I began cataloguing music scores for less money than I would have made in a prison laundry, getting highly indignant—alongside the other Brahms lovers—when people misalphabetized the Russian version of Shostakovich  and put Von Weber under “w.”

After that, it took me exactly two weeks to flunk entirely out of the music program, which I still did not realize was the best program in the nation.  I called my former band director who had inspired me to tell him I was struggling at Eastman and I feared I most probably would not succeed.

“YOU DID WHAT?” He didn’t sound impressed.  And so I came clean. I divulged the whole story—of my sneaking onto the “Eastman” rosters under cover of darkness, of my torturing the great musicians on the panel taking musical years off their lives. How I got a 40 on my first assignment, major scales, and a 20 on minor scales, and that was only because the infinitely good Dr. Harrison said, “You didn’t earn that 20—but I can see that you tried really hard.”

In the end, the stress got me sick.  I was sick for a solid month. I shuffled back and forth to health services.  I commiserated with my yet-to-be-premed friends, with whom I now spoke since Brahms was giving me the cold shoulder, and I plugged through the rest of first semester before finally admitting I was not musician material.

The discipline of “proper training” made music seem more like another aspect of calculus than the soul and essence of life.  It became a self-torture I couldn’t stop—a train wreck—the part of a mountain climb where it seems that the summit is right around the corner, but when you pass the next tree, you see the ridgeline open up and reveal it to be so far in the distance that you’re not sure you want to press on.  When you ultimately decide to continue and you arrive at the next point where you thought the summit would be, it turns out to be an illusion once again.  I was left with the sinking feeling of defeat and disappointment, where the thing I thought I loved—the passion in my soul, turned out to be one giant red herring.

I didn’t even get into the lowest of piano courses—the one everyone takes.  My audition turned out to be surprisingly similar to my clarinet audition.  The professor said, “Very good,” when I played the Mozart, and then, “Read this,” handing me some Chopin that looked like Chinese Braille.  Game over.

I was forced to finish that semester in clarinet.  I continued to travel over to Eastman to study with my personal graduate student, Michelle, who was undoubtedly in trouble for something and had to redeem herself by teaching me.  I sincerely hope she is not working in a sub-par elementary music program soon to be cut.  She was an angel.  She made me feel good.

I played one semester in the River Campus Symphonic Wind Ensemble, being too ignorant to know that it was an entire year commitment until my conductor found me and said, “WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?”  By that time I supposed the loss of one more third clarinet was probably a blessing to everyone.

I sang Gospel during the rest of my tenure at school—one of two white people in that group.  Gospel I could handle—no music reading, a history of musical improvisation, and fun group of people with a conductor, Dr. Alvin Parris, who demonstrated that music was a gift from heaven channeled through people regardless of “proper training.”  In this group, I learned some technical skills, and had the experience of being the only person of another race in a large overpowering majority—I experienced the smallest sampling of the struggles with which my choir members lived constantly, the subtle infusion of racism that permeated their very existence, from which I could escape but they could not.  That was a gift I carry with me to this day.

I left music behind with a better understanding of the timeless cliché, “Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.”

Today, music has returned to my life. I see the beauty, joy, and patterns in nature.  I pick up my guitar and write, sing, and play on my terms.  I write satire, folk, and other pieces of no particular consequence that will never be produced for the betterment of humanity.  I have sung a roast or two, and I freestyle with my students when directly challenged. I always win.

And I am grateful for my failure. I am happy with my music.  Once again, it brings me great joy.


Failing at Music–Succeeding at Life: Part One


Bacon Academy band performs under the leadership of Tom Kessler

This past summer I attended a concert in honor of a person who profoundly influenced my life—my high school band director, Tom Kessler.  He was the kind of teacher who educated the “whole student,” and though I suspect he originally planned to stay a few years on his way to another gig, he’s there today, inspiring students just like me, which is good for every kid who passes through that door.

He transformed the band program from a couple of classes into an institution. Everyone who was anyone in that town had something to do with the high school music program, and it became the very definition of “cool.”

I, however, was not cool.  I was a walking anachronism.  I floated around the 80’s in Jim Morrison flowered dresses listening to Bob Dylan and Loudon Wainwright III, playing Peter, Paul, and Mary, Simon & Garfunkel and The Who.  I portaged my guitar up and down the hills to and from school so I could crack it open for a few moments before and after school—more for show than for the musical benefit of my audience—playing “meaningful” coffeehouse tunes like a self-proclaimed Joan Baez.

On a cheery day, I’d break out the Phil Ochs and play serious protest music, never minding that Ochs himself never really beat The Man.  My favorite leftist socialist revolutionary went crazy, became homeless, and hanged himself in a fit of bipolar angst.  I hoped I could be more effective than that in changing the world.

I wanted to be a musician, but there was one problem.  I sucked. I was completely untrained, and I was not in a fiscal position to aspire to such training.  Out of kindness, Kessler, who commanded one name, like Cher or Madonna, gave me an instrument—a bassoon. After a couple of days of my practicing El Condor Pasa, someone called the Department of Environmental Management to report a disturbance in the local moose population, so I switched to clarinet.

I was Third Chair Third Clarinet, only because lesser-skilled fourth and fifth clarinets do not exist. I worked hard. Most third clarinetist I met did not work hard or practice. That is how they remained third clarinets. In our group, they were routinely slumping over eating Doritos or passing notes instead of taking home their music to practice.

I, however, was different. I was not an uninspired Dorito-eating note-passing nonpracticer.  I played, I suffered, worked hard, and toiled. I went on band trips, where I was repeatedly ditched by the girl who channeled the inner mean in crowds otherwise destined to be nonchalant or even kind to the socially less fortunate.  And I became stronger. I was determined to be cooler, better, and more famous than these people, despite the fact they had been “properly trained.”  I would march in bands, I would write songs proclaiming my own greatness at the expense of the People I Didn’t Like, and I would use my music to achieve world peace.  Arabs and Israelis would hug while listening to me, and the Cold War would end.  I would walk around in all my folk musician glory, playing guitars with flowered straps, wearing my Salvation Army India cotton tunics, regrowing my straight chestnut Joni Mitchell hair from the Age of Aquarius perm I had suffered while trying desperately to fit in.

No longer would I merely fit in. I would transcend. And someday, in their lives of quiet desperation, The People I Didn’t Like would in fact, rue the day they ignored my greatness.  And so…I determined…I…must become famous.  Not because I cared about fame. I didn’t.  By definition, self-proclaimed folk musicians are compelled to remain aloof and unapproachable.  Fame is only acceptable as a public soapbox to deflect ones’ inner angst at the injustices of the world, or as an interlude to drinking oneself half to death while being unable to solve problems that never affected us to begin with.  I was going to correct the greatest social injustice of all by leaving my detractors in the dust.

In many ways, I have done so, and have passed those lessons on to the students I now teach.  Yesterday, as a matter of fact, I wedged myself in on a roundtable discussion on the topic of “She’s a ho,” getting to essence of high school life with five very great kids, looking for some better solutions.  We talked and uncovered reasons for high school drama, and for a brief moment, I was able to travel in my time machine back and forth to my own high school failures and oppression being a human illustration of “It Gets Better.”  For all of us.  Because our failures “back then” are a drop in the bucket of the universe, inconsequential except for the lessons they provide us, lessons on how to succeed later on.

It took me decades to laugh at some of those lessons, and now that I had passed them on, they had fulfilled their destiny.  But at the time, I had no knowledge of any of this. I just wanted to be a musician.  And I was determined to carry on… (to be continued).