my head’s full of noise.

what do you think is the difference between noise and sound, I asked. Between sound and music, I asked.

what’s the point of music, he asked. Out of the blue like that. a question that always goes without asking for me because music is everything. The key to all life. The learning that facilitates learning. The most sublime thing. Better than politics or religion or social engineering or economic systems any day of the week for something to be into.

like that kid who isn’t into music, doesn’t listen to it in his car because I JUST LIKE THE SOUND OF THE CAR. What the?

what do you mean, you little shit, what’s the point of music? You don’t like music?

Not really. I mean, I listen to it sometimes, like BTS. They’re cool.

(Yeah, I bet they are. they’re Korean and some kind of YouTube sensation and they’re a bunch of young kids and that’s always cool, right?)

what’s the point of asking, then, what the difference is between noise and sound or sound and music? To some people it’s just noise, and how dare they. (Except sometimes I turn the volume down and sometimes I shut it off because for some reason it feels overwhelming, even or especially if it’s stuff I listen to all the time.)

all the time.

fancy 4-star chefs serve you tiny entrees on fancy plates like it’s a work of art instead of something to eat and it forces you to savor every bite lest you feel you got cheated for the price of the thing.

and sometimes with a student I’ll say “tasty bits, tasty bits” because “less is more” and all that – and I have the temerity to ask how anyone could not think music is the bomb?

I’m a one horse pony. ?

I’m a self-contained one-meal deal.

And those people who paint their houses pink or purple? Are they like me or like the kid who never listens to music? Because I’m still stunned at the question: what’s the point of music?

I should have taken it as academic and striven to give an answer. but he’s a fourth grader and isn’t interested. he’s saying it because he doesn’t think there’s a point to music.

Kids these days.

Me these days.

Sweet Sister, Come

Sky is mostly blue and the air is moving. Ah, Spring – She’s a-coming. Taking her time, but a-coming just the same.

For a time we knew, as the days of light grew shorter, She hung back, a sleepy child napping.

Winter, that moody crank who comes forth when Summer – Spring’s older sis – recedes to let the earth rest in its soils and from its toils for fruit and prosperity, for the urgency of lustful singing.

Winter: He has his own mysterious beauty. We know He does. We concede it. Unhurried himself, He is wise beneath his dark brow and recyling ways, custodian of decay performing balancing acts amid stubborn shadows.

(Autumn is his fickle niece, ambivalent entre-act.)

But now Spring has awakened, and is coming. Walking toward this face of the wild planet, her hair in waves, a song breathing from her lips, and in her hand a crocus bulb. Get ready to hail her: She will never grow old.

She has already begun tossing sprays of sunlit cyan from where, if you peer through your scope, you will see her walking toward you on a carpet of warm ethereal shimmer her Sister has laid out for her.

Oh, sweet, sweet Spring of endfless hope and boundless lust for life: eke out our fervency for songs of salvation and rebirth while they labor on the other side to pull the young from the earth’s angry bitter cold raw quaking maw.

the things I tell my students

||: everything takes time :||

||: what’s really important? :||

||: everything will be okay :||

||: you are exactly where you need to be :||

||: this is not “hard”; this is your process of growth. that is all and that is everything :||

||: relax :||

||: everything takes time :||

So, these are the things I practice telling myself

( ||: is the music symbol for “repeat”)


some of you

don’t like cats nor jazz

you can’t control them

they know the rules

and bend them anyway

(or break them altogether)

you can’t stand things that

don’t fit into neatconsistent predicTable

order lee

so don’t like jazz nor cats

nor cool cats, bebop cats

who go where they want

wander, tricky, sneaky

get a notion, get curious, experiment

jump on a whim, turn on a dime

out of control

digging those scratchy sharp-nine’s

pawing at major-minors and augmented fourths

dragging notes around as if they don’t belong

anywhere sometimes

making your head swim and

sometimes making us feel, well,

sexy and smart and sophisticated

Monk Parker Baker, them cats

out at night

always landing on their feet

on the edge of polite society

cats sunning themselves in the window, saying:

yeah? eh?

i’m too sexy for your couch

too sexy for your flat

what you think about that

so go ahead

scratch your head

makes no difference because

they’re cool

very, very cool and they know it

Fun With Words

Dave Spicer

Dickie McGrubber and Bugger Daley were a rank pair of troglobytes,

tilting the world a bit for every preacher setting the world to rights.

Bugger sat daily behind his fence of wood and would have moved if he could

but grinned the role of playing fence for a motley thief giving offense

to the law and order of things.

Dickie pulled a quickie every other night

in the burbs of those with power and might

leaving their insurers to fend for themselves

and never lost sleep over what he couldn’t keep

for Bugger paid him well on items that he pinched

and loaned him extra here and there

to keep him running everywhere.

They shared a meal on weekends at Bugger’s backyard table

seated like bookends holding up the board

paid for with their steaming stolen horde.

Dickie ran habitually anguished

but Bugger he indifferently languished

like a foppish pug in his rank little sty

for, as he would often say,

a man’s home is his fortress.

All the Things We Are

I was once a king. I would stand out on the portico of my palace and honor the morning sun as it rose above the horizon. In the evening, my official duties dispatched and my enemies vanquished, I would stand at the opposite end and honor the sun as it went to sleep.

I was once a scourge to the country in which I lived. In search of survival I stole from villages, plundered wayfarers, cheated merchants, raped women and lied to children.

I was once a mason who traveled the realm to build cathedrals and temples. I was alone on the road and met many people along the way. A young man became my apprentice, but he did not last because he was impatient. I had no home but my home was everywhere I went, and I was paid well for my work.

I was once a philosopher and statesman. I lectured within the columns of the great hall and argued with those from different schools and different points of view.

I was once a farmer with a wife and family. An indigent fellow came to us asking for work. All we could afford to give him was a bed and a place at our table. But we were happy and we had enough. The hired man, he felt he had no right to sit with us, but I kept assuring him all was well. And this I felt was my greatest work.

Morning Stroll

it’s of no consequence

the bare black trees in winter’s drab stasis,

vertical snags frozen in tableau like gnarled crones

all black-souled and twisted

but no consequence to me,

nor the solitary heron still standing, still

stolid sentry in a field’s dead center under grey sky

watching from the corner of his eye that sliver of blue

drifting this way if it will alter his view

or mine,

for my wife thinks dead wood is beautiful

and maybe she’s right

but my mind is on gnarled twisted humans

in their extremity frozen alone

in fields of their own

scanning to see what slivers of blue

might alter their fortune too.

they, I think,

they are beautiful.

therefore, none of us has it easy.

Literary Gems

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

I have enjoyed reading obscure or forgotten literature from the early 20th century. I once read a book called “Arrowsmith,” by Sinclair Lewis (1925) and almost laughed my fool head off over the health care system – as if nothing had changed in more than a century.

I finally discovered, “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” by Carson McCullers (1940), and found myself jealous that a college-age girl could write like that. It’s a beautiful and haunting story.

I use a highlighter when I come upon a passage that makes me stop. A phrase, sentence, or paragraph that jumps out, seems to be saying something. Below are a few. The first is from Jack Black’s 1926 memoir “You Can’t Win,” in which he outlines his descent into a criminal career. Here he is describing his childhood:

“Looking back, it seems to me that our life in the convent was not properly balanced. We had none of the rough, boisterous times so dear to the small boy, no swimming, baseball, football. We were a little too cloistered, too quiet, too subdued. There was no wrestling, no boxing, no running and jumping and squabbling and shuffling and shouldering about. Of course I learned all those later. But I learned them quickly, too quickly – all in a bunch. That put me out of balance again. Those exercises should have been mixed in with my studies and prayers.”

The next is from a short story by P.G. Wodehouse entitled, “When Papa Swore In Hindustani” (1901). Wodehouse was a comic British writer who wrote cleanly, concisely and smartly. You could write a stage musical out of this particular comic drama. Here’s the passage:

“Colonel Reynolds, V.C., glared sternly across the table at Miss Sylvia Reynolds, and Miss Sylvia Reynolds looked in a deprecatory manner back at Colonel Reynolds, V.C.; while the dog in question – a foppish pug – happening to meet the colonel’s eye in transit, crawled unostentatiously under the sideboard, and began to wrestle with a bad conscience.”

“Foppish pug”? I giggled like a schoolboy picturing it, before I even looked up the word “foppish.”

This last quote I’ve lost the reference for (having foolishly written it down in my journal without credit), and I apologize. It stopped me because there is a mountain of self-recognition in it:

“So every night he sat in Alcala, and wrote. Sometimes he would only try to write, and that was torture.”

Time Warp

I understand neither Einstein nor notions of a magical universe where every coincidence is none. But an amazing thing happened the other night.

I decided to return to the local Choral Society for winter term. When I arrived on the first night of rehearsal I found that a woman I’d done community theater with two years earlier was present as well. It was a fun re-connect.

On the same night I found that a student I’d worked with in Rock Camp last summer was also there with her mother. Also a fun re-connect, but with the added pleasure of seeing the rare high school student singing in a group who’s average age is somewhere around my own.

When I arrived on the second night I said hello to the community theater acquaintance again, but did not see the high school student, nor her mother. (Everyone is allowed three absences before being dismissed for that term’s concert.)

The two-hour rehearsal concluded, everyone was packing up and heading out. I was helping to stack chairs. A woman called my name. “Mike.” It wasn’t one of those explosive shouts you sometimes hear unexpectedly (which is why there is no exclamation point), but also wasn’t exactly a question (which is why there is no question mark). It was somewhere in between: on the line between “I know that name,” and “I’m not sure what I’m seeing right now.”

I turned around and didn’t recognize the woman standing there. Then she said her name: Ellie MacDonald. Right away it sounded like it should ring a bell. But it took several more seconds of standing there staring at her like a man in a fugue state before I realized I was looking at someone I hadn’t seen in over 40 years.

Ellie MacDonald (I’ve changed her name to protect her innocence) and I were both members of the elite vocal jazz group at our high school from 1977-1980. It was an audition-only choir. I had wanted to be a part of it since middle school, when the choir, known as “Shivesen,” had given a concert there.

I had auditioned as a freshman, but hadn’t made the cut. In the fall of 1977 I auditioned again and was selected. So was Ellie.

The next three years gave me some of the brightest memories of my early musical career. The choral director and I became close during that time, and he was a mentor for me as a developing pianist and writer. Friends and I collaborated on helping to arrange “charts” (songs) for the group to experiment with. One of these charts, an arrangement of an old jazz number called “Cloudburst,” had captured our imagination and the director agreed to help us arrange it for the group’s repertoire in the spring of 1980 for annual festival and competition.

At competition, I was allowed to play piano in the rhythm section. Mendoza sang the solo. When everything was tallied, we were announced the winners of the festival. That moment is still one of the greatest of my life. I can still see Jeff, Pat, Susie, Rick, Sherie, Kelly, Greg, Ellie, and the rest as we floated into the air and laughed and cried all the way home.

It was our last festival together. When we graduated, we moved on, as kids do.

As we stood there the other night, beholding one another (literally beholding), 40 years disappeared in a flash. I was actually stunned, particularly as I had long ago lost touch with anyone from high school. I finally threw my arms open and we held each other as if we were long-lost friends. Which, I guess we were. She actually wept (probably over the shock of me not having any hair on my head).

I said, “But how did you recognize me?”

She said, “I didn’t.” She reached out and tugged at my name tag.

What are the chances that two high school choir mates, having bonded over a unique and exceptional experience 40 years ago, would find each other at a choir rehearsal 40 years later? I can’t imagine this kind of thing happens very often.

Now we will see each other every week. And we’ll sing.

moving in sound

Musicians, mechanics, carpenters, crafters. We can never have enough tools. Even if it’s apparent at times that we have too much gear. I have redundancies of cable, adaptor, hub, headphone, lamp, binder and book, device and device and device.

But redundancy is Queen. Always have a backup. Always have alternatives. This includes songs.

When you teach music you want a long rotating list of tunes in your head, on your pad, in your Mac, on your external drive, in the cloud, whatever. These are teaching tools. Music from any era when teaching any age. You can never have enough music in the files. Melodies, beats, genres, rhythms, moods.

I’ve been in the studio with my friend working up tunes that connect to current Hip Hop feels, but which do homage to classic R&B. You do a lot of listening to that genre so you have that particular groove flowing through your nervous system.

Meanwhile, I’ve been putting off that call to gastroenterology (who doesn’t?) to make an appointment for the colonoscopy that the system insists is indicated and very, very important for people my age. At least you can give thanks that you’re under the gas when they’re doing it – which you can’t say for other delicate procedures.

I’m on the phone with the bot answering system, on hold, in the queue, waiting for a human to pick up. Every once in a while they interrupt the music loop to remind you that they have a website you can use if you don’t have time to wait for a human to show up. Part of the system coding is this: “We are currently experiencing a high number of calls…” Maybe, maybe not, but you can’t do anything about it, so you wait…

And they’re playing music. I have the phone’s speaker on so I can do a few things at the desk while I’m waiting for the human. (Notice how I like saying, “waiting for the human”?)

When suddenly it occurs to me that I’m hearing R&B on the wait loop. Then I’m hearing this:

“Walking in rhythm, moving in sound…

humming to the music, trying to move on…”

It’s the Blackbyrds from 1974. I haven’t heard that song in years. Those words repeat over and over and it’s another tuneful reverb of who I am and what I do. I’ll be damned, right?

I shut off the call because I have too many things to do than to wait for a human to pick up. And one of them is to put that song in my tool bag.

I think the kids would love it.