This site is dedicated to exploring, articulating and demonstrating the role of music in society as an agent of storytelling & re-storying, awareness & education, healing and connections.  As music engages our minds, bodies, and spirits, it can help us through difficult transitions, in ways nothing else can.  Music also celebrates life.  It has done so for millennia.

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Aesthetics, Entertainment & Transformation

This post is based on comments I made on fellow Lancastrian (Lancaster, PA) Andrew Zahn’s great blog, Creatives.  Andrew posts frequently on issues he and other “creatives” face.  Here is one post on the value of art that generated some fabulous interaction among readers.

The Creatives blog I’m highlighting here includes a video that has gone viral on Facebook (again) from a Washington Post story in 2007, of acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell playing incognito in a NY subway –  largely ignored by passersby.

In the comments about this video, many people seem chagrined at the inability in our culture to enjoy aesthetic beauty.  This experiment raises a lot of other interesting questions for me:

  1. What does this say about how we value art?
  2. Is art really about skill and talent?  Is virtuosity overrated?
  3. Why do we have this dichotomy of artist and non-artist in our culture?  Is not everyone an artist in their own way?
  4. What kind of musical performance might have enticed people to stop and listen in a NYC subway?  Is classical music, like Latin, a language only used among the old guard or the elite?
  5. Why can a couple kids with violins and hula-hoops busk in downtown Lancaster and pocket $80, and Joshua Bell can’t get $40 in NYC?  What does this tell us about the relationship between performer and audience?
  6. Is there a difference between art for ambience (aesthetics), art for entertainment, and art for transformation (ritual)?
  7. How important is time and space for appreciating art?  Is the subway station an inadequate environment to appreciate art?  What makes art relevant?
  8. Has the ability to record and reproduce art over-saturated our lives with art, such that we are numb to the effects and its real value?  Has the mechanization of reproduction techniques removed too much of the human element?  Are people so accustomed to hearing recorded music in public places that they failed even to recognize exquisite virtuosity right in front of them?
  9. Art in advertising and the media is used to grab our attention by arousing our emotions, sensually and sometimes sensationally.  Is live art-making somehow less attractive?  Are we blurring the lines between reality and virtuality?

Throughout human history, art has been a vehicle for transformation as much as a ritual for social unity, and often both.  Art is a medium for story sharing, a catalyst to help us revise our perspectives, and a means to adapt our selves and our communities to the realities we experience.  Have we so separated artists and non-artists in US society that audience members are uncomfortable viewing themselves as participants in the art of others, much less as “creatives” themselves?

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Act V: Hamlet transforms high-security prison

What can the production by inmates of one act of a Shakepeare play accomplish in a high-security prison?  Jack Hitt explores this question through conversations with those inmates and Agnes Wilcox, the small gray-haired woman who directs the play, at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center as they select the cast, rehearse and perform Act V, the “final bloody climax”, of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

The aspiring cast is half black, half white, and ranges from young life-ers in their 20s to old-timers in their 50s …

The man who plays Hamlet gets in character by recalling times he’s wanted to hurt people, like the crime that sent him to prison, in which he shot two people and left them for dead. Big Hutch, who plays Horatio, explains how it would work if you set Hamlet in a prison, and why it would actually improve a flaw in the plot.

If you have an hour, radio show This American Life‘s episode 218 is well worth the time.  The production that Hitt follows is set in a modern context, and the contemplation and enactment of murder offers these men a way to process their own life tragedies and reclaim their own human value.  The role of Hamlet is played by four different actors, all of whom are on stage at the same time, taking turns delivering the lines.

This small gang of Hamlets which mutters to itself and laughs at its own jokes nicely captures that fractured quality of Hamlet’s different personalities. And it’s also bonded the four actors together. They call themselves the Hamlets and constantly talk about their character …

One of the problems of doing any play in prison is that being a good actor is the exact emotional opposite of what it takes to be a successful inmate. Rather than close off all feeling and look tough, you have to open your vulnerable self up and withstand often cruel laughter as you try to find some authentic emotion within you. In this way, a level four, high-security prison is no different from high school.

The play Hamlet provides an array of characters that parallel the living cast within the prison, and the intrigue that runs deep strikes a real cord with these actors.  What these men say about Agnes, “this tiny tough lady, bosses them around”, is that she makes them feel human.  Jack Hitt says, “One guy with a third grade education level said that he was surprised to find out that he wasn’t stupid, just uneducated.”  About this work on the play, Brat Jones, one of the Hamlets, says,

This gives me an opportunity to see a society beyond what I’m used to…  Let me get into something else. That did open my eyes into getting into reading Sylvia Plath and Frost, and Wadsworth, and different other people.

James Word, a young man who discovered his acting talent playing Laertes, said

it was one of the best feelings I’ve ever felt. It was like the day my daughter was born. And it made me want to be better. Not just in acting. I mean, it just opened up a whole world for me. Like man, if I apply myself, I can pretty much do whatever I want.

There are many other fascinating stories in this radio show that illustrate the power of acting to transform a person’s life, simply by putting on the skin of another person and trying to really be them for a time.  And it gives them pride in what they’ve accomplished.  The performance of the play also gives the actors a rare chance to connect with those “on the outside”, and to be seen as something more than a prisoner.

The Philadelphia Mural Arts Program includes a similar type of transformative art-based program:

The Mural Arts Program incorporates the concept of justice involving victims, offenders and the community in the healing process, as an alternative to incarceration and revenge, into art instruction, mural making and community service work within the criminal justice system. Inmates, ex-offenders and juvenile delinquents are afforded the opportunity to learn new skills and make a positive contribution to their communities to repair the prior harm they may have caused. These programs emphasize re-entry, reclamation of civic spaces, and the use of art to give voice to people who have consistently felt disconnected from society.

Nothing highlights this program better than the film Concrete, Steel & Paint, which tells the story of the Healing Walls project at the State Corrections Institute at Graterford, in which inmates, victims of crime, community members and Mural Arts staff work together on common mural projects and learn about each other and themselves in the process.

I believe there is great potential for similar music-based programs within our troubled justice system.  Songwriting can be a powerful, visceral medium for storytelling through music; telling one’s story and being truly heard is a basic need we all have.  We also need to experience the stories of others so that we can live vicariously from another perspective.  Making music together can build lasting bonds between people, helping them feel a common rhythm, a common tune, a synchronicity of humanity.  It can bring us into tune with our interconnectivity with one another, with the sounds that envelop us and with the rhythms of everyday life.  Such a program that can get people from the outside to interact with those on the inside of our prisons will benefit all those involved and their communities.

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Song-catching with Bobby McFerrin

I must truly be an auditory learner, because I love to listen to compelling interviews.  These days there are some really great radio shows that allow and encourage people to tell their stories in depth.  And now podcasts allow me to listen to lots of these interviews during my weekly commute for grad school.  Some of my current favorite shows are RadioLab, This American Life, Fresh Air, The Story, and the one I’ll feature today, On Being (previously called Speaking of Faith) hosted by Krista Tippett.  On Being began as an intellectual look at spiritual elements of common living, and the show has expanded to explore a vast array of perspectives and disciplines.

This week I listened to a June 16 On Being interview with vocal master and improvisational guru Bobby McFerrin.  In that show, entitled “Catching Song”, Tippett invited McFerrin to share of the evolution of his musical history, from his musical family (opera singing father & church choir soloist mother, both voice coaches) to his illustrious career of singing and directing music with his natural charisma.

“… to open up your mouth and start singing is a great way to deflect negative emotion. I think it’s a really good way to feed yourself some positive.”

“I want everyone to feel joy at the end of a concert… I don’t want them to be blown away by what I do. I want them to have this sense of real, real joy from the depths of their being. That’s what it’s all about, because I think when you take them to that place then you introduce — you open up a place where grace can come in, you know?”

Bobby McFerrin’s vocal and musical prowess is impressive, but he is unassuming about his gifts.  He doesn’t feel a need to strut his stuff, but seeks rather to share it.

“I like to think of myself as a person who catches pieces. You know that the songs are out here, and they’re just simply waiting for me to reach out for one and grab it and pull it down and have it come out of my mouth.

I feel like that I’ve been entrusted with a talent; it’s my job to take care of it, to do my best, to give the audience my best. And by best, it means I’m myself; I’m as close to myself as possible. I’m as close to my genuine self.”

This really rings true for me.  The best songs I have composed were caught.  I simply gathered the pieces as best I could; they came to me and through me, not from me.  All I did was form them in a way in which I could share them.  Remembering this and just being myself allows me to share them without ego, without ownership.

I really like what McFerrin said about performing, which runs counter to the standard approach in the music industry and typical music education.

“When I do work shops with students, we talk a lot about performance because they all want to perform. And I tell them to do their best — not to perform, simply be themselves: the same voice, the same self that they are when they are simply walking from class to class or standing in, you know, line waiting to get on the bus or whatever.

It’s extremely difficult to do because when you are on stage in front of a lot of people who are looking at you — and you are aware of them, you know, looking at you and thinking about you and listening to you — it’s difficult not to perform or to do something that’s safe and easy.”

McFerrin is a peacebuilder.  He has been bridging cultures and music genres throughout the past 30 years.  He can take a room full of people and get them to sing together in ways none of them could have imagined, from the pentatonic scale to “Ave Maria”.  He educates, inspires and awes people all at the same time.  McFerrin’s singing comes very naturally, but he admits it wasn’t always that way, but he has learned not to worry.

“There use to be a point where I would be afraid of making mistakes. I’m no longer afraid of making mistakes. I make them every night during a performance. Something happens: I meant for my voice to go right and it went left instead. I meant for my voice to go up and it goes down, you know. Wherever my voice goes, wherever it takes me I just follow it. I just watch it. It leads me to whatever, you know. I trust it.”

McFerrin’s warm smile and stage demeanor help him to help those in his audiences join him in his comfortable, worry free mindset.  He teaches people to stop thinking, and start singing.  He speaks of music as healing and necessary.  He says that improvisation should be taught to young children.

“Improvisation basically is simply motion. It precedes musical knowledge or understanding about anything. It’s simply the act — the courageous act of opening up your mouth or putting your fingers on a keyboard or whatever — of opening your mouth and simply singing something and following it.

He often doesn’t rely on words to convey meaning of the songs he sings.  His music doesn’t carry explicit or didactic messages.  It just is what it is, however the hearer experiences it.

“One of the reasons that I enjoy singing songs without words is because it allows the individual hearer to bring their own story to the sounds that I make.”

In that way, McFerrin’s music is intensely communal.  It draws people together and instills goodwill and happiness.  It provides gatherings of people with a common blessed experience through one of the oldest and most powerful methods of communication available to humans.

“I like to think of sound coming out, going out, surrounding the room that I’m in, you know, surrounding myself, surrounding people.”

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War without guns

This Los Angeles Times article is entitled Estonia’s Chorus of Protest Changes Tune: Culture: Singing helped its people through decades of subjugation.  Newfound independence has also liberated the century-old tradition.  The title alone says a lot, and not just because it is long and colon-rich.  Apparently Estonia has a rich tradition of choral singing that sustained it through Russian and Soviet domination, and choirs were almost subversive.

“It is through song that we have felt ourselves to be a nation,” said Venno Laul (his surname itself means “song”), the director of the national choir and the Estonia Music Conservatory. “It’s particularly true of Estonia that song follows us in our grief and our joy and our political strife.”

A 1988 independence rally at Tallinn’s Song Festival Grounds drew 300,000 people, and it was such a powerful event that it was called the “Singing Revolution.”  A song festival held more than 100 years earlier, during the famine of 1869, according to historian Toivo U. Raun, was “a powerful stimulus to the development of Estonian national consciousness and musical culture.”  That festival sparked an extraordinary period of “literary and artistic creativity.”  Song festivals were then held every five years and were a source of pride and unity among Estonian people.  “‘It is safe to say,’ Raun wrote, ‘that no other Estonian cultural tradition of the past century and a quarter has proved as powerful or as durable.'”

During Soviet rule, choirs sang “compulsory songs” so that they were allowed to sing, and then sang other songs that were more meaningful to them.  According to journalist Eve Tarm, “there were always songs on the program that spoke to the soul.”

“We loved to sing sly songs,” those whose meaning was comprehensible only to Estonian listeners, she said. “The others”–the Soviets–“would just hear the sound and think it was only music.”

A tiny woman with short reddish hair, clutching a nosegay of purple flowers, she smiled impishly. “It was a war without guns.”

To this day, song has a unifying effect for Estonians.  Tallinn now “boasts what must be one of the largest choral amphitheaters in the world, a soaring wood and steel shell that can accommodate more than 25,000 singers.”

I’m reminded of my own Mennonite four part harmony singing tradition and the role it plays in those close-knit communities.  Mennonites are proud about their singing.  At times it comes across as smug and exclusive to those who didn’t grow up in the denomination, although they are most welcome to raise their voices, too.  The effect of group singing creates bonds in unusual ways.  In a fascinating interview at the Library of Congress, neuroscientist and author of This is Your Brain on Music, Dr. Daniel Levitin, described the hormone oxytocin, which he said is produced during sexual intercourse:

“Oxytocin causes feelings of trust among people, and particularly in the people who are in the proximity of when it is being released… It turns out, one of the only other times oxytocin is released is when people sing together, and this suggests that music may have been an important way in which ancient humans formed social bonds in order to create societies.”

I grew up in a Mennonite church, and I imagine quite a few Mennonites (not eager even to discuss sex in public) would be appalled to know that they are releasing hormones while singing together in church, those same hormones which are also created during sex!  Clearly, however it happens, singing does create bonds, and now we even have scientific, biological evidence that singing together improves our ability to relate harmoniously in society.  Wow.

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How to Toyi-Toyi


I love this “instructional” video for so many reasons.  Let me try to name a few:

  • It demonstrates the incredible capacity of black South Africans’ to enjoy life, even in the face of terrible oppression and violence.  Their struggle against apartheid was extraordinary.
  • The power of music and dance is clear.  They can unite people in voice & action, in a massively formidable fashion.  Not to mention that this all helps to healthily expend some of the energy of anger without violence, suspend some of the fear and aid in the healing process.
  • The humor pokes fun at both whites and blacks in a way that is humanizing & unifying, not hurtful & divisive.  It does not make light of the conflict itself.
  • It stresses the importance and effectiveness of nonviolence in the protest.
  • This is a fabulous example of creative [multimedia] ways to build bridges across socio-cultural divides.
  • These guys are funny.  Crazy funny.
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How do we go about ‘peacebuilding’?

What is the role of a peacebuilder?  I suppose there could be as many different definitions as there are persons who ever lived, for there is no ‘right’ way.  With all that I’m learning at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, I think the most profound learning can be found in simplicity of some of the oldest traditions.  By ‘simplicity’, I don’t mean ‘simplistic’ but rather ‘uncomplicated’.  Our contemporary life is crammed full of complexity, data, theories, numbers, words, etc., which sometimes seem to serve only to obfuscate and distort reality into a jumbled mess.  Our society is so full of things that are extraneous and superficial that we neglect the relationships that really do matter.

I was asked if I would provide music for a Sept. 11, 2011 event in my community to “not only reflect on how our lives and society have been affected by the terrible events of 9/11/ 2001 and our tragic response as a nation, but also to envision and pray for hopeful, peaceful tomorrows.”  I requested more information about what they were planning, got invited to a planning meeting, and soon found myself lobbying for a community-building event rather than an angry rant about “conspiracy theories” surrounding the twin towers’ collapse.  Don’t get me wrong:  I didn’t wish to dispute those theories (they might be more believable than the official explanation we are given by the US government), but neither did I feel this decennial event was the place for this.

I felt that in order to get to “hopeful, peaceful tomorrows”, we need a more positive focus on what is NOW.   Trying to hold officials of a previous administration accountable for the past sounds to me too much like vengeance (which gains nothing), and there are already plenty of other horns blaring that call.  We need to come together as people, not succumb to more polarizing propaganda.  We need more “restorative” practices — those which encourage dialog and draw us back into harmony with each other, in contrast to the polarization we see all around us.  Others on the committee, however, as longtime activists, felt it is important to courageously “speak the truth”, and I greatly respect their commitment and passion.

Truth, however, has many different faces, depending on varying perspectives and experiences.  Even when we completely feel our truth is totally incompatible with that being told by another, we must remember that our truth is incomplete.  We’ll never get a more complete truth until we engage in dialog – and other interaction – with those with whom we disagree, in a genuine and mutual attempt to understand each other’s perspective.  This is much more difficult than protesting loudly, but also much more effective and rewarding.

After the meeting, I went home and wrote an email to the event planning committee in response to a question one of them had asked: “Why don’t you want to be a prophet?”  My email was honest and personal.  Here is an excerpt:

Personally, I feel that I can be most effective helping in the peacebuilding effort by making myself vulnerable to others, accepting them for who they are, with grace (and myself too!), and entering into a relationship in which we can both learn and teach through honest reflection and dialog.  I think there are simple ways, even through my music, that I can reach people, teach people, touch people – and vice versa.  Perhaps I can, in subtle and gentle ways, help to change our culture of violence, antagonism and polarization.  Maybe that doesn’t seem very effective to those looking for high impact, but one can never fully measure the impact of any method of intervention.  Consider a mustard seed.  Or a chili pepper.  Or a bit of yeast, or salt, or sugar.

I can also make choices about the way I live my life and try to demonstrate the kind of living for which I hope and dream.  And it is liberating to be constantly reminded that my role is only part of the work that needs to be done; self-importance is counterproductive, for I’m only one part of the body – though my role is important.  We need everyone, doing what they can, using their own gifts, and working together.

Thus began a lengthy email exchange in which members of the committee were really searching and discussing some very interesting things.  One thing I like about email conversations: they make space and time for me to say whatever I want to say, in my own time.  I tend to measure my words carefully.  In email, those who might dominate an face-to-face conversation can’t interrupt me or run over me.  In a later email, I quoted Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed and applied much of what I learned in that book to this situation, particularly the idea that, in an ideal student-teacher relationship, “both are simultaneously teachers and students.” (p.72)

This segment from Freire speaks most clearly to my concerns with vocational activism, which in my experience too often seems ineffectual or even harmful:

Critical and liberating dialogue, which presupposes action, must be carried on with the oppressed at whatever the stage of their struggle for liberation…. But to substitute monologue, slogans, and communiqués for dialogue is to attempt to liberate the oppressed with the instruments of domestication [like the oppressor]….

At all stages of their liberation, the oppressed must see themselves as women and men engaged in the ontological and historical vocation of becoming more fully human….

To achieve this praxis, however, it is necessary to trust in the oppressed and in their ability to reason.  Whoever lacks this trust will fail to initiate (or will abandon) dialogue, reflection, and communication…” (pp.65-66)

Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, however, left me wondering what he really meant by revolution and what he felt about violence.  While he very clearly depicted the characteristics and effects of oppression (there is no peace without justice), I finished the book thinking, “OK, so what now?  How do we go about revolutionary peacebuilding?”

To be clear, I’m not opposed to activism.  Some of my best friends are activists.  I was arrested for civil disobedience at a homelessness awareness rally in Washington, DC in my early 20s.  But what rings true to me is that the best activism is a strategic, well organized, joyful, community-building action that elicits healthy dialog and interaction.  Activism that breeds further polarization or is itself destructive is counterproductive.

In Return to the Teachings: Exploring Aboriginal Justice by Rupert Ross, the author reassessed his training in the Western legal justice system as he studied the restorative practices of Native Americans, in which disharmony is unhealthy.  He wrote,

“The peacemaker is thus an investigator, a teacher and a guide.  His [or her] primary responsibility is to help each person come to understand that life is relationship, and that a healthy life requires constant effort to provide as much nourishment as possible to every relationship that engages you.” [p.24]

I think Ross and his mentors have elucidated the core of peacebuilding, no matter what our methods:  “… a central part of the healing process involves showing lost, hurt and frightened people that relationships built on respect and care are possible.”  [p.153]  When we try to demonstrate, in our own lives, the way of healthy relating (i.e. ‘love’), we do build peace, one healthy relationship at a time.  And when everyone in society is seeking healthy relationships, our culture will naturally change as well.

In Ross’s words,

“It is an Ojibway teaching, for instance, that healthy relationships — and ‘a good life’ — depend on constantly cultivating seven attributes:  Respect, Caring, Sharing, Kindness, Honesty, Strength and Humility. … It is understood that everyone is capable of improvement in all of them, at all times, through their lives.” [pp.155-156]

It’s not too late for us to honor and return to some of these life-embracing teachings of peoples whom European invaders all but obliterated.

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Playing For Change Day

Here’s an opportunity for anyone looking to plan a local event in simultaneous solidarity with the global community.  The Playing for Change Foundation is organizing a “Power to the People” campaign on Sept 17, 2011, inviting anyone and everyone to create and event or performance and publicize it–along with all the others worldwide–on their website.


Our vision is to inspire a global community of musicians and fans on street corners, sidewalks, cafés, and concert halls for the 1st annual Playing For Change Day. Sign up and perform to help raise money to build schools, support music and arts programs, purchase instruments, and connect students around the world. Or make a donation and help spread peace through the power of music.

The skeptical side of me says this IS a fundraising campaign, and performers will use the event to polish their image and build their fan base.  But it’s still a pretty neat idea to encourage consciousness of our global interconnectedness.  And from what I have seen, Playing for Change is a well-run, well-intentioned organization.  While the music schools they are building are a nice gesture of thanks for the communities they have visited, I hope they keep the multilayered intercultural music videos coming!

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