“Angels Walk Among Us” Farewell, Andy Mackie

I am consumed with tears and sadness. I’ve just been informed of the passing of my friend, Andy Mackie: September 19, 1938 – November 5, 2011.

I cannot begin to explain Andy’s amazing personality. This man was my personal hero. A true and compassionate musician with a heart for service.

I am so humbled and honored to have worked with Andy. His legacy continues and his work is the reason why my MUST KEEP MUSIC IN SCHOOLS!

I have a short blog about him here: The Harmonica Man and I hope you’ll enjoy my short documentary on Andy Mackie. Be inspired.

I’ll miss you Andy…

Check out his foundation here: http://www.andymackiemusic.org/

The Naked Truth – Pt.3 “Music doesn’t save lives”

I’m starting to realize that it’s about relationships and not music that’s at the core of this whole situation. Truthfully, it’s only been a few weeks since I’ve actually been teaching music and I’m sure you’re wondering what we’ve been doing in the meantime.

Well, lots of talking and listening.

I’ve decided to start each class period sharing our highs and lows of the day. Sometimes this takes a good portion of the time, but I don’t care. The kids are learning to listen to each other which is a hell of a lot better than listening to me! They’re asking questions and laughing with each other instead of yelling and bickering.

When we do get to the music lesson, they’re learning the true meaning of teamwork. A concept quite different from what our society tends to promote which is, that we’re all perfect – in rhythm – in sync – and other misconceptions our competitive nature seems to conjure up. The reality is, teamwork is about working with and working through the person that’s not quite getting it and may never get it. Everyone deserves to be successful. An obvious concept to most of us, but for kids who’ve been practically living in solitary confinement…togetherness, whoa! What’s that?  Of course, before we even got to a point where we could have a civil discussion about teamwork, there was a near knock-down-drag-out fight between three girls, another class cancellation, and a second near knock-down-drag-out fight out on the courtyard after I canceled class.

Here’s the part where the “music doesn’t saves lives” comes into play. See, I’ve made no impact teaching world music—the shit hit the fan a long time ago. They could give a rat’s ass about learning African dances, playing Gamelan instruments, and what not.

No connection. Nada. Zip. Zero.

The thing is, me teaching music to these kids is not the same as experiencing it for themselves; but they have to experience relating to one another before the musicking becomes meaningful–the ultimate challenge, I think, for all music teachers out there.

Relating = Musicking = Meaning

Music isn’t going to save these kids from domestic abuse, nor save them from school suspension, nor save them from a night without dinner because they ran out of food stamps. It might get them through pain and turmoil, but it doesn’t save them. Not yet.

Does this make sense?

Furthermore, that utopian idea that music is ‘universal’ is really confusing and somewhat inaccurate. What’s universal about it? What universal message are we transmitting? That we all share the commonality of music perhaps, but it doesn’t convey the same emotion to all people. The music pounding from their boom box for instance, isn’t reaching everyone, it’s annoying and negative! And clearly the music I’ve exposed them to hasn’t reached them either.

Do you see why relationship is key here? I have no commonality with their lives. Besides differences in musical experiences, there are differences in our upbringing. Raised in a functioning community, I function rather successfully in our society. As much as my heart is there, and my compassion is there, and my willingness and dedication are there; it doesn’t change the fact that the kids and I have nothing in common.

I know this sounds depressing, but just stay with me here. This is the truth of life, teaching, music, and just trying to make a damn difference. I know for a fact, after long phone conversations and several email exchanges, that my Musiciancorps fellows share my sentiments.

Not a lot of people will write about this stuff, but I will because I’m all about keeping it real. This is NOT Mr. Holland’s Opus, or Stand and Deliver, know what I mean? Let’s stop romanticizing the truth shall we?

So what’s next?

The Naked Truth-Pt.2 “Confrontation=Dialogue=Enlightenment”

After weeks of no cooperation, defiance, and foul language, I’m at my wits end! I mean, how much of a beating can one person take?  I canceled class the other day and called our case worker and property manager to sit in with us as I angrily confronted the kids. Of course they were equally upset and wanted to be heard as well, so you can imagine a room full of very stubborn people trying to have their say.  Our discussion was heated and uncomfortable to say the least, but for the first time there was dialogue and enlightenment. Imagine that.

First, the kids and I are not speaking the same language. As for me, I set very high expectations the moment I walk into a classroom and while I’ve had success with that in the past, it’s simply not going to work in this environment. My intentions to encourage them to go above and beyond is perceived as nagging and pushy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that I should expect any less, but I realize that I need to meet my students where they are now. On the other hand, the kids agree they need to put forth way more effort than they have and not throw in the towel every time the road gets rough.

Second, I’m totally unaware of some internal problems happening at school. Differences in culture, religion, and life background are the source of peer pressure among my kids. With the girls in particular, there are serious behavior problems, bullying, and frequent school suspension. This of course sets off a chain reaction – they get in trouble at school – they get in trouble at home – and by the time they come to see me, I serve as their emotional punching bag.

Third, Hillary Clinton was correct — It takes a village to raise kids. The problem is who, what, and where is this village? Many of these kids lived in cars, homeless shelters, dodged bullets, escaped massacres, and fled from civil wars raiding their homeland; in short, Meadowbrook is their first real home and for many it’s only a transitional home, so where will they go from here?

Is it any wonder of the detachment and misunderstanding?

What is the meaning of community to someone who’s never been raised in one?

If disfunction is all you know, how do you function properly in society?

Are you listening??!!

The Naked Truth-Pt.1

It’s December 2009 and I’m two months into my Music National Service work at Meadowbrook View apartments, in north Seattle. My mission:

“to create vibrant communities in housing projects with immigrant families, through music rich after school programs, intergenerational, and cross-cultural music exchanges and performances that celebrate the diversity and cultures of all resident families.”

Celebrating diversity through music, what a marvelous idea! After all, music is universal, it brings people together, and it saves lives. After returning from an incredible two week training in San Francisco, I was excited to start my work and make a difference in the world but the truth is, I haven’t made a difference at all. I’ve taken a beating ever since I got here and I don’t see how this “music saves lives” thing is going to pan out. Right now, I feel completely ineffective and my ego is shot to the ground.

I know it’s not about me, but before I continue with the rest of this story, let me tell you a little bit about myself.  As conceited as this sounds, my resume is pretty damn impressive. I’m a certified music teacher with fourteen years experience in various public school settings, I’ve mentored student teachers, published articles, co-authored music textbooks, and presented music workshops both regionally and nationally. Heck, I was even invited to present at my first international music conference a few years ago. My point is, with all of this experience, I’m simply not prepared for the struggles I’m facing at my service site.

Imagine walking into a room with ten kids, ages eight to fourteen, and being completely ignored. I greet them with a smile and they don’t even look at me much less acknowledge my presence. I ask how their day went and all I get is that detached monotone response, “fine” that is, if I get any response at all. I tell them it’s time for class and they give that long drawn out sigh and roll their eyes. I’m lucky if I make it through ten minutes of class without the finger drumming, fake singing, or constant bickering.

I know what you’re thinking, “This is typical adolescent and teenage behavior, be firm, it’s a phase, they’ll get over it.” Well, let me just stop you right there because the issue goes much deeper than that.  You see, conflict resolution and relating to one another in a respectful manner is not a part of this community make up, at least not yet. Loud vulgar music blasts from windows and words like “faggot” and “fuck you” and “bitch” fly around with no thought or consideration to their meaning; on the other hand, sometimes they’re said very intentionally. This is the life at Meadowbrook View, it’s just the way it is and don’t get me started on the CPS investigations and the lock downs with the S.W.A.T team on the property.

Is it any wonder the kids behave the way they do?

How am I supposed to accomplish my mission with all this instability?

What the hell was I thinking?!


Love our Earth, Love our Community

In September 2009, I participated in the Seattle Day of Caring at my Music National Service work site, Meadowbrook View Apartments. Former Seattle Mayor, Greg Nickels, along with his staff and several volunteers, also attended. Our mission that day was to plant grass, bushes, and flowers all around the community.

Meadowbrook View serves as low income housing for homeless families in and around Seattle. With a largely immigrant population, Meadowbrook is known as one of the most culturally vibrant communities in the city and over the years, efforts to beautify the apartment grounds and introduce a variety of activities that encourage community involvement has proven successful.

As part of the media coverage, The Seattle Channel TV crew interviewed a few residents and filmed everyone planting, laughing, chatting, and just having a good ole’ time! Some of the kids talked about how excited they were to finally have a picnic out on the lawn, and parents commented on how colorful and warm their community had become.

For me, kneeling on the ground digging holes, mixing soil, fertilizer, and breathing new life into a once neglected area was a fantastic start to my day. But as we celebrate Earth Day 2010 and as I reflect on Day of Caring 2009, I now have a clearer understanding of what it really was all about.

I believe, to be one with the earth, you have to be one with community. If we want to better our physical existence we need to nurture our communal existence.

It’s about planting the seed of hope, love, and compassion. It’s about being there for someone else. It’s about showing people that on this planet of over 6 billion inhabitants there ARE people who really care.

It’s about realizing and acknowledging that there are more important things in this world than our problems, our life. Sometimes our happiness is about humbling ourselves and simply making someone else’s day.

It’s about being of service.

When I first wrote this blog back in 2009, I was inspired by one of my favorite songs performed by Jimmy Durante, “Make Someone Happy”

It’s so important to make someone happy…one smile that cheers you, one face that lights when it nears you…make someone happy, make just one someone happy and you will be happy too..”

Day of Caring 2009 and Earth Day 2010 and every day from here on out, is the day to make someone happy. Let’s take care of our community, our earth, our home and we will be happy too.

Happy Earth Day Everyone!

…from Seattle to Capetown (teaser trailer)

Seattle Musiciancorps fellows at Buttermilk Studio with South African hip-hop artist, Monishia. A meeting of the minds, an international collaboration, and a week of soulful music with one mission in mind…to INSPIRE the world through the POWER of MUSIC! We’re finalizing post production to our new single, but here’s a teaser trailer of what’s to come. Stay tuned…

The Griffin Home Boys

Just the other day, I watched a video by the recent 2009 World Science Festival called Notes and Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus. It included musical performances and a panel discussion about music’s interaction with the brain and our emotions. The panel included several well-known neuroscientists and musical artist extraordinaire, Bobby McFerrin.

There were several fascinating scientific points throughout, but three statements were of particular interest to me:

“Everyone at some place inside them, have a sincere desire to participate, to become part of something. Which is a very strong need, I think, in all of us to be part of some kind of community…” — Bobby McFerrin

“One of music’s primordial functions is to breed or foster social cohesion and really get people’s brains aligned so that they can form a larger community than themselves.” — Dr. Jamshed Bharucha

“Music speaks a particular kind of emotional language.” — Professor Lawrence Parson

Music, community, and emotions; three words that resonated throughout the discussion and the very same words that resonated in my mind as I reflected on the experiences I witnessed at the Griffin Home-a residential treatment center, part of the Friends of Youth (FOY) program here in Seattle, WA.

It all started a couple of weeks ago when my fellow cohort, Eduardo Mendonça was invited to visit the facility and share his musical experiences with the youth. After learning about his work with Music National Service, FOY invited Amos, Aaron, and I to attend as well.

Upon arriving to the Griffin Home, we set up our instruments and introduced ourselves. Half of the boys spoke only Spanish, so I translated as we went around the room learning their names and their favorite musical styles.

Eduardo and I sang “One Note Samba,” Aaron performed some fanciful drum breaks, and Amos rocked the house with his masterful rhythmic rhymes. The boys were shy at first, but in no time they felt comfortable and eager to participate. Everyone was on their feet and groovin’ to the beat…no translations needed there! From corridos and techno, to rap and reggaeton, everyone was engaged in music making.

As our morning came to a close we allowed some room for Q&A but instead, these youngsters graced us with musical performances! A young man lifted his voice in song as gratitude to God’s everlasting love. Another young boy timidly approached a snare drum and after some encouragement, played a punta rhythm, a popular musical style among the garifuna peoples of Central America.

Twenty adolescent boys ranging in ages from 12-18 coming from life paths far more challenging and traumatizing then most of us will ever experience in our lifetime. Twenty boys engaged in a communal musical experience. Their bright faces illuminated the room and their smiles stretched from ear to ear. It was a peace they hadn’t felt in a long time.

Indeed the words of these scholars ring true. Everyone has the sincere desire to participate and everyone has the innate need to be a part of a larger community, a musical community, and for these boys, it was no different.

They simply needed an invitation to release their creative spirit.

They needed to reboot the energy and drive that runs dry when one is weary and tired from everyday struggles.

They simply needed to speak the emotional language of music.