A Stage Name? Why Not Dance a Bit More?

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

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

They erupted, “Yes!”

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

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

“What?”, they asked in unison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Observations from My Week as a “Camper”

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Last week, Music For Everyone hosted a music camp for 100 kids, including the very large kid in the picture above. I participated in the camp as a student/camper (part of the "Drum Warriors"). It was a blast! I learned a lot. Here are a few observations from walking a mile in the moccasins of a camper/student in music camp.

It’s humbling (but in a very good way) being thrust into a situation where you have to rely on children to help you succeed. My three Drum Warrior bandmates’ ages ran from 9-11. They all knew how to read music while I have always struggled mightily in that department. They were very patient with me. As adults, we too often dismiss what children know and have to say. If we listen they can teach us a lot. And they clearly relish being in a position where they are teaching an adult as opposed to always being the student.

I was also struck with just how amazing, competent and patient all of the instructors were (most of them full-time music teachers in schools). Whatever it is we pay our teachers, it is clearly NOT enough. Their ability to corral, organize, inspire, encourage young students (and a much older one) was truly impressive.

I gained an even more powerful sense of, and appreciation for, their ability to lead and inspire a large group of kids when I was asked to step out of my role as a camper to act as a teacher for a few minutes one morning. During the camp, various ensembles of approximately 25 – 30 children were created to learn, rehearse and on the final day of camp, perform a few pieces of music. One of the teachers/directors of one of the ensembles was called out of the room to consult with another teacher about a piece of music. I was asked, as the only available adult, to cover for that teacher for a few minutes – just to have an adult in the room. But as I stepped into the room to face an ensemble of 25 kids ages 9 – 14, I realized that they all knew more than me about the music in front of them.

As I entered the room, they were just finishing a run through of one of their music pieces. Having no idea what to do to keep chaos from breaking out, I stepped to the podium, tried to project an air of authority and competence, and gave them the old standby, “Okay, that was great. Let’s take it again from the top. And a one, a two, a three and a four.”

Away they went, with me swinging my arms in time, mimicking what I observed the real teachers doing when they conducted the group.

But it didn’t take long for them to figure out that they were being led by a novice. And like a shark smelling the scent of blood in the water, they began to move in for the kill. Immediately after the piece concluded, one kid asked, “Can I go to the bathroom?”

“Of course,” I responded.

Sensing a “soft” target, two other kids, both clearly friends of the first, approached, “I have to go to the bathroom. Me too.”

“Of course.” And just like that, a “posse” had been unleashed into the halls. One is no big deal. Two is manageable. But three is a small posse.

Meanwhile, inside my classroom, things were rapidly deteriorating. Trying to think and improvise as a musician might, I asked them each to play their personal favorite note. They all complied, but by the end of this little exercise it was clear that the inmates had taken over the asylum.

Chaos ensued.

Fortunately, the real teacher re-entered the room to restore order.

So, from the point of this camper, whatever it is we pay teachers, it is NOT enough.

'Strange Fruit' to 'Hey Jude': Music Protests Large and Small

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For my money, WBGO, which airs out of Newark, NJ, is the world’s finest jazz station. Founded in 1979, WBGO is “a publicly supported cultural institution that preserves and elevates America’s music: jazz and blues.”

Due to the wonders of the internet, you can livestream WBGO anywhere in the world. In this case, I was at the Sun Gate at end of the Inca Trail in Peru. Looking down upon Machu Picchu, at an elevation of over 9,000 feet, a wild thought jumped into my high altitude addled brain. “WBGO? Up here?” So I dialed it up on my iPhone and was soon listening to WBGO deep in the heart of the Andes Mountains. What an amazing world we live in!

As our tour group was getting ready to move on, I heard only a snippet of an in-studio interview with a young jazz musician. I didn’t catch his name, but heard loud and clear him explaining the responsibility of artists to tell the stories of what goes on in society or culture. “As an artist”, he explained, “it’s part of the deal. You have a powerful platform. But you must wield that power thoughtfully and responsibly.”

There has been a lot in the news recently about athletes using their platform to advocate for civil rights and social justice. Similarly, artists and musicians have a rich history of doing the same. Their music or art provides them a platform to shed light on social norms, beliefs and attitudes.

Nina Simone articulated it well, “You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”

John Lennon also referenced this responsibility. “My role in society, or any artist’s or poet’s role, is to try to express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher. Not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all.”

Or, in the words of Trent Reznor, founding member of Nine Inch Nails, “I have influence, and it’s my job to call out whatever needs to be called out, because there are people who feel the same way but need someone to articulate it.”

It reminded me of the time, long ago, when I participated in a musical act to protest and to comment on the times and express what we, as peers, felt.

The year was 1971.

Granted, our little act of activism wasn’t something that led to the kind of cultural change spurred by the arrival of Elvis, the Beatles or Chuck Berry, but within the halls of Little Falls School #1 it reverberated. It’s been argued that it drove Ms. Haynes, the school’s music teacher, to an early grave.

Rather than music class being a joyous and creative experience, Ms. Haynes wielded music like a club, virtually bludgeoning us into submission, all while primly perched behind her piano. She taught the school chorus “her” way, made us sing “her” songs that “her” chorus had sung forever. Songs like “It’s a Grand Old Flag” and “The Wells Fargo Wagon.” Nothing against either of those songs, but did they have to be on the song list every show, every year?

It all came to a head during rehearsal for the spring concert. After the third run-through of “Waltzing Matilda,” we were restless. The times they were a changin’ and we wanted in on it. We wanted to sing at least one song that was timely and relevant. And to us, that meant The Beatles. And Ms. Haynes represented what needed to change.

I raised my hand. “Do you know Hey Jude by the Beatles?”

“Of course, I know the Beatles,” she snapped, eyes piercing over wire spectacles. No matter how hard she may have tried to deny them, those long-haired lads from Liverpool managed to slip through the side door of Ms. Haynes’s musical domain. “I am, however, unfamiliar with the song.”

“It’s a great vocal song with a cool ending. We’d like to sing it” I replied.

“I don’t think the Beatles would be appropriate for the spring concert,” she responded.

But we were dead set on singing it. At the next practice, we asked again. Again, she refused.
So we walked. Five of us, including Skippy Brask, her prize student. We quit the chorus. Our demonstration caused quite a stir in our small suburban elementary school. A group of eighth graders walking out on Ms. Haynes? Quitting over the Beatles? Maybe it wasn’t Woodstock , punk rock or Chuck Berry, but it was our own little rock ’n’ roll revolution. We drew a line in the sand at “Hey Jude.” We had no clue at the time, but we were using music’s transformational powers to make a statement to spur change.

Yes, I know. It wasn’t Billie Holiday performing “Strange Fruit”. But it did shake up our little grade school in our little corner of our world for a couple of days.

This comparison is by no means meant to trivialize the power of an artist or a song to shake up the world. To the contrary, it is to illustrate the broad, far reaching power to do so.

There is no better song to sharpen that point than “Strange Fruit”. Written as a protest to the inhumanity of racism, it was penned and arranged by Abel Meeropol, a white, Jewish man from the Bronx after seeing a picture of a lynching.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

This is one of the most powerful and haunting songs ever written. In 1999, Time magazine named it the “Song of the Century”. Clearly, it made an enormous difference in raising awareness and shaping the dialogue around the issue of racism in America.

Sadly, athletes and artists continue to face blowback and criticism for using their platforms to raise the collective consciousness of our populace regarding timely and relevant issues of the day. Far too many continue to believe and say that athletes, artists, entertainers and musicians should, “Shut up and play, paint, or sing”, and not comment on the important social, cultural or political issues that impact their lives in profound ways.

But the fact is, perhaps now, more than ever, we need artists, athletes, entertainers and musicians to continue to “reflect the times.” It’s “part of the deal”. And we will all be better off if they continue to meet one of their most fundamental responsibilities to wield that power thoughtfully and responsibly.