Category Archives: music

Save East Greenbush Music!

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Mark Wood inspires the strings students of East Greenbush ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Mark Wood dazzles East Greenbush strings students before their two-day workshop, Electrify Your Strings

Times are hard, no question, and schools are faced with tough choices as they try to present budgets that can pass. The shortfalls are huge, and the cuts are deep. And the cuts, as always, include music. The current proposal in our district is to eliminate the elementary programs (and with them, because of the way these things work, an incredibly dedicated, inspiring teacher who leads the orchestra). And parents and students, understandably upset over the potential loss of one of the programs that makes our school district special (and is one of the best programs in the State, and probably beyond), are scrambling to find ways to save our music.

Usually this raises the question of why music is always on the chopping block, but that’s not really the right question. The right question is, “Why is music optional?”

It is well-known that the study and playing of music not only taps into something extremely primal in our brains (and if you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend Daniel Levitin’s “This Is Your Brain On Music”), it promotes complex thinking in ways that support other learning – particularly maths and sciences, which we all agree are more important than ever and will be the highest-paying career paths for the foreseeable future. Simply understanding the concepts of octaves, intervals, frequencies, the circle of fifths – these are surprisingly complex concepts, but they are concepts that, more than any other part of the curriculum, can be experimented with and demonstrated in the real world, in the orchestra room, every day.

We are constantly being told we need to do better in the maths and sciences, yet despite years of increasing standards and forced testing, the beatings are not improving test scores or morale. Beatings rarely do. So now, faced with even more beatings (and don’t think that a standardized test is anything else – it serves no instructional purpose, and the teachers’ promises that they don’t “teach to the test” are, unfortunately and necessarily, untrue), we are looking to cut the only instruction in our schools where math, science, personal expression and actual fun are brought into our schools on a daily basis. This makes no sense. It should be mandatory.

Music education not only gives you the tools for abstract thought and a daily application thereof, it provides numerous other benefits that are always being stressed in the “core” academic classes. Teamwork? There’s no team that needs more teamwork than a band or orchestra. Study and practice? Absolutely required. Ability to read another language? Musical notation is definitely another language. Public presentation? Every student in orchestra, band, or chorus knows what it’s like to stand up in front of a crowded auditorium, with every person out there waiting to hear what you have to say. Problem-solving? These students, some of the most dedicated in the school, sit down in front of a fresh problem every few days and go about figuring out how to solve it. (Okay, so the bass players stand. Still . . . .) How can this be optional?

I suspect that music is frequently dismissed as an optional part of education because it is so ubiquitous – it is so much part of the background of our culture that we hardly notice it. Try to find a space in our lives that is without music – it’s in our cars, our offices, coffee shops, grocery stores, elevators. Search for a moment on television without music in the background. The entertainment industry is one of our country’s few growth industries, one of our biggest exports, and nearly every arm of that industry uses music.

How important is music to our everyday lives? With all respect to the sciences, no one invented a world-changing portable periodic table player that is in every teenager’s pocket, and those kids aren’t finding new ways to get hold of pirated copies of Fermat’s Last Theorem. (It’s free, and they still don’t want it.) So does it make sense that our schools, which are meant to prepare the next generation, would deny them the education that would prepare them to take part in or even just understand something that is at the core of our culture? Does it makes sense that a school might be the only place you could go today and not hear music?

We’re on the college tour circuit, and we recently visited MIT, the oldest (and many would say still the finest) institution dedicated to practical education, to the application of mathematics and sciences to real world problems. At MIT, students build robots for the hell of it, 73 members of its faculty have been awarded Nobel Prizes through the years, and its graduates are virtually guaranteed good-paying jobs in science and tech. And at MIT, 82% of undergraduates take arts classes. The number one minor at MIT, the top technical school in the country?

It’s music.

Take music off the chopping block, and instead make it the centerpiece of a 21st-century education.

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Hannah and Mark Wood on “Eleanor Rigby”

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At Saturday night’s “Electrify Your Strings” performance with Mark Wood, the first lead violinist of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Hannah was featured on electric violin on “Eleanor Rigby” . . . and she was awesome.

For rights reasons we were asked not to post video of the concert (and video is the work of the devil anyway), but the local news covered it and captured her having an amazing great time — see it here.

The elementary music program is currently on the chopping block. Why music is always considered optional, when it’s an integral part of our everyday lives and one of the most important things to our culture, is just beyond me.

Too much rock for one hand

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Hannah rocks the ViperOr one weekend. Spent the whole day yesterday shooting the great kids in the East Greenbush Central School District strings program preparing for their massive concert tonight with Mark Wood, formerly of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and now the driving force behind the Electrify Your Strings program. It was extraordinarily cool to get to watch them rehearse, see how brilliantly prepared they all are, and watch them have fun by stepping out of their classical training to get a little rock on. They’re doing “Eleanor Rigby,” “Born To Be Wild,” “Live and Let Die,” “Stairway to Heaven,” and a few other rock chestnuts that sound very very cool when played by an orchestra that is stomping on its strings, accompanied by a group of electric violins and cello, led by the guy who made the instruments. The concert is tonight, and it will be amazing. Plus also, Hannah’s rocking the Viper during “Eleanor Rigby.”

Best quote of the day yesterday? “Cellos! You only have one note!” “But it’s a really great note!”

Also, even as we speak, Rebekah is at NYSSMA, the big annual evaluation, rolling through a ridiculously complex piano piece and I’m sure doing very well. It kinda required a third hand, as far as I could see.

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Weird and felty

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We tend to remember TV of the ’70s as safe and formulaic. Overall, that was true, but there was some real weirdness to be had, too. Recently ran across this clip of Alice Cooper, at the height of his parent-freaking-out powers (“He wears makeup! He calls himself Alice!”), prancing about with The Muppets. Even 35 years later, it’s kinda strange.

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Support Your Local Orchestra!

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Our high school orchestra is involved in a very cool project to bring Mark Wood, late of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, for a two-day seminar to “electrify your strings.” We’re raising funds left and right to try to make this happen, and the best opportunity to help is through a great fund-raiser at the Colonie Center Barnes & Noble on Nov. 13 — if you buy anything in-store that day and present our voucher or tell them you’re supporting the Columbia High School Orchestra, a generous chunk of the proceeds goes to the Orchestra.

They’re also selling Cheesecake Factory cheesecakes, great gifts for the holidays. All the information on the Mark Wood program and all the informational flyers are here at the Electrify Your Strings homepage. Help us out!

I got a letter from my Fred

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Thanks to J. Eric Smith for reminding me of last summer’s extensive (and never really quite closed-out) Joe Cocker Phase, in which I introduced my long-suffering children to the excesses of Joe Cocker, who in many ways represented the beginning of the end, the more and more and more of rock and roll that ultimately led to the quite-justified Ramones Reaction, to the need to get rid of the backup singers, the double-necked guitars, the insanely large touring bands of the middle ’70s. But Joe was, as I said, only the beginning of the end, and his excesses were born of marrying rock to the rhythm and blues revue, and, of course, to being Joe Cocker. His excesses were still musical and highly entertaining, and by god did his band groove. Joe was also, famously, incoherent. That he became primarily known for his covers may have been something of a blessing, for if we hadn’t known the songs he was singing, we’d have had no idea what he was going on about, and another great talent would have passed by unnoticed. Because when Joe made a song his own, it was his own, and the original lyrics were just serving suggestions.

That said, J. Eric was kind enough to bring this video of Joe Cocker at Woodstock to my attention. I don’t know that anyone before thought to worry about what Joe was singing, but now we know. Highly recommended.

A little like a turnip green

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It’s a miserable, rainy spring Sunday, it’s all I can do to stay awake while reading about the French and Indian Wars, I have no desire whatever to go and get much-needed groceries – but I have just discovered this:

Tony Joe White and Johnny Cash, back in the days when live music was performed on the teevee, and drying weeds and smoking them was funny. Please to enjoy.

The Salt (City Rock) gets in your ears

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The kids will never believe it, but mom and dad were hip once, and spent crazy amounts of time around the Syracuse live music scene, which in the late ’70s and early ’80s was happening. Punk had exploded all over, but a strain of power-pop took hold in the Salt City that owed as much to The Raspberries as it did to The Ramones. There was live music all over the place, and bands of such quality that it seemed only a matter of time before somebody broke through and became national stars. That it never happened only increased the legend of some of the bands we followed, and I’ve still got all the vinyl.

Flash forward a mere 30 years or so, to a time when I’m putting these songs I still remember into the hip new digital format all the kids are into these days. One of my favorite bands from way back when, My Sin, never even got to vinyl – their works were recorded in a living room on a tape deck, and were sold on cassette only, a cheaper option for the time but one that certainly guaranteed a sound quality that could only deteriorate. I was wondering if maybe, just maybe, someone else had been as in love with My Sin’s songs as I was, and decided to put the Google to it; lo and behold, not only is there a page dedicated to the band, but they’ve put up a LOT of their work in MP3 format. There’s no email link through which to thank them, so I’ll just thank them here. (If I’m remembering right, My Sin is the band that Buddy Love left the Tearjerkers for, creating an opening in the “Chip ‘n’ Ernie all night” band that was filled by Tom “Someday I’ll Be The Voice of Spongebob” Kenny.)

So that set me to wondering if all those other bands that we used to follow around from venue to venue, from the Jab to the Firebarn to what was that place up in Mattydale, even to the disco-scented Lost Horizon, had a presence on the web. And nearly all of them do. I already knew that the legendary Flashcubes, which spawned Screen Test, The Neverly Brothers and, in a sense, 1.4.5, had a great page with an extensive history of the band that touches on the history of a lot of other bands from that time – well worth the read. To my amazement, 1.4.5 has a Myspace page with streams of their music – if you ever run across a copy of their LP “The Pink Invasion,” I’m the guy to blame for the design. I couldn’t find the music of Dress Code (guys, “Something’s Really Wrong” hasn’t aged a day), but Elliott Mattice has a biography page on which he proclaims that the band members “formed a band before we knew how to play our instruments.” I was there to hear it; he’s not lying. They were great anyway. That’s how things worked back then. Another band whose enthusiasm far outpaced their musical chops, The Trend managed to put out a long-player called “Batman Live At Budokan,” and surprisingly, their single “Band-Aid” can be found on the Youtube.

Completist that I was, there are still some songs I don’t have and wish I did, like the aforementioned Tearjerkers’ “Syracuse Summer” – I can still hear it in my head. And there were many other bands we saw from time to time and liked and supported, like Machine and Hummer (mentioned also on the My Sin page). I can’t remember if Zane Grey or Puss In Boots or the PopTarts ever committed anything to vinyl, but if they did, I never put my hands on it. I don’t think any of us would ever have expected that any of those fleeting moments would still be available 25 or 30 years later on this unimagined medium.

Redemption Song

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Can’t say how much I’m enjoying Chris Salewicz’s brilliant Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer. When was the last time you read a biography that you wished wouldn’t end? (I think for me it was the unlikely Dean Martin biography “Dino” by Nick Tosches.) Salewicz does the near-impossible as a journalist who was inside – he manages to balance deep research and a journalist’s perspective with having been present at the creation and part of the story, and he makes it work in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.

I may be an anomaly in that I never really thought of The Clash as a punk band – though clearly they were – because the music went so far beyond what the paradoxically restrictive edicts of punk would allow. They took sounds that I would never care to listen to in their original form and made them their own in a set of records that blew my mind at the time and continue to amaze me today. I remember the first time I heard a Clash song – “London Calling” over WAER as I was doing some tedious photo work in the Community Darkrooms. I was absolutely amazed. I’d heard of The Clash by then, but radio in Syracuse sucked at the time, and there wasn’t a big punk scene going on there, so I hadn’t actually heard their music before. That led to the discovery of the great double-album and a collection of earlier that was then called “Black Market Clash.” Not long after came the hugely indulgent three-disc “Sandinista!” Widely derided for its lack of editing, there’s hardly a song on there today that I still don’t like to hear. I spent an entire summer listening to almost nothing other than those three albums, totally immersed in a Clash environment. (The other sounds of that summer? Eddie Cochran, Sleepy LaBeef. That was it.)

I never got too into the personalities of the band, preferring to listen to the incredible music, so intelligent, clever, and beyond anything else that was being made at the time, so I didn’t pay much attention to the stories of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones and the others, didn’t know their backgrounds or inclinations or even that Pearl Harbor, whose album I loved, got married to Paul Simonon. When “Combat Rock” came out, I really didn’t like it, and although I have never been one to attack bands for “selling out,” I couldn’t stand to hear drunken frat boys singing along and twisting the lyric to “Fuck the Casbah!” The whole experience was entirely un-Clash to me, uninventive and obviously the end of the band, which came to pass in a fairly short time. So now all these years later it’s fascinating to read the story of this highly conlicted character Joe Strummer and the other boys in the band, how it all came to be and how it all came apart – and in such a shockingly short time. A brilliant book about a time that is widely mythologized and needs some perspective, which it is given in this treatment. Really loving it.

The Pretenders

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After months of dithering about on how to celebrate our 25th anniversary – silver is so tacky in a down market, and it’s not as if you can just give the paper gift 25 times – we finally settled on having an old-fashioned night of ear-blasting rock ‘n’ roll with Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders at the Palace. We’ve seen them twice before, once at the Landmark where we were way too close to the speakers, and once at the Palace, and both times they just rocked. The new album, “Break Up the Concrete,” is rock solid and I knew we wouldn’t be disappointed to hear the new stuff in with that pretty deep catalog of old stuff. Our seats were way up in the balcony, eye level with the cherubs, a fantastic view of the stage. The second I took the stage I realized I’d forgotten how incredibly sexy her performances are. 57? I’d still do her in a heartbeat. The band was tight and I was surprised to learn that Martin Chambers was drumming again (having been fired years ago, and with Jim Keltner drumming on the current album). Great mix of the old and the new, with a beautiful version of “Back on the Chain Gang,” one of those songs that gets me absolutely every time, and a version of “Bad Boys Get Spanked,” a song I didn’t really remember, that was a transcendant wall of sound. All in all, just a great show.

Note to the drunken a’hole who stands up from the start of every show and screams out for the one song he wants to hear, so that the rest of us can barely hear the song the band is actually playing; and to add to your stupidity, you have the name of the song wrong, dumbnuts. It’s not called “Ohio.” Sit the hell down and shut the fuck up. (In this case I think it was actually the same fucknut who screamed for “Voices,” also the wrong name, all through Aimee Mann’s show this past summer. But some version of this guy has been at pretty much every show I’ve been to for more than 30 years, and I would like all of them to just shut up.)

And while we’re turning the thrilling energy of a massively exciting rock show into a morning-after rant: could I please go to just one concert in my life without having to smell patchouli? Nearly everyone in the house was the same age as we are, give or take (but mostly give) 10 years. And that age is way too old to be wandering around in a patchouli stink. Give it up.