Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Why We Should Save School Music Programs

I’m quite proud of my eighth-grader’s musical accomplishments this year. I attended his middle school’s spring concerts last week (yes, that’s plural – there are so many kids and groups involved that they had to spread them over two nights), and I must say I was impressed by the virtuosity that they displayed. My son himself was in seven groups: concert band, jazz band, jazz combo, orchestra, string ensemble, chorus, and boys’ mixed chorus. One of the highlights for me was the jazz combo: about 10-12 kids performing “Moanin’ ” by Charles Mingus. Their director said that this piece, which is mostly improvisational, would be difficult even for high-schoolers to tackle, but after having heard another group perform it, they begged her to let them give it a try. After several weeks of intensive practice on this one number, they were ready. My son laid down the beat with an opening solo on the baritone sax, and the band took off from there. It was amazing – possibly the best jazz performance I’ve ever heard from a school ensemble. I also enjoyed the choral works: my son was in a boy’s a capella group who sang the old doo-wop song “Come and Go with Me” and the Straight No Chaser arrangement of Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours”. Excellent! Both nights were filled with good music, everything from Bach (a movement from the Brandenburg Concertos) to an Iron and Wine song played by a marimba/percussion group. The second night finale – about 300 middle-schoolers singing “We Are the World” in perfect harmony – was enough to give one goose bumps. Here’s the icing on the cake: the music students went to a school music competition in Hershey PA last Friday, and they came home with first place trophies for the concert and jazz bands. Sweet!

Poetry: Not much going on lately on the poetry scene. I had to skip both of the two poetry events this weekend that I would have liked to attend - The West Chester Poetry Festival and the Philadelphia Writers Conference, partly due to parental obligations. My friend Anna Evans is going to West Chester again, and this time she will be a member of panel there. I wish I could be there to see her in action, meet some esteemed poets, and see Natalie Merchant, who is a featured performer, promoting her new album of songs based on children's poems.

Music: Run out and get (or sit down and download) Bettye LaVette's latest ablum, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook. Ms. LaVette is in the midst of a major comeback after achieving some success in the 1960's and 1970's only to have her debut album inexplicably shelved by Stax Records in 1972. She fell on hard times for years afterward, but now she is back with a vengeance. This collection of classic British rock and pop songs, from the Beatles and The Animals to Traffic and Pink Floyd, is a tour-de-force as she puts her own interpretative touches on each one. She practically stopped the show at last year's Kennedy Center Honors when she wailed an amazing version of The Who's "Love Reign O'er Me", and she reprises it here. You may not recognize some of these songs the first time through, but once you do, you'll say, "Wow! I never heard it that way before." Her voice is an amazing instrument, and you probably will not hear a more soulful album this year.

Baseball: My Phillies seem to be mired in a major collective slump. They've already been shut out as many times this year as they were all of last season, and until a few nights ago they went through a two-week stretch where they couldn't muster up more than three runs a game. Thankfully, the pitching has been generally decent, and Roy Halladay recently tossed only the second perfect game in Phillies' history. Coincdentally, that same day I was wore a new Roy Halladay Phillies shirt, a gift from my wife, for the first time. I guess that makes it my lucky shirt, or maybe his.

Poem of the Post: Here's an "oldie" that was published in 2002 in the non-defunct print writer's magazine ByLine:

Appeal to the Captor

Dear Editor,
It has been six months since I sent you my poem.
I’ve received not a word, not a ransom note,
not even a stanza cut off and sent as a threat.

Is my poem alive and well?
When it’s returned to me, will it have lost its baby fat,
appearing instead as wiry, muscular, concise?

Or has it undergone some metamorphosis,
a bird, perhaps, feathering its nest with string
and self-addressed stamped envelopes?

Has it ensconced itself in your in-box?
Has it transformed to sconces itself,
like those eerie ones in La Belle et Le B├Ęte,

the gilt-coated arms that move with you
as you cross the room, shadows shifting,
changing the lighting of walls and words?

Send me some word,
a photograph of it holding yesterday’s newspaper;
a tape of it, reading itself back to me.

Even a rejection slip – you pick the format:
wrapped around a rock through my window,
letters cut and pasted from magazines.

Until then, I await the day when it appears,
smiling wanly at my doorstep,
or singing choruses to the world on your page.