A favorite summer activity when our kids were growing up was to make instruments from stuff that was lying around waiting to go to the trash. We had fun performing concerts at the picnic table. Read on to see the creation and debut performance of a similar junk band with some brave teachers who agreed to try something new in front of their students. Welcome to my kitchen!
News: A little recognition
This Month’s Music: Tom’s Junk Band
Featured Non-Profit: Guitars in the Classroom
I am proud that my song ‘Swallowed by the Hole’ won first place in the Pennsylvania Heritage Song Contest. In addition to a little prize money that will go to paying for my web site fees, I had the pleasure to perform this song (and a few others) last week on the main stage at the Smoked Country Bluegrass Festival in Cross Fork, PA in the heart of the Susquehanna State Forest. Also last month I learned that two of my songs, ‘Annie on the Stairs’ and ‘Lick My Face’, were named finalists in the Great American Song Contest, along with similar honors to my songwriting friends Mark Stepakoff, Marc Bridge, Jon McAuliffe, and Lydia Fortune.
I am so fortunate to be surrounded by creative friends, and to live at a time and place when self-made music is experiencing a rebirth.
This Month’s Music
“Tom’s Junk Band”
I have spent (I prefer to say “invested”) most of my life in schools – as a student, teacher, staff member and folksinger. Perhaps that is why June may be my favorite month of the year. Can you recall the feeling of leaving school on the final day of classes, looking forward to ten or twelve weeks without homework? The students in this 1968 photo certainly leave no doubt about their feelings. Like most students and teachers I worked every summer, but that never seemed to dampen the feeling that I was somehow free. We students would recite in chorus the well known rhyme “No more pencils. No more books. No more teacher’s dirty looks.” Like me, the teacher in this photograph appears to be reliving her “school’s out” memories while reveling in the sight of her students building their own.
I had some very good teachers when I was young, but I always considered summer to be an equally fruitful time to learn. Perhaps that is because I finally had the time to dive into my own projects. I loved inventing things and sometimes combined this with my love for making music, although some might not describe it as music in its usual form. I learned how to play the saw by holding the handle between my knees and striking the blade with a mallet while I changed the pitch by bending the blade with my other hand. I could play a simple tune by blowing on a blade of grass that I pinched between the fleshy part of my thumbs. I made a whistle by hollowing and drilling holes in a branch from the elm tree that grew beside our house. I retrieved a dozen Ballentine bottles from my grandfather’s secret disposal area to make a kind of pan pipe by filling them with water to various heights and blowing across their tops. Perhaps the worst sounding instrument I ever made was a corn stalk fiddle. I was inspired by an old song that contained the phrase “A corn-stalk fiddle and a shoestring bow.” With nothing else to go on, I had to imagine what one looked like. I sliced a section of corn-stalk longitudinally between its ‘knuckles’ to make two ‘strings’. A shoe lace attached to the ends of a bent sapling was the bow. I never could produce a melody with it, but it made a fun and visually interesting rhythm instrument. Even just writing this fills my heart with warm memories of dozens of projects and inventions. It was a simpler time, and I was unaware of my innocence.
Recently I decided to share the feeling of making music with home made instruments or found objects with the students and teachers at the school where I work. Quite frankly, I wondered if these sophisticated modern citizens would just think it odd or hokey. Like most schools today, our teachers and students spend a lot of time in a kind of artificial digital world, and I worried that simple self-made instruments and music would compare poorly to their iPads and computers. Happily, several brave teachers agreed to give it a try and accepted my invitation to make music with unprofessional instruments.
My colleague Carole Carter happened to have a video camera on hand that morning. Without any real planning, the entire session was informally recorded from her seat in the audience. I broke it up into three shorter segments to make it easier to choose portions to share with others.
Relax and enjoy our impromptu Junk Band performance.
Part 1: The Jaw Harp
Click the image above to play the video. (2 minutes 46 seconds)
I decided to start the session by demonstrating one of the oldest and simplest of instruments – the jaw harp.
Part 2: Introducing the Instruments
Click the image above to play the video. (5 minutes 37 seconds)
In this segment, I invite several teachers to join the junk band. You can hear each instrument individually, and also sense the joy of the children as they watch their teachers in an uncomfortable situation that they know a lot about – learning something new in front of other people.
Part 3: The Performance
Click the image above to play the video. (6 minutes 11 seconds)
Putting it all together, our newly formed junk band performs an old favorite of mine, ‘Mama Don’t Allow’. I suppose music has been performed better – but not much better.
Later that day I received a call from the head of our food services. He seemed a little upset as he asked me to come down to the kitchen right away. To his mock dismay (and my complete joy), the entire lunch room was full of students who removed every clean spoon from the utensil trays, each one slapping out a rhythm with many singing ‘Momma Don’t Allow’.
In the words of the old Shaker hymn, “‘Tis a gift to be simple.”
Wishing you the simple joy of making your own music.
(If so inclined, I invite you to leave a comment by scrolling to the end of this page.)
July 5, Thursday, 6:30 pm, Dedham, MA. I will be joined by my talented friend Craig Sonnenfeld as we swap sets at Paradise Cafe in Dedham Square.
August 11, Saturday, Jaffrey, NH. I share a day with the gifted songwriter John Schindler. During the afternoon we co-teach a songwriting workshop. Then will will split the evening at Mindful Books and Ephemera.
August 18, Saturday, 7:30 pm, Nashua, NH. I will be the feature performer at the Studio 99 Open Mic.
Click to view these and all all upcoming shows.
Featured Non-Profit: Guitars in the Classroom
I first learned about Guitars in the Classroom when I participated in a benefit suggested by my songwriting friend Timmy Riordan. “Guitars in the Classroom transforms education by training, equipping and inspiring classroom teachers to play guitar, sing, teach and lead songs, and write lyrics for learning with their preschool through 12th grade students. Infusing academic lessons with music makes learning a more creative, successful and unforgettable experience for students and creates musical access for every child.”
Please join me in supporting Guitars in the Classroom with your tax deductible contribution.