What is Your Superpower?
I've been hearing a lot lately about superpowers. It must be a new thing in schools to boost self-esteem. It's come up multiple times in the past week leading me to write this post. My son mentioned that his son asked him what his superpower was. I heard it mentioned on the radio, and a young boy in one of my music classes asked me what mine was, telling me his own, too. I wasn't sure at first what everyone was talking about until I saw a billboard that read, "My superpower is ... I'm a PEF nurse." I thought, "Oh, okay. I get it now." My superpower is ... I'm a teaching musician. I know I have others, but that's the main one.
Many people don't realize how powerful that actually is. I can make people laugh or cry. I can get them to tap their feet or even move their whole bodies. I can help them find their voice, and I can help turn a terrible day around but most importantly, I can heal myself and have done that over and over again. I've said it before and will say it again, "Music saved my life." You may think I'm being over-dramatic, but I'm not. It really did ... in so many ways.
I grew up alone and afraid. I had no friends and was terrified of everything and everyone. There were some very good reasons for this, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that, when I was a child and played the piano, nothing was wrong, and I was safe. As a teen, when I became self-destructive, music and other musicians brought me around to loving life and looking forward to a long life of sharing that music with others. Music brought me friendships and love. It brought me travel and adventure. No matter what our differences, they all melt away in the presence of music. It saddens me to hear people say, "I can't sing." Or, "I'm too old to start playing an instrument now." If you can talk, you can sing. You may not feel as though you sing well, but it doesn't matter. And, you are never to old to learn an instrument. I once had a piano student who was 85 when she started. Her husband had just died, and she'd always wanted to learn to play. She learned slowly, but I filled her with praise and encouragement, and she learned to play the church music she loved. I started playing guitar when I was 40 and have learned mandolin, banjo and mountain dulcimer since then. I'm not a virtuoso, but I don't need to be, and neither do you. Making music is about having fun and sharing with others, heart-to-heart.
When I give lessons, the first thing I teach is how to play a song immediately. It may be two very simple chords, but they make up a song that you can feel good about. I don't focus on scales and theory until much later. I leave that to the better players. I like to teach the joy of playing. I like people to feel successful right away so that they continue. If they want to be a professional, then I'm not the right teacher, and I'm always very honest about that. But, if they want to have fun and be able to jam with others, I'm a good fit. That's my superpower. I can teach anyone, no matter how incapable they feel. I have limitless patience and can give tons of genuine encouragement.
So ... what is your superpower?
Over the summer, as I got busier and busier, I started reevaluating my relationships. We all know that relationships of any kind take commitment and work to keep them going. And, some relationships are more important to us than others. We have family, close friends and acquaintances. Sometimes, it's easy to be confused about our friendships, putting too much or too little into them without realizing that maybe the other person doesn't feel the same way as we do. When I started looking at that, I noticed that, in most of my friendships, I was putting most or all of the work into them. I wondered what would happen if I stopped doing that, so I stopped. As some of the people I considered close friends fell by the wayside, I was forced to look at what made me feel close to them. In some cases, it was shared experiences. In others, it was shared music. And in others, it was convenience. I realized that, although I still feel close to all of them and love them all, I was fine with not putting so much energy in and getting very little back. What really surprised me was the new relationships that grew because I had more time to put into those. A wise man once said to me, when talking about failed love relationships, "Why would I want to be with someone who doesn't want to be with me?" That is so true. I realize that many of us are so busy, we have very little time for outside friends. Maybe we're caught up in our partnerships or working a lot or fostering new relationships, and that's all fine. I don't have any hard feelings towards those who have gone in another direction. After all, we can always count on change. It's just interesting to watch the evolution of friendships and to remember that if we want to maintain them, we have to do an equal amount of the work.
Then, there are our family relationships. We don't choose our families. Some of us are very lucky and are very close to our families. Others are not so lucky. I was the black sheep of the family and always felt like the odd one out. It didn't help that I married someone that my parents hated. Although, they also didn't give him a chance. They assumed a lot of things about him, most of which were not true. For example, he did not corrupt me. I was already corrupted. And, he did not get me involved in the drug scene but rather saved me from serious addiction. Because of my marriage and the fact that I never conformed to the life they wanted for me, I was left out of many family events, even though we all lived locally. When out-of-town family came to visit, my mother would mention that they were coming at some point in the next month. Then, she would call to tell all about the wonderful visit they all had with everyone but me and my family. It was like a black hole had opened up leaving out the actual visit. One time, I called to find out when we would be celebrating my dad's birthday only to be told that, "we celebrated last night (days earlier than his actual birthday) with just the family." Now that my parents are both gone, it's very hard for me to put the energy into connecting with my siblings. It's not their fault, but too much has happened - too many times of being left out and unconsidered. In our defense, we are all making the effort now, it just doesn't come easy.
So, what is the lesson in all of these musings? I guess it's that we need to decide who's important in our lives and reach out to them regularly. After all, how much time does it take to make a quick phone call, text or email? How hard is it, if we're already planning to go out somewhere, to invite a friend to come along? I recently reminded my adult grandson, who never calls, that I won't be around forever. The older I get, the more I feel my mortality. I get tired much more easily and am looking into retirement to enjoy the time I have left. I'm not afraid of dying and never dwell on it, but I'm aware of how much I regret the time not spent with loved ones who have passed on. After the loss of his mother, my husband reminded the audience at a gig, "Go home and call your mothers." That is very sage advice for all of us. Call your mothers, fathers, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends. And, enjoy them while you can.
Women in Music
It's been quite an eventful March here in upstate New York. We currently have over two feet of snow on the ground, and we're continually getting snow showers adding to that accumulation slowly but surely. Now, I hear we're getting another nor'easter next week. Luckily for me, I love snowshoeing and, although it's been hard work keeping up the trails, I've managed to go out everyday this week and will go out later today. The woods are gorgeous in the snow. I'm amazed at how the snow highlights the shapes of the tree limbs, and there are lots of signs of wildlife, including some gruesome hunts by what I think must have been a fisher. The gardens will surely be happy with this lovely blanket covering them, but after our wonderful thaw a couple of weeks ago, I'm ready to uncover them and get to work.
The weather is not the only thing that's been eventful, though. I hosted a very successful Family Jam. The at least 100 adults in attendance and all of their children made for a lively time. The band was great, and I raised enough money to give out more scholarships in 2018. Next year will be the 10th annual Jam, and I hope to put together a memorable event to celebrate 10 years. In addition to the Family Jam, I did the Songteller Sessions at The Altamont Free Library, which was challenging and fun, and I'm looking forward to W.A.M.M.'s (Women Are Making Music) Open Mic at The Low Beat in Albany.
It hasn't always been easy being a woman in music. I can't even count the number of times I've been discounted at studios, by sound engineers at gigs, by the press, even by band members at band practices. It gets very discouraging. Not all men behave that way, and I've been very lucky to work with mostly the more aware men. But, there are enough of them out there to make life uncomfortable for those of us trying to be in the scene.
I was a founding member of General Eclectic and often the driving force. My husband, Paul, was outgoing and charismatic while I was shy and retiring. He went out and made the initial connections and often booked the gigs. I did the promo (posters and press releases), made the set lists, arranged the songs, found band members and set up band practices. I also pushed him to help write the songs. Later on, we had help from other members of the band, but in the beginning, it was just the two of us. Music has always been important to me, and I was determined to work at it. He got credit for everything we accomplished because he was so gregarious. When we got a scathing review in one of the local papers, they focused mainly on me, barely mentioning the band. "The aging hippie lead singer looked like a milking cow and sang like a cat in heat."
In my younger days, I had a much wider vocal range and could hit very high notes with a lot of force. I needed the volume to hit those notes. I always tried to warn the sound engineers so they could adjust the levels on my mic, though I always leaned away from the mics anyway. They always sneered and often laughed it off. At first, I got a kick out of watching them scramble to the board when those notes came, but after a while it just got annoying.
When General Eclectic ended and Paul and I split up, I jumped into the folk scene with my next partner. I thought it had to be different. I thought rock & rollers were callous and chauvinistic, but folk singers had to be more sensitive, right? It was not really very different, though with the passage of time, things have gotten much better. I remember seeing the promo photo for a folk band featuring a woman whose name was even used as part of the band name. The photo had her in the background while her husband was prominently featured. And, this was the folk scene. Did no one else notice what was wrong? Recently, I had an interaction with three youngish rock & rollers. I've noticed that most of the younger generation is doing much better in this area, but these guys were probably in their 30s or 40s. Out of the three, one was cordial. The others mostly ignored me, even though it was a conversation about music in the area and in general. I've been a working musician for almost 50 years and have worked in blues, jazz, wedding bands, rock & roll, folk and children's music. I've performed and taught, creating specialized workshops and writing songs on demand for specific events. It seems to me that should count for something. I'm really hoping people will come out and support women's music. We've worked long and hard.
Once again, I'm posting an older memoir piece. Life has been so busy with music events, I've had little time to think about new pieces, and I haven't shared many of the older ones, yet. I started writing short memoirs because friends kept encouraging me to write my life story. I tried a few times, but the task seemed so overwhelming, I never got very far. Sometimes, I didn't even start, being stumped by, "Where, and how, do I start?" Should I start at the beginning, with my birth and early childhood. That felt so boring. Should I start in my early adulthood? That would leave out all the important background info. With these short pieces, I get to start in different places and don't feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stories. So, here you go ... hope you enjoy it.
As a child, I was one of those who believed I must have been switched at birth. I never felt as though I belonged with my birth family. In elementary school and in the two neighborhoods we lived in, I always felt out of the loop, struggled to try to fit in and failed miserably. I settled for a friend or two here and there out of sheer loneliness, but I never fully connected with any of them. In Junior High School, I finally found a few real friends. One of them, I’m still connected to, having lunch together once a month. But my parents, not liking these new friends and probably sensing that I was heading in a direction they didn’t like, took me out of public school and enrolled me in an uppity private Catholic school, where I spent the next four years in complete isolation.
College was a disaster, and I lasted for only one semester before getting kicked out. I went home, tail between my legs, and tried even harder to fit in, to no avail. I finally met Paul, another lost soul like myself, and I no longer wondered what was wrong with me. After a year together, we hitchhiked around the country and landed in San Francisco at “Project One,” an artist commune in the warehouse district of the city. For the first time in my life, I felt at home. Here, I was accepted as I was with no predetermined expectations. The only requirements to live there were: You had to be in the arts, which was very loosely defined, and you had to be unanimously voted in at a weekly meeting. I was very nervous and sure I’d be shunned as I had always been in the past. Remember, I had always been the weirdo. Imagine my surprise when we were both accepted.
Project One was an old canning factory/warehouse that had been taken over by hippies, gutted and rented out by the square foot. Once you rented your space, you were free to put up any walls or barriers that you chose. We lived in a smaller commune within the large commune. With a little over 60 residents, the place was filled with visual artists, performance artists, musicians, writers and more. I became involved in radical politics, learned about alternative education, discovered natural and organic foods, had my first experience with nudism and, in general, had my eyes opened very wide. This place was completely foreign to everything I’d ever known, and for the first time in my life, I finally felt like I belonged. There was a beautiful woman who decided to work as a highly paid call girl for one year to raise enough money to go to the art school of her dreams, which she successfully and safely did. There was the crazy collector/dumpster diver who knew I was pregnant before I did and offered to buy my baby. There was the genius engineer who was building an airplane in the basement of the building out of scrounged parts the collector helped him find, and there were the radical politicos involved in helping hide Patty Hearst in plain view of the police station while trying to set up a consolidation convention with the other diverse radical groups that included the Black Panthers and SDS. We were all oddballs, and I may have been the least odd of them all. In those early days, I was a little disturbed that my friends consisted of freaks and outcasts. As time went by though, I started looking at the status quo as the real freaks.
As bizarre as this may sound, I also have to credit LSD with some of my sense of belonging. The first time I dropped acid, I felt an invisible but very strong thread of connection, not only with the other people there, but with the entire cosmic universe. It was so strong and all-encompassing, I cried. This is exactly what I had been missing and had longed for my whole life. I was relieved when, after sleeping off the after effects. I maintained that feeling of deep connection. A lot of people find that same sense of connection through meditation, which is certainly safer.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that I’m most strongly attracted to other outcasts. They are not always artists, but they are all people who, as young people, felt alienated from normal society as I did. They are the ones who knew instinctively that something was very wrong and wondered why no one else seemed to notice. Now I celebrate the fact that my community, my chosen family, is a tribe of misfits. We are interesting, quirky and fun, and thankfully, we have each other.