Wednesday, April 01, 2020

The last few weeks have sent many of us into uncharted territory. Our lives have been abruptly suspended, or upended. And those of us who are not physically suffering with the COVID-19 virus can sense the trauma lurking outside the boundaries of our shelter in place spaces, if these spaces are even totally safe. I live alone, in a small house that I have renamed Social Distancing Central. I am safe, and any circumstance or decision that would have me otherwise is totally within my control (like, am I willing to live without bananas, which will run out in a day or two). This blog post is not concerned with what I've already written about in recent blog entries; How I view my work. How I'm not worried about the near complete loss of income for a time. How this social isolation becomes a "sabbatical" where I can practice, explore and grow using this gift of time and opportunity (Yes, a gift, and one that I have already unwrapped and intend to put to good use). This is about something that hit me today, provoking me to ponder and to acknowledge (again) the bigger picture; that we often don't see, or that we lose track of, obscured by the urgency or the weight felt over our current circumstances. And perhaps this has something to do with why it is not that difficult (at least not yet) to be rather Zen about it all right now, within my own space. I turn 60 in a few weeks, which provokes reflection anyway, so my thoughts today turned to how many places I've lived. or more specifically, how many times in my life I have moved. 21, if I'm remembering everything. Not that I actually remember moving from the Marine Corps base at Camp LeJeune when 3 months old. But the rest I do. By the time I was 7, we had moved 5 times, landing in Southern NJ when my Dad was transferred to the Marine Corps Supply activity in Phila. after returning home from Okinawa. While he was overseas my Mom rented a little house in Ashland, KY, up the street from my Aunt. Mrs. Wilson was my first grade teacher, at the school a few blocks away on Holt Street (which made me happy). On Halloween, I was excited to trick or treat at Mrs. Wilson's house in my impenetrable disguise, only to be disappointed when she opened the door and greeted me with "Hello Joey", recognizing my shoes. Ashland, KY, off the Ohio River bordering Ohio and West Virginia (our TV stations were in Huntington, WV, as was my favorite amusement park), was my normal for a year and a half. Soon after we moved to Bellmawr, NJ, I was upstairs watching the Philadelphia TV newscast when the weatherman announced "The weather forecast for the tri-state area is ..." I lept with excitement, running downstairs to proclaim to my mom that we hadn't moved so far way after all, since we still lived in the tri-state area. We search for whatever stability we can find, I suppose. 

Bellmawr, NJ would become my new and unexpectedly permanent normal for the rest of my growing up. (Though there would be times of looking over our shoulder waiting to learn when and to where the next transfer would be. Once I remember starting to pack, though I don't remember where the next destination was to be. Utah, perhaps?). My dad was compelled to retire on disability in 1973, by which time he was Supply Chief, reaching the rank of E9. (He'd still be active duty today if he had his way. Once a Marine ...). It is highly unusual in the military to remain in place for 7 years, but I'm grateful for that. I had a "normal" growing up. Fast forwarding, I'm also grateful to have been able, for the most part, to give that (a normal growing up) to our kids. We were renters for many years, working our way from Southern NJ to Newark DE, to Elkton, then Galena, MD (by then our friends were joking with us, as we kept moving south, that by the time we retired we'd already be in Florida), with several additional stops before landing in Chestertown MD.  This is where the opportunity presented itself to buy the house we were renting at the time, and to give our kids the gift that I had been given: a place to say "I grew up here". Prior to that, it was a bit of a roller coaster ride. Some self imposed, like making a decision because we felt led to, or because we could. And some just imposed, like the several challenging landlord relationships we faced. One instance involved our next door neighbor landlords divorcing and the husband offering to pay me to carry on at all hours of the night to disturb his ex . Did I mention searching for stability? Much of the time stability (or perhaps, sanity) felt out of reach. 

In more recent years, as the page turned on a season of my life, I found myself in flux again. But it was different this time. Being upended didn't necessarily feel less uncomfortable. But it felt more purposeful; tied to a bigger picture, tethered by a trust that I was on a path, and feeling connected to all of it. At points along this journey, I came to some particular realizations, both about myself and the journey. One was to realize that the person I am is one who only has a wide angle lens from which to see beyond myself (as well as within). Embracing this has helped me to make the adjustments to see more clearly. Another realization took the form of a commitment made to myself; to avoid forming conclusions. Insisting on understanding something (anything) that is tied to a bigger picture (as ultimately, everything is) places a barrier on my perception, allows preconceived ideas to cloud my vision, and chains me to myopic self interest, of one form or another. Life was teaching me, and more now than before, I was listening. And learning to trust. Not in my ideas, thoughts or even beliefs, but in that which connects me to that bigger picture. Call it intuition, call it trust, call it faith. Whatever my word is, your word is your own. Every seemingly jagged edge on the path has, in retrospect, simply been a turn. All paths turn. Every upended circumstance is for a purpose. Although, I'll admit that I don't like phrases such as "everything happens for a reason". I know some find comfort in that. But for me, this can become just another place to chain ourselves to seeking contentment in our own understanding, even if we are willing to defer knowledge and say "someday we'll know the reason". Maybe so, maybe not. Who cares. 

So now I, and all of us, are faced with uncertainty. And I could say that, for me, all of my life has been in training for this moment. When I had the thought earlier today to count the number of times I've moved (some of them not of my own choosing. and who knows how many more there might be), my wide angle lens rested on a place of comfort. Not comfortable circumstances, necessarily, but comfort in, first of all, that there IS a big picture. As we move through (what we perceive as) time, having the experiences that we do, we don't leave those experiences behind us as we move on to the next thing. These experiences are our story. And you can read a story like turning pages in a book, but you can also pick up the book and hold the entire story in your hand. And this is what I see, even as my book is still being written (as I can perceive it). And yes, I do believe that my book is held for me, even as I will tell you that I don't have the need to understand that in my own thoughts. It is beyond the limits of my mind to figure it all out. But not beyond the limits of my heart to embrace it. With social distancing as the norm, we are forced to refrain from embracing (as uncomfortable as that is for someone who lives on hugs). There is a time to refrain from embracing (with our arms). There is a time to embrace (with our hearts). For everything, there is a season.            

Saturday, March 28, 2020

20 years ago, big bands were still working. And one of our favorite recurring family adventures were the several off season weekends a year when we stayed at the Golden Inn, in Avalon NJ, while I (dad) played with the Midiri Brother's groups for the hotel's Big Band getaway weekend packages. There were also several years where we had longer (3 or 4 night, can't remember) New Year's packages. The Golden Inn was the only hotel in town that stayed open all year (with a variety of package weekends, among other events, covering the entire off season. This allowed them to be the only hotel to keep its employees year round, which set it apart from all the other places in town). On occasion, there were also clumps of weekday packages (those were the commuter trips, driving there and back from Maryland every night). But of course, the family weekends were the best, giving us an opportunity to do something we wouldn't get to otherwise (or at least, not nearly as often). When my kids were young, they didn't really have the sense that growing up with a gigging musician for a dad was not the norm (though they would figure it out soon enough). Didn't every kid occasionally sit on his dad's lap on the bandstand, during outdoor concerts in the summer? Or hit the dance floor at 4 years old, with the grown up jitterbuggers? Or hear bedtime stories about trombone players (one of Joe Jr's stuffed animals was actually named after one)? Or hear the piano played at home at all hours of the day (and night)? Or spend (much) more time at the beach in the off season than in the Summer, when everyone else would be there (and everything was open)? But it was our normal. You can still collect shells at the beach, or bring along your metal detector, or even plop down on a beach chair (while wearing a coat) in the winter. And hang out in the lobby (or sometimes alongside the bandstand, or even on the dance floor) while the music plays at night. There are still pizzas, fries, fudge and buckets of caramel popcorn to be found (if you know where to look).When the family can do it all together, it's all good. There is always a provision, as long as you are willing to see it that way.  

Saturday, March 14, 2020

A reality of being a free lance musician is that few of us have the guarantees afforded to many employees: sick pay, vacation pay, unemployment or health insurance. No one is mandated to "have our backs", or really, to look out for us in any way. We are on our own. And for many if not most of us, this is by choice. Self employment is (with few exception) the only road I've traveled; the only landscape I know. Do many others have it easier than I, in some regards circumstantial? Yes. Am I sacrificing to be who and where I am? No. The person I am, the relationships I have, the treasures (not necessarily material) I possess are directly tied to what I do, and the freedom that I have to do it. I would be sacrificing these most important things to be anywhere else. 
When I look around me, to the culture at large, I see a different landscape, one seemingly of entitlement. This can quickly become a topic grounded in political quicksand, which I have no intention of stepping in. So I'll limit this observation to saying that many seem to view a job as an entitlement, without any sense of commitment or responsibility to it. This touches one of the fundamental principles that I taught my children (to prepare them for responsible adulthood); that the reason we are paid for something is because someone else (or a group of someone elses) benefits from it. Our work has value because it adds value to the space around us. We may increase the pay/compensation by finding ways to increase the benefit. For those of us in the arts and entertainment fields, a primary way to do this is to grow our audience. This principle explains why actors and star athletes can command huge sums of money, as their performances can provide benefit, in some way, to scores of people (who fill stadiums, stream movies and athletic events, buy merchandise and so on). Yes, these stars make money for executives and businesses, so this is anything but a simple or straightforward equation that emphasizes only everything that is good in the world. The music industry, in particular, is its own ball of dark wax, but that's for another time, as it is not my focus here, it is simply on the job I do. Some years ago, I threw out my existing "business plan" (yes, I've always had one) in favor of a simple goal, that cuts to the heart of everything; to grow my space. My first priority, every day, is to open up the space at the piano (which is a process, and that doesn't happen on its own), so that when it is time to perform, the deeper connections are already there for me to find and make. Or, put another way, to show up at the gig with the space already open, ready to touch and welcome others to it. Or put another way, to provide benefit. For me, a job is something to earn, even from one day to the next, by providing a skill or service that has value to others. The opportunity to work another day is something I can earn by how I do my job today. Of course, sometimes there are disruptions to the established order. And this is one of those times, as I clear my schedule of just about everything on it over the next few weeks, at least. I've been given the gift of a sabbatical of sorts, to devote additional time to practicing and growth (among other things). I am not worried that my income slows down to a trickle (if not stopping altogether) for awhile. I'm thankful for the enhanced opportunity to deepen the contributions I can make (benefit I can provide) moving forward. The life of the freelance musician is the only life I've known for myself. I know and want no other. So I will endure the disruption for the moment. And enjoy the opportunity to step up my practice time and catch up on office work. And be grateful in all things.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

I suppose an indication that one is arriving at a particular phase of life is that the AARP magazines become interesting. A recent issue featured an interview with Smokey Robinson. He puts words to something that I've tried to communicate to others, often without much success, so I'll let them (his words) help me now: 
"I think I feel songs. Whitney Houston was a great singer. Celine Dion is a great singer. Aretha Franklin was a great singer. I'm not in that category. I won't fool myself. But I feel what I sing, and I think people can feel what I feel when I do." 
For me, this simple statement resonates, and even is grounded in the profound. This level of communication; that we can influence and become a part of how others will feel through our creative expression is, in many ways, where I find my center of gravity. After being brought, years ago, to understand that my purpose when playing is to focus outside of myself, on others, and the connections that are made, I was finally able to put my finger on what is shared through this connection, which is, what we feel. As I continue to grow in the ability to segregate "thoughts" from "feelings" (head from heart), I find the connection with my audience strengthening. This connection has always been there, but it has been something, in the past, that I had struggled to manage. And especially so before I more fully grasped what the connection is about. When we feel what we are doing, we put ourselves in a different place than when we are simply (or primarily) thinking about it. And these feelings (which I would separate, at least on some level, from emotions), as Smokey says, will connect us with others.
To most deeply connect with others, we need to get ourselves out of the way. Much of this blog, started in 2005, is a documentation of the journey of learning to get myself out of the way. What I feel will always be there, even if I am overthinking. But the more I can open, or clear the pathway, the deeper my connection to it can be. When I am fully out of my own way, I can be fully open to who I am. And as I embrace who I am, I continue to find more in that person (myself) than I was previously able to understand. The road into one's self is a lifelong journey.

Saturday, March 07, 2020

The 15 year run of the Women Helping Women fundraising show is now over. It has been a most special annual event, reflecting the very best of Kent County MD (and beyond) culture and community. This show has been one of our area's most important, and most loved endeavors. In addition to the causes it has supported, It also serves as a performers showcase, playing a bit of an Americas's Got Talent role for our area. Performers each sing or present one selection, and they bring their A game. Anyone who knocks it out of the park will have the town talking about it for weeks. And I accompany almost all 20+ of them. But I'm still speaking in the present tense here, which now needs to be reset. There is a time and season for everything. It has been a privilege to have been inside this process for most of the run, providing support to so many wonderfully talented performing artists. It also created for me the most stressful 2 weeks (leading up to the event) of every year. Am I relieved it's over? A little. Am I grateful to have had this opportunity to apply (and better understand) my skill set, lift up others and make a difference? A lot.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

Here we go again. No matter what I will ever do in music, on whatever scale, nothing will have more importance, or be of more meaning to me than those special experiences in senior care centers (often that no one else sees). I have felt this on many occasions over the last couple of decades, often when wearing my Music Therapy hat. This time I was playing a memorial service at Heron Point in Chestertown. I have been playing at Heron Point since beginning in the care center in 1994. And most of that time Miss Anne (not her real name) would be seated in the group in front of me, waiting for me to play Stardust. I can't remember when she wasn't, actually. I would like to say that it was "our" thing, but I knew that Anne would extract Stardust from any situation that she could. But still, it was our thing. She knew what was coming when I walked into the room, and soon learned that she didn't have to ask. Which didn't stop her from reminding me, or me from reminding her that it was coming. Sometimes I'd play it right away, sometimes I'd build the suspense and make her wait. But I always played it. And for years, the music sessions in the health care center pretty much revolved around Miss Anne and Stardust. And without fail, she was always ridiculously happy hearing and singing along to it, often recognizing the tune after the first two or (at most) three notes. She would often recall her mother saying that she loved Stardust so much that at her funeral she would jump out of her coffin and ask for it to be played. Anne never lost that love, though as she approached (and passed) 100 years, her difficulty in hearing would amplify her increased detachment in group settings, and her response to (any) music would be hit and miss. But she never let go of that special song. A year or two ago we were having a hymn sing in the health care center, and as a hymnal was handed to Miss Anne she asked, "Is Stardust in there?" Miss Anne left this life a couple of weeks ago. I had the privilege of playing her memorial service, and the opportunity of playing Stardust for her one last time. And, by not having to ask, she proved her mother right.   

Thursday, February 27, 2020

I haven't had much to say here about Mainstay Mondays for some time. But that doesn't mean Mainstay Mondays haven't had much to say to me. On the contrary. Over the last 4 years, this project has evolved from a somewhat fuzzy untried concept, to a complex weaving of providential threads. And every time I've tried something new, the boundaries of possibility expanded; benefiting the individual guest artists, our audience, the Mainstay as an organization, and myself. One benefit to me has been the ability to create paths to objectives or ideas or personal goals that would be difficult to accomplish otherwise. In other words, I can force myself to work on something by scheduling myself to have to perform it. The most serious challenge I've self imposed so far was learning the second piano (orchestra) part to Rhapsody in Blue to accompany Woobin Park (who is the real deal classical pianist. I'm not. Pulling music off the page and keeping it straight is the long and winding road for me) last year. I whittled away at that for the better part of a year to finally get it passable. Usually I'm less ridiculous. The last 4 Mondays I've covered Kurt Weill (essentially classical), Floyd Kramer (essentially country), Oscar Peterson (with significantly fewer notes, but still intimidating) and a stride piano laden trad jazz show. Okay, maybe I take that back. One doesn't stay in the business as a gigging musician for over 40 years without being ridiculous, or at least having a high tolerance for it. And let's see, next month I'm accompanying a poet for one show and a comedian for another. There's no hope for me. Grateful for that.    

Thursday, February 13, 2020

A number of years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a Chick Corea solo piano concert, when his tour brought him to the area. At one point in the show he invited pianists from the audience to join him on stage to play a short duet (on one piano). My son was with me, and of course, he wondered if I would volunteer. I knew there were others in the theater who would have also expected to see me go up. But I understood immediately that it would be a misstep for me. Chick would accompany each pianist underneath while they improvised with their right hand. Nothing unusual here, as jazz improvisation is generally conceived as melodic "lines" with harmonic underpinning. For me, however, improvisation is a two-handed exercise. When I have to cattle-shoot the musical expression into a single line, it tends to short circuit my non-linear brain (or mind, or approach to everything). Back when I actively played trumpet (as my "double" instrument), I could never even come close to the improvisational freedom I would feel from the piano. I suspect it's not unrelated to my often feeling stuck, or stymied when using words. Sure, I can get unstuck, and sometimes feel freedom in expressing things that make sense. But it's never a given. Verbal communication often feels to me like a cattle-shoot as well. And sometimes I have no more success lining up my cattle than I do getting my ducks in a row   ;)
This blog is a good illustration of what I'm talking about. Though you'd never know it, unless I told you. In order to find an inspiration that matches the given moment, I keep at least half a dozen (and often many more) ongoing blog entries in my drafts and flit between them, looking for the matchbox that isn't soggy in that moment, to get the fire going. Playing piano with 2 hands (10 fingers) and a polyphonic temperament creates the opportunity for the cattle to stand along side each other, or the ducks to swim in circles, while forward motion can continue. Another thing that (often) happens here is that, as thoughts develop, other thoughts will drop off, leaving phrases and sentences behind as I pick a lane (which just brought to mind the image of the all too familiar empty Wal Mart building, abandoned for the newer, bigger one up the road). Which is exactly what happened in this entry. So I'll cut and paste the "leftovers" into another entry and see what develops over time.
Welcome to my world. Now, what was I talking about?   ;)   

Friday, January 10, 2020

My entry into the discipline of music therapy was not deliberate, rather it appeared on my path as I was minding my own business (or tending to it). It is a story within a story, as (now that I actually think about it) I'd imagine that all stories are. And tucked even deeper in that story is a chapter that was mine alone to experience, and that, at the time, no one else could know. Having come to the realization (after working at the Showboat Casino in Atlantic City for a considerable period in the early 1990's) that what I did resonated with senior citizens, I figured it made sense to reach out to senior communities and see what would happen. The first response to a targeted mass mailing came from the continuing care community of Cokesbury Village, in Hockessin, DE. I was invited to present a music program on one of the units. This was all new to me, so having no idea what to expect, I accessed the situation as best I could when I arrived. I found a group of well dressed seniors milling around in a lounge, some socializing, with some walkers and a few wheelchairs the only visible indications of any issues. Somewhat relieved (but keeping my radar up), I began my little concert. Playing a spinet piano with my back to the residents, I completed the first (very familiar) tune, then turned around to ask them to name the song. Crickets. Wasting no time, I instinctively reached my hand behind my back while continuing to face the residents, playing the melody of the song again and asking the question at the same time. This time nearly everyone responded at once. Aha! I wasn't told beforehand that I was on the Alzheimer's unit, but I figured it out, at least in general terms, pretty quickly. The rest of the hour continued to be a thinking on my feet navigational exercise that apparently got the job done (well enough at least). Once finished, the activities manager on duty invited me to her office and explained that they has just lost their once/week contracted music therapist. She offered me the gig. Huh? Confused, I explained to her that, other than doing a research paper on music therapy in college, I had no knowledge or experience in this, and certainly, no credential (little did I know that I was about to take my first conscious step toward earning one). Her response was that I instinctively knew what to do (she was observing the session) and I would be able to learn as I went along. As I stared at her for a few seconds (or a few minutes. I have no idea), I reasoned that this would be a good potential learning opportunity. So despite the misgivings of feeling that I didn't know what I was doing, I agreed to sign on. That's when it got (even more) interesting. She looked at me seriously and said; "Now that you are signed on to work here, I have to tell you something that I couldn't tell you before, and that you can't tell anyone else". She went on to explain to me that Cab Calloway was a resident of their health care center, after suffering a stroke. The family was determined that there would be no pictures of him in this condition, and was deliberately misleading the media (who were searching) as to his whereabouts. No one knew he was at Cokesbury. But now I did. The idea of playing music for Cab Calloway was not at all intimidating (I had come up mentored by the older musicians of that era, and was accustomed to winning their acceptance, after their initial skepticism of my being too young to really get "their" music). But as a music therapist? I believe I said aloud "I already don't know what I'm doing. Now I have to not know what I'm doing in front of Cab Calloway!" Good grief (yes, I suppose I did sound a bit like Charlie Brown)! As you might imagine, this gave me something to obsess on for the next week, as I  put together a program for my first crack at a "music therapy" group. After I arrived that first morning, I looked around the gathering group. Can I say it? This was a VERY white facility (with the exception of some of the staff). Even if I wouldn't have recognized Cab Calloway, I knew I would anyway, as he was likely the only non-white health care resident. My 45 minute (I think. It was a long time ago) program came and went. No sign of him. I was relieved, until a voice said "Let's go upstairs now". I had to do this again? I didn't realize I was assigned to work on 2 separate units. And lo and behold, as I began the second program, Cab Calloway was wheeled in. As I played, I watched him, as he watched me. Perhaps more accurate to say that he studied me, deliberately; listening, watching. Then it happened. Perhaps the biggest smile I had ever seen (and may ever see). I knew what it meant. I had passed the skepticism test. I was in. I didn't take it as anything other than the experiences of finding acceptance with the older musicians, back in the day. But it meant more this time. It was my first "hands-on" music therapy lesson, reminding me that step one is winning acceptance, from which point, a relationship/rapport can grow. I generalized this immediately to understand this process occurring in every music therapy group, in every therapeutic relationship. Unfortunately I didn't have the opportunity to build a rapport with Cab Calloway beyond that initial connection. After I finished the session and looked around, he had already been wheeled out. And later that week, he passed. But the lesson his gesture taught me was just what I needed to learn, as I took my first step on the path of exploring music therapy. And it continued, years later, as his wife entered the health care unit, and I became her in-room music therapist. Stories live on, giving birth to new stories, weaving the tapestry of providence.

Monday, December 30, 2019

With the coming of the New Year, I've been reflecting on what my decision, back in my 20's, to accept performing music as a calling has meant, and continues to mean. I was already playing music full time, starting in my teenage years. But it was more by default than on (or with a sense of) purpose. When I came to this place, I was back in college, finishing my degree part time (having dropped out for a couple of years after my freshman year. I was playing usually 6 nights/week, along with carrying a sizable load of private students. The path out of and back to college is a blog post for another time). I essentially realized that to be a musician was to be who I am, so rather than do it because I could, I decided to do it because I felt I should. Purposefully. At points along the way, there has been some turbulence about staying the course. Whenever that would come, I would find myself falling back into the sense that a life of making music was the life I was meant to lead (if for no other reason, by virtue of who I am), and would keep going. What I'm coming to realize now is that what I was actually falling back on (each time I did) was the commitment itself. I will often speak lightheartedly to say that "The artistic temperament, depending on your view of the universe, is either a calling or a disease. Either way you're stuck with it." I'll say that not to be flippant, but to set up that I do accept it as a calling. And to accept a calling is, indeed, to make a commitment.

The picture above was taken last night, on board the American Constitution, after finishing a show. JoAnne Funk and Steve Marking, from St. Paul, MN, were the resident entertainers on board, and career full time performers, like myself. It was nice to meet them and share thoughts and stories. There are many paths that a commitment to this life/calling can take. Seldom does the path of an artistic calling lead to fame or fortune, and that (certainly) isn't why we make it. We make it because we believe that we have something to contribute, that this contribution has value, and that there will always be a path to making it work (even with the sacrifices that often accompany accepting a calling). This can be said to be idealistic, but perhaps, as it is now dawning on me, it is really something much deeper. What if accepting a calling is really an acknowledgement that this calling has (first) accepted us? And the commitment to this path is met with a commitment to us that a path will be there? It can be very hard at times, and easy to come to the decision that a "normal" life would be better. During those times, I may not have understood that I had made a commitment to my calling (at least in those terms), but nonetheless I couldn't bring myself to step away from it (even during the periods of significant pressure). And I wasn't always sticking with it because I felt it made sense. I just never could bring myself to walk away, no matter what the circumstance. I could never stop believing. Reflecting on it now, I suppose I did understand (albeit tacitly) all along that this calling had made a commitment to me. and that I would always be provided for (though not necessarily in the manner I would choose) as I remained on the path. Actually, of course I did. From the place I am now, over 40 years from beginning the journey, this is abundantly clear. And really only scratches the surface, because, as I've come to learn more and more over the years, and is reflected throughout this journal/blog, this is bigger than just being about me. Of course it is. And Amen.  

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Here's a trip back to the 1980's and my gig as "Picnic Pianist" in the Cherry Hill Mall (NJ) Food Court. The article above (click to enlarge) was a feature in the Courier Post (the South Jersey newspaper. A feature in the Phila. Inquirer came later) from 1986. For several years I played the piano by the fountain 5-6 days a week, later intermittently, for a total of 11 years. When it was steady, the Rouse company marketing manager told me that I held the record for the longest continuous musical engagement in retail. True or not, I pretty much lived in the mall. I got the gig initially because I worked in the (mall) store that sold the mall the piano as they were building the new (1000 seat, at the time the largest in the country) Food Court. And, coincidentally, this was the same mall where my parents shopped on many a Saturday night when I was young (my routine was the candy store and the arcade). Needless to say, the Cherry Hill Mall was a familiar place. And whatever time I would spend in the mall otherwise was augmented by the 2 hour shift each day (often over lunch), where I would play songs chosen from a "music menu" placed on the tables. When the Christmas season came (marked by the arrival of Santa Claus), I had to switch to wall to wall holiday music, keeping in sync with the rest of the mall. On the occasion I had to put in a sub during the holiday season, it would often provoke a bit of complaining (or at least groaning) from the sub pianist, but as for me, I didn't mind a bit. I would challenge myself not to repeat anything each shift, then try to change it up as best I could the next day. But I'm often reminded that I'm not in the mainstream of musicians regarding this. Every Christmas season, in fact. Whether traditional carols and hymns (I was an active church organist and music director during this time, and this music has a special place within me), or the fun "cultural Christmas" stuff, I'm happy to play it all day, while many of the musicians around me reach the "Are we done yet?" place after 2 or 3 holiday tunes. Speaking of Christmas carols, a friend who plays in a contemporary church band told me that a couple of their younger singers didn't know "The First Noel" when presented with it in rehearsal for a Christmas service. It's a different world now, but that's another subject. Speaking for myself, it's ho, ho, ho and off we go!    

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Some years ago, my heart would go on a journey, as my feet walked the mile from my house to the Chester River Bridge, then over into town, usually before sunrise each morning. The journey was not to the river, or town, or any other physical destination, ultimately. The journey was to places where my heart traveled, and found, and eventually began to recognize. As my heart learned to look out, my eyes followed. I took advantage of my first smartphone with an 8 mp camera, about 6 years ago, to begin taking pictures of what I saw, and eventually, (learned to recognize and capture) what I felt. As I can understand it now, I was entering a new season of life; one that has brought me to be positioned and better equipped to connect with those around me, particularly with music, and make perhaps, a deeper contribution. Or to approach it from another angle, to realize more of my potential. Or yet another angle, to become more deeply who I am. It's been a few years since I lived near the bridge. These days I'm more inclined to be found walking near my current house, especially at night, taking advantage of a secluded location, an open sky, and little light pollution. I'm especially happy when the moon is in a visible phase. My heart jumps, as it did recently, when I see the bright moon rising in the sky as I pull in my driveway, or walk out my front door. One night, as I walked out and encountered the moon, I blurted out "Hi buddy!" Another reason to be glad that I don't have neighbors.
Back when I would walk over the bridge, I was on display, but it didn't bother me (usually. I wasn't keen on the occasional pickup truck of rednecks who would yell out to startle me, probably to see if they could make me drop my phone). Both sunrises and sunsets could be stunning from the bridge, and I was absorbed. These days, however, I am happier to be in my secluded, private space and leave being "on display" for when I'm at the piano, or on the stage. And thanks to my heart exercises, my "display window" from the piano/stage is quite a bit less foggy than before this season of life began. A time for everything, and a season for everything, as one season follows another.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Music is a portal, through which we release expression and find connection. This operates on so many levels and from so many angles. There is no one way, or one approach, universally, to making music, save the 2 "ingredients": expression and connection. Staring in my 20's, my awareness became more keen concerning music as connection, as I began to realize that music making was not just about me (expression), but also about others (connection). And for someone like myself, who found his "calling" to be performing music,  connection became the point, though which expression was the means. At this point in the journey, and perhaps with a wider angle lens, I am finding connection as more of a means, to a deepened expression that reaches beyond myself, within myself, and through myself to the collective self of the shared space. When I first began to understand music as connection, I focused on where that connection would land; on the listener. I gradually came to learn that my real connection is not to a defined destination, but to the "space", taking me beyond my "self", and giving expression to and from the deeper places. So what I am positioned to allow to come through me takes me beyond what would simply come from me. To quote Keith Jarrett: "When I'm out there and there's just a piano, it's like my body knows exactly what to do, it's just like my left hand knows how to play. And if I tell it what to play, I'm stopping it. Not only am I stopping it, but I'm stopping it from playing something better than I can think of." This is the product, or the benefit, or the reward of working, essentially on yourself, to open the space; the portal, through which we release expression and find connection. It is it's own ongoing journey.  

Thursday, October 17, 2019

I've been pondering a review, years ago now, from Cam Miller:

"The ever tasteful Joe Holt is a soloist extraordinaire. An intense musician with terrific chops, who shows you he means business."

An intense musician. And that intensity he sensed, as others have and do, is that part of me that is expressed through the music. Or maybe it is just who I am. And what in my life I need to navigate is the channeling, or direction, or harnessing of that intensity. I could imagine, though I have no experience in this, that it could be something like taming a wild horse. I say taming as opposed to breaking, as at any point or moment I, the rider or tamer of myself could lose the control. But really it is neither taming nor breaking. It is more like channeling energy. The horse remains wild even as it moves, dodges and weaves on command and synchronizes in rhythm with others in the herd. But there is another rhythm, albeit irregular; the rhythm of an opening and closing of the curtain, that has it's own importance. The rhythm of the curtain allows this energy to ebb and flow, release, then reset itself. In other words you don't allow everyone to see everything. So what may become a primary motivator in organizing the artist's life is controlling when we are in the display window. It can be a complicated and sometimes tricky subject. One that can further be complicated by the integrity that is required of the true artist. The integrity of being true. Thinking of this brings another review to mind, from a Tri-State Jazz Society concert in 2012:

"Jazzman Bunk Johnson once said, “Jazz is playin'
from the heart; you don't lie.” Or maybe it was
Louis Armstrong. At any rate, one interpretation of 
the above statement would be to say that a jazz musician's
improvised performances are a reflection and/or
extension of his or her unique personality.
Which brings us to the appearance of Chestertown,
Maryland jazz pianist Joe Holt ... He is
the genuine article, an artiste, whose work is a
reflection and an extension of who he is. He plays
from the heart, mind and soul; he does not lie."

The true artist puts their true self on the stage, then draws the curtain. For those who are not accustomed to the stage, their first struggle is often in drawing the curtain. For those who have overcome that struggle to put their true selves on display, their struggle may be in closing the curtain. On stage and backstage. Managing this can be one of the biggest challenges that artists face. And backstage is not a single, or simple place. There are areas, rooms and compartments. Directly behind the curtain is a more communal space for those that know the process and share in it. A green room or dressing room is a more private space but one in which we can invite or share with others who are closest to us in this journey. And there is the necessary solitude. Behind the curtain, behind the door, behind the additional privacy walls. It is a complicated and multi-dimensional navigation. And we don't always get it right. At least I don't. But I know my experience in this is not unique. When the intensity is great within an artist, these vibrations will sometimes find their way to a less-than-ideal location. Some artists are famous (or infamous) for this. 
But back to Cam Miller calling me an "intense musician". No one has ever questioned that. Especially me. I know the intensity well. And this is the paradoxical place. Where the simple meets the complicated. The profound holds hands with the ridiculous. The intensity finds stillness. And the magic happens. As we are true.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

My night vision has always been poor. There are some nights when I walk outside, and though the sky is clear, I won't see a single star. After a while few will come into view. Slowly but surely it all unfolds. I can look up through the trees and see the stars begin to peek through, while overhead there remain large patches of empty sky. So I walk and wait some more. The stars continue to slowly fill in. After about 20 or 30 minutes I begin to see the sky as I would expect to. The stars were there all along, and kind of an analogy to me of waiting, and trusting, for the "space" to open.  
The other day was one where I was off the mark; the kind of day that I purpose to avoid through the lifestyle that I lead, starting by opening the space in my heart at the piano.
But if I am not patient, or attentive, or still, I can become overcome with procedure and expectations. And my focus shifts away from being and more to doing. It was one of those days. So when I sat down at a piano on my gig later that day, I felt an old familiar, uncomfortable place. Not one that I have been any time lately, but one I have lived in much the time in my past. In that place, there are obstacles in the way and what is inside cannot come out. Or perhaps better said, what is outside cannot shine in. The connection is missing, and I am as in the dark. I used to spend a lot of my time playing the piano in that condition. I wouldn't know what to do about it except to keep trying. And every so often the window would lift up a crack and for a little while the connection would happen. I would know it. Everyone around me would know it. But soon it would end, not to be found again. Especially so because I was looking for it, having just held it in my hand. The connection/space would leave, replaced by the frustration of failing to find it again. But now I know it is always there if I clear the deck first, and wait, and trust. So actually that day is a reminder of how far I've come, even if that distance is just a small step. Because it was the exception, and playing in the space has become the rule. And what a difference that is. As I look up at all the stars.

I often will say that the stage is our (the musician's) "school", more so than any other. And it struck me, during the show on Monday night, that sometimes this will mean more than simply that we learn by doing/experience. Some of our experiences in (music and) life are more themed and focused, and in a way, more of a "formal" education, even if the "degree" we earned is something only understood and acknowledged within ourselves. Or maybe put more simply, some of our experiences are their own school, in and of themselves. My nearly 2 year gig as the Amateur Night accompanist at the Crazy Horse Saloon, in Barrington, NJ, starting when I was 18 years old, was certainly one of those circumstances (that's a story all to itself, and for another time). Or my 11 year (off and on) tenure as "Picnic Pianist" for the Cherry Hall (NJ) Mall food court (another story for another time). I thought of those "schools" last Monday night as I realized that my Mainstay Monday run has been, in fact, a "degree program" of it's own. So much has been learned and absorbed that could only be accessed through travelling this unique, organically unfolding path. Just as I could say when "graduating" from amateur night in 1980(?), or the mall gig in 1997, or my return to church ministry in 2006, or any number of other experiences, I'll be a different (and better) musician going out than coming in (Mainstay Monday will end on Labor Day, 2020). What also hit me the other night was realizing that I am in year 4 of my "4 year program". A little "senioritis", perhaps? Or just an acknowledgement that this chapter will have run it's course, even if the next chapter is yet to be defined. Though in this book, chapters are written, and lived concurrently. Each experience is it's own thing, even as it is (also) a piece of the larger puzzle. Another set of chapters, distinct from any particular gig or experience, are the seasons of life we pass through. And those "degree program" experiences are often the means of guiding us through. As I ponder the change of seasons. 

Saturday, September 21, 2019

I like the idea of things like this. Different approaches interacting in a common space. Years ago, I was in the schedule rotation in a restaurant chain that featured jazz every night. On the evening I worked we had 2 shifts; I played solo piano from 5-8pm, followed by a trio (with a different piano player, plus bass and sax) from 8-midnight. One day, the manager got the idea to have Ed Yellen (the sax player) move his shift up an hour, and play 7-11. So for one hour a week, for several months, one of our sets would overlap. It's probably safe to say that I was the most traditionally minded of the musicians who played there (on any night), and Ed was the most "modern". Kind of like Oscar and  Coltrane here, but perhaps even further apart. The one thing we had in common is that we knew some of the same tunes. And we played them, even as I was hearing things come out of his sax that I didn't know what to do with, and he was, in all likelihood, playing with a stride (more or less) piano player for the first time. And we enjoyed the heck out of it, both of us looking forward each week to that one hour of unique experience. Whenever two musicians play together, an unique space is created. It would be fun if there were any recordings of those sets to listen to now, on one hand. But on the other, the memory of how if felt is a nice place to visit, when something like this video reminds me.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Many if not most of us, myself included, will trust our intuition. Or better put, trust in our intuition (leaving the interpretations of what that may mean aside). How many times have we heard it said, or said ourselves that we should trust our gut/first impression, and not over-think things. Yet who doesn't? I think many would agree that we already know that second guessing our intuition will send us down a side road, if not the wrong one altogether. And we still do it. It occurred to me recently that trusting one's intuition could be understood as a very (if not most) basic expression of (the idea of) faith. For me, personally, trusting my intuition has become pretty much the center of gravity of this season of life. Especially so when playing piano. When I will get, and stay, out of my own way is when I will connect to the deeper places. But I've also come to learn that those spaces that music will allow me to enter are not just places to make music, they are places to live. Practicing music, and in particular, practicing to the space, is in a very real sense, where I can learn and inhabit who I am. So I have arrived at some level of comfort in recognizing the "signals" and allowing them to point me to in the direction I should be. One night, a few months ago, I felt the familiar wave, this time more of a jolt. And it told me something I may have already known, but unwilling to embrace without a proper push, that the time had come to put an end date on Mainstay Mondays. To allow myself to be guided and led as I play piano is to avoid getting tangled up in my head, and allow myself to travel beyond self-imposed boundaries. To allow this everywhere else in life is to be taken where I am supposed to go, or be, even if I don't know what or where that is. It's all the same thing. I'm learning. 

Friday, August 23, 2019

It's finally here. I won't say (admit) how much behind schedule, but that's okay. Everything came together at just the right time, and now, "Keeping A Hand in This, and That, and The Other Thing" is on hand and will soon be available on your favorite steaming and download platforms. This product has been a lesson in patience and providence. One lesson I've already had ample opportunity to learn is that you cannot allow circumstances to dictate artistic decisions (to the extent that is possible) in a recording project. If it's not ready, it doesn't go. If you run out of money, don't just put it out anyway, wait to save some more. If it's probably good enough, but certainly not what it could be, then schedule another recording session. Et cetera. After multiple sessions and significant technical issues (resulting in about half the takes being unusable), I was finally willing to consider conceding that I as was close as I was going to get to my goal of having an appropriately diverse project, and prepared the final master recording. Then I waited. It may be that inner hesitation (or perhaps even in some cases, procrastination) is connected with our intuitive sense. Beyond recognizing the problem, this intuition sees what we (cognitively) cannot: a resolution. it won't detail it to us, but it summons us to hope, faith, and trust. These were realized when I got a call from a graduate student at The Peabody Institute, in Baltimore, asking if I would be willing to record some solo piano tracks for his Master's project. I'd walk in, lay down some tracks that he would submit for his project, and I would walk out with the files free to use. Deal. I saw this as my providential extra inning, and made sure, as best I could, to arrive prepared to be in the space. I later heard an account of how I arrived, calm and unassuming, then sat down and made it happen. The door was open for me to walk through, and I knew that I was given (just the right) provision, at just the right time. 4 of the tracks from that (roughly one hour) session were chosen to round out this project. And now my intuition says go. So I am.

A few pictures from the session: 

         One would expect a nice workstation at Peabody. It was. 

Each of the pianos there have names. 
It took a day or so for it to dawn on me.

    Rich, who has since graduated (congrats!), documents the effort.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

I periodically experience affirmations of where the musical center of gravity is in my heart. It can happen at any moment as I am listening to Oscar, the (new testament) Basie Big Band, or any other deep swinging happening thing. The other week I came across a live stream from Jazz at Lincoln Center featuring Catherine Russell. Bam. So now the chicken and the egg question: Is this music what reaches me most deeply because I've spent so much of my life immersed in it, to and beyond the point where there is any possibility I can ever accumulate similar time with anything else? Or did I lunge into this musical culture as a teenager (and stay there) because my heart found its home? Yes. But I'm finding a more generalized lesson for myself here as well. I need to find my own (emotional?) connection with whatever it is I want to perform, before I can be anywhere near a satisfactory place (to me) in expressing it. So, once something speaks to me, I can then begin to learn to speak with it, or through it. I need to find that piece or part or area or essence in whatever it is that touches me, in order to connect with my own expression. On one level, this seems obvious, a description of the natural process. On another level, this seems a bit of an epiphany, that can focus my procedure by
understanding my starting point; to find it in my heart/soul before I can begin to effectively manage it in my mind. So (therefore) my most meaningful thoughts are those informed by my deeper feelings. Yes. I need to live in whatever place it is long enough to begin to feel my connection to it (patience, the key to everything). If I apply study to what I can first intuitively find or feel, my study will have more meaning. Okay Joe, get to work (and re-read this every day for the next month).   ;)

Sunday, July 28, 2019

For as long as I can remember, I've said that I enjoy accompanying, and if forced to choose only one expression, it would be that (over playing solo, or with a group). At this point in my career, and especially in recent years, as I have allowed things to develop more organically (without a pre-determined agenda) this has shaped my path, and the opportunities presented on it. Over a decade ago, I began working as Musical Director for the annual Women Helping Women concert in Chestertown (sharing the responsibilities at first, eventually assuming them solely). This unique show has me accompanying/supporting a stage full of stylistically diverse performers, one at a time (around 20 or so) over the course of an evening. And being in this position aligns with my strengths. Or my strength. And now I'm in the position to move not just from performer to performer within a show, but with Mainstay Mondays, from show to show to find and live in the unique moment and connection at hand. Though it is true that if I'd ever have to choose between solo piano performance and accompanying, it would be no contest, I wouldn't want to have to make that choice. But allowing things to evolve as they will (or to allow providence to unfold) without getting in the way will place things where they are supposed to be. And wherever that place is will likely not be where it would (or could) have been imagined. No way, say, a decade ago, could I have predicted where my career would be at this point. One step taken, or one possibility embraced at a time will eventually (or sometimes quickly) take you beyond what can currently be seen or understood. Ultimately, everything is connected with itself as we move through time, so while at any given point, we may make sense of where we find ourselves. And as for what will the landscape look like a year or two from now? The more I trust the path and the bigger picture (Providence), the less it matters. 

Saturday, July 06, 2019

This little blog entry has the potential of being a bit wonky, and I'll try to avoid that. It also will shine a bit of light on a long felt and nagging insecurity of mine that has the potential of getting in my way at any time, as a performer, especially when sharing the stage with more "modern" jazz musicians.
Jazz, to many contemporary practitioners, is defined by/as the acquisition of a particular 
"vocabulary'' (harmonic and melodic), much of which was codified after the Great American Songbook/swing era of jazz (the unique time when jazz and popular music overlapped). During this era, jazz was less a product of academic study and acquisition, and more an absorption of and conversation with the existing environment of music and musicians. When describing the process by which this absorption takes place, at least in a very general way, I'll point our that people learn, at the basic level, not through formal study, but by being around others who are already doing whatever it is. A young toddler learns to express spoken language simply through being around others who use it. The early jazz musician, much the same.
Something came clear to me recently; that my struggle to connect with some of the existing "modern jazz" vocabulary may less about the vocabulary and more about the process. This began to come into focus some years ago, when (what I observed to be) Keith Jarrett's music expression/process "clicked' with me. There are some "modern" (post swing/Great American songbook era) players who will describe their music making process as, essentially, decision making (Chick Corea comes to mind), and some as expressing their emotions, or feelings (Bill Evans comes to mind here, who makes a point of separating the necessary mental acquisition of vocabulary and skills from the expression of playing, which draws on that which is acquired, but originates from another place). Of course I have to be careful here. I am not making comment on the abilities of any great musician (whose skills are far above mine), but in that which resonates with me. Expression. For myself, as I'm come to embrace, this is what music making is all about (Charlie Brown). And is connected, ultimately, to why I've struggled with the current world of jazz, and in particular the more "modern" academically codified approaches. And boy, did I just potentially step in a rabbit hole. Perhaps I'll just take a seat here for awhile.

In 1994, I made the 36 mile drive from Elkton, Md, where I lived, to Chestertown for the first time, having picked up a music therapy contract with Heron Point, the area's continuing care retirement community. It was the beginning of the journey that would eventually lead to official certification as a music therapist (I was recruited for music therapy contracts prior to being certified and didn't solicit them until afterward) and eventually, ongoing relationships/contracts with around 30 senior communities. It was also the beginning of a 25 year association with Heron Point, and many long term relationships, even some with residents who have been there as long as I.
Gone are the days when I maintain active contracts with dozens of senior communities.
The page has pretty much turned on that, with the exception of Heron Point. At this point, anything you can imagine a pianist doing at a retirement community, I am (some of the residents have a standing line that I should already have my own room there). One of the very meaningful things I get to do is play the majority of the funeral/memorial services. Without exception, each one is an inspiration, as the resident's life is recounted, remembered and revered. These experiences fall into the category of off the radar screen (or the stage) things I do that are among the most meaningful. Music makes connections, and these connections are beautiful. I am a blessed guy.  

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The American Constitution; one of the newest ships in the American Cruise Lines fleet. Since it is a larger vessel than some of the older ships, I had to be tendered out from shore on a recent visit to St. Michael's, MD. The Constitution holds 180 passengers, I believe, nearly twice as large as most of the older/original ships at 100. It actually makes a big difference in the feel of the cruise, and the dynamic of my shows. On the smaller vessels, there is more cohesion in the group (especially on the American Glory, which holds only 50 passengers) as they all sit together in a "living room" area for my show, which is more like a concert. The performance area on the Constitution is a much larger space where many sit close and are attentive, while some separate themselves in other parts of the room and are more inclined to socialize. Of course things evolve as they go along, so you adjust. And in my 10 years as a walk on entertainer for the company, as there would be for 10 years of anything, adjustments are just a part of the process. You won't see these shows listed on my performance schedule, as they are for the cruise passengers only and not open to the public. But pleased and blessed to be still going at it.  

After all these years; 45 to be exact. I was 14 years old when Joe and Paul Midiri walked in to the Triton Regional High School band room for the first time, during a concert band rehearsal as I sat in the trumpet section. Many who know me know the story, and the nearly lifelong on and off association with the various Midiri Brothers groups (starting with the original "A Couple of Joe's" Trio when we were still in high school). Back in the day, there were many big band gigs, sometimes several a week (alongside of all the smaller band work). It's a very different world now. And here I am, back with the band (after more than a decade away from it) with, arguably, the best seat in the house (the piano bench) to take a picture during "Sing Sing Sing". It's sad that there are so few Big Band opportunities now. Many memories, though. And also good to come "home". I am, after all, the "Other Brother". Back in 2005, after I had rejoined the band for awhile, the 3 of us made a 30 year reunion CD. The title was probably inevitable. Well now the wandering "brother" is back lurking about and the idea of a 45 year "anniversary" recording has come up. Or maybe we'll wait 5 years and celebrate the 50th, who knows?   

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

This week Mainstay Monday began it's 4th year of concerts (with few exceptions) every Monday night. What a fun night with the incredible fiddle player Nate Grower! 
Over a decade ago, I began working as Musical Director for the annual Women Helping Women concert in Chestertown (sharing the responsibilities at first, eventually assuming them solely). This unique show has me accompanying/supporting a stage full of stylistically diverse performers, one at a time (around 20 or so) over the course of an evening. And being in this position aligns with my strengths. Or my strength. I've long said that if I'd ever have to choose between solo piano performance and accompanying, it would be no contest (Of course, I wouldn't want to have to make that choice). And allowing things to evolve as they will (or to allow providence to unfold) without getting in the way brought me to the next level, if you will, of this journey. Mainstay Mondays, which can have the effect of enlarging one of the 4 minute Women Helping Women blocks to fill an entire evening, allows me to partner with a single artist to create an complete program. With Nate Grower, it was a wonderful experience of crossing the street, back and forth, as I joined him on some traditional fiddle tunes, and he challenged himself, quite successfully, to gain command of some jazz standards. Cherokee, especially, was just great fun. It's all great fun, and a wonderful privilege. Full steam ahead into year 4 we go! 

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

I lost an important person (to me) several weeks ago. She no longer suffers, which is comforting, even as she is sorely missed.
Candy was an avid doll collector, and would often leave something on my shelf when she would visit my house, creating this little scene. Today it reminds me that life (the one we know in the here and now) is short. And fleeting. And precious. And how many days do we have? All I know is that I have fewer than I did yesterday, and (probably far) less that the number I've lived up to now. 
 I just turned 59 (she was the same age), which is not the point at which I would have thought one ponders these things. But what do I know, I've never been this age before. I do know that my age is when people often start (continue) talking about retirement. That's something I don't think about as it's not an option for me, circumstantially or temperamentally. I seem to be at this paradoxical point where I feel that my more energetic days are behind me, while my more significant contributions (depending on how one measures them) may be in the days to come. Do the good you know to do. Trust, not understand. Be grateful in all things. 
I come back to this doll scene often. And remember that there is always a bigger picture.