Work & Play

Five words per song

Seth Godin has an idea called “Ten Words Per Page.”

He says that readers only register “ten words per page” when they are “reading” a text.

“Which means,” he says that in “your memo, your ad, your announcement, your post–you get ten words” to make an impression on them and cause them to want to engage (i.e. keep reading or take an action).

I’d posit that as songwriters, we only get five words… or less. And we only get the five melody notes that go with those five words.

(Of course, I am purposefully NOT talking about the groove, tempo, sound-scape of the song here. These matter too, but let’s take them off the table right now.)

Five words to make someone listen longer, hit repeat, send the song to someone else, talk about it with another person.

So… about that new song you’re working on:

Where are your most important five words?

What are your melody notes for those words?

Are they the most important melody notes in your song or are they just like all the others?

Maybe you have to write the song to find your five most important words. If that’s the case, then you must rewrite to make sure they are where they need to be (in the chorus, probably) and highlighted by the five most searing melody notes.

And as Seth points out, “If you can begin with the [five] words and write around them, you have the foundation for an effective message.” If you already know what your five most important words are … you are WAY ahead of the game.

BAMA Kids FAQ a.k.a what's this thing you do making art in rural Alabama with a group of kids?

In early 2010, I volunteered for four months at a small, bootstrapped, after-school program for kids in rural Wilcox County, Alabama.

It’s called BAMA Kids.

I’d show up at 3:15p, just before the kids came tumbling out of the school buses and I’d spend the rest of the afternoon and early evening with them helping and fixing — helping with homework, fixing a broken basketball hoop, helping tie a shoe, fixing a snack.

I became reacquainted with 4th and 5th grade math. I instigated drawing challenges and coloring contests. I did a lot of just being there and showing up, day after day. As Zadie Smith wrote, "Time is how you spend your love."

A scene from the shadow puppet show we created with the BAMA Kids on our first trip in March 2012.

A scene from the shadow puppet show we created with the BAMA Kids on our first trip in March 2012.

A little context about this corner of our country

From Wikipedia…

“At the time of the 2010 census, there were 11,670 people residing in the county. 72.5% were Black or African American, 26.8% White, 0.1% Native American, and 0.6% were Hispanic or Latino.

The median income for a household in the county was $16,646, and the median income for a family was $22,200. Males had a median income of $26,216 versus $17,274 for females. The per capita income for the county was $10,903. About 36.10% of families and 39.90% of the population were below the poverty line, including 48.40% of those under age 18 and 32.10% of those age 65 or over.he median income for a household in Wilcox County was $16,646. About 48% of people under the age of 18 live below the poverty line.

All public schools in the county are operated by the Wilcox County School District. It is also served by one private school, Wilcox Academy, founded in 1970 as a segregation academy. The public schools are effectively all-Black. Both the Wilcox County Schoo District schools were designated “failing schools” by the 2017 Alabama Department of Education.”

Let these realities about Wilcox County sink in — the population is 72% black / 26% white, 48% of kids live below the poverty line, the public schools in the county are failing. And then realize that this is a very rural area. High speed internet is not a given. Access to a public library or any other public social service means you have to have a car or a person in your family who has a car. That’s not a given, either.


Enter BAMA kids

BAMA Kids is the only program of its kind in this community. Started in 1993 by a group of volunteers and concerned parents, its goal is to give kids a safe and fun place to go at the end of the school day. Here, they learn, grow, and feel the love and support of positive role models and mentors. BAMA Kids get the encouragement they need to make good decisions and live healthy, successful lives.

Adding a few Broadway stars to the mix, or: 1 + 1 = 3

In March 2013, I invited the theater group Zara Aina (ZA) to come down to Alabama and work with the BAMA Kids for a week.

Zara Aina is a Malagasy (Madagascar) phrase that means "share life." Started by two Broadway actors and based in NYC, its mission is to use theater, storytelling, and performance to help at-risk children to recognize their potential. It was a no-brainer to unite these two awesome organizations. I saw the opportunity and made it happen. 

In one week, the ZA actors and I collaborated with the BAMA Kids to create an amazing piece of theater — a shadow puppet musical of sorts. The kids wrote the lyrics to our songs. I wrote the music. The ZA crew coached the kids to create everything else -- the story, the acting, the costumes, the set, the shadow puppets, etc. It was busy and fun with a lot of goofing around and improv-ing. 

Here are just a few scenes from that week ...

After a long week of creating and rehearsing, on a spring Sunday afternoon, the kids put on a spirited public performance of their show at the middle school!

Parents came and cheered. The local radio station broadcast from under a big oak tree outside. Someone set up a barbecue and after the show there were ribs and chicken for all.

It was an unqualified success and love fest.

And that was just the beginning

This little project of mine has always been a “we” thing.

I couldn’t have started it without Ms. Threadgill and Ms. Hives — the lifeblood of BAMA Kids. I couldn’t have created a week of arts for the kids without Lucas Caleb Rooney, Bryce Pinkham and the whole Zara Aina team being a thing that existed in the world and the kind of people who say “HELL YES” to just such adventures! And I couldn’t have done it without YOU. Yes, you.

Though I’ve personally spent hours and hours of heart-time and head-time planning and creating the connections that allow these trip be successful, it has been the financial generosity of my fans and friends that have made the four-trips-and-counting happen. Together we’ve raised over $25,000 to create art and change kids lives in Wilcox County, Alabama.

The video below attempts to capture what we do down there. Watch it and multiply what you feel by 100. And you get a sense of what we’ve done, what we’re doing, and what more there is to do.

A video history of the magic combination of BAMA Kids and Zara Aina — going strong since 2013.

For the record and for fun here are the videos we made for our other trips to BAMA Kids:

May 2017 trip

November 2017 trip to work with the student leaders

If you’re moved by what you’ve seen so far and would like to donate, please click here.


In 2018, I wanted Ms. Sheryl and Ms. Hives to know how much we love and recognize them for their unwavering support of and years of dedication to the kids of Wilcox County.

So I reached into my own pocket and flew them to NYC to have a couple days on the town and receive The Zara Aina Award for Planet Earth’s Greatest Citizens at a Broadway star-studded event at the legendary Joe’s Pub. Here’s the celebratory video we created to kick off their night…

Javion and Shatavia, two BAMA Kids that have been with the program for close to a decade, tell the leaders of BAMA Kids, Ms. Sheryl and Ms. Hives, how much they mean to them.

I am deeply grateful for everyone who has shared this journey with me.

Onward!

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.

It turns what we have into enough, and more. 

It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. 

It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. It turns problems into gifts, failures into successes, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. 

It can turn an existence into a real life, and disconnected situations into important and beneficial lessons. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.

— Melody Beattie

To donate and help keep the BAMA Kids making theater and art with the current and future stars of Broadway and beyond, please click here.

A common form of contemporary violence

How jam-packed are your days?

Where is the space and stillness in your life? Where is the quiet? Where is there room to linger? To think? To be?

Is there any?

I recently read this quotation from Thomas Merton…

The rush and pressure of modern life ... is perhaps the most common form of contemporary violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone and everything is to succumb to violence.

I’m doing a daily retreat with my fellow Zen freaks and so I’ve recommitted to my long lost afternoon meditation session.

What a difference it’s making to sit still for 10 to 30 minutes every afternoon. And by afternoon, I mean anything from 2pm to 4pm to 8pm (yes… sometimes the day gets going and my “afternoon” happens at 8pm… which is the whole f*cking point of that quote up above!)

“To surrender to too many demands, to commit myself to too many projects”… that about sums who I’ve been and who I often am.

It does feel like violence to my being.

And when I interact with other people that are overcommitted and full of too many concerns, I see my reflection.

It’s right there in front me. I am them. They are me. No wonder I feel so weird around them, feel their lack of presence, and, basically, want to get away right away.

I am quite sure that is how people feel around me.

Right. Time to stop the violence towards myself and the world.

Life takes time and effort

Productivity porn.

It’s on the rise.

These days it’s not enough to just do something for the sake of doing it, for the sake of exploration, for the sake of fun, for the sake of being a good person, for the sake of your soul and what feels good to you and makes you satisfied on the inside.

No, everything we do these days, it’s all got to have a point. Got to lead to a dollar bill, a side hustle, a business or a something that the outside world (and your inside self-hating voice) deems “the point.” What ever you do, it’s got to make money or make you famous. That’s what the voices say.

Life takes time and effort. And most things worth doing don’t have a “point.”

The time and effort IS the reward.

I spent about 4.5 years (1643 days +/-) with my mom. Seeing her from cancer diagnosis to death (and beyond).

Yesterday, I spent 24 hours with my dad. Hanging out, taking him to doctor appointments, caring for him, talking to him, helping him — with all the humor and love and calmness inside me — through some very basic health issues (having to do with toileting).

What’s the point of all of that?

No one ever saw all the things I did with and for my mom. No one sees all these moments I spend with my dad now, being present, being with him (not just “checking in,” or waltzing through, or asking someone else about how he is doing).

You can’t phone-in the time and effort life takes. You can’t delegate it to someone else. I observe, though, that lots of people fool themselves into believing they can. It always leaves me wondering how their souls feel.

There is no point to all of those hours and days I spent with my mom and now spend with my dad. No point other than love and being witness to life and aging and death and change and my own minute-by-minute practice of becoming a conscious, compassionate, unconditionally loving human.

Saying No Never Gets Old

It never gets old because I am so bad at it.

Recently, I read this blog post by Rohan that reminded me that one of the reasons I am not present in my life, or TO and IN my life, is that I have such a hard time saying no.

I say yes when I don’t want to (or even when I want to say yes, but know — deep down — that saying no is better for me).

You will do for the love of others what you would not be willing to do for yourself
— Cheri Huber

This takes me out of the present moment. If not immediately, then it definitely pulls me out of the present moment when the yes I agreed to comes “due,” so to speak.

I am — humans are — notoriously bad at imagining what our future self wants and needs. We think everything will be exactly as it is in this moment.

But I am overwhelmed in this moment, too.

There’s the rub.

Will I ever learn?

I am starting to.

Now I keep a list of the things I’ve said no to. So I can remind myself — prove to myself — that I can, in fact, do it and am getting better at it.

NYC gig -- February 25, 2019 -- 7pm @ Rockwood Music Hall

Back at my fav spot …

Rockwood Music Hall Stage 3
>> entrance to Stage 3 is on 185 Orchard Street <<

Monday, February 25, 2019
Doors @ 6:30pm
Downbeat @ 7pm
Show is over @ 8pm … it’s a school night, right?

Get your TIX HERE. $15 bucks.

Intimate listening room vibes!

And, as always, an attempt to answer some fundamental questions of metaphysics through song.




Reading in swarms

I finally figured out a name for this thing I’ve done for years.

The thing is this: simultaneously, or in very quick succession, reading a group of books about one topic or theme.

I call this weird little habit of mine “reading in swarms.”

I suppose you could also call it “research,” but that would be too clinical and would give me too much credit.

Is it “curiosity”?

Sure it is. Of course. I’m curious about something or someone and then read not one, but five or seven or ten or more books about the topic. But there is something about reading five or ten books (and not, say, two) that tips this — at least in my mind — from curiosity towards some other kind of activity.

Is it mania?

Maybe. But a benign mania.

I don’t know what it is. It’s just what I do when I read.


I don’t do it exclusively. O, god no.

I also read one-off books, so to speak: a single book by an author.

For example, while I am reading a swarm of books about the Arctic, say, I might also be reading the novel Mating by Norman Rush. In fact, I am never not reading Mating, but that is a different mania of mine. I’ve never read another book by Rush except a book of his short stories.

Maybe this impulse to read in swarms is an impulse towards mastery.

Perhaps. That’s more like it.

A swarm of books about the Arctic


In reality, it’s probably all of those states along some sort of continuum. The impulse to read a book about death, for example, starts off as curiosity or a straight-up need. As in, I needed help in figuring how to deal with the impending death of my mother, so I looked toward literature for that help. Then, having read one book on death, I got curious as to how other minds thought about it, so I started searching for and reading more books on the topic. And then it became a bit of fixation and a what… hobby? obsession? race? hunger? (See my blog posts: Death, A Reading List part 1 and Death, A Reading List part 2.)

That’s more like it: hunger.

What I know is that for a while I was insatiable about the topic of death in book form. I was desperate to find some aspect of my experience described by another person. I wanted words for the unutterable grief I was enduring at my mom’s side during those years of her dying. That’s why Christopher Hitchens’s perfect phrase “living dyingly” spoke to me when I first read it. It physically rearranged something in my brain and body. I read that phrase and something that slid into place inside me. That’s why I picked up his slim, piercing book Mortality in the first place. A writer like him would surely be able to help me articulate what I couldn’t.

While my mom was dying, I picked up book after book about daeth. (Well, there was that period of time when neither she nor I could read anything, but that’s for another blog post.)

A fraction of the swarm of books I’ve read about death

And each book added another window to the metaphorical dark house I was living in.

Now, I don’t read as much about death anymore. My mom’s been dead for more than three years. Things aren’t so urgent. I’ve metabolized the writings of the authors in my death swarm. I’ve written my own book about death. It’s a songbook.

I occasionally add books to the swarm, of course. People send me things to read. I’d never swat these words away.

New swarms have appeared or old, forgotten swarms have reappeared: the Arctic swarm, the Shakespeare swarm (the Ur-swarm for me), the Jamaica Kincaid swarm, the William Faulkner swarm (I took a whole semester on Faulkner at Harvard, so this is another old one), the Rachel Cusk swarm, the Elena Ferrante swarm (this one is fraught and frenzied), etc. There are also nonfiction swarms (the income inequality swarm) and self-help-y swarms (time management).

Beekeepers, I’ve heard, consider themselves lucky when they come upon a swarm. Catching a swarm is exciting and unpredictable and somewhat (or a lot) chaotic.

I think I understand.

Don't stop at 20

If you are struggling with something, say coming up with a title for a book or a blog post or a song, don’t do the minimum amount.

Don’t come up with one title and think you’re done. You’re not. You’ve not even started.

Come up with 20 titles.

And if 20 is hard, do 30.


To come up with 30 ideas you won’t self-edit. You won’t have time to. You need to get to 30 so that the ideas flow.

And that’s the point: find the killer word or phrase that would’ve never been found if you’d stopped at 1 or 5 or 20 or 25.