My 3 Things - May 2017

(The My 3 Things FAQ.)

0. Update: THANK YOU for helping me fund the theater workshop in Alabama
You did it!! 

In last month's My 3 Things, I told you about the work I am doing at BAMA Kids, an after-school program in Wilcox County, Alabama.  I'd already raised $2750 and needed an additional $1250 to send seven New York actors from the theater outreach non-profit Zara Aina to work their story-telling, confidence-building magic for a week. 

You generously gave $1775! 

Wow! Hell yes! 

You are making a direct impact on the lives of these kids. Because of you, they will create and perform an original piece of theater and through that creation develop crucial life skills like determination, self-confidence, and cooperation.

I met with the actors last week! A cheeky, cheery crew ... right?!

The actors will arrive at BAMA Kids in less than one week! I can't wait to share more pictures and lots of stories with you!!


1. LISTENING: The Stanley Turrentine Sextet on "Sugar"
My first guitar teacher -- the late, great John Dougherty of Wilmington, Delaware -- loved this song and it was one of the very first he taught me when I began lessons with him at age 11. These laid-back, bluesy, triplet-y burners were right in his wheelhouse and he had me playing them before I played anything else.

For the past week, I've been transcribing saxophonist Turrentine's solo on this track. So much tasty goodness in every bar! And not just from the saxophone. The other musicians on the track (Freddie Hubbard - Trumpet, George Benson - Guitar, Lonnie Smith - Electric Piano, Ron Carter - Bass, Billy Kaye - Drums) are killing it too. Enjoy! 


2. SEEING: Kinyatta A.C. Hinkle's show "The Evanesced" at the California African American Museum
Akimbo. A-swirl. Asleep. Aslant. A-sway. A hundred notebook-sized drawings of a hundred missing African American women doing everything from sitting, to stooping, to flying, to falling, to flapping, to being bent way beyond backwards, to cowering, to careening. These aren't portraits, they are gestures of emotions and expressions. There is pain here, but there is also joy. 

1 of 100 of Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle's ink drawings of 100 missing African American women

Hinkle's deliberate choice of simple materials -- uniformly sized recycled paper, India ink, and a brush she created from bits of Spanish moss -- give these "un-portraits" incredible power. They represent every woman and no woman. “I wanted to make this kind of being that is flesh and not flesh,” Hinkle told the Huffington Post. “Becoming and unbecoming, defined and not defined. There is this push and pull between both worlds.”

In creating these drawings, Hinkle wanted to highlight a terrible erasure: "missing black women in America and the African diaspora, historically and to the present day." Her mark-making imagines the every day narratives of thousands of black women who have disappeared due to homicides, human trafficking, colonialism, poverty, and other forms of going unseen. 

Hinkle is one to watch. The show is on through June 25, 2017.  If you are in or near LA, it is a must-see. We often talk of an artist's body of work. Here, Hinkle's body of work is quite literally a collection of work made of women's bodies. It feels familiar and intimate, often devastatingly so.


3. GEEKING OUT: Tabata Songwriting aka using a Tabata Timer for focused periods of songwriting
If you know anything about me, you know that I am an athlete, through and through. Even now, when I don't have to, I work out at an elite level.

Wanting to shake up my songwriting practice, I decided to try an experiment: I took something from my workout routine and tried using it in my songwriting routine.

I used the Tabata Timer on my phone to increase my focus and output when writing a new song.


In the fitness world, a Tabata is a form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) that last 4 minutes. Work out as hard as you can for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, complete eight rounds and you have done one Tabata. (Read more about Tabata workouts here. There are lots of Tabata timers in the app store. I happen to like this one because it's fully customizable.)

So how did I adapt this to songwriting? Did I work as hard as I could for 20 seconds on lyrics, then rest for 10 seconds, then repeat eight more times, and in four minutes I had the perfect pop song?

Not quite.

I set my Tabata Timer to do four rounds of 12 minutes on, two minutes off.

For 12 minutes, I worked on accomplishing a very specific songwriting goal, for example: "write a rough draft of a first verse, lyrics only." During the two minutes off, I documented the result of that work, noting if I achieved the goal or not and if not, why not. I also -- in that two minutes -- set up the specific outcome for the next 12 minute burst of activity.

Screenshot of my Tabata Songwriting notes 

Why this works
In short, my Tabata Songwriting method works because it forces me to focus and to commit to accomplishing a clear goal in a very short period of time.

With the timer counting down, I immediately drop into state of deep focus; I don't have the luxury of letting my attention waiver. I had to iterate song ideas faster, even really bad ideas. This helped me to create and work with a "good enough" idea sooner than I would if I had unlimited time.

Did I write the greatest song ever using this method? No. 

Did I write a finished song? Yes.

In a shorter amount of time than usual? Hell yes.

I finished a song in two hours and twenty minutes. That's pretty damn quick for me.

(Because I am dead serious about songwriting, I keep track of these things. Most songs take me between four to eight hours to write. Some songs have taken me as long as two months, some as long as two years.)

Will I always use a Tabata timer when writing songs? Hell no. There are currently a couple of songs on my "to write" pile that I know would not benefit from this approach. I want to take more time with them; I want to luxuriate in the infinite possibilities of lyrics and chords. 

The point is I don't want to be precious about writing songs. I used to be that way and it sucks. Over the last few years, I've spent considerable time, energy, and thought creating new ways of being around songwriting. Now, I am free and getting freer. 

Inventing this new and (let's face it) ridiculous way of songwriting is evidence of that freedom. And I am thrilled about it. It's just one more arrow in my songwriting quiver. Watch out!



OUTRO: I'd love to hear from you

What do you think of these 3 things? 

Leave a comment below and let me know what you're listening to, what art shows you're seeing, and what tools you're using to get your art work done. I read every comment!

My 3 Things - February 2017

(What is this thing called My 3 Things? Find out in the FAQ.)

1. LISTENING: Marian Anderson’s “If He Change My Name”

How I love a wire rack filled with postcards.  There’s a certain childlike fascination induced by the spinning of these contraptions. Placed near the shop door or the cash register, they’re almost always a little rickety and invariably make a kind of hushed squeak when turned. The fun is in the treasure hunt of finding the perfect postcard for the perfect person.

Firmly in the grip of such a reverie at the great Manhattan bookstore Book Culture recently, I stopped on a mesmerizing Richard Avedon portrait of Marian Anderson (the one shown in the Youtube link above.) She’s mid-word, mid-song with a wind blowing her hair up and around perfectly pursed lips. It’s an imperceptible moment caught: the forming of a syllable. I bought the postcard immediately. 

It sat on my desk for a week, the magic of the arresting, sensuous image working on me. Then one day, when I should have been doing a great many other things, I sat down to listen to Anderson’s music and read about her life.

I didn’t know that Marian Anderson grew up in Philadelphia, a city I think of as my own. I didn’t know that it was only through the influence of the adults in her life, most notably her aunt Mary, that she was encouraged to sing and stay close to music. Virtually every avenue of music study was closed to her because she was black and poor (her mother, though trained as a school teacher could not teach in Philadelphia at the time because of a law that applied only to black teachers, not white ones). I did not know that her early life was marked by death. Her father was accidentally struck on the head while working at the Reading Terminal (he sold coal and ice) and, in order to survive, her family moved in with his parents. Less than a year later, Marian's much-loved grandfather Benjamin (who was born a slave and was the first of his family to move north) died.

She could afford neither high school nor music lessons, but thanks to the efforts of her pastor and others in her community, she was provided the opportunity for both. She applied to the all-white music college (now the University of the Arts) and was told they “don’t take colored.” 

Her big break came when she was 28. She won first prize in a singing competition sponsored by the New York Philharmonic and was invited to perform with the orchestra. Audience and critics were moved. Riding a wave of support and interest, she stayed in New York to study and sing. Because of her skin color, she couldn't progress any further with her career, so she moved to Europe where she was received enthusiastically. Her fame spread and by the late 1930s, Anderson was once again singing in the U.S., though she still faced much discrimination.

Here’s where the story gets familiar and where I'll leave off: In 1939, The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) denied Anderson permission to sing to an inter-racial audience in their Constitutional Hall in Washington, D.C.

The outrage caused by this refusal led to the resignation of thousands of DAR members, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Her letter to the DAR included this zinger: “You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed." The furor eventually led to the open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, for which we all know and love Marian Anderson.

A postcard is usually a trivial thing: to be dashed off, a small remembrance, correspondence "lite." Sometimes, though, it's much more than that.


2. SEEING: Shakespeare’s The Tempest at St. Ann’s Warehouse
This production of the The Tempest, anchored by the great Harriet Walter as Prospero, and with songs by one of my musical heroes Joan Armatrading, completes a trilogy of all-female plays staged by Phyllida Lloyd. I was lucky enough to see the other two (Julius Caesar, Henry IV) as they were performed over the course of the last four years. 

Shakespeare's Tempest is set on a magical island. Lloyd stages her version in a women’s prison. Any island is a kind of prison, and the layers of meaning here continue to pile up. Just when the inmates (and we) are totally engaged, believing every hip drop of the sprite Ariel’s magic, the realities of prison life — guards, loud sirens, cells, uniforms — break in and the inmates have to shut up, line up, and clean up until the guards leave again and the magic continues. We swerve from world to world to world. By the end, the players that long for their freedom (Ariel, Caliban) are literally set free: we see them escorted out of jail. 

Where are we? The dualities explored in this play — perception / reality, freedom / bondage, master / slave, reality / fancy, loyalty / treachery — must be re-thought when every player is un-free, a slave of sorts, living in the un-reality of the modern industrial prison complex. In this play within a play within a prison, questions keep multiplying: What is played? Who is played? Who is really master? Prospero? The guard barking the orders? To say nothing of untangling the gender knot Lloyd tied by casting all women in a romance that was written with only one female character.

If you are in New York, the show runs until February 19. Don’t miss it. 


3. SWIRLING IN THE EDDY OF TIME: A photograph by Augustus Frederick Sherman at the Met

Augustus Frederick Sherman; Chinese woman, German stowaway, Sami woman from Finland, Algerian man, Hungarian woman, Swedish woman, Russian Cossack, Dutch girl, all Ellis Island, New York, 1905-1917

Augustus Frederick Sherman; Chinese woman, German stowaway, Sami woman from Finland, Algerian man, Hungarian woman, Swedish woman, Russian Cossack, Dutch girl, all Ellis Island, New York, 1905-1917

A week ago, in the churn of President Trump’s chaotic, ill-conceived executive order banning all refugees and citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, I went on one of my usual walkabouts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. With no particular destination in mind, I just wanted to be surrounded by 5000 years of art.

On the second floor, on the right side of a narrow corridor leading from European Paintings 1250-1800 to 19th- and 20th-Century European Paintings, there is a wall dedicated to photographs. Only about eight or ten photos fit in this non-gallery. I always love to see what’s on view. This day, I paused at the first photograph and got stuck. After looking for many minutes, I nearly left the Met, feeling a kind of vertigo brought on by the confluence of current events and the events in a photograph from a hundred years ago. 

Here is what I saw: nine portraits arranged in a grid. They were made by Augustus Frederick Sherman sometime between 1905 and 1917. 

Sherman was an American photographer who worked as an employee of the Executive Division of Immigration. He used his job to capture with utter clarity and respect the immigrants arriving at the great reception hall at Ellis Island in New York. 

For 30 years, starting in 1880, the U.S. saw a staggering growth in annual immigration, nearly doubling from 450,000 to 880,000 arrivals. To contemplate the influx of this many immigrants in such a short time is almost nearly impossible for us. Sherman’s career coincided with this unprecedented time in the nation’s history; he had the position and the inclination to capture this tremendous spectacle. 

During our un-presidented time in America, looking into the faces Sherman captured so openly, I felt sick to my stomach. I was looking back to the future: these are the people that made the country in which I now live, the country whose current President seems hell-bent on keeping people exactly like them out.

Look into their eyes. Look at their clothes, their hands, their postures. Imagine what they were thinking, what their worries were, their joys. Imagine what they left behind, what they were looking forward to, what they hoped they would find here. What is so different now? What would a modern Sherman capture? And where would he capture it? JFK? Many of us did imagine such things when President Trump signed his order. That’s why we’re outraged and saddened, writing letters, calling our officials, and donating to the ACLU. That’s why stumbling on this photograph at this moment was so chilling. Amidst 5000 years of art, I saw nine faces from a century ago reflecting the urgent questions of this very moment.