The Spirit of Harmony Foundation blog is on a break, but we want to share some of the excellent archived articles.

Here music is king: how it uplifts, heals, and inspires us.  Writers from all over the Spirit of Harmony universe populated these pages with stories and pictures of how music has touched their lives in myriad ways. Many thanks to Alan Meerow for his excellent work on this project. 

Adding a STEM Spin to Music Education

Brandon Malowski, April 29, 2018

Music is a fundamental part of any academic curriculum and is integral for multiple reasons to a student’s achievement. However, there has always been a major focus on performing music: the act of singing or playing an instrument, often in a traditional choral/band/orchestral model. For many ensembles, what’s “under the hood” falls to the wayside in order to prepare students as performers for concerts and competitions. What about a music class that’s not performance based?

When I went through school, general music class was sitting in rows and singing along with a record out of a textbook. In fourth grade, you had the option of signing up for band or chorus and following a traditional ensemble track. In middle school/high school, it was not too much different: If you didn’t belong to a performing group, you took one of the general music electives (which weren’t too far off from sitting in rows and reading from a textbook). I found that while I participated in my school ensembles, I spent my time at home playing guitar, writing songs, and recording them on a 4-track cassette deck. In my brief, yet immersive teaching career I find many students who are similar to the way I was and I ask myself: Why are we not addressing those musicians as well as the traditional ones?

Fast forward to now, where many of these traditional music programs are declining in enrollment due to other options for students, lack of funding leading to a lack of resources, or to make way in the schedule for new STEM courses. As educators, there is something we can do to keep music alive in school, even if it’s not the traditional route that many of us originally followed. Rather than fighting the current culture, we use STEM concepts to teach students how to play, write, record, and engineer music.

At my first teaching position, I taught a Sound Science class. The major purpose of this class was to offer more scheduling options for students who needed a non-regents science course (typically, not the most academically gifted). My first crop was a mix of the non-regents students, engineering students, band/chorus students, and combinations. My superintendent originally held an aesthetic philosophy where a quality music program is a performing group that does the most difficult music at the highest degree of accuracy and precision. After a year of Sound Science, she approached me and commended my efforts: She said I had opened her eyes to a whole world of music that she’d never known, and was amazed at how well I used science and music to compliment each other.

Concepts such as signal flow, elements of sound, playback devices, the harmonic spectrum, music composition, audio synthesis, and music teleology/psychoacoustics are all touched in this general music curriculum. Students use keyboards, computers, non-standard notation, and genuine audio equipment to apply concepts they learn. Students use the equipment to sample, analyze, and describe audio as well as use it for the sake of creating the music itself (with an emphasis on the “nuts and bolts” of what’s going on under the hood).

While some might first think of the high costs of required equipment, I have taught this material using bottom-of-the-barrel in terms of resources. For that first Sound Science course, we used free software called MuTools on computers that were 10 years outdated. In my current district, I have to book one of several chromecarts shared throughout my building and use free, cloud-based software.

After teaching these concepts in the middle school setting for 2 years (to both musicians and non-musicians), it shocks me to see the types of achievements these students are capable of. Traditional musical techniques such as keyboard harmony and proper voice leading, division of beats, intonation, texture and timbre are all addressed and delved into. Likewise, students learn the math and science behind these concepts. To touch back on an analogy I used earlier, students aren’t just “driving the car”, they’re “learning what’s underneath the hood”. In this sense, students who are already musicians (are great at “driving the car”) now have an understand and capability of tuning their machines for their style and their purpose. For students who are not already musicians, this is a chance for them to learn how the machine works so they can be more efficient at it during the day-to-day. For the students who have a sour taste in their mouth for music due to negative experiences, this is validation that you don’t need to be a great driver to be involved with automobiles (…sometimes, the driver will need YOU more than you need them).

Above all, I’m finding students in my classes who do not normally practice their instruments are going home and using the software and activities from class in their spare time. During study halls, students are sometimes caught making beats instead of doing their math homework. Some of the best musicians in the performing ensembles are asking their lesson teachers the why and how questions I introduce during general music, helping them to excel in their overall instrumental progress. Overall, students are responding very positively and enthusiastically to the non-traditional aspects of the music curriculum.

I am in no way advocating for ditching performing groups in public school, but I think we need gears in music education to match the shift in our culture. Rather than subscribing to the traditional music education methods, we can meet students somewhere in the middle by expanding what is taught in the music classroom. We can use this to supplement what is going on in other classrooms (both music and non-music). And most important for me personally, we can use this to reach the student who failed at music (or sometimes think to themselves that “Music failed me”).

Brandon Malowski is a 5th-8th grade chorus/general music teacher at the South Colonie School District in Albany, NY. He has been in two districts prior and is on his 6th total year of teaching. He graduated from SUNY Fredonia with a B.M. in Music Education, concentration in voice and electronic music. He received a M.S. in Instructional Technology from University of Nebraska at Kearney. He is an active performer, composer, engineer, and educator in the Capital Region, spending most of Oktoberfest season with Tony’s Polka Band in the Lake George Area.

Todd Rundgren Interview for TRE Magazine (Viet Nam)

Ian Bui, June 22, 2017

Prelude: TRE Magazine is a Vietnamese weekly based in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, with multiple versions in several other states and cities. An abridged version of this interview, translated into Vietnamese by me, will appear as Part 2 of a story on Todd Rundgren this week (Part 1, a brief biographical background, has already been published.) Jean Lachowicz of the Spirit of Harmony Foundation and Paul Maloney of Panacea Entertainment arranged the interview.

Ian Bui: Since most of our magazine readers are immigrants and/or refugees from Vietnam, could you tell us what prompted you to organize the Benefit Concerts for Indochinese Refugees in 1979?

Todd Rundgren: I never served in the US military, probably because I wasn’t qualified to, and I probably wouldn’t have made it through basic training anyway. Aside from that, I was on the anti-war side for the most part. But when we heard about the refugee crisis in the late 70’s I thought, as a country, we had a karmic role in that. Even though I never took part in the actual conflict, I thought maybe I could try to make something better out of it, as an American, to show our better side. I don’t usually do this kind of thing; it was just a spontaneous act. At the time it seemed to me to be the only fair thing to do, trying to make up for a situation that we helped create.

IB: Did you come up with the idea yourself or was there somebody or some event that nudged you toward it?

TR: Well I had the idea but I didn’t know how to go about it. So we contacted the Children’s Defense Fund, I believe, at the U.N. and they helped us get the thing organized. They helped promote it as well. I remember doing an interview on TV with Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes, and that helped raise awareness of it. While the concerts made some money for the cause, the idea was to promote the cause itself and hopefully people would contribute to it, to help find a solution.

IB: I’ve read that it was a doubleheader in one day. Do you remember how well attended it was?

TR: From what I remember, it was pretty full and people were really sympathetic. Also, we had a pretty good lineup of entertainers, though not all of them played both shows. Aside from our band Utopia we also had Rick Derringer, Patti Smith, David Johansen right after he’d left the New York Dolls and so he was introducing his new act, etc… But this was almost forty years ago, so forgive me if I can’t recall all the details [laughs].

IB: I came to the U.S. in 1975, and when I heard your album “Initiation” I was really intrigued by the Eastern philosophies in it, as well as the line “Power changing hands in the unseen world, ‘cause in 75 something comes alive…” Could you talk a little bit about that?

TR: Well, that line wasn’t about any specific event, it was mainly a reference to the year the album came out [laughs]. But as far as the Eastern philosophies are concerned, I started studying different belief systems right around the time I was experimenting with psychedelic drugs. That sort of mind expansion made me reconsider the possibilities of the spiritual world. I wasn’t raised in any sort of religious philosophy, but when you grew up you had to go to church. When I joined the Boy Scouts they required that you go to church, so I attended a Presbyterian church in our neighborhood. And at one point I even considered myself “born again”–when I was about sixteen or seventeen, but that was just because of how lonely I was. However, I didn’t really get devoted much to that. I didn’t read the texts, I didn’t study the Bible, I didn’t actually consider what it meant to be a Christian or anything, so I realized at a certain point that I wasn’t—that I didn’t belong to anything! But then I became fascinated with WHY people do believe things, and all the things that people DO believe. So I began to study, later in life, religions of all kinds. At one point I even went on what you might call a vision quest; I bought an around-the-world ticket in the mid 70’s. My first stop was Istanbul, and I learned from Sufis. Then I went to Tehran–that was the year before the Shah was deposed, and I learned from the Muslims there. Then I went to Afghanistan, then Nepal and saw how Buddhists live. I went to India and saw how Indians live. And I went to Thailand, to Bali, to Japan and saw how Shintos live, and so on. I kind of drew ideas from everyone but didn’t necessarily commit myself to anything. So I do have an interest in all these belief systems and the philosophies behind them, but I don’t claim to belong to any of them.

IB: You have a rather large Japanese fan base. Is that a result from that trip?

TR: When I first went to Japan, it was before I even played there. Later, I think it was with Utopia that we had our first show there. And I think that the Japanese took to us, or at least took to me, because in the early parts of the 70’s I liked to dress up in a lot of costumes and sometimes with makeup. The Japanese love that, because it’s like their Kabuki tradition. That is why KISS was such a giant band in Japan, because they wore Kabuki makeup and superhero costumes [laughs]. But after going to Japan so many times–I have friends there, and one of my largest fan clubs, it went beyond the fascination with the costumes and makeup; they like the music and the message. And I pretty much go to Japan every year if I can.

IB: So when you play “Hiroshima” over there, how is it received by the Japanese?

TR: Yea, that was with Utopia. I think the Japanese appreciate it when someone confronts a situation like that. The Japanese have had their own; I guess, “transformation” since World War II and have abandoned the idea of imperial conquest. They’d rather have great ideas and make great products, and appreciate nature and things that are inherently Japanese, instead of making war. And I think the Japanese are much better for it. Unfortunately, there are still countries in the world that measure their influence by the size of their armies, and I think this country is one of them.

IB: Besides Japan, do you have any significant fan bases in other Asian countries?

TR: Not that I know of [laughs]. But on the last tour with Ringo I went to Korea for the first time. There were some fans there, though I don’t know how many. The Koreans were terrific; they were similar in some ways to the Japanese. They’d meet us at the airport and give us gifts and make us feel really welcome. They were a terrific crowd when we played for them. But that’s the only experience I’ve had outside of Japan. I did play in Shanghai once in the 90’s as part of a cultural exchange, but I don’t think anybody in the audience understood what I was doing. There were more people who went to a club to hear a Filipino band play dead ringer versions of Bee Gee songs! [laughs]

IB: That’s hilarious! So what’s it like to play in Ringo’s band?

TR: Well, it’s kind of the best gig you can have. He, after all, is Ringo. He’s a Beatle. He’s all about “Peace & Love”. And he just wants to be a member of the band, in a way. Wherever we travel, we all hang out together. He stays in the same hotel we stay in; we all go out to have dinner together and stuff like that. Ringo is a fun guy, a real joker, sometimes he gets a little out of hand [laughs] but it’s all good fun. He likes to say, “I didn’t live this long to be miserable!” He’s like everybody’s friend so, yeah; it’s a really great gig.

IB: Have you worked with any other Beatle besides Ringo?

TR: Let me think… No, actually. The only thing that came close to that was when I took over production of Badfinger’s album “Straight Up” from George Harrison. So I met George Harrison, but we really didn’t work together on that. He started that project but got distracted by the “Concert for Bangladesh”; he couldn’t finish it so he handed it off to me… I did meet John once in passing, but at the time the only records he was making was with Yoko Ono [laughs]. And no, I have never worked with Paul, not at all.

IB: Let’s switch gear now to the Spirit of Harmony Foundation, which you started a few years ago. How has the organization grown and evolved?

TR: Certainly! We’ve actually had some concrete results. These things are hard to measure because our objective is to get music education back into elementary school and make that a fundamental part of a young person’s education, because it will help them in ways that perhaps have nothing to do with music. As an example, one of our Directors attended a hearing, in Colorado I believe, in which they were discussing creating funding for music programs in public schools. And he was able to convince four of the five-committee members, three of whom were Republicans, to endorse the idea of creating a budget item for music education in schools. So we are making some progress, and I think that’s based on the fact that we don’t simply depend on this “feel good” idea that kids should have music education. There are actual scientific data that map changes in the brain, which happen when you have the benefit of some early music education–that you process sounds a certain way that can benefit you for the rest of your life. We are getting a lot of grassroots support and support from endowments etc. There’s an interesting story, which I just heard yesterday. A woman was creating a living will, and one of her passions was getting music education for young people. She thought about forming her own foundation and that would be the beneficiary of her living will. When she discovered the Spirit of Harmony Foundation she was very happy. She said, “Well, that saved me all the trouble. I won’t have to do that now; I’ll just make you part of my living will instead!” So we are making progress, and the support we’ve been getting is really encouraging as well as effective. I think that if people want to support this cause they will find that not only it’s worthwhile but also the Foundation is making real progress.

IB: So how is the new collaboration with Hungry for Music working out?

TR: Actually that is but one of a number of associations that we’ve managed to forge. We also have a relationship with NAMM, the National Association of Music Merchants. Not only do they have these giant music expositions with all the manufacturers involved to promote the sales of instruments but they support worthy causes as well, and that’s a powerful ally that we have. And then there are programs that are trying to accomplish on local levels the same things we’re trying to accomplish, which is to create awareness of the benefits of early music education, and to actually provide that wherever possible. Sometimes school systems don’t have the resources to do that, so someone has to come along and create an ad hoc solution to the lack of music education. One of the things we do is help connect these programs with the resources that will help them survive.

IB: How well known is Spirit of Harmony to these needy school districts, or how can the Foundation be better publicized?

TR: Our objectives were never just to make people “feel good” about stuff. We feel the need to actually be able to measure our results, or at least base our efforts on measurable results. And so it’s not necessarily our objective to create the highest profile for us, but it IS our objective to create awareness for the need of music education. We don’t get satisfaction out of seeing our names attached to whatever, but we do get satisfaction out of seeing a program get started or seeing a program succeed, or creating a support network around those things–and it doesn’t have to have our name or our brand on it.

IB: In our town there’s a music store that rents out instruments to students, and the owner is a big supporter of the music programs in our schools. They have a lot of used instruments as well. I’d think that if they knew about Hungry for Music or the Spirit of Harmony, perhaps they could plug in and contribute that way?

TR: Yeah, and that’s exactly the kind of relationships we’re looking for because our belief is that the solutions are local. Non-profits can be one of two things; they can be either an endowment organization or an advocacy organization. We’ve chosen to be an advocacy organization. We don’t make a lot of direct contributions to a program because some of these programs can be pretty large—the ones that make up for lack of music education in schools, like a program in Philadelphia that has a yearly budget of two million dollars. You could spend all year raising that kind of money. Our focus is to find local support for these programs, to get the people who will feel the greatest effect of the program to lend the greatest support to them. And we will facilitate that in any way we can. From our standpoint, we could spend all our time raising money. But we’d rather have local people support it so that they remain connected, so that the relationship gets established which goes on and on to keep that support flowing.

IB: So that’s what saying that the Foundation is in the “relationship business” means?

TR: Yes, exactly. We’re trying to get people connected to each other. Like you say, if the guy at that music store believes it’s important for kids to have instruments to play, we want to support him. We want to figure out how he can continue to do what he does, and if he needs support, that support should be local as well. It should come from people in the local community.

IB: Have you been able to enlist help from other musicians?

TR: The Board of Directors is mostly musicians. So it’s not people simply with good intentions. We all are testimonies to what music can do for somebody. Our lives have either been completely founded in or furthered by the fact that we have learned to play music, and learned to play with others as well.

IB: In an interview at the first “Toddstock”, on Kauai, you said that some of the musicians you really admire are people like B.B. King, Tony Bennett—artists who essentially “play ‘til they drop”. Looks like you’re doing the same thing yourself, and on this latest tour you seem to be going as strong as ever. Is there a secret to your longevity? Is it exercise, dieting?

TR: I have to admit I’ve been eating better lately, and that simply involves cutting out the carbs—a lot less bread, rice, potato and that sort of stuff. It’s helped me get my weight back to where it should be, and that is a surprisingly effective way to make yourself feel better. But beyond that, I don’t particularly have a secret. I don’t exercise much when I’m not on the road. When I am on the road, and when I get on stage I’m kinda 100% there, you know [laughs] So I get two hours of aerobic a night. And it’s the fact that I’ve been touring 6, 8, 10 months out of the year that probably has kept me fit. It’s my opportunity to integrate an exercise regime with what I like to do, which is to play music.

IB: So how does your body feel now compared to say, “Toddstock” nine years ago?

TR: Well, you can’t deny getting older. Your joints get creaky and sore sometimes. Your memory is not exactly as acute as it used to be. Your eyesight gets a little blurrier. But, overall … I feel great. Overall, I’m able to do pretty much all the things that I want to do. And perhaps if challenged, I probably could do some things that I didn’t think I could do.

IB: Do you have any plans for the big Seven-Oh next year?

TR: We have some plans, which we are trying to refine now. Some people want to recreate the original “Toddstock”. The problem with that is, Kauai is geographically far away for a lot of people. So what we’re thinking of doing is having events in different territories to make it easier for people from various parts of the world to attend. So we might do one in the Pacific Rim. Maybe one on the continental United States. Maybe one in South America, and maybe one in Europe. It won’t be a single event, but a series of events.

IB: South America! Do you have a large fan base down there?

TR: I have a larger one than I used to have, but the only way I ever got there was playing with Ringo [laughs]. But I’m pretty sure that if we did have an event down there we should have at least a couple hundred people show up. The original “Toddstock” only had two or three hundred people anyway, but they came from all over the planet. This should make it a little easier for people to participate.

IB: Sounds awesome! We’re out of time so I must stop here. Thanks so much for taking the time, and I hope to see you at the House of Blues in Houston this weekend.

TR: Terrific! See you soon.

Postlude: After the Houston show, I met Todd and Michele backstage and presented the White Knight with a small token of appreciation–a lapel pin with the flags of the United States and South Vietnam, to thank him for what he did for refugees back in the 70’s. Todd gave a hearty laugh and declared: “I’m turning Vietnamese!”

Ian Bui was born in Saigon in the 1960’s, Ian and his family were airlifted by helicopters from the U.S. Embassy on the last day of the war. Ian studied the violin at the National Conservatory of Music in Vietnam for several years before becoming a refugee. He got his degree in Computer Science from LSU and worked for many years in the Telecom industry. He also writes a column for the largest Viet-language magazine in the Dallas-Fort Worth area on such topics as American music, sports and community affairs. A strong advocate of early music education, Ian’s children are musically trained and his daughter–Ariel Bui, is today a singer-songwriter in Nashville who has recently released her own LP record.

Join the SOHF Music Education Street Team

Jean Lachowicz & Ed Vigdor, February 26, 2017

We at the Spirit of Harmony Foundation believe that every student deserves access to high quality music instruction and we are dedicated to helping educators, districts, administrators, parents, and engaged communities create and nurture sustainable music education programs in the schools and organizations in their community. Music education programs are fundamental to ensure the optimal social, neurological, economic, and academic development of America’s students.

The purpose of our advocacy work is to give individuals the research and tools necessary not simply to make the case for music education, but to help bring high quality music education programming to their schools and communities.

Absolutely EVERY ONE of us can do the advocacy work of the Spirit of Harmony Foundation whenever the opportunity arises! This work is grassroots level, and you don’t have to be an expert or a lobbyist to help us spread the important message that Music Education is so good for kids, it is a moral imperative.

PLEASE visit our website often and check out our Advocacy Toolkit, where we have short descriptions of the key benefits of music education along with links to the very best cutting-edge articles on the subject and information on how to start or revitalize a music education program. Read the material, choose which points resonate with you the most, and then start talking talking talking. Voila–by advocating for the moral imperative of music education, you are an important part of the SOHF Music Education Street Team! And please share your experiences with us.

We love hearing stories of grassroots advocacy for music education. That airline passenger sitting next to you just might be a school principal who needs to hear our perspective on the importance of music education. Your dental hygienist just might be the parent of a child whose music program has been shuttered and is looking for help in working with the school council. As soon as you begin to let people know that you have a keen personal interest in making sure all kids have access to music education, conversations begin to naturally flow and you will be able to start making a real impact by spreading the word. Opportunities present themselves continually.

Here is a real-life example of an incredible opportunity for advocacy that recently presented itself to our Chairman Ed Vigdor:

I was attending a Colorado Senate hearing supporting a bill regarding student loan forgiveness on February 13, 2017. Turned out that on the agenda was a bill regarding music ed and the arts in Colorado public schools. Had to look up the bill quickly and read the summary right there in the hearing room. Senator Michael Merrifield, who sponsored the bill, is a retired music teacher.

While I hadn’t prepared or even signed up to testify, the Chair, Senator Ray Scott, opened the floor to anyone who would like to testify, so I jumped at the opportunity.

I introduced myself as the Chairman of the Spirit of Harmony Foundation. When the Chair heard Todd’s name, he perked up and started singing “Bang The Drum,” right there in the middle of hearing. Yeah he is a fan!!

Kept my remarks brief, focused on the signatures of poverty and the biological science. The sponsoring Senator had already spoken about the academic success of music students, so I just explained a bit about what developments take place in a child’s brain, which help produce those academic benefits.

Afterwards, I introduced myself to the Senator and we exchanged cards, so will reach out to him and see what else can be done here in Colorado. Later in hallway, I introduced myself to the Chair, who IMMEDIATELY asked when is Todd coming back to Denver, told him I would be in touch and let him know.

Oh… the bill, passed out of committee by a 5-0 vote for!! Three of the Senators are Republicans, two of which indicated earlier they would vote no. The Chair is also a republican, they all voted YES!!!!

Jean D. Lachowicz is Executive Director of the Spirit of Harmony Foundation. For the past 30 years, she headed nonprofits specializing in youth development, social justice, and human services. She lives in Chicago, IL.

Ed Vigdor is Chairman of the Board and Chief Operating Officer of the Spirit of Harmony Foundation. Ed has been a professional Post-Production Director, videographer and producer since 1984, having worked for Metro Goldwyn Mayer, The Cimarron Group, The Ant Farm, Intralink Film Graphic Design, and others. A close Rundgren associate for over 30 years, Ed produced “Toddstock: All Excess” and the “A Wizard A True Star Live” concert videos.

Sitting Down with the President, Three-Part Series

Alan Meerow, September, 2016

Part 1

Despite  a schedule from hell, and a bad case of food poisoning, Spirit of Harmony founder and president Todd Rundgren found time to sit down with Music In A Word editor Alan Meerow at the Tyrolean Getaway in Stowe, Vermont for a wide-ranging interview.  Here is part one of what will ultimately be three posts for our blog.

AM: In his 2007 book, “Musicophilia,” the late Oliver Sacks had this to say about music: “Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation.” With everything we’ve learned from the neurosciences in the last few decades, what are your ideas of how and why music has this power, this incredible ability to pierce the heart directly?

TR: I think it has to do especially with man evolving out of the forest and into the cities and things like that. It initially represented a connection to nature. Man didn’t teach birds to sing; birds taught man how to sing. And so what happened, it became essentially a principal form of communication. And there’s something sort of inherently mystical about it. Most other art forms are concrete. They proceed usually from a single artist; not necessarily, of course there is collaboration, but a single artist will create something that once done has, let’s say, a life of its own. It can be hung on a wall; it can be enjoyed simply by looking at it, but music only works when it’s actually going on; when it stops, then everything is going on in here [points to head] by then, no one else has heard what you heard. There is no way to sort of appreciate it by describing it in words. You can try, but ultimately you’re going to go “what’s that song that goes da-da-da-da-da-da,” but if somebody can give you enough context and sing the melody and you know the melody, then it gets replayed in your head, and I think that music was initially probably a liturgical exercise. It has such mystical power over people that it was a religious sacrament and either specialized individuals or all tribes, perhaps, have traditions, but it wasn’t like “oh man let’s get together and jam”  kind of thing; this was always an end to some sort of usually mystical event or asking for a fruitful hunt or coronation of a tribal leader or some other thing. It was probably very, very simple, but the idea was that music has the power to essentially get everyone on an equal vibrational plane.

AM: Do think that the relationship of music and art, both in our spiritual life and our intellectual life, just the way music affects us – do you think there was an accentuation of this when we moved away from the nomadic lifestyle that we inhabited for most of our evolutionary time and into what was settling down, first agriculture and then so on to the Industrial Revolution until finally this electronic madness that we live in these days; do you think that relationship changed in some way?

TR: Well, the music came to represent the things that were no longer commonplace in the average person’s life like the sounds of the forest, the chirruping of frogs, you know, the twittering of the birds, the howling of coyotes, whatever it was; all these things were musical inspiration, and somewhere way down in our DNA that’s in it, just the way we have descended from other forms of human life, primitive forms that had few means of communication.  But probably the discovery of music or the idea of music is as significant as the discovery of fire in a way. Human beings went through whole eons of survival, without actually knowing much about fire or how to control it and make use of it for all of the things that it could do. I think that music does that but as I say it’s an ephemeral art. It does not exist until it’s being performed in some sense or another, which in the world we live in today, it’s always hard to get people out of the comfortable assumption that there were always records and record players [chuckles] like that, when in the greater history of music, this is all latter-day stuff.  And sort of what’s happened is that there’s been a bifurcation of the tribe.  Instead of the whole tribe participating only some of the tribe is making music and the rest of the tribe is listening to the music, and that’s always like a strange thing for something that affects people so universally and with such predictability sometimes that people don’t want to know how it works, but are simply into enjoying. It is kind of a strange thing. It’s like it became arcane knowledge and only specialists would know how to make the sounds for everyone who was willing to listen.

AM: That’s interesting.  I’ve tended to think that is was how religion came about, and essentially became was a tool of control, of controlling the populace. I hate to think of music in that way becoming a tool for that, since we like to think of it as a liberating force.

TR: Well it evolved along with all of the other developments that mankind has evolved post- fire, the wheel and all those essential discoveries, and then they go through constant refinement, a greater understanding of how they work, indications of the possibilities of other things, and in what they represent. It’s likely that as music became more sophisticated, it placed greater and greater demands on the person who wanted to understand it. For instance, it probably started out with a lot of percussion, sort of a recollection of the heartbeat or whatever, and the whole idea is to get everyone on the same pulse, feeling the same pulse, and that in itself is something of a liturgical or religious experience.

AM: I wonder if the next evolution, initially the percussive element and the heart relationship, the heartbeat; in at least a lot of indigenous cultures, it seems that probably the next evolution was flutes and other wind instruments.

TR: Wind instruments seem likely in the evolution, but then you’re talking about something that first of all is more complicated to make and more complicated to learn how to do.  You’re going from this [taps a simple beat] all you need is a stick and a rock, then suddenly you’re working on your embouchure [laughs]. And you’ve got to understand the physical concepts, you know, where the shorter little reeds make higher notes and the longer ones make lower, or you can bore holes in a long reed and get different notes out of it.  But once that happens it takes it to another level of complexity that most people probably are not gonna go.  The phenomenon exists today; most people want to learn as much as they need to learn and only a few are curious enough to go beyond that.

AM: A lot of the people here in Stowe, myself included, have had some personally profound experience with your music that defied logic, defied expectation.  What do you make of that?  Obviously, the relationship with the first question is there, but is it purely mechanistic, some weird congruence of our nervous system’s architecture and sounds that you make, your constellation of sound, the so-called Rundgren chords, or is it something more?

TR: Well, I’m not sure that anyone will be able to fully understand it.  There are theories about why. I think it was Aristotle or some other ancient Greek thought that there was an actual real science, that various notes corresponded to planets, to colors and that was driven by the essential fascination of how does this work, how does it do this? Can we find some external influence that is actually causing the effect and not the music itself?

AM: Have you had transcendent experiences with music?

TR: Being kind of a natural born musician, you know, it’s one transcendent after another.  Part of what the research, and a lot of the ammunition that we’re providing for people who want to start music programs, is about the so-called permanent effects that understanding the music can have on you, and musicians and people who are not musicians actually think differently about sound, and process sound differently. One interesting phenomenon was the fact that you become better able to pick out a discrete sound in a noisy environment like for instance at a cocktail party or something were everyone is yammering away and you want to focus on one person.

AM: Yeah, I’m victimized by the lack of that now at this age.

TR: [chuckles] Or just by deterioration of your hearing. But the differences as I interpreted it and as I understand it from the way my own brain works being a musician, when I hear something, a piece of music, my brain automatically deconstructs it: that’s the bass line, that’s the guitar line, that’s the keyboard part, that you can essentially focus in on all the different instruments and figure out what they’re doing. The average person who has not made some sort of effort to understand how music works, and to learn about it, hears the whole thing at once, it might be one big instrument to them, it’s not like five instruments, it’s one big instrument.   And learning music, the more intricate aspects of it and how to make it and how to play an instrument in order to produce it, and especially working ensemble with other players, you begin to realize that music is not just one big instrument jammed together and then you start to focus on the various sounds that are going on until at the point where it becomes instinctive for you as it has for me. So that separation between the creator of the music and the people who listen to music. It doesn’t mean that people who do understand music, have a lesser appreciation of it, but they hear it differently than the average person does. The effect in the end may be equal, it may make the non-musician and the musician weepy [laughs], a certain quality, or maybe for different reasons. The listener doesn’t know why, but the musician may know why.

AM: Has your own music had that effect on you at times, I mean brought tears to your eye?

TR: I have … that’s one of the reasons why many people get into music in the first place. They want to be able to create those emotions in other people, and they’re not able to do it with the typical sort of means; they’re either just not articulate or not socially comfortable or something like that and they’re always too shy to talk about their emotions, but music is sometimes the ideal setting for that; it abstracts the emotions and feelings and the words out of the person so that you’re not dealing with their … they’re feeling judged by you while trying to express themselves. Ultimately, listeners take advantage of this as well by kind of … “baby, this song says everything about what I feel about you.” Of course, it’ll be somebody else’s song. But you sometimes put the words in people’s heads that they are looking for. That’s also a unique form of music, music that has lyrics and voices as well … in some ways has a distinctly different effect than music with no voice and for many people it becomes more of an intellectual exercise.  For instance, I can appreciate the mathematical genius of Baroque music, but from an emotional standpoint, it’s kind of like this for me [draws a flat line with his hand and chuckles]: “Isn’t that an interesting sequence of notes,” you know, like that, and it wasn’t until we learned yet more about music and other composers dared to do other things that weren’t so strictly defined by the mathematics, that emotions started to find its way … specific emotions started to find their way into the music and composers would learn how to do that, learn what are the note combinations that evoke this.  The thing that you have to also remind yourself is that these effects are not necessarily universal.  Music evolved in completely different directions in other cultures. Chinese music is nothing like Arabic music which is nothing like Western 12 tone scale, then there’s Balinese micro-tonal, untempered … stuff like that. Once you get used to hearing it that way, then you might be able to understand what sort of emotional content is being represented.

AM: How much of it is of the culture, or how much it may have affected the culture, influenced the culture?

TR: Well, in a certain sense…

AM: I guess music scholars may know the answer.

TR: It’s like Middle Eastern music is always in minor keys, but nothing’s ever in a major key, so one might make the assumption that every song they write is a sad song [laughs], you know.  But no, they can still — and I don’t fully understand enough to tell the difference — but there’s a difference between a happy song in a minor key and a sad song in a minor key [laughs], or a song about anything in a minor key ’cause they never get out of a minor key.  They don’t have sophisticated note phrasing and things like that, like major and minor 7ths and 13th’s and all this other stuff. They have a pretty kind of well-settled tradition, and usually if someone from a culture like that wants to be able to broaden their appeal or be able maybe express with greater nuance what they’re trying to do, they usually go and learn music in the west [laughs].

AM: I heard you say recently that “Bang The Drum,” which you’ve previously characterized as a throwaway song, actually came to you in dream.

TR: Yeah.

AM: I remember an interview between Bob Dylan and Charlie Rose in which he talked about that.  How he felt a vessel for his early songs, and now that’s gone; that’s just not his experience as a songwriter any more.  So I wonder how the creative process of writing music has changed for you over the years.  Do you find that … did you ever think that these songs were like gifts to you in the beginning?

TR: In the beginning I could point pretty specifically to my influences, and where this would have come from and that would have come from.  The chords from “Hello Its Me” I nicked from a Jimmy Smith record, just reprising the intro to a song, and then I wrote about a girl that I broke up with so in that sense there’s barely anything original about it …

AM: It meant a lot to us pining 18- and 19-year olds, believe me.

TR: [laughs] Well, the sentiment and the changes and everything seemed to work.  Although it was at the time a very atypical sort of song in terms of its structure in that it doesn’t have … it’s one of those songs in which the verse is also the chorus, so it’s only got like verse-choruses and a bridge [laughs]. So it doesn’t have a regular, typical sort of structure, which maybe makes it stand out a little bit, somehow makes people notice it.

NEXT: “Now you don’t need a label, if you have a decent laptop, you get yourself some software, a microphone and interface, and you can sit in your bedroom all day long and make music and refine your chops.”

Part 2

The second part of our conversation with Spirit of Harmony Foundation founder and president, Todd Rundgren.

AM: Craft and inspiration seem to be kind of the twins of not just musical creativity, but other kinds of muses. You’ve talked about how Laura Nyro influenced your early solo work, and she was kind of the catalyst for my rediscovery of your solo music after being a huge Nazz fan in my teens.  And I’m just wondering where you find inspiration in the 21st century?

TR: I actually think because of the way that the music business has become decentralized and that the pace of technology has or had accelerated so fast, the combination of not being able to get a label deal is sort of solved by the idea that now you don’t need a label, that you have a decent laptop, you get yourself some software, a microphone and interface, and you can sit in your bedroom all day long and make music and refine your chops. When you’re satisfied with something you put it on YouTube and if it’s of any interest to people, word-of-mouth will drive up the hit count. And at that point who needs the record label? The only thing you haven’t done is monetize it yet. And so what you have to do is what musicians have done since time immemorial; you have to go out and play it, because music is a service not a product. And technology has evolved to the point that this has just become plainly obvious. People buy their music online from online service, and fewer and fewer people actually feel the need to have the physical artifact that contains the sound. Essentially you are getting your music pre-ripped [laughs].

AM: Yeah, my children – that is how they listen to music.

TR: And if you get yourself a service like Napster or something like that, you can pay ten bucks a month and listen to all music you want. So, things have certainly evolved in that regard. And I know acts who have never and have no intention of ever signing with a conventional record label. They make all their money on merchandise and live performances which they advertise with their YouTube videos. So an act like that, that’s the only way you can experience them.  You can’t go out and buy their music. They don’t even sell CDs at the merch table.

AM: So is it some of these younger musicians doing it that way that sort of influences you these days in some way?

TR: No, actually this was something that I was notorious for taking note of back in the early nineties. Everyone was talking — it was an Internet conference — and everyone was talking about “how do we monetize the Internet, how do we make money off the Internet,” because they had yet to have commerce systems and things like that. It was actually the good old days of the Internet, where everything was kind of like … mostly academic and information based and stuff like that. HTML was essentially a magazine publishing paradigm: how do you make something look like a printed page screen.  And I went to a conference that was essentially about trying to figure out how people could turn it into a business, which obviously turned out to be an unfortunate thing [laughs].  I got the idea and talked about at the time, the idea of eliminating record labels from the process.  And that’s when I came up with the idea of PatroNet.  Essentially you go directly to the people who want to hear your music and ask them to underwrite you directly.  Because that’s all the record label was doing anyway. They were advancing you the money they expected to get from your fans.  The fans never gave you money directly. And there may have been some illusion in there, but essentially the record label is the bank.

AM: Why do you think it faded? I was a charter subscriber and a frequent visitor and there seemed to be just something so difficult about making it happen.  Was it the time, the age, the state of technology?

TR: A lot of it was the time and the state of development that the Internet was in. There were issues that no one had actually dealt with. There were issues of security, personal privacy, trying to create a space that only people who belonged in the space would be in.  And all the while that this is going on everything underneath is constantly changing. You can’t do it just for Apple, you can’t do it just for Microsoft. You have to do for both. Both are changing all the time, and versions of software that you depend on, may also be changing all the time. Whenever that happens everything goes – if you know anything about programming, everything goes nuts after that and you have to start over and rebuild a brand-new application. That in combination with my early experiences with the social aspect of what I created, the ability to chat and create bulletin boards. It revealed a problem that I had not quite foreseen and did not have a solution for: the troll, the person who behaves in a way they would never behave in the flesh, but now with this isolation and protection, they just do evil things. They attack other people; they pretend to be other people, they pull scams, that sort of thing. You give people free rein to essentially get into the social space without actually checking anyone at the door [chuckles] and then you wind up having to do a policing job after that, you know, you’re fielding complaints from people, tracking down, monitoring, booting people off then if they’re persistent and evil enough, they’ll just invent another personality, join again and it won’t be long before they start their nefarious stuff. Some of the worst of it is when someone thinks they’re the most authoritative fan: “No that’s not what he’s thinking, I know what he’s thinking,” [chuckles], that kind of thing.  They think they’re in my head and will lecture everybody else about it. So at a certain point, the combination of that, the combination of constantly trying to keep up technologically — and I was doing it pretty much all myself. It just broke down under the weight. Actually, something killed it. I sold it to another company and I was supposed to essentially manage it and further its development and that sort of thing, but the company ultimately wasn’t interested in it so much as they were completely ignorant about [laughs] how things should be done. So they bought it, ultimately sat on it, didn’t do anything with it for like a year or more. I asked for it back, they said “Okay, you can have it back,” but by that point, you know, it had been off-line for a long time. Getting it back online would have been just more energy and expertise that I would bring to bear. So it isn’t that it couldn’t possibly happen again, but it would have to happen with enough resources to build it and maintain it, and with specific solutions to some of those other problems. Security and privacy, there are lots of solutions for that nowadays.

AM: Do you think you’d be interested in revisiting it or has that bird flown?

TR: Only if I didn’t have to do any of it myself, if I could just say this should look this way, this should behave this way, that sort of thing. It was an incredibly ambitious thing. It was supposed to be built in its own language, essentially, so that anyone could extend it, anyone could build more. Java was in there; Java was part of the technologies so it originally started with Macromedia Director, ’cause Macromedia Director was essentially a multimedia presentation tool with a plug-in structure so you could extend its capability.

AM: I remember it and briefly tried to learn it, but just gave up.

TR: Yeah, and it evolved, it changed into different things. But essentially it’s drag-and-drop things on the page, assign actions to them, that sort of thing. Then Adobe bought Macromedia, and all development on the programs stopped. And I’m not sure if they sell it anymore, but they have not developed it at all. And it’s gone to the point that there’s no user base for it anymore. So I moved on to a different thing. Originally Apple had a program called HyperCard, and that was the same sort of thing except the paradigm was postcards or three-by-five cards. And essentially you could drag-and-drop graphics onto it, and type, and things like that. You’d get specific actions when somebody clicked on something like “jump to card five” or something like that, they had transitions built in, so it was more like TV.  Part of the idea was that instead … everything when I started putting it together, was still an HTML print model. I thought I wanted to make something that is like a television model, you don’t have crap like controls and crap all around on the TV screen; the entire screen is devoted to what you’re supposed to be watching, so all of that navigation stuff was kind of like hidden.  You had to roll over a corner or something like that. You would find the navigator or the combadge.  And it did a pretty good job at that, of changing the metaphor. But again, things were evolving. One of the other things that it did was sort of like a local caching scheme because people at the time had 1440 modems. Nobody had high-speed Internet. There was no such thing as wireless Internet [chuckles].

AM: You just dialed in…

TR: That was it; it was all dial-up.  And so, you sent people a lot of data. Every time they went to the same location, you’re gonna be looking at the timer, depending on how good a connection they got.  So essentially the system was smart enough to know this was the first time that you were using the resources on this particular channel, and it would download them to a local cache, so that the next time you went to the same location, you wouldn’t have to wait, it would come up instantly. A lot of that has become more moot as well. All of this would affect a new potential design. The fact that you can more or less depend on people having some kind of high-speed Internet access.

AM: Turning to certain aspects of your musical legacy — the Runt LPs.  I think you know they inhabit kind of a sacred space for a lot of us, but it seems that you’ve been very selective about which songs from from those two records you will perform live.  I’m thinking in particular of ones that I’ve never heard you perform, such as “Baby Let’s Swing, Boat On The Charles, Hope I’m Around, Birthday Carol.”

TR: Because indeed I’ve never performed them.

AM: Is that the reason why at this point?

TR: Part of it is that my solo career started out as a sideline.  After the Nazz, I went to work for Albert Grossman and became a record producer and engineer.  But I continued to write songs, and at one point I had enough songs and musical ideas and I had been successful enough for the Albert Grossman organization that I asked them if I could go make a record, because making records is what I do, and they said okay.  And I delivered the record, and I thought “Ooo, is this gonna be a wreck!” I didn’t expect any hits off of it.  It was intended to just be a listening experience, but accidentally had a minor hit single, “We Got To Get You A Women” on it.  And when that happened, I was encouraged to put some musicians together, go out and try and play, and front a band, which I had never done before. And I just had a horrible time singing live. I had not learned how to sing. I can punch myself in in the studio [chuckles], a note at a time, and create a performance, but as far as going on the road and singing twenty minutes straight, by the end of that my voice is gone, and then I’m just like rasping for the next twenty minutes. So eventually I learned to get over that, but that all happened in a period — the first two records —  that all happened in a period when I was not confident as a performer in the first place, so likely only performed the things that were easiest. There was still a lot of the Nazz guitar player in me. I never played piano live in those years. I did not have the confidence to play piano live, so a song like “Be Nice To Me” or something like that, didn’t get played because I couldn’t play the piano part live and sing. And as a result, certain songs have just never been performed, and I’ve never felt inspired to go back and learn them again so that I could.  ‘Cause I just got way more material than I could ever fit in a set.

AM: That’s certainly true!

Next week: “There are fakers in every genre. There are people who just do it by formula. They don’t try and inject any sort of creativity, originality, or even true emotionality into it.”

Part 3

The final installment of our conversation with SOHF President Todd Rundgren.

AM: You’ve expressed a disdain for country music, and for almost half a century you’ve only recorded a single and arguably satiric country influenced song.  [Todd chuckles].  What are the music genres that you really like the least, and which the most?

TR: That I like the least?

AM: Yeah.

TR: Well, the reason why I do or don’t prefer a genre, is the degree to which it tolerates non-creativity and formula.  Country music, contemporary country music, worships formula.  You get these songwriters, this artist, and this producer, these players because they make these records all the time. Beyond that, you know, to varying or lesser degrees, it’s just the blatant insincerity in the performances.  So it will make your voice sound that way, but the thing is, most country singers are not from the country anymore. They come from suburbs, and from all over the country, but when they become a country singer they pretend that they’ve been driving a pickup truck all their lives; they buy a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and stuff like that. It’s all fake. It’s the fakest [sic] genre that I can think of. Now you can say that to a certain degree about any genre, there are fakers in every genre. There are people who just do it by formula. They don’t try and inject any sort of creativity, originality, or even true emotionality into it. Now rap music has had to evolve out of that. It just became just too formulaic. You laid down an 808 bass drum and start bragging about yourself, and just all becomes a blur after a while. Some of it is designed to blur; you rap so fast that nobody understands what you’re saying [laughs].  So you just kinda show off your technique.  That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing in rap, or that there’s nothing in country that isn’t actually real, somewhere.

AM: Those are the artists that stand out.

TR: Yeah, those are the artists that usually stand out, because the real artists are thinking “How can I change this genre and adapt it to myself? How can I avoid copying what somebody else is doing so it will be more me?”   But, it seems like so of them are more satisfied to just do what everyone else is doing.

AM: So to whom and to what are you listening most these days?

TR: When I get ready to make a record, especially nowadays, I tend to do a lot of musical research. So I go out and listen to … I want to see what people are listening to, so I go to Napster and see what’s popular, check some of that out, if it’s a genre I’m interested in.  I will hear specific artists that will occur to me. Sometimes they are suggested to me.  Often use YouTube, start with one artist, and let the sidebar fill up with other artists that are similar; in a few clicks later you’re in a completely different part of the musical world.  So I sometimes often tend just to listen to the first half of the song to get the idea what’s happening or where it’s going. If I don’t think there’s going to be anything different happening, that’s all I listen to. And again if I hear a song that I think has something to offer from top to end, I’ll listen to the whole thing, and I may listen to it again.  But when I’m making a record, it’s incredibly dangerous to focus on one thing, ’cause then that thing starts to have an influence on the creative process. For this [forthcoming] album, especially since I’ve been making all my albums recently as a completely solo artist writing everything, playing, and singing everything except for a few, a couple of exceptions, I decided I wanted to make a more collaborative record as perhaps a different way of doing the same thing. Instead of me going out and listening to other people’s music, I want them to make a direct contribution to my music and see what kind of influence that has on me, see if I can find the proper setting for it, whatever that contribution happens to be, highlight the artist at their best, as well as being the producer, principal songwriter and principal vocalist on the record.

AM: I’ll be looking forward to that. I was going to ask about any particular classical pieces and composers to which you are drawn.

TR: Well, as I said, the further back you go, the less sheer enjoyment I get out of hearing what essentially is music created by these newly learned formulas.  As things get a little bit later, and people like … well, you take somebody like Mozart, who almost didn’t need teaching, he just started making the music, and therefore he didn’t follow all those same rules as everyone else did, he had the power and confidence to do that. But my favorite era in classical music going forward is probably around the latter half of the 1800’s, French Impressionists, where painting movements and musical movements were kind of being coined all the time.  My wheelhouse is kind of French Impressionist composers, and that may be because they became the ultimate inspiration for almost every movie soundtrack you ever heard.  Because then they were really starting to refine how you use music to affect … to take people to different places … to specific places emotionally.

AM: The musical theater has had a strong influence on you, especially Gilbert and Sullivan, and when I’m preaching the Rundgren gospel, I always point out that only one artist has recorded the two show tunes that, as a kid, were my two show tunes! [Todd laughs].  Of course, “Somethings Coming,” and “NeverNeverLand.” But so far, you’ve authored just one straightforward musical score.  How come?

TR:  I’m actually in discussions to do another musical.

AM: The “Bat Out Of Hell” thing?

TR: No, my music.

AM: Great!

TR: But it won’t be original music. It’ll be what’s popular now where you take some artist’s libretto and you build a musical around it.  That doesn’t … my only creative involvement is helping to figure out what the story is because I obviously don’t have to write a lot of new music. There may be a few little new things.  You make money if you write a verse that didn’t exist before [laughs]. It’s a whole other kind of structure. But I’ve wanted to do something like that. My friend in Holland, who produces all the big orchestral shows that I do over there, wants me to do something for an Arts Festival, and I’ll develop an old idea that I had for a musical.  I’d dearly love to just do one from scratch. They take a long time.  “Up Against It,” I was fortunate enough to get involved after they has secured all the rights to everything. In other words, it was a couple of years already into what the process would have been, so by the time I got involved, it  was less than a year until it went into actual production, or maybe approximately a year till it went into actual production.  So if we had the story for an original musical today, it would be anywhere … 2, 3, 4 years to get it onto the stage.

AM: That’s a whole process in itself. Once it’s all written, it’s finding the producers ..

TR: Exactly, the money people.

AM: You’ve commented that when writing a song, the music always comes first, followed by the lyrics.  Has this always been the case, and do they ever have a feedback effect where the lyrics go back to re-inform the music?

TR: Well often when I’m writing the music I have a title, and maybe some sort of idea of the overall structure, and what I’m going for.   And that title, even though I don’t have all the lyrics yet — I may have some lyrical fragments or something — but it will determine the overall mood of what I’m doing.  And that much of the lyric can effect it, but I like to have the record almost done before I start writing the words [laughs].  It’s given me plenty of time to think about what I want to say to the point that when I do get down to that process it becomes almost like automatic writing. If I can get the first line, the rest of it just seems to come out because I have stewed over it for a while, not necessarily coming up with all the lyrics and stuff like that. But I have a better idea of what the song is about,

AM: You’ve stated that your early family life was not idyllic, but Ruth Rundgren became one of your biggest boosters as your career accelerated. You’ve raised three fine young man, even relocated at one point for family reasons. I’m just wondering, has family informed your music in any way that might not be obvious to your audience.

TR: Well, that family [laughs]. On my 18th birthday I left home.  Like a lot of people I left all of that garbage at the door. I did not take it with me. I declared to myself, “Me and you, we’re done. This never happened.” I’m not gonna through the rest of my life blaming everything that goes wrong on my parents.  And after a year or two, when I didn’t come back looking for money…. as a matter of fact, after a year or so my dad was calling me up asking if I could help my sister go to college. And I didn’t have money, you know, I was playing in a little… I was playing with Woody’s Truck Stop in a little place called the Artist’s Hut, where if we were lucky we’d walk out with twenty five dollars apiece, which went pretty far in those days because you were likely sleeping in somebody else’s house or mooching off somebody who’s still going to college and their parents are paying for their lifestyle … Gotta go!

AM: O.K. Thank you, Todd.

Well, we barely got through half of the questions, but I hope you’ve all enjoyed the conversation.  Perhaps we’ll manage another session sometime in the not-too-distant future.

Alan Meerow works as a tropical plant research biologist in Florida and is the managing editor of the Spirit of Harmony Foundation blog pages.

A Family Legacy: Sheila Craig remembers church hymn written by her grandmother 50 years ago

Sara Stromseth-Troy, August 26, 2016

BURR OAK, IOWA – Fifty years after its publication, Sheila Craig remembers a  hymn written by her grandmother, Genevra Smith, an ode to a country church where she was a lifelong member.

“The Little White Church on the Hill,” penned by Smith, was completed with notation assistance by Myron Heaton, a friend of the church minister at the time, Pastor Mearle L. Griffith. Its lyrics describe the United Methodist Church located in Burr Oak.

The hymn was published 50 years ago, in the summer of 1966.

Craig recalls, “My grandmother was a native of Burr Oak. She lived about one block away from the Burr Oak Methodist Church, and could see the church from her house. She was a farm wife and homemaker.”

“She played piano by ear and didn’t need written music.  She would write song words and make up the music. I have the words to a couple other songs, but the music was never written down. I sure wish we would have pursued that more.  She played for her own enjoyment, and the hymn was sung and played at church a few times.”Craig said her grandmother was also a talented musician.

For her part, Craig keeps close to the family’s roots in Northeast Iowa:

“I was born in Decorah, and grew up on the family farm south of Burr Oak.  It was at least a third generation farm: George and Myra Smith, my great grandparents, and then transferred to Arthur and Genevra Smith (Grandma Nev) my grandparents.  After Arthur passed away, Grandma Nev moved into a home in Burr Oak and my parents farmed the farm.”

As for music, that talent also remains:

“My mom and I did not inherit that talent, but we both play.  My mom played very well and was the Burr Oak United Methodist Church organist for over 50 years.  I took lessons when I was in elementary school, but never acquired the skill that my mom had, and certainly not the talent that my grandma had.”

As Craig notes the 50th anniversary of her grandmother’s hymn to her home church, she says, “I’m very proud of her.  Not many people ever wrote a song or had one published.”

The current pastor of Burr Oak United Methodist Church, Linda Thompson of Cresco, also recognizes the hymn’s milestone:

“This is a tremendous legacy for the church that has some pretty deep roots,” she said, adding that Burr Oak United Methodist Church is “an open and welcoming church.”

In 1966, Pastor Mearle L. Griffith penned a description of the publication process of “The Little White Church on the Hill” that appears on the back of the sheet music. Among his observations:

“’The Little White Church on the Hill’ is a typical rural church of the type vanishing from the hills and prairies of this country. This song was written especially about the Burr Oak Methodist Church in Burr Oak located –as the song suggests—on a hill in the scenic part of northern Winneshiek County, Iowa.

“The spirit and enthusiasm which has made this particular church an influence in northeastern Iowa and southern Minnesota for more than 110 years enables an active witness when other churches have been forced to close.

“At present she has a membership of 102 and maintains an average attendance of 90 for Sunday services.

“Many of the members can recall nearly half of the church’s history in their own experience. One such member is Mrs. Genevra Smith, a life-long resident of the community and an active participant in the life of the church for more than 70 years.

“The Little White Church on Top of the Hill” was written by Mrs. Smith as she has reached her later years and reflects upon the church which has meant so much to her. Despite the fact that her eyesight and health are failing, she is still regular in attendance and enjoys the “old favorites” which are sung in the little white church.”

The hymn is dedicated to Joyce, Sheila and Shari Headington.

Sara Stromseth-Troy is a freelance newspaper feature writer for The Cresco Times Plain Dealer, and serves as Young Adult Librarian and manages the social media accounts for The Cresco Public Library. Fortunate to grow up surrounded by an extended family of music educators, she is honored to volunteer in blog writing and social media for The Spirit of Harmony Foundation, on whose advisory board she sits. She lives in Cresco, Iowa.

The Power of Music

Don Baragiano, July 17, 2016

A long time Cincinnati fan contacted me yesterday telling me about her 9 year old autistic son. She calms him down by playing my “Hejira” CD. Isn’t that incredible? It’s gratifying knowing what I do is healing as well as entertaining.

“….Don, my 9 year old son, Bobby, is autistic and has listened to the HEJIRA CD 1,000’s of times in the last few years. He would put it on when he went to bed and set the CD player on repeat. Sadly, it started skipping and became unplayable. We have had several autistic meltdowns as a result. Listening to your music mellowed him out every time. It’s funny how he can listen to one song over and over night after night for as long as he has!

“He has a lot of sensory issues and has always been drawn to certain sounds and, equally, opposed to certain sounds and music. Most young children would sit and watch Sesame Street or Disney movies but Bobby would put on Fantasia and stand in the middle of the room like an orchestra conductor while he watched and listened. And every time we would get in my van he would want to put your CD on and then at bedtime if we forgot it in the van we would have to put our shoes and jacket on and go out and get it.

“The music was very calming for him. When I could tell he was getting close to a meltdown I’d put the CD on. Bobby was recently accepted to receive an autism service dog, which we’re very excited about! We’re planning a fundraiser benefit for him at the end of July 2016.

“Bobby is high functioning and verbal which, oftentimes, makes it difficult for us because he appears to be “typical” in certain circumstances and then when he’s triggered by certain noises or crowds or overwhelming situations he can have a lot of anxiety that could even trigger a meltdown. This can cause a big scene where people don’t realize he’s autistic. One of my favorite things about him is that he has no sense of shame or embarrassment so he will just get up and dance and move to music when he feels the need and doesn’t care what anybody thinks. I love his lack of inhibition even though it has caused me embarrassment at times.

“I’ve seen you performing several times in Cincinnati and bought a CD. Then I brought my son with me to Sitwell’s, in Clifton. He had already been listening to the CD for some time and when you played his favorite songs “LIVE” he thought that was great. I like to expose him to many different things so he can learn to enjoy a variety of different types of music and cultures. He now has a great appreciation of music, all kinds, and I believe it started with your one CD.

“He also dresses up in many different costumes and becomes different characters. Rarely is he ever just Bob. But not typical little boy characters like Superman Batman or Transformers. He is a Scottish man in a kilt playing bagpipes or a German fellow wearing his lederhosen playing a didgeridoo. Never a dull day here!”


I was flattered! It’s nice to know that other people are drawn to the same music/rhythms that I am.

When I finally did meet Bobby, face to face, I remember thinking, … a young boy who likes Middle Eastern music (scratching head) … a little outside the box … since this music is very complex melody & rhythm-wise. There’s odd tempo rhythms…7/8 and 9/8 … And then there’s the non-western ¼ tone scales. Americans mostly hear common 4/4 time, or maybe ¾ (waltz) in either major or minor scales.

After concerts, the medium of exchange is usually, “Hey, you guys sounds great!” That’s the polite thing to do. But, it’s hard for me to process how Bobby has listened to every single, subtle; percussion part, melody, intro, solo, transition and ending of this music. And still finds something in there to keep his long term interest.

This should be an NPR (National Public Radio) feature show.

Musician Don Baragiano is founder, composer & bandleader for the Middle Eastern music project “Hejira”. He combines ancient Middle Eastern scales & rhythms with American rock, jazz and classical music.

Music As Celebration

Sara Stromseth-Troy, July 8, 2016

Recently, I came across a photo of myself and a longtime family friend, Bonnie (Craw) Kosloski, from a July 4th celebration years ago. We were dressed in our red, white and blue patriotic best and sharing (or subjecting, depending on your point of view) our families to ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ on recorder.

This isn’t the first or last time music accompanied my family celebrations. I recall other years that the Craw family and my family would get together, and we kids (there were six of us total) would regale the adults in the room with self-produced plays and music. In my own family, my cousin Sondra often directed her siblings and cousins in Christmas performances as our parents and grandparents watched.

Suffering with shyness growing up, performing in front of a group was daunting for me, although it helped that I was surrounded by a group of people in the same predicament.  Our hearts were in those performances, and we aimed to please. Looking back on these childhood concerts, I remember feeling at the time that I was contributing to something larger than myself. There is a sense of community in celebrating, and music al expression in particular lends itself to striving toward a common goal: Harmony.

We hear music accompanying ceremonial events, anniversaries of note, celebrations and tragedies. Musical scoring is designed to effectively set the tone or rouse our emotions during our favorite TV shows, movies and documentaries. It is possible to take in these events without being aware that, so often, music is soothing us, or stirring our emotions, or inciting us to take action. Yet, it is there. Whether we turn an ear to listen, or attempt to express and summon emotions through performance, music has the power to bring us together in shared experience.

So, the next time children in your life wish to dress in costume and regale you with a concert of recorder music, take heart: they are sharing of themselves for you, and with you. I am thankful to my parents, family members and friends for encouraging me to express myself through music throughout childhood.

Meanwhile, in the spirit of this piece and my childhood memories, here is a YouTube video of talented fourth graders performing ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ on recorder:

Sara Stromseth-Troy is a freelance newspaper feature writer for The Cresco Times Plain Dealer, and serves as Young Adult Librarian and manages the social media accounts for The Cresco Public Library. Fortunate to grow up surrounded by an extended family of music educators, she is honored to volunteer in blog writing and social media for The Spirit of Harmony Foundation, on whose advisory board she sits. She lives in Cresco, Iowa.

Words and Music

Alan Meerow, June 12, 2016

“The effective combination of melody, harmony, rhythm and tempo with lyric and its structure can create a force to be reckoned with. It can change lives. It can topple empires.”  – Paul Pattison, author of “Writing Better Lyrics,” and professor, Berklee College of Music.

You love music.  I doubt that you would even be reading this were it not for that simple fact.  Perhaps you play one or several instruments, or sing.  Or you may be merely an avid listener.  Of the hours that you spend weekly playing or listening to music, how much of it is unaccompanied by words?  If you enjoy singing, the answer is likely obvious.  If you play an instrument, the answer, while less obvious, may lean towards music alone, especially if you believe that your vocal talents are inferior.  But what about your choices of music if you, like me, are mostly, if not completely, a music listener?  Do you enjoy classical music or jazz, both primarily, though not exclusively, without a vocal component?  Or do you lean most heavily to songs with lyrics?

I both love and respect words.  Words have power, and can be emotionally charged enough to elicit strong reactions.  When I was young, poetry was extremely important to me, both as a reader and a writer.  I wrote poetry compulsively from about the age of 16 until sometime around 30, when the poetic muse, which admittedly had been visiting less and less frequently as I aged, finally disappeared from my life.  This loss never really upset me; it always seemed a natural progression towards a different kind of life, one in which writing still functioned importantly but in very different ways than poetry did.  But throughout my life I never stopped listening to music.  As much as Sibelius’ Violin Concert in D Minor and certain jazz players such as Wayne ShorterMcCoy Tyner or Bobby Hutcherson can make my soul soar, when I pinpoint specific emotionally charged moments of my life in a musical context, the soundtrack is invariably in the form of words and music.

The preceding is a preamble to the central question of this essay: the relationship of poetry and lyrics.  This relationship has preoccupied both poets and lyricists more than you might imagine, and sometimes with an inherent value judgement (from either camp).

The word “lyric” is from the Greek, and Greek lyric poetry was an extremely important component of the arts in ancient Greek culture, most prominently from the 7th through the 5th century BC, the Grecian golden age, but persisted into the early days of the Roman Empire.  It was one of Aristotle’s three classes of poetry: lyrical, epic and dramatic. Often, but not always, Greek lyric was sung to the accompaniment of a lyre.  Lyric poetry is characterized by a strong but diverse palette of meters (the rhythmic structure of the poem), of which the most familiar is known as Iambic – two syllables, with the short or unstressed syllable followed by the long or stressed syllable).  The principles and structure of lyric poetry continued to inform the work of poets through Medieval times and into the Renaissance.  Offshoots included the sonnet, which originated in Italy but spread throughout Europe, of which perhaps the best known are those of Shakespeare.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that poets began to feel stifled by the trappings of lyrical poetry and its structure of rhyme, and iambic pentameter.  The Modernist movement in poetry, led by T. S. ElliottEzra PoundH.D., and William Carlos Williams would have strong influence over several generations of modern English language poets who abandoned rhyme and classical meter altogether. Lyric poetry didn’t disappear, but morphed into the confessional poems of writers like Sylvia Plath and others.

One of my favorite American poets, the late Robert Creeley, who was my greatest influence when I was a creator of poems, constructed a minimalist poetry that sometimes opened unexpected vistas.  His shortest poems were easily memorized, and they could roll around in your head branching with the cadence of your own associations.  His poems created their own rhythm, sometimes joyful, sometimes melancholy.  Here is one from his period of the 1950’s and 60’s.


If you never do anything for anyone else
you are spared the tragedy of human relation-

ships. If quietly and like another time
there is the passage of an unexpected thing:

to look at it is more
than it was. God knows

nothing is competent nothing is
all there is. The unsure

egoist is not
good for himself.

The poet Matthew Zapruder suggests that “…there are important and fascinating differences between lyrics and poems, just not the ones that are usually focused on. Words in a poem take place against the context of silence …, whereas, lyrics take place in the context of a lot of deliberate musical information: melody, rhythm, instrumentation, the quality of the singer’s voice, other qualities of the recording, etc. Without all that musical information, lyrics usually do not function as well, precisely because they were intentionally designed that way. The ways the conditions of that environment affect the construction of the words (refrain, repetition, the ways information that can be communicated musically must be communicated in other ways in a poem, etc.) is where we can begin to locate the main differences between poetry and lyrics[i].”

Song lyrics, and often those of the most popular songs, can be relatively mundane, while others can rise to the heights of lyrical inventiveness. Yes, even poetry.

I’m traveling in some vehicle
I’m sitting in some cafe
A defector from the petty wars
That shell shock love away
There’s comfort in melancholy
When there’s no need to explain
It’s just as natural as the weather
In this moody sky today
In our possessive coupling
So much could not be expressed
So now I’m returning to myself
These things that you and I suppressed
I see something of myself in everyone
Just at this moment of the world
As snow gathers like bolts of lace
Waltzing on a ballroom girl

Recognize the above? Those lines hail from Joni Mitchell, an artist whose lyrics are often referred to in the context of poetry, and the verses are from 1976’s Hejira. Poetry?  No question.  In this song, the poem dances with Jaco Pastorius’ expressive bass, while once and only once a clarinet briefly weaves in and out of Mitchell’s voice and guitar and his playing.  Brilliant? Yes.  Hum-able? No.

One of most interesting musicians I’ve encountered recently is the 35 year old, Brooklyn-based Gabriel Kahane, a composer and pianist whose broad career extends from classical, including commissioned pieces, to musical theater, to his own arresting songs.  Here is “Bradbury (305 Broadway)” from his recent recording The Ambassador, a song cycle inspired by places in Los Angeles; lyrics first.  If you can, read them out loud.

Tribal neon
On the rooftop
Through the fog

Search lights, white dove
Am I dying
Am I done?

Have you known
Anyone designed to break down?
I was shown
Pictures that I thought
Were family.

Hong Kong slaveship
All the symbols
On the mast

Gleaming squalor, decay grown taller
Through the ceiling
Through the glass

Have you known
Anyone designed to break down?
Oh, oh have you really known
Anyone at all?

Like me, the dark city
Thinks its recall
Is its own

But have not its thoughts
Been suggested
in the bone?

I’ve seen things
You people would not believe, like
Great glittering c-beams
Fires feeding on an airplane –

All these thoughts
Moments I’ve collected
All, all will be lost
Lost like tears in rain.

Poetry?  At first, I wasn’t sure, but I couldn’t explain why.  I’m still not really certain.  Now, listen to this marvelous live recording of the song, and follow along with the lyrics.

For me, it is a perfect marriage of music and lyric.  I spent two weeks unable to get the melody of this song out of my head.  But the lyrics –  the only line that I could remember was “Have you known,” probably because it was repeated twice.  Of course, I can’t recall a single line of Joni Mitchell’s Hejira! Now think of a favorite song the lyrics of which are etched in your memory.  Find an imprint of those lyrics.  How do they fare as art without their aural accompaniment?  “You may be surprised.”

Matthew Zapruder again: “To say that this means song lyrics are less literary than poems, or require less skill or intelligence or training or work to create, is patently absurd (and, in the case of rap music, patronizing). But that does not mean that song lyrics are poems. They might sometimes accidentally function like poems when taken out of a musical context, but abstracting lyrics from musical information is misleading and beside the point. It seems to me far more productive to ask how lyrics in songs relate to musical information, and how poems relate to the silences (cultural and actual) that surround them, and to recognize that lyrics and poetry, while different genres with different forces and imperatives, have both more and less in common than we might think, and are endeavors of equal value.”

Alan Meerow works as a tropical plant research biologist in Florida and is the managing editor of the Spirit of Harmony Foundation blog pages.

How Music Shaped a Family

Sara Stromseth-Troy, April 2016

Part 1

ALLEN, TEXAS — Music has accompanied Ian Bui’s life story, beginning with his childhood in Vietnam, continuing after the fall of Saigon when his family moved to the United States, and onward through the lives and accomplishments of his children. In Part 1, Ian describes how music education has influenced his life and the lives of his children.

  • Ian shares his thoughts on music education

Ian Bui was born in 1961 in Saigon and grew up during the war. He had four older sisters, one younger sister and brother, none of whom studied music. He recalls, “Times were hard, and I was the only one who had the opportunity to get a music education, through a bit of luck and a lot of sacrifices on my parents’ part.”

He remembers, “When I was about 7 years old, someone gave my father a used child’s violin, so he decided to let me take private music lessons. After about a year of music theory lessons, I took the entrance exam to the National Conservatory of Music. I placed first and was the youngest student in my class. It was the first time in my life that I felt a huge sense of self-confidence, and that has never left me.”

Success continued for him: “The next year I took the instrument exam. I placed first in violin also. Between 1970-1975 I studied music and violin at the Conservatory, which was an extremely rare thing at the time for Vietnamese children. These classes were all outside my regular school hours, which meant a lot of commuting back and forth, but I really enjoyed the experience; it allowed me to see a different part of the city that many of my friends could not (remember, I was only 8 years old when I entered the Conservatory). Not only that, I became a bit of a celebrity in my school whenever we had a talent show.”

Ian’s music education continued by way of the music he heard on the family’s record player. “Because my mother and my aunt worked with Americans, I was exposed early on to Western music. My father was able to get a record player, and we had vinyl of artists like Ann Murray, Glen Campbell, Johnny Mathis, Petula Clark etc. I can still remember trying to play along “Downtown” over and over until my sisters screamed. Also, the early 70’s saw an explosion of Vietnamese pop/rock bands modeled after American and British rock bands of the time. These bands had a profound impact on my musical taste that has lasted until this day. I also learned English by singing along to the Bee Gees, Animals, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Carpenters etc. The combination of classical music training and exposure to rock and roll early on helped me develop an eclectic musical taste.”

  • Fall of Saigon

Ian’s life took a dramatic turn in 1975: “On April 29, 1975, hours before the Fall of Saigon, our family was airlifted from the US Embassy and we made it to America safely, though not without some drama. I brought with me one suitcase of clothing, my ping-pong paddle and the violin.”

Once settled in the United States, Ian discovered hard rock music. “After coming to America, I got more exposed to the harder stuff and, not surprisingly, became a huge Queen fan because of their complex vocal arrangements which reminded me a lot of Wagner and Beethoven. I also continued to take violin lessons in the States for a few more years until I graduated from high school in 1979. After that I was a music major for a year at the University of Houston before giving up music as a career because I became disillusioned by it. I ended up studying computer science instead. Nevertheless, I continue to play and write songs for fun. One of my recent compositions has received over 50,000 hits on YouTube.”

  • Passing on the love of music to his children

Ian made sure to provide his own children with music education. “Because of my own positive experience with music education, I made sure all my kids study music early,” he said. “The purpose is not for them to become professional musicians, but to build their confidence and self-esteem, expose them to the arts, and help them appreciate the hard work and sacrifices required. It will be a skill that no one can take away from them if they choose to keep it.” Ian continued, “My oldest daughter, Ariel, went on to pursue a degree in music and is now a piano teacher and singer/songwriter. Three of our four boys study cello. Two of them (twins) played in orchestras throughout their high school years. In addition, we also enrolled them in the Bass & Cello Conservatory of Dallas, and the Collin County Youth Orchestra (now defunct). It was lot of work, for sure, but well worth it. Now in college in New Zealand (not majoring in music) they’re being courted by the university orchestras because there’s such a shortage of cellists.”

As for their youngest son, Ian and his wife began his music education before he was born. “Our youngest boy, Sumo, studies cello, piano and has started to sing in a children’s choir. In fact, his musical training began even before he was born. When my wife was about five months pregnant, we started playing music from Bach’s cello suite to him for 15 minutes twice a day, every day until she gave birth. Not surprisingly, he possesses a great ear for pitch and learns music very fast. A non-fretted string instrument such as the cello is a great test for such skills. Currently in fourth grade, he’s already playing material his older brothers played in eighth grade.”

  • Learning life skills

Ian feels that being involved in orchestra has helped his sons learn discipline and listening skills. “From my point of view, I can say that being in an orchestra has been very good for the boys in terms of being surrounded by well-behaved kids who also do well academically. It teaches them discipline and trains them to listen to others, not just themselves. Not least, their taste in popular music is also very different from most kids their age; more sophisticated and selective, I believe.”

Ian also credits their hometown for providing many opportunities in music education. “We are lucky to live in Allen, Texas, where there is only one high school, which means resources are not spread out over several campuses. The music program here is top notch, and the new auditorium is state-of-the-art. All three of our cellist sons have played on this stage, and I’m sure it’s something they won’t easily forget. My wife was also president of the Orchestra Booster Club for three years. We became intimately familiar of the school district’s music program and its teachers. Consequently, our kids also got active in all the functions the club did. As a result, they were well known by their peers and teachers, and did not disappear in the sea of 4,700 students. This really, really helped with their teenager self-esteem.”

  • Advice for parents

Ian offers the following advice for parents who would like to get their children involved in music:

  1. Take it easy. Make it fun. Spend time with them in their lessons and if possible while they practice. Children appreciate praise and support.
  2. Take children to live music performances as much and as often as possible. It should be age-appropriate, of course, but should not be limited to any particular type, style or setting. Local libraries and churches often have free musical performances that they can take their kids to see. The holiday season is a wonderful time to experience live music, and they will be supporting their local musicians as well.
  3. Teach kids to give money to street musicians (unless you live in New York City, then you’d go broke!) But seriously, that will teach them to appreciate someone else’s hard work.
  4. Stay away from the violin, unless your child is very good at it. Violinists are a dime three dozens nowadays. If your child would like to play a stringed instrument that is not too stressful, the viola is great. Cellos are harder, while basses are always in shortage. Studying the piano is good for learning music theory, but does not teach the child ensemble skills. Many Asian kids in our kids’ orchestra actually study both a stringed instrument and the piano.

He also suggests parents get involved in their children’s schools. “As far as school budgets are concerned, I think it’s important to get involved in your kids’ schools so that your voice can be heard. The more you put in, the more you’ll get out of it. Therefore, it’s crucial to get neighbors and friends to understand the importance of music education, and get them to join your crusade. All schools have Facebook pages now, so it should be easier than ever to publicize articles and studies on the benefits of music education.”

  •  Music and home life

Apart from music education in schools, Ian extends his children’s music education to their home life. “I like to arrange cello accompaniments for the kids to play with me. One time, I wrote a song based on a poem by a famous Vietnamese poet/songwriter – Nguyen Dinh Toan, as a gift for him on the occasion of his visiting Dallas. He was very famous during the war years with a radio show about contemporary music. I was very excited to meet him. A group of us got together and held a large event to honor him, which happened to be on our twins’ 16th birthday. On that day we “premiered” my song in front of hundreds of guests. After we finished, a visibly moved Nguyen Dinh Toan came up to shake hands with the boys, he thanked them and helped me sing Happy Birthday to them. That was really cool.”

A fan of musician Todd Rundgren, Ian and family also attended the singer’s 60th birthday party, held at Rundgren’s home in Hawaii. “Another cool thing is our trip to Kauai together to attend Todd Rundgren’s 60th birthday celebration (Toddstock) in 2008, followed by many road trips from Dallas to Akron to attend Rundgren Radio (an online talk radio show that often produces Rundgren concerts) Birthday Bashes. Then on his 65th birthday, we again made a special music video for him which I was able to play for him backstage after the State show in Dallas.”

  • Lifelong impact

Ian is confident that his children’s exposure to music education will have lifelong impact. “I have no doubt that the music education my kids have received will serve them well in the future, no matter which career path they choose. Already, I can see that they are very confident on stage or speaking in public. As for lifelong benefits of musical education, I think music in general, and classical music in particular, nurtures in children an outlook on life that is more gentle, sensible, and empathetic. They will be better listeners and less likely to resort to violence to settle conflicts.”

Next: In Part Two of How Music Shaped A Family’s Lives,” we will hear from Ian’s musically successful daughter, Ariel.

Part 2

ALLEN, TEXAS — Music has been an integral part of the Bui family for several generations.  In Part 1, patriarch Ian Bui described his life story, beginning with his childhood in Vietnam, continuing after the fall of Saigon when his family moved to the United States, and onward through the lives and accomplishments of his children. In Part 2, we  hear from Ian’s musically successful daughter, Ariel.

Ian’s daughter, Ariel Bui, shares her thoughts on how music education shaped her and helped lead to a career path as a professional singer-songwriter. “As a musical artist and music educator, I can say that the music education I received throughout my formative years was invaluable. I was born into a family of Vietnamese immigrants who love and appreciate music from many cultures, genres, and time periods. I am grateful that throughout my childhood, that (love of music) was reinforced with music programs in all of the schools I attended. These music programs I attended from preschool to college have formed who I am, allowed me to cope with the challenges life has presented, while facilitating the pursuit of my passions into adulthood.”

Ariel describes her music education experience. “My musical education began in a Yamaha method preschool keyboard class. Around the same time, my mother was diagnosed with severe mental illness and my brother and I were sent to live with our grandparents. With a basic understanding of rhythm and note reading, even as a 6-year-old, I would cope with life’s challenges by sitting at the keyboard, learning new songs, and listening to the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band incessantly.” She continued, “Although the Louisiana public school system where my grandparents lived was very poorly funded, the music program was excellent. I still have vivid memories of the music teacher keeping me after class to tell me how musically talented I was. He gave me my own recorder as a gift. I remember many of the Southern folk tunes we learned and sang. I also remember the school bringing in an amazing Jazz Band as musical programming for the students.”

  • Continuing with music education

As family struggles continued, Ariel moved continuously, but kept on with her music education. “As our family struggled to cope with my mother’s mental illness, my brother and I were continuously moved around to different family members’ homes in different states. I sang as a soloist in upstate New York, in an elementary school choir led by Vanessa Williams’ mom. After she retired, the public school system there named a holiday for her. In California, I briefly took Suzuki piano lessons but discontinued after experiencing child abuse and ending up in foster care for a short time. I remember when I temporarily returned home with my father, the first class I walked into was choir where we learned “When I’m 64” by The Beatles for our 5th grade graduation performance.”

A move to Florida led to more musical experiences. “After that I moved in with family in Florida where I found solace teaching myself to play piano while being president of the middle school choir and first-chair percussionist in the symphonic band. This is also when I got my first guitar for Christmas- a Yamaha classical guitar. I started learning to play guitar on my own and by high school was writing my own songs and performing as a solo guitarist-singer-songwriter in the underground rock’n’roll scene of Florida.”

  • College

While initially unintended, music became Ariel’s field of study in college. “By the time college came around, with exceptional performance in accelerated academic programs throughout elementary to high school, I thought I would study something ‘practical’ and ‘lucrative’ such as law. I took a basic music theory class for fun and ended up recruited as a music major at Rollins College, with piano as my primary instrument. Studying music theory, music history, vocal performance, the physics of music, piano performance, piano pedagogy, and being heavily involved in college radio, I got to experience being fully immersed in my unwavering passion: Music.”

  • Returning to music

Ariel said that, regardless of what life path she pursues, she returns repeatedly to music. “No matter how many times I’ve tried to pursue other paths, I always come back to music. No matter how challenging life gets, it is always music I turn to for solace, comfort, catharsis & community. With the growing support of research by organizations like the Spirit of Harmony Foundation, I know deep down in my heart that music is healing to individuals and communities. This is why I have chosen music as a profession.”

Ariel made the decision to move to a city renowned for its music: Nashville. “In 2011, I moved to Nashville to pursue music as a career. I have since founded Melodia Studio, a home-based music teaching studio where I teach a large roster of piano students. I currently work with another teacher, Blake Talley, who teaches guitar and music theory. Melodia Studio has also recently expanded to New York City, where former Nashvillian Alice Buchanan teaches violin, piano, and guitar. All of the instructors of Melodia Studio are professional music educators as well as professional musicians.”

  • Professional musicians

Ariel said those who choose a career in music often have to learn to multi-task. “Many of the professional musicians I know, like freelancers and entrepreneurs in any field, must learn to juggle many projects at once. Many of us must closely manage our time and finances, finding paid work (whether related to music or not) that allows us time to pursue our (paid or unpaid) musical aspirations.” She continued, “Finding work that is flexible allows musicians to pick up gigs and tours, schedule recording sessions, network, and find time for the creative process, and fund it all. I have juggled as many as six part-time jobs at once in the pursuit of a more musical existence, slowly shedding the less musically inclined work as musical work increased.”

  • Advice

Ariel offers the following advice for those interested in pursuing a career in music. “Any advice I would give to others pursuing a musical career would be never to forget why you are doing it, because for most of us it is largely a labor of love. It is usually not very glamorous, although it can be a lot of fun at times. It is a lot of work and the cliche of the ‘starving artist’ exists for a reason. I am not starving by any means, but funding personal music projects on a part-time music teacher’s salary means basically working all the time and living simply. Many of us hope that the time, money, and soul we put into it are merely investments that will eventually equate to “success”. As long as you keep at it with perseverance and patience, continue to develop your craft, love what you do, and find a happy balance between artistry and practicality, I would consider that success. Of course, there are always ups and downs, but if you are busy pursuing your dreams and reminding yourself that you are doing what you love, you’ll get through it. If you surround yourself by a supportive musical community that makes all the difference.”

  • Current projects

Ariel describes her most recent professional projects. “In 2015, I recorded a full-length album, produced, engineered, and mixed by Grammy-nominated producer Andrija Tokic at The Bomb Shelter, an analog recording studio in Nashville. The album was mastered to analog tape by Paul Gold at Salt Mastering in Brooklyn, New York. The record features the amazing musicianship of drummer Dave Racine, multi-instrumentalist Jon Estes, and the voices of Emma Berkey, Lizzie Wright, and Jem Cohen. This will be my fourth full length album, but my first professionally produced recording. The hope is to find support to release the album on vinyl, where the recordings will remain 100 percent analog before being released digitally. My theory is that the pure, non-digitized sound waves of analog are psycho-acoustically more beneficial to our brains, bodies, and souls. I am very happy with the album, and have to continually tell myself, in the face of the unknown future and all the work ahead, that everything’s how it should be.”

For more information about Melodia Studio or Ariel Bui, visit and

Sara Stromseth-Troy is a freelance newspaper feature writer for The Cresco Times Plain Dealer, and serves as Young Adult Librarian and manages the social media accounts for The Cresco Public Library. Fortunate to grow up surrounded by an extended family of music educators, she is honored to volunteer in blog writing and social media for The Spirit of Harmony Foundation, on whose advisory board she sits. She lives in Cresco, Iowa.