Building Bridges with Music

Our interviewee in this story, 57 years old,¬† is¬† a self-described “aging hippie and¬† music junkie.” Recovering from¬† substance abuse over the course of some seven years, he has found new serenity and joy, thanks to the grounding and centering power of certain music.

Although he grew up listening to musicians like Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Carly Simon, and Joni Mitchell, he says he has been drawn lately to  lesser known contemporary women singer-songwriters such as Molly Venter and Cheryl Wheeler.


For him, they are more nurturing than many male composer–more honest and open with their emotions. A vivid example for him is Cheryl Wheeler’s “ARROW”–a bittersweet song about the risks of falling in love:

“I wish I could feel my heartbeat rise and gaze into some gentle warm excited eyes, and give myself as truly as an arrow flies in windless skies.”

Together with his younger brother, our man has built a bridge to a constituency of female folk-rock musicians and their audience. In 2012 he¬† started¬† what has now become an¬† annual event in his state–“a festival of music, of the women, by the women, and for everyone.” All net proceeds benefit the state Epilepsy Foundation.

Another kind of bridge for him, carrying both personal and inter-generational layers of memory, is The Kennedys’ song “HALF A MILLION MILES”. He recalls attending a performance where he found himself “bawling like a baby, sitting in the audience, crying, out of a feeling of effusive joy, peace, and togetherness.”

This song, by the husband-and-wife duo Pete and Maura Kennedy, is a rich mix of autobiographical resonance and rock ‘n’ roll history. It turns out that after they initially ¬†met in Austin, Texas, they decided for their first date to each drive 500 miles and meet at Buddy Holly’s grave in Lubbock! And you may know, Holly–a pioneer of rock–perished together with Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson in a plane crash, Feb. 3, 1959. This was¬† when our interviewee was barely two years old.

Follow the words below the video:

It was a rainy night in Texas, river was running high

Anyone with any sense was inside staying dry

The rain came down like hammered gold and rendered all things new

Like a Colorado overflow down Congress Avenue

Round, round, ten traveling years

Is a mighty long, long while

When the long road stretches out ahead

A half a million miles. 

In a funky rock and roll bar

A man and a woman sat

While the rain poured down with the dim, deep sound

But they paid no mind to that

They talked about the old songs

They wrote one that was new

They sang it to Roy Orbison and Ricky Nelson too

When the sun come up next morning

On the sinners and the saved

A pickup headed down the road toward Buddy Holly’s grave

In the lonesome town of Lubbock, where Buddy’s bones did lay

Their hearts were cut with diamonds on that strange and fateful day

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Music and Loss – Songs that Have Helped with Grief

“To me, music is one of the things I couldn’t live without. If I were put on a desert island, I would have to have a solar-powered i-Pod.”

These are the heartfelt words of a 41-year old woman, who has had more than her share of loss but, thanks to her love of music, has been able to grieve and grow in the process. Trained in positive psychology and now working as a coach, she brings a rich perspective to how she views life through the prism of a song’s lyrics and its music.

Music came into her life early. She played clarinet in the school band and sang in the choir. As a college project she undertook a study of the physiological effects of music on bipolar disorder, drawing on a broad range of music–from the California hard rock band “Guns N’ Roses” to Mozart.

For her, music is a trigger, arousing powerful memories and an¬† intense physical response followed by constructive action. A case in point is what happened after the funeral of her¬† 21-year-old cousin who drowned after his snowmobile fell through the ice. Driving home from the cemetery, she listened obsessively to the Elton John song “I believe in Love,”¬† sobbing uncontrollably and wondering whether she should even be on the road in such a condition–“this song was ripping all of this grief out of me.”¬† But listening to it led to a sense of reaffirmation of life and the confidence that she would recover. ¬†And in fact, her family went on to establish a fund to train people in the use of special diving equipment to save other lives.

She spoke about other major losses in her life–of both her adoptive parents (she was adopted as a week-old infant), and a longtime ¬†very close woman friend.¬† Another Elton John number,¬† “Recover Your Soul,” was especially helpful in enabling her to cope with the death of her adoptive mother. She also loves B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone,” a song that has helped her move beyond her darkest hours to find the good in the bad and be able to count her blessings of close family and friends.

Other musical selections for her are very meaningful in tracing the trajectory of her life. They include Alicia Keyes’ music¬† and its evocations of Mozart harmonies. Also Harry Connick Jr.’s “Booker”–a tribute to pianist James Booker, one of the formative influences on his own life.

Elton John’s “I believe in Love”¬†resonates with conviction that love at its best has no boundaries. See the lyrics. The vocals are¬† grounded by a strong bass,¬† repeating its patterns with a solidity that is reassuring. And the pulse, at 66 beats per minute, slightly below¬† normal , has a calming effect.

And here is B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone.” This Blues, with much the same pulse as the Elton John song, derives its strength from its understatement and the directness and simplicity of its language. At the same time, the lyrics speak of an inner strength, a certain resilience–as a Blues song usually does.

“Although I’ll still live on, But so lonely I’ll be……You know I’m free, free now, baby….”

What songs have helped you cope with grief? Share them in the Comments.


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Music and the Scientific Mind

We recently had the pleasure of interviewing an engineer who, at 75, is a model of what it means to be intellectually vigorous and fully engaged as we grow older. He considers himself to be only semi-retired because he continues to be involved in his company’s cutting edge research for the manufacture of battery powered and electrical equipment such as mobility vehicle controls, vehicle instrumentation, and the general area of zero emission transportation. He speaks of this work with tremendous enthusiasm.

He dates his passion for music back to when he was about 15 years old. That was around the time he started studying physics. He discovered that music enhanced his ability to achieve deep concentration. He is fully convinced that the scientific and musical worlds weave in and out of each other, and he likes to work with music continuously in the background. For him, music is the most compact language known to man–he compares it to the elegance of great math equations.

Here is just one story of the way he experiences this interconnection. He was working on a tough problem that eventually led to a patent. One evening he was struggling with it while he happened to be listening to a Mozart piece–he doesn’t remember the name of it, and Mozart is not a composer he¬† normally listens¬† to. But, when he woke up the following morning , quite inexplicably he knew how¬† to solve his problem–a¬† chord progression in the music had shown him the way.

Interestingly, the musical tastes of our engineer run far more to the music of J. S. Bach. He attributes this to growing up in a Lutheran family where Bach was the staple of church services. Also, as a mathematician, he is fascinated by the concept of Equal Temperament‚ÄĒthe challenge of being able to play in all the sharp and flat keys‚ÄĒfor which Bach is celebrated in his Well- Tempered Clavier —two books of preludes and fugues which cycle through all 24 keys.

But he also enjoys the type of jazz known as bebop, where the act of improvisation pays homage to a standard melody like ‚ÄúI Got Rhythm,‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúWhispering,‚ÄĚ or ‚ÄúMy Funny Valentine.‚ÄĚ For him, this distillation of the essence of something is akin to mathematical modeling.

Think about all this as you listen to two examples of ‚Äúhis‚ÄĚ music. First is the mighty organ piece of J.S. Bach (often heard in horror movies!): the Toccata and Fugue in d minor.

And here is the ‚ÄúMisterioso‚ÄĚ of composer-pianist Thelonious Monk which, our interviewee says, always makes him smile. The title has a deep resonance for him. Why? Part of the reason is that there is a mystery in quantum physics about the diameter of the proton which comes to mind when he hears this piece. Notice how the music itself adds mystery to the traditional 12-bar blues by the way Monk re-imagines not only pitches and rhythm but also musical texture–as piano, vibraphone, bass, and percussion interweave their sounds. ¬†


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The Mystery of Music

We didn’t personally interview the people we’ll tell you about here, but their stories–in their own words– seem especially appropriate ¬†as we welcome the coming of spring after a long, hard winter. They also highlight the mysterious ability music has to help people survive in dire circumstances.¬†

We just saw a documentary film about Alice Herz Sommer, who died in London this February at the age of 110. She is being celebrated as the oldest living Holocaust survivor, but in pre-war Czechoslvakia she was also celebrated as a rising young pianist. We give you here a wonderful segment of that film, full of her music and wisdom at 109.

The captive audience in Theresienstadt, the camp where she and her little son were interned, knew that the concerts she played were being used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes. (“We had to play because the Red Cross came three times a year,” she said dryly.) Yet listening to that music also gave them hope and, she believes, kept many of them alive during those terrible years. They came in sick, she says, and after the concerts, they went out feeling stronger.

It literally saved the lives of Alice and her son, Raffi.¬†Alice tells of a gripping moment one night when a young Nazi officer stopped her to thank her for her concerts and told her how much they meant to him. As he turned to leave, he added: ‚ÄúOne more thing. You and your little son will not be on any deportation lists. You will stay in Theresienstadt until the war ends.‚ÄĚ And they did.

There are so many quotable ideas in this video and of course the music is wonderful.

And here is another powerful story, one that is inspiring and harrowing in a different way. ¬†Josh included this in his book, Louis Armstrong and Paul Whiteman: Two Kings of Jazz (Yale University Press, 2004). In 1942 a Jewish trumpeter from Amsterdam, Louis Bannet‚ÄĒsometimes called the ‚Äúthe Dutch Louis Armstrong.‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒentered the concentration camp at Auschwitz as a prisoner.

He learned that the camp was auditioning a handful of musicians for the camp orchestra. Taken to a room where instruments were lying around, he met two other inmates who, like him, were blue from frostbite. The leader of the music detail gave the signal for the audition to begin. The first two musicians struggled to make a sound on trombone and saxophone and could not. They were led away.

Then it was Bannet‚Äôs turn. ‚ÄúI was standing toward the back of the room and noticed a small stove in a corner ‚ĶI inched toward the stove and placed my hands on top. My lips were frozen, so I started rubbing to warm them. As my friend placed a trumpet in my hand—I‚Äôll never forget this ‚Ķhe said : ‚ÄėLouis, you must play for your life‚Äô ”

At first he could make only a faint sound. Trying again, he was able to manage a few sputtering notes. Finally, just as the guards were walking toward him to take him away, he was able to burst out with the strains of W. C. Handy‚Äôs ‚ÄúSt. Louis Blues.‚ÄĚ

He continued to play in the camp orchestra until his liberation, and so he too survived. Here is the music that saved him.





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What Music Helps You With Your Life’s Stresses?

Whenever we see music described as “just” a stress-reliever, we tend to bristle at the dismissive tone of the comment. ¬†It betrays a lack of understanding and appreciation of music’s value. On the other hand, music can be a real life saver when the world threatens to become overwhelming.

Our featured music lover this month contacted us because she wanted to introduce us to music that has truly transformed her life. The music she shared with us helps her focus better, be more creative in her work and more accepting of things she can’t change. Above all, it has exponentially increased her capacity to¬†be happy and peaceful and to serve others, which are her greatest desires.

You may relate to her situation. She is in her early fifties, a psychologist and gerontologist. ¬†She has a 2 hour commute to work and another 2 hours’ drive home. In between she works 8 hours conducting research on aging that includes a focus on end of life care.¬† She grew up loving music typical of her generation: Arrowsmith…The Rolling Stones…Carly Simon…Pat Benatar. She played guitar when she was young.¬†A few years ago, during her mid-forties, the daily grind and growing stresses at home really began to wear her down. ¬†(By the way, recent research suggests that the period from age forty to the mid-fifties is one of the most challenging and even unhappy times of life for many Americans.)

She started taking yoga to deal more directly with stress. She experimented with various kinds of yoga and settled on the Kundalini form, whose mantras and meditations were deeply calming for her. (See Ang Sang Waha Guru¬†below for more on Kundalini Yoga.) That led her to discover the music she surrounds herself with nowadays. She listens in the car, in the gym, at home. She was raised a Catholic, but doesn’t see any conflict between religion and this kind of nondenominational “spiritual awakening.”

YouTube videos of a few of her favorite performers are offered below, with Josh’s comments. As you will see, this music comes in a wide variety of interesting forms. Let us know how you respond to what our interviewee calls “my music.” Tell us about the music that helps you deal with stress, that calms and frees you too.

Ang Sang Wahe Guru  

This famous kirtan or “praise eulogy” expresses a universal truth. Its essential message is that dynamic, loving energy, which is the Source Of All, dances within everyone’s cells. This piece is an example of a Kundalini Yoga Mantra Meditation. Kundalini Yoga ¬†is called the “Yoga of Awareness” by its practitioners. It draw heavily on ancient sacred lyrics, or mantras, and aims to”cultivate the creative spiritual potential of a human being to uphold values, speak truth, and focus on the compassion and consciousness needed to serve and heal others.”

This performance unfolds with a hypnotically gentle rhythm  of 48 pulses per minute presented in a recurring series of four phrases, a peace-inducing rhythm reflecting a body at rest. The voices of the chorus are deeply moving as they sing in a narrow range that evokes a sense of warmth and intimacy, with the pure sound of duetting recorders providing contrast.

Heart is thy Name, O Lord

Krishna Das, sometimes called the Rock Star of Yoga, performed this song at the 2013 Grammy Awards. The title refers to one of the seven chakras in the body while at the same time invoking Narayana, or God. His rendition has been described as a fusion of Kirtan (see the previous video) and the music of the Yardbirds. In a gentle high baritone Krishna Das chants the praise melody to the accompaniment of tabla and drones sounding a perfect fourth, a signifier of cosmic harmony. The narrow-range melody, sung in unison with the other musicians, pivots around a central pitch to communicate a state of blessed peacefulness at about 60 pulses per minute.

 Your Light is My Guide

Hans Christian¬†has been called “a supreme multi-instrumentalist ranging widely and worldly.” Speaking through his many instruments–which include the cello, deeply resonant crystal bowls, the sitara (a small sitar), the sarangi (a Northern Indian fiddle), and the nyckelharpa (a Swedish fiddle)–he invites us to join him on musical journeys that often fuse Western Classical with Indian and other musics. His improvisations take on an otherworldly quality through the use of live looping onstage, as you will hear in this video. This technique is common to much modern electronic music and uses technologies such as digital samplers, synthesizers, sequencers, tape machines, and delay units. A repeating section of sound material can be used to create recurring patterns that serve as a counterpoint to other melodic lines, building up a multi-layered texture that taps into deep feelings in the listener, taking you beyond the here and now.

Here is an example of Hans Christian’s artistry using just the cello with feedback looping.




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What Music Did You Love When You Were 14?

So many stories.

So many moments of happiness…sadness…nostalgia…comfort…power…and so much more that our storytellers are willing to share with us.

This is why we enjoy interviewing people like you about the music you love. Through gentle conversation, we try to understand what your music means to you.¬†We believe that one person’s experiences can resonate for many other people. Maybe it will also make them reflect on the music they love, music that has moved them for particular reasons or at particular times. Maybe it will make them curious to explore the new musical territory described so vividly by others.

What strikes us in these conversations is the passion people typically express when they use the words¬†My Music. Everyone’s taste in music is extremely individual and personal. It may remain the same throughout life. Or someone may have a sudden revelation or “opening,” like the Rock critic who stumbled into a classical concert¬†(click on this link).

What also strikes us is how excited people become when they’re encouraged to talk about the music they love. So often they have unexpected new insights right during our conversation. ¬†We and they feel a genuine delight in being able to share thoughts and feelings about their music.

Consider joining us in our mind-expanding quest to demonstrate the value of music very clearly and concretely through music lovers’ stories. All you have to do is use our Contact Page here or write to us at¬†We will set up a phone or skype session with you at your convenience. We will not use your name or identifying information in anything we publish. Your privacy is assured.

So what are you waiting for? Join the conversation!


To kick off the stories, we’re going to start with one close to home. ¬†This is the only case where we will use real names.

We once heard a musician say that he thought most people form their musical tastes around age 14.  That is, the musical pieces they loved then remain their core favorite pieces no matter how old they are.  True for you?

It is for Josh, co-author of this blog. Life ¬†in Cape Town, South Africa wasn’t easy after his father died suddenly when he was 10. His much older siblings were gone from the house. His mother became depressed and couldn’t cope with a young child. Their economic status dropped drastically. He had been raised on classical music in the home and started playing the violin when he was quite young, so it was natural for him to turn to music for solace as a teenager. When he was about 14 he heard¬†Felix Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony for the first time. It quickly became one of his favorite pieces.

It has been described by an eminent British musicologist, the late Sir Donald Francis Tovey, as “one of Mendelssohn’s most perfect works.” Inspired by his visit to Italy in 1830-31 (Mendelssohn was all of 21 years old when he ¬†journeyed through Venice, Rome, Florence, and Naples), he himself gave the work its name. As he exulted in a letter of the time: “This is Italy. What I have been looking forward to all my life as the greatest happiness is now begun, and I am basking in it. ..The whole country had such a festive air that I felt as if I were a young prince making his entry.”

As he talked about it in a mini-interview with Lynne, Josh suddenly realized how much this vibrant music had lifted his spirits at 14. He could feel like a young prince too as he listened. It offered an escape from darker emotions. In a sense, it saved his life.

This winter of 2013-14 has been as brutal in the Northeast U.S. as in other parts of the world. Sub-zero temperatures have been reported almost daily in January, making outdoor physical activities often dangerous. But we know how essential aerobic exercise is for brain health and total wellbeing. So running indoors, boring though it is, has become the easiest way to stay fit. One of Josh’s favorite pieces for indoor running is–you guessed it–Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony.

Why is it good running music?  He explains:

“The first movement, an Allegro vivace–it’s¬† in an irresistible cantering rhythm with some gently rocking contrasting melody– has me pumping away in sweats and sneakers, running from room to room.

The next movement, Andante con moto, suggesting a religious procession, allows me to slow down slightly, but still maintain a steady pace.

I feel a wonderful warmth in the following gently melodic movement, as I sense the blood coursing through my veins, my breathing steady and sure.

To top everything off, and release all those wonderful endorphins, I relish the push of the Saltarello finale, a Presto movement with an infectious skipping figure.¬†Mendelssohn said it reflected the hectic fun he experienced at the Roman Carnival.”

Here is Mendelssohn’s own description of that youthful experience:

“I arrived at the Corso…and was thinking of nothing, when suddenly I was assailed by a shower of sugar candies. I looked up and saw some ladies whom I had occasionally seen at balls, but scarcely knew; and when in my embarrassment, I took off my hat to bow to them, the pelting began in earnest…I grew desperate, and clutching the sugar comfits, I flung them back bravely…..And thus what with all the pelting and being pelted, amid a thousand jests and the most extravagant masquerade costumes, the day ended with horse races.”

Josh again: ¬†“In just under 30 minutes I can go from feeling down to feeling up–energized, joyful and exuberant, when I move to this music. The connection didn’t really occur to me until now, but I see that I keep coming back to it because it has so many positive associations for me from when I was a young teen.” He smiles. “I guess it’s still saving my life.”

Try moving your body to this rousing performance of one of Josh’s all-time favorite pieces, conducted by the brilliant young Gustavo Dudamel.


When I was 12 or so my mother and I were enjoying the ‚ÄúItalian‚ÄĚ together. It was glorious in Atlanta ‚Äď azaleas, dogwood, daffodils. I decided then it was the perfect music for spring.

Years later in a dark time, Mom sent me a recording in the spring, with the note, ‚ÄúDo you remember?‚ÄĚ Then finally it was my turn, as her memory began to fail, to send it to her. ‚ÄúDo you remember?‚ÄĚ And we listened together when I saw her.

~~~ Much later I heard Dudamel‚Äôs first LA Phil performance of the ‚ÄúItalian‚ÄĚ in the Disney Hall before he took it on tour. Many streams in my life converged on that unforgettable night.

~~~And just one more response to this moving post: Try one of my own favorite treadmill accompaniments ‚Äď Sibelius Symphony #2 ‚Äď especially in the winter. Thank you for all.



How original. I paused and smiled remembering my dad. Daddy worked 18 hours most days, getting out our local newspaper, The Harrington Journal, in Harrington, Delaware. Every morning, he would take me to get breakfast with him at the small mom and pop restaurant just down the street from the printing office. Money was tight, but we savored our time together.

My dad LOVED to dance more than anything else, and he love ALL music. Not surprising in high school music was my #1 aptitude.

My great joy was when Daddy would smile and hand me a quarter, a big sum back in my day, and tell me to play whatever I wanted. We both loved C-7, Blueberry Hill. Yes, indeed, I found my thrill, and so did he, on Blueberry Hill! I was 6 or 7. Sometimes we would even dance to it! What a sight we must have been at 7:30 a.m.! Back then, I had no awareness people didn’t dance at a restaurant let alone in the morning. What fun.

Yes, I still love music, all forms, though I am STILL trying to understand the culture of rap, truth be told. Thanks for the positive reminiscing. Great post.



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Drumming for Humanity

NOTE:  In January we will begin monthly posts featuring interviews with people who have talked with us about the music they loveРmusic that has made a difference in their lives. If you have a story to share, please write to us at or through the contact form here. We will keep your identity confidential when we use your story. 


The celebration of Christmas is all too often saturated with endless, barely-noticed renditions of ¬†“Joy to the World,” “Silent Night,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and so on. But for ¬†the¬† promise of universal love and connection with fellow human beings to be truly realized, we have tried to think outside the box during this season.

So, for December, we bring you oneof the world’s pre-eminent percussionists, Scotland’s Evelyn Glennie, and the family of percussion instruments she plays so brilliantly.

First of all, what makes the family of percussion instruments so striking–in every sense of the word–is its global inclusiveness. As Mickey Hart, one time drummer of The Grateful Dead, observes in his 1990 book Drumming on the Edge of Magic:

“Nearly a century ago , in the parishes around New Orleans, people began dancing to the new beat of jazz and blues—drummers began ransacking the percussive inventory. They took elements from all over the planet–snares and bass drums from Europe, the tom-tom from China, cymbals from Turkey–and along with such homely additions as cowbells, anvils, and woodblocks invented a new kind of drumming, and, almost incidentally, a new instrument. This hybrid was known as a ‘contraption,’ later shortened to ‘traps’. ”

In fact, the wide array of tuned and untuned percussion instruments made¬† of wood, metal, and skin is quite astonishing. ¬†To Hart’s list we can add timbales, claves, congas, bongos, marimbas, xylophones, tympani, hi-hat cymbals, splash cymbals, tubular¬† bells, vibraphones, triangles, tam-tams (gongs), antique cymbals (crotales), and chimes.

We offer you here a remarkable TED video of Evelyn Glennie called, “How to Truly Listen.” She says at the outset, “My aim is really to teach the world to listen. That’s my only aim in life.”

As someone who started losing her hearing at age 8 and became “profoundly deaf” at age 12, Evelyn Glennie knows more than most of us what it means to overcome disabilities, how important nuance is to sound, and what it can mean when we say of another human being, “I hear what you’re saying–I hear you.”¬† An essential part of this is the ability to really feel vibrations–“vibes.”

We would like to draw your attention to four defining moments in this video:

At 5:56 Glennie stresses the importance of listening to yourself, not being uptight, and avoiding detachment  from an instrument by gripping a drumstick too tightly. Connecting with fellow human beings is fundamentally similar.

At 8:00 she talks about conversations at age 12 with her teacher, and hearing through not only the ear but also all other areas of the body. By the way, she always performs barefoot.

At 10;30 she touches on her initial rejection by the Royal Academy of Music because of her deafness and how she changed the status quo at all music institutions in the UK by forcing them to  audition candidates on the basis of musical ability alone rather than dismissing  them outright because of a disability.

12:42 brings some inspiring comments about music as daily medicine and the case of a 15-year-old listening through the floor to the resonators of a marimba.

Finally, it is worth noting that Evelyn Glennie serves as the ambassador of the Royal National Children’s Foundation, “which helps support vulnerable, disadvantaged young people at state and independent boarding schools throughout the U.K.” ¬†In December 2010 she climbed to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in support of the charity Able Child Africa.

Evelyn Glennie on How to Truly Listen

Our gift to you are these 2 bonuses:

Evelyn Glennie on Sesame Street

Evelyn Glennie, her personal story, and  on being true to oneself

We hope you will enjoy gifting others with these inspiring messages.

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An Unexpected Gift of Forgiveness

FIRST — NEWS ABOUT 2014!¬†Watch for our new series of posts beginning in¬†January. We have been interviewing lovers of music¬†of all kinds for several years. They have told us¬†about the music they like to listen to most and how¬†music has affected–sometimes even saved–their lives.

We want to begin sharing their stories and music with you in the coming year. If you have music to share too, please contact us. This is an ongoing project we want to turn into a book that will help readers become aware of the role music can play in changing lives for the better.


Forgiveness is not an especially common occurrence in opera. Vendettas–revenge plots–are more typical dramatic devices. So it is fascinating that¬†Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro¬†can be used to illustrate¬†this character strength. We would be interested in your reaction to the context in which forgiveness appears here.

Power and the hubris of sexual prowess has a very long history, going back to the exploits of the gods in Greek mythology, and even earlier. But Mozart’s 1786 operatic masterpiece¬†has an especially rich sexual resonance. It offers an intricate interplay of disguise and intrigue, intensified for us by the dark rumblings of the oncoming French Revolution.

The outsmarting of Count Almaviva¬† by his valet Figaro, Figaro’s fiancee Susanna, and his own Countess makes for a delightful farce. At the same time, the notion of a Count getting his comeuppance at the hands of his social inferiors because he has designs on his servant’s fiancee was a frightening thought to the contemporary ruling class.

Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, based his narrative on a 1784¬† play by Pierre-Augustin Caron de¬† Beaumarchais, La folle journee ou Le Mariage de Figaro— a story so controversial¬† that it famously prompted Napoleon to call it “the revolution in action.”¬† In fact, da Ponte had to delete or drastically change seditious lines in the original before Emperor Franz Joseph would sanction the production of the opera. It soon became a hit, as Mozart discovered when he visited Prague in 1787, a year after it opened, and attended a ball. In a letter to his father, he wrote: “I looked on …with the greatest pleasure, while all these people flew about in sheer delight to the music of my Figaro.”

Among the most remarkable features of Figaro is not¬† only the upending of the social order, but also the way in which women are depicted, serving notice that they are much more than sexual objects and in fact can heighten men’s awareness of injustice and move them to act for good.

In the opera’s opening duet, Figaro is busy measuring the room¬† to see how the bed the Count has so generously given them will fit. Susanna, however, is not impressed by this supposed generosity. She points out to Figaro that the¬† proximity of their bedroom to those of the Count and Countess has little to do with their positions as personal servants–Figaro to the Count, Susanna to the Countess.

She adds: “and supposing one morning the dear Count should ring, ding ding, and send you three miles away. Ding dong, and the devil should lead him to my door.” In fact, the Count does indeed expect from Susanna “certain half-hours”–that is, he has invoked the feudal privilege of ¬†droit du seigneur.¬†When Susanna leaves to answer a call from the Countess, an enraged Figaro sings an aria where he makes clear that he is the one who intends to call the tune from now on, not his master.

In Act III, the heart-broken Countess, warned by Susanna of the Count’s evil intentions, reveals her deep pain ¬†in one of the opera’s most memorable arias,¬†“Dove sono i bei momenti, di dolcezza e di piacer; dove andaro i giuramenti” (‘Where are those happy moments of sweetness and pleasure? Where have they gone…?”)

The Marriage of Figaro ¬†is the supreme example of opera buffa–comic opera with serious undertones. In its closing moments, the Count’s plans for his highly anticipated tryst with Susanna are foiled by Susanna and the Countess with the help of Figaro.¬†Shamed and “betrayed” by them, the Count summons help (“Ho there! Bring your swords!”). Secondary characters like Basilio, a music teacher, and Antonio, the Count’s gardener, run onstage, bewildered. Finally, the Countess ends the confusion by explaining what has transpired.¬†The Count, now fully exposed,¬† pleads for forgiveness from the woman he has so badly betrayed. She responds magnanimously: “I am kinder [than you]. I will say ‘yes’.”

What do you think about this ending?¬†Here is what Mozart’s arch-rival, Salieri, thinks about it in¬†the film¬† Amadeus, as he¬†first watches the Forgiveness Scene from The Marriage of Figaro. Brilliant!



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A Sense of Humor is a Joy Forever

Humor is often under-rated as a character strength. Yet there’s nothing quite like it to sharpen your focus (to get the joke), release hormones like oxytocin,¬† boost the immune system, promote zest and optimism, and sometimes just help you cope with life’s adversities.

Louis Armstrong and Danny Kaye, in their classic take on “When the Saints Come Marching In,” brilliantly demonstrate what we are talking about. ¬†Singing the tongue-twisting added lyrics provided by Kaye’s wife, Sylvia Fine, they serve up a comic brew that can keep a smile in your heart for a long time. It’s also fun to share with family and friends and, in fact, everyone.

Louis Armstrong’s sense of comedy was¬† essential to his showmanship, indeed to his sense of identity. It’s revealing that when he applied for a passport for his 1932 European tour, he identified himself as “actor and musician.”¬† He once stated his goal as follows:

I never tried to prove nothing, just always wanted to give a good show. My life has been my music; it’s always come first, but the music ain’t worth nothing if you can’t lay it on the public. The main thing is to live for that audience, ’cause what you’re there for is to please the people.”

Here is the link to the video clip of Louis Armstrong and Danny Kaye on¬†An Hour with Danny Kaye, telecast on October 30, 1960. It is a variation on¬† the routine they did in the movie The Five Pennies of the year before–a biopic in which¬† Kaye plays the title role of¬† Red Nichols, the cornet legend, and Armstrong plays himself.¬† As a guide, here is an example of their split-timing banter. Both men clearly enjoy “playing with” music and ideas.

Nichols: Do ya dig Rachmaninoff?

Armstrong: On and off.

Nichols: Rimsky?

Armstrong: Of course a-koff!

Nichols: Ravel and Gustav Mahler?

Armstrong: Yeah, but don’t forget Fats Waller.

The nice thing about videos is that you can start and stop them if you miss something–and you won’t want to miss a word of this clever duo!

In¬†1954, Louis Armstrong joined Robert Merrill, baritone of Metropolitan Opera fame,¬†at the Sands Hotel in Las¬† Vegas. In a hilarious role reversal, Armstrong sang “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci and Merrill did his rendition of an Armstrong favorite, “Honeysuckle Rose.”

Louis Armstrong and Robert Merrill in Vegas - Jet Magazine, October 28, 1954
You can see they were having fun…and so was the audience, we’re sure. A nice example of ¬†the way overturning expectations–surprise–can create the pleasure Armstrong wanted audiences to feel.

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Tom: a Master of the Universe

…of Social Intelligence

Who is Tom and what does Social Intelligence have to do with music?

Social IQ is a character strength often literally worth its weight in gold.¬†People with high Social Intelligence exhibit deep emotional understanding of others, which often leads to great success in cooperative work. For a musician, the ability to work with others can lead to powerful productive partnerships — as it clearly did for Tom.

We recently saw a documentary on his life and music that demonstrated his ability to draw many others to him and make them want to stay in long working/personal relationships with this man who loved life and people.

Who are we talking about?  Antonio Carlos Jobim (1927-1994), called Tom by nearly everybody who knew him. He wrote many classic songs you will instantly recognize. Sometimes called the George Gershwin of Brazil, he invigorated the whole jazz and pop repertoire with his irresistible bossa nova and samba music.

In the course of his career he worked closely with many  musicians and inspired countless others.  All this flowed from his  natural gift for creating a warm web of interconnected relationships with family, friends, and colleagues in the three places he called home: Rio de Janeiro,  the Brazilian countryside, and New York City.

We think you can best understand what we mean just by listening to the music he wrote–often with others and often played and sung by his own extended family. Our most cherished Jobim album is WAVE: THE ANTONIO CARLOS JOBIM SONGBOOK on the Verve label with fifteen tracks of musical delights featuring Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Henderson, Wes Montgomery, Oscar Peterson, and Sarah Vaughan, among others. The comment on the flip side of the CD jewel case is telling:

They range geographically from the tip of Brazil to the province of Quebec; they appear
in intimate duets, in frail voice,and in string orchestras with a clutch of woodwinds.
Appearing in every type of ensemble, playing in all styles throughout the Western hemisphere
and beyond–this is how diverse Antonio Carlos Jobim’s interpreters are and how far and
wide his music has spread.

Here we offer you three gems from the Verve album (click on the links to listen):

Stan Getz on tenor saxophone performing “Desafinado” with Charlie Byrd playing lead guitar, which you can listen to by clicking here;

Dizzy Gillespie playing “One Note Samba” here;

and – in an act of role reversal – Sarah Vaughan’s¬† highly suggestive rendition of¬† the great Jobim hit, ” “The¬† Girl from Ipanema”–renamed here “The Boy from Ipanema.”

Myth and the power of song were the underpinnings of Jobim’s rise to¬† international fame. Together with Luiz Bonfa and singer Joao¬† Gilberto, he composed the bossa nova sound track for the movie¬†Black Orpheus,¬†the winner of the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959. Set in Rio de Janeiero¬† during carnival season, the movie features Orpheus as a trolley car conductor and Euridice as a girl from the country visiting her cousin in the big city. Amidst all the gaiety, their love is doomed by the specter of death.

Three¬† songs from the¬† movie are standouts:¬†Bonfa’s “Manha de Carnaval“; and Jobim’s “O Nossa Amor,” used as unifying refrains and presented in a variety of settings, and “Frevo,” during which Euridice first glimpses the mocking face of death.

We could not omit also bringing you a very special version of  Manha de Carnaval.


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