Month: April 2020

Beyond the Pandemic

To no one’s surprise, nostalgia is very much in vogue in the middle of this pandemic. That’s understandable. Psychologists say that experiencing distress, or “negative mood” is a very common trigger of nostalgia. As a temporary reprieve from the pressures of the present world, these past happy memories can be a helpful coping device. But as a long-term strategy for getting through and — more importantly — thriving on the other side of the pandemic, nostalgia alone will not be enough. With past pandemics and crises as a guide, the world never goes back to the old way of doing things after such a shock to the system. As someone whose entire career has focused on ensuring that history is part of our present and future, I want to make certain that we don’t discount the past. But this pandemic will require that we adjust to the reality of inevitable change. We can adjust, becoming more effective in our jobs and in life while also promoting our cognitive health, by embracing enthusiastic learning during and …

Saturday Music: Teddy Wilson

For the final Saturday Music post of April, I’m going to recognize Jazz Appreciation Month by highlighting my father’s favorite jazz musician: the elegant pianist Teddy Wilson. Wilson was born in 1912 in Austin, Texas, but moved at age six with his parents to the famed Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. His father was the head of the English Department while his mother later became the school’s head librarian. Wilson began his musical instruction at Tuskegee, where he studied not only the piano, but also violin, oboe, and clarinet. Around 1930, when playing music in Toledo, Ohio, Wilson met the great Art Tatum and the two played together often during that period. Wilson eventually moved to New York City, with the encouragement of jazz supporter John Hammond, and went on to join Benny Goodman‘s band. It was with Goodman and drummer Gene Krupa that Wilson became the first African American to play in a racially mixed, high profile musical group in the United States. Wilson performed with Goodman, off and on, for many years, including for …

Responsibility

Responsibility has been in the news lately. In a time of never-ending obfuscation, gaslighting, spitefulness, and mendacity, it seems appropriate to return to the plain spoken wisdom of Harry Truman.* President Truman had a sign on his desk in the Oval Office that simply said, “The buck stops here.” Truman received the sign as a gift and only kept it on his desk for a short period of time, but the message and image stuck with him for the rest of his life. Truman was saying that he was responsible. There is no need to blame anyone else for this. I own the issue. Responsibility has always been at the heart of leadership because it is inherently focused on others as opposed to self-preservation. Truman is just one example, but there are many others in our country’s history. There are famous individuals who regularly took responsibility for their actions — such as Roger Williams, George Washington, Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, A. Philip Randolph, and General Dwight Eisenhower — just as there are millions of less famous …

Saturday Music: Sara Watkins

This Saturday I’m wrapping up my feature on the three members of the roots music trio I’m With Her, with this look at the gifted fiddler, singer, and songwriter Sara Watkins. Watkins is probably the best known of the trio’s members, due to her status as a founder and fiddler with the Grammy-award-winning and highly influential progressive bluegrass group Nickel Creek, where she debuted in 1989 along with her brother Sean and mandolinist Chris Thile. Since 2007, when the band took an indefinite hiatus (broken by 2014’s 25th reunion tour), Watkins has played both solo gigs and in a variety of groups including, of course, I’m With Her. In addition to singing and playing fiddle, she also plays ukulele and guitar, and played percussion while touring with The Decemberists. With her brother Sean, Sara has also hosted the Watkins Family Hour, which has been described as an “oasis from the rigors of the road, a laboratory where they can try out new material, or master beloved cover songs.” The monthly show is held at the Largo …

Remembering John Prine

There is no better way to honor the memory of the late John Prine than to pull out an acoustic guitar, play his music, and tell stories about this American Oracle. It is certainly how many who knew John best have been remembering him over the past week. In recent days I’ve been looking through YouTube, print media, television, and blogs to sample the flood of tributes that his musical fans — famous and otherwise — have posted about the songwriter that many called our generation’s Mark Twain. What most of the tributes lack in technical excellence in this time of sheltering at home, they more than make up for in sincere love for the man and his music. The always inventive folks at the NPR Tiny Desk Concert series have pulled together one of the most satisfying remembrances, gathering six singers and songwriters to perform in a “tribute from home” to John Prine. It is among the most touching Tiny Desk concerts ever. Margo Price and husband Jeremy Ivey, begin — appropriately enough in …

Find Your Benefactor Moments

I was reading a journal the other day where the author was describing ways to tap into self-compassion. In it, she suggested that we recall “a benefactor moment, an instance in life ‘when we felt seen, heard and recognized by someone who showed us genuine regard and affection.’” She was quoting Thupten Jimpa, PhD, adjunct professor of religious studies at McGill University and author of A Fearless Heart. By way of example, the author suggested we think of a time when we were speaking during a big work meeting and a colleague begins talking over us. In the moment we begin to question ourselves, wondering if our point had value. But when he’s finished, “your boss redirects the conversation back to you, because she wanted your take. Benefactor moments like these make us feel valued.” The suggestion was that when you question your sense of purpose or usefulness, call upon those moments from your past as reminders that you do have value. In The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology, …

Saturday Music: Holy Week

I was fortunate in my earlier life to sing Baroque and Renaissance music as part of the Shenandoah Valley group Canticum Novum. Custer LaRue, one of the eight-to-twelve singers depending on the gig, was definitely our ringer. I’ve seldom heard such a pure soprano voice. Along with a number of recordings and other highlights in her career, Custer was the “singing voice” of Reese Witherspoon in the movie Vanity Fair. (Custer also sang a solo at our twins’ baptismal service, accompanied by yours truly on guitar. While I doubt it made her musical resume, it was definitely a highlight of my musical career.) The other ringer was Carol Taylor. An award-winning choral director at McGill University, Carol fell in love with the sound of tracker organs and then fell in love with George Taylor, who happens to build world-class tracker organs (with his partner John Boody) in little Staunton, Virginia. I count myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to sing with Custer, and with Debbie Hunter, Lucy Ivey, Shari Shull, Kay Buchannan, Constance …

I’m gonna make you laugh until you cry: R.I.P. John Prine

And now it claims John Prine. Damn. Anyone who ever cared about “a word, after a word, after a word” is grieving today. America lost one of its greatest songwriters to the coronavirus when John Prine died on April 7th at age 73. When I wrote about Prine and his music just a little over three weeks ago, on March 14th — before the world learned he was suffering from the symptoms of COVID-19 — I said it was a good time to recall the work of the man who wrote the classic line, “To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.” Now that he’s gone, we’ll have to be content with what is an amazing body of work by any definition. The origin story could come from a classic Prine song. He was a postman who wrote during his breaks. On a dare from friends (and under the influence of a few beers) he stepped up to an open mic and sang Sam Stone, Hello in There, and Paradise, three …

Struggling with separation

In this time of quarantine, has your daily to-do list deteriorated to the point where it resembles one I saw on a recent YouTube video? 12 pm — Wake up 12:30 pm — Eat cookies 12:45 pm — Change into daytime pajamas… Having recently been gifted two pairs of yoga pants, there are days when those comfortable, loose-fitting sweats certainly fill that daytime pajamas role for me. Of course, many of our fellow citizens of the world don’t have the luxury of rising slowly with fewer demands on their time during this crisis. I have nieces who are juggling teaching their elementary school classes online while helping their own children with their schoolwork. My sister-in-law’s father passed away last weekend after a long illness where she was the primary caregiver. We have neighbors working from home while they juggle taking care of their active and inquisitive children. Our mail and packages and groceries don’t show up each day through magic, but because millions of Americans brave the virus and do their jobs to keep those …

Saturday Music: Aoife O’Donovan

This Saturday I’m featuring the second of the three members of the roots music trio I’m With Her, the gifted singer and songwriter Aoife O’Donovan. A native of Newton, Massachusetts, O’Donovan grew up spending her summers in Ireland and singing songs with her extended family. She studied contemporary improvisation at the New England Conservatory of Music, and joined together with another classmate, plus two Berklee College of Music alums, to form the alternative-bluegrass band Crooked Still. That band, and their impressive debut album Hop High, was where I was introduced to O’Donovan.* Fiddler Brittany Haas (sister of Saturday Music musician Natalie Haas) and cellist Tristan Clarridge joined the band in 2008. Their version of When First Unto This Country is a lively tune representative of O’Donovan’s work during this period. The band is now on hiatus as the members pursue other projects. Many people know O’Donovan through her song Lay My Burden Down, which Alison Krauss included on her Paper Airplane album. For several years, the soulful O’Donovan tune Oh Mama, from her debut solo album Fossils and heard in this live version from …