This wasn’t Mozart, and it ain’t no jungle

My favorite weekend of the year is always the last weekend in July. The Lowell Folk 2017-Jul-29_Folk-Festival-2017_1195_edited-1Festival – a free (!) and frenetic amalgam of music, food, and culture – is worth planning around, which is, exactly what we do.

2017-Jul-30_Lowell-Folk-Fest-2017_1323Over the 31 years that the festival has been here, it seems to me it has developed into a better and better version of itself. This year, with stellar weather, not too hot and most definitely not too humid, was one of the best.

The music is naturally one of the biggest draws. 2017-Jul-28_2017-LowellFolkFestival_1031Where else can you go to sample everything from Armenian to Zydeco? I mean that literally.  When we first started coming to the Festival, we would carefully plan out which bands to listen to, and that’s not a bad strategy, really. But what we’ve done in recent times is move from place to place listening to music that is not necessarily in our cultural comfort zone. Doing so has been a great way to get some exposure to music we wouldn’t necessarily listen to on Pandora or iTunes.  Great stuff.


Over the years, we’ve also come to appreciate Friday nights, the first night of Folk Festival. While the crowds and 2017-Jul-28_2017-LowellFolkFestival_1036excitement of Saturday and Sunday of Festival weekend are energetic, there is a different kind of vibe to Friday. There is a goodly amount of community pride when the 6:30 parade kicks off. Representing many – not all – of the cultures of Lowell, it causes this Blowellian to realize what a special community we have here in Lowell. The diverse cultures making up our community fabric is a great source of pride for all of us. Long-established cultures that immigrated here during the hey days of the mills or newer immigrant groups establishing homes – all were represented in the kick-off to the weekend. 2017-Jul-28_2017-LowellFolkFestival_1039

But there was a little something more this past Friday: there was a feeling of kind togetherness and consideration. A festival-goer, a stranger to me, insisted I take a cushion as I knelt down on the grass of Boarding House Park to photograph the parade. Random concert goers started up and 2017-Jul-28_2017-LowellFolkFestival_1100_edited-1carried on conversations, enjoying the music and the collegiality.  I think this shift in attitudes must have become contagious. One of the Park Rangers we spoke with on Sunday was delighted to point out his radio had been 2017-Jul-28_2017-LowellFolkFestival_1153very quiet all weekend because, in spite of large crowds, everyone was well-behaved.

An event of this size takes lots of organization and many, many dedicated volunteers – from fundraisers to recyclers to people who run the cameras for broadcast.  If you were at this year’s festival, you may have run into a few of them from the Bucket Brigade. 2017-Jul-28_2017-LowellFolkFestival_1111In order to put on a festival of this size, there is a huge financial commitment from community partnerships to donations large and small.  You can continue to donate to the Lowell Festival Foundation’s fundraising efforts and, in doing so, get ready for the next festival.

Next summer, on the last weekend of July, the dedicated volunteers and sponsors who organize Lowell Folk Festival will do it all again for the 32nd time.  I know where I will be, and I hope you’ll join in the fun too.



Is STEM the only thing?

2016-Sep-10_FiddleBanjo2016_1362Is STEM the only thing? I’m asking for a friend.

It occurs to me that in the rush to turn out worker bees for business sectors, the focus in education is more than a little skewed in favor of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Yes, these are all important studies and part of a well-rounded balanced education. However, I am questioning that the focus on STEM has over-shadowed other content and curricula that, in my biased opinion, should be equally important.

Because I see education in terms of an avenue toward a pursuit, observing the march of the bureaucrats toward the next great crisis in education is equally frustrating and alarming. Our educational goal should be to “hook” students into becoming life-long students, to foster curiosity and questioning and the drive to know more.

And maybe that pathway toward becoming lifetime learners is through a STEM discipline, and perhaps it is not.

As a student, my personal pathway into learning was through something quite different. I was a more-than-adequate reader, not a particularly skilled writer, and a horribly incompetent math student.  What fired me up to become more disciplined about learning and more successful as a student, was a love and pursuit of music. The irony of this statement is that, as an adult, music has taken a backseat to the very disciplines that catch all the attention today – technology and mathematics.

To me, it is more important to teach students to think critically, to process logically and, yes, even scientifically. Science, math, and technology are important and great ways to get to those problem-solving and thinking skills. But other disciplines can be a means to this end – and toward the goal of fostering and enduring desire to learn – too. And for the student whose interest in learning lies in arts and humanities, exclusion of such pursuits leave them flat.

So while our education policy makers direct a refocus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, I hope there might also be a similar pursuit of arts and humanities. Because, in my opinion, there is a need to balance educational pursuits across all disciplines.

Text to Self Connection

When I was an undergraduate, practicing piano or flute was a drudgery that I could barely tolerate. I put in what I needed to put in to get through a performance, and, given that I was an adept reader of scores, that was pretty minimal.  I can recall sitting in several Form and Analysis classes and wondering how the heck I could cut it without affecting my grade.

This winter, as I have begun to become reacquainted with my piano, I’ve been mentally revisiting those music analysis classes. And I’ve discovered that while I struggle to activate the muscle memory for reaches on keys that I used to be able to just do, I’ve missed some things. I have been so focused on playing the notes accurately I have missed the nuance.

When I finally reached a level of note-playing that I could pay attention to the meaning of the melodic line, it was very freeing. Suddenly (well that’s not the right word!) I could hear what the piece should sound like. I understood.

And isn’t that exactly what happens with readers and writers. Our struggling readers and writers do their best to decode and mimic the writing elements of a genre. We offer up mentor texts, but unless we can take the time to analyze these texts with depth (and rigor), the students can only uncover the basics.

I think we try to do too much too quickly these days. A mile wide and an inch deep should not be the curriculum model we aspire to. Students need time and guidance to understand and to write agilely.

My connection? Learning to play a piece of music, moving beyond simply playing the score accurately, is very much like reading and writing.

The Road Not Taken

A lifetime ago, I was involved in music. Growing up, as I did, in the midwest – home of Friday night football and marching bands – I can’t even remember when music performance wasn’t on the radar. As an elementary school student we were prepared to be in the high school music program fairly early, fourth or fifth grade.  If the band director mentioned there was a need for saxophones in a couple of years, well everyone scrambled to rent a sax and take lessons the minute we were deemed old enough to take instrumental music lessons. By junior high, we were competing to be first chair in each section; as for me I belonged in the flute section.

I also was a semi-serious pianist. I could sight read music fairly easily. When I went to undergraduate school, I was a music education major. In between methods classes and exposure to all genres of music – you haven’t really lived until you’ve attempted a final music history exam complete with “drop the needle” listening tests (needle, as in phonograph records), I worked at becoming a better performer, not as a soloist, but as an accompanist. Probably not very hard though – I hate, hate, hate practicing and drilling. And without practice, without the drills and exercises, excellence in sight reading could only take me so far. Short fingers and less-than-optimal technique sealed my fate as a music has-been.

Do I miss being able to play? I may have left my music life behind, but I do miss playing for myself. Now when I sit at my piano – one that we bought when we were first married – I look at the music on the page, I can imagine how it is played and how it should sound, but my fingers don’t cooperate. The muscle memory that used to allow me to automatically reach from one key to another with precision has atrophied. When I reach for an octave, I sometimes get a seventh.

While I know that the career path I ultimately chose was the right one, there is something left unsatisfied. The demands on me leave  no time to seriously revitalize piano techniques that have long lapsed. Maybe maturity would allow the discipline to practice to kick in, but my dislike of practice would probably come roaring right back.

Yet, there is that feeling of something left unfinished. How different would life be had I stayed with music? It is the question that will remain unanswered.