Exceptional Teachers – Exceptional Students

Two events last weekend by organizations that I’ve been involved with for a very long time reminded me of the importance of dedicated teachers in the arts. The Duke University Pre-Collegiate String School (or DUSS), founded by Dorothy Kitchen, celebrated it’s 40th anniversary Saturday. I’ve had the privilege of working with Dorothy for almost 25 years now and have witnessed her transform/mold/empower/encourage the lives of so many young people. Through an era of schools cutting back on music ensembles she kept string playing alive and well in the Triangle. In a world that rewards cheating and cutting corners she gives her students the permission to work toward perfection and helps them find the rewards and joys of putting your heart and soul and sweat and tears into making beautiful music happen. That she has done this for so many years, and continues to do it with a grueling teaching schedule in addition to being a wife, mother, grandmother and a person with many, many other interests in the world is a tribute to her dedication to making real, quality music-making a possibility for every young person who wants it.

Another wonderful person making the arts a reality for young people is Gene Medler, founder and director of the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble. I played (in a jazz trio) for NCYTE’s Spring Concert last weekend. First off, this is NOT your average children’s tap group. NCYTE is THE standard for youth tap across the country. The NCYTE approach reminds me of the Suzuki teaching approach. The company performs many of the same pieces year to year along with some newly choreographed works and reworked older ones. The older kids teach the dances to the younger kids. There is a lot of one-on-one between the students with very little intervention on the part of the teacher. Guest artists/teachers from the professional world of tap as well as former students drop in to round out the mix. There is a real sense of community there as well as some friendly competition. But all are working together for the good of the company.

The DUSS approach is much more top-down which is understandable given that the process involves private lessons with a teacher and orchestras with a conductor. But as I said – both methods yield excellent results. Gene Medler and Dorothy Kitchen’s approaches to teaching are probably miles apart but the result is the same – young people with a very high degree of artistic excellence and enthusiasm.

Seeing/hearing the young people in performance is the reward for the rest of us. I highly recommend you keep an eye out for upcoming performances by these groups.


Bad Memories

From time to time I get sudden flashbacks to some bad or embarrassing scene from the past. They make me shudder or exhale or sometimes even mutter something to try and make the thought pass on. They are nothing big and I don’t know why they plague me decades later but they live on in my body somewhere. One of the most frequent visitors is from college days – freshmen orientation, to be exact. It was the only time in my life I asked a total, absolute stranger for a date. We’d hardly had 20 words together before I asked her out. She declined, of course, but it was the gaping moment of silence that preceded that jabs me in the gut every now and then. I doubt she was stunned. I think she just wanted to see me squirm for a bit before she replied – give me time to regret. It worked.

But the memory that caught me off guard this morning is one that I’d forgotten for many years. It was third grade. Spring. The teacher told us to write a poem about Spring. I wrote the first thing that came to mind which was a song we’d learned to sing in second grade. It went like this:

“Robin, Robin, singing in the rain
Robin, Robin, Spring has come again”

and finished with something like:

“Pretty little Robin in the apple tree”

The teacher liked it so much (perhaps it had that familiar ring to it) that she sent it off to a children’s literary magazine who published it. I knew none of this until it was printed. My parents had signed a waiver to allow the publication, I might have even received some money, I don’t remember. I just remember being horrified that I would be found out – I had stolen this poem from our second grade sing-a-long book. I seem to remember trying to tell my mom that I hadn’t written this poem but I don’t remember her reaction or if she even understood what I was telling her.

I guess this all came back because it’s Spring – the robins are here. I can’t remember the third line of the song (and there were other verses but I only used the first one). If you know the rest or where it comes from let me know. The tune (on cello) is below if you want to listen.


Thanks to the wonders of the internet – a total stranger found this post and sent me the song:

“Robin, Robin, singing in the rain,
  Robin, Robin, Spring has come again,
  Robin, Robin, sing a song for me,
  Pretty little robin in the apple tree.”
(sung at P.S.193, Brooklyn NY in the 1940’s) 

Many thanks to Linda Kelso!


And Sally writes:

“I have a good memory of my brother, now 59, singing the song about the robin. It has been in my head these past few days and I Googled what I remembered of the lyrics and came upon your post. My sister and I remember it as happy rather than pretty robin! Shared these memories and your post with a friend named Robin whose birthday is today. Thanks for sharing your memory of this song.

I am from Indiana. I think my grandmother, who was from Northern Indiana, or my aunt, who was a first grade teacher, also in Northern Indiana, taught my brother the song. He is now almost 59, so would have learned it in the late ’50s or early ’60s. He also remembers as happy/rather than pretty robin, and singing in the tree/rather than rain.”


And here’s the tune as I remember it:

Trio in the Rough

I’ve been playing music with guitarist Bernie Petteway on and off for many years. We had a quartet, The Wasabi Brothers, for several years playing electric/eclectic jazz-sort-of. For the last few years we’ve been playing sporadically with drummer Ed Butler as the Bernie Petteway Trio.Bernie Petteway Trio

I’m reluctant to call this a “jazz trio” though we do play jazz. It’s more than that so let’s just say we’re an “improvising ensemble” using a wide array of material from the jazz, popular, and folk traditions as a spring board. This is a fun ensemble to play with and while we tend to draw out of the same pool of tunes from one performance to the next, everything that happens is pretty spontaneous. We play well together.

You can hear us almost every 1st Thursday of the month at the General Store Cafe in downtown Pittsboro, NC – just off the traffic circle. The food there is great and there are wonderful crafts scattered around the restaurant making it a very interesting place visually.

We’ll be there this coming Thursday, February 1st, at 8:00 PM for 2 hours of good music for our friends. Hope you’ll come! 

UPDATE: Gig canceled due to bad weather. The General Store Cafe will be closed tonight.

UPDATE 2: – In March we’ll be performing on the 15th, not the 1st.


the sound of no hands clapping

What if they gave a concert and no one came?

It’s a running joke/sad truth amongst musicians about the shows where the band outnumbers the audience. I’ve been there. It doesn’t matter if it’s an eighty piece orchestra with fifty people in the audience or a quintet with an audience of three. It feels bad either way. But it can be good. I played in Dana Auditorium in Greensboro, NC, once. It’s a large concert hall. There were four of us. Well – the audience did outnumber the band but not by much – I think there were 15 of them. We put chairs on stage so they would be right up next to us and it was great – like a living room concert. I think they even had a sofa up there that was a prop for some theater piece. The audience loved the intimacy and we got to play acoustically just like playing at home.

But it’s never happened before to me that simply not one person showed up for the gig until last Tuesday in Rocky Mount, NC. The Imperial Centre is Rocky Mount’s new arts and science complex. It was built with FEMA money (Rocky Mount was badly flooded during huricane Floyd) and private donations. It’s a beautiful performance space – looks like it seats around 800. Nice facilities, good acoustics. I believe it opened early this year and they’ve had some theater productions in there. According to the tech guy ours was the first music performance in the new space. I was playing bass with the David D. Trio – David DiGiuseppe on accordion, and Beverly Botsford, percussion. Sound check went quickly and well – excellent staff there at the Imperial (that name really bothers me, though). It seemed that there had been no advance ticket sales and I jokingly suggested we round up some folding chairs to put on stage in case we only had 10 listeners. But by showtime it was clear that it was no joke – not one person had shown up. Our host assured us we would have “a small audience” and by 8:15 a group of 12 people walked in and we scoured the dressing rooms for folding chairs. Our audience was a tap dance class that had been meeting in another part of the complex and been drafted to be our audience. They were augmented by a few staff members dragged out of their offices. 

This story could have had a sad ending – us packing up and driving home without playing a note but I think I enjoyed it even more than if we’d had a crowd of hundreds. Our new friends were ecstatic with the music they had no idea they were going to be hearing. They got to ask questions during the performance, we were much more relaxed than we would have been playing across the void between stage and rows of plush seats, and a very good time was had by all.

And in the great tradition of bureaucratic organizations – the check is in the mail…… 

Pete and Woody and Me

I’ve had the privilege of sharing the stage with many wonderful and famous musicians over the years – from Isaac Stern and Jean Pierre Rampal to Margaret Whiting and Patti Page to Tal Farlow and Charlie Byrd. But on October 5th I got to perform with one of America’s greatest living legends – Pete Seeger. At 87 years old Pete is as powerful as ever and the sold out crowd at the Birchmere was all ears and appreciation for Pete and all the rest of the musicians performing the Woody Guthrie Tribute. 

There’s a review here.

Pete told some wonderful stories about his times with Woody and though his voice was a bit wispy at the beginning of the show he was booming by the end. The man loves to talk about the state of things and is a convincing communicator. He’s also wonderful to look at. He still looks great and is always photogenic. With his Clearwater cap and banjo slung over his shoulder, jeans and work shirt he looks much as did when I last saw him over 30 years ago. His singing is clear and, of course, the audience needs very little encouragement to sing along with him. His banjo playing is as sparse and elegant as ever.

There were many fine musicians on the program and we all played together and in various combinations.  I was there with Baldemar Velasquez and Jesse Ponce representing FLOC. I’m playing on their new CD which should be out soon  – all sales go to support FLOC’s work. The show was MC’d by Cathy Fink who, with Marcy Marxer, introduced us to some of Woody’s wonderful children’s songs. Woody’s granddaughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie and her partner Johnny Irion were the charming duo of the evening – beautiful singing and playing. The program was organized by Joe Uehlein and his band The U-Liners provided some kick-ass playing for the evening. Watch out for their young, hot guitarist Avril Smith – she’ll be making waves soon.

The Birchmere is a wonderful place to play. They take good care of the musicians and it’s smoke-free and people go to listen to the music instead of socialize (signs on the tables request that you not talk during the performance).

All in all it was one of the most uplifting concerts I’ve been involved with for a long time. 

Food for Thought

Back when life was crazier – on the road a lot and not taking time to take care of myself – I used to eat a lot of fast food, especially on the way to gigs. A good quick meal was a cheese burger and a small fries and a cup of really awful coffee. I don’t remember exactly at what point “small” fries disappeared from the burger chain menus but I just never could remember to order anything different and was always surprised to be reminded “we only have medium and large fries.” Why they couldn’t just give me medium fries when I asked for small I don’t know – I mean, it’s the smallest that they have. But no, I’d have to be reprimanded for asking for this non-existent item. I never figured out what was so uncool about small fries but in the burger world they were taboo. Well, after years of eating right I got a hankering for some grease the other day and being out and about decided to drop in on Mickey D – the old golden arches up in Hillsborough. Something odd caught my eye on the drive-through menu. Small Fries. 99 cents. Wow. I fell for it. But it was a trap. “Honey, are you sure you really want the small fries? The medium ones are just a penny more.” I was caught. What American could resist up-sizing for just a penny more. OK. I’ll take the medium ones. I had to stop in the middle of the parking lot just to make sure I really got my cheeseburger. It was buried under the largest pile of fries I had ever seen. My reward for making the right choice. I think I see what is happening here. Enough people complained about not having the option of getting only a small portion of grease and salt. The burger people listened. These are dangerous times for the fast food world. But that prejudice – whatever it is – against small fries is still strong and the marketing people have set out to prove that no one really wants small fries. They know you can’t resist up-sizing to the medium for just a penny more. For now it’s back to tempeh for me.