Today I had to spend a good while putting together a new book of songs for the gig, as my usual binder is packed in a box somewhere. I've been getting a jump on my move by boxing up everything I think I can do without for a few weeks... and a few things, obviously, that should not have gone into boxes just yet. After reluctantly slitting open a few boxes with no success, I decide to just print out new lyric sheets; after all, most of them are saved onto my laptop anyway. This leads to some new song choices, which is refreshing. I decide to bring my ukulele as well as my accordion, since I'm playing more uke than squeezebox these days anyway. As I stagger down the street with my accordion in a knapsack on my back and my uke and purse in my hands, the good angel on my shoulder urges me to check my pack... good thing, because I've left the binder with all my freshly-printed lyric sheets in my bedroom. Stagger back (luckily not far). Surprise the cats with my re-entry. Grab binder, depart again. Two buses later and I'm there.
Up on Three West I begin with a new one: Singing In The Rain. Right away I know it's a good choice as a chorus of voices immediately joins in. I keep 'em coming: Big Rock Candy Mountain into Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen into Blue Days Black Nights... Today's seniors grew up in the '40s and '50s, so I mix country blues, folk, Canadiana, Irish and good old rock 'n roll, with the occasional Big Band-era blaster like Minnie the Moocher or Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey.
Right away I notice a bubble in the air, an energy coming up to me and getting bounced back to the audience through my music. Maybe it's the slightly younger crowd: I see more than a few residents who look to be in their early seventies, even one woman with punky green streaks at the front of her bleached or grey hair. I've always had fun playing at this home, but sometimes I've seen people wheeling or shuffling away before my hour was up. Not this time. Their voices join me on everything from Harvest Moon to Blue Suede Shoes. Maybe it's me. I'm feeling rested and my voice is in fine form. Whatever the reason, today we're cookin'.
Imagine you spent most of your time breathing something that was like oxygen, but wasn't. You'd do fine, but something would be lacking. And then some days, you got to breathe the real deal- your lungs would fill and your eyes would sparkle and you'd feel extra zest and energy you didn't know you were missing- That's what singing and performing feels like to me. Oxygen. Even when I'm sick it lifts me up. When I'm not sick... Pow.
I say this a lot, and I really mean it: I have the incredible good fortune to do what I love for a living. I never thought I'd be a good music teacher, but I love it. I never used to think I'd be a good musical director, but they keep hiring me so I guess I've got the skills. And I DO love my jobs: I love showing kids (or actors) how to put a song together; I like arranging; I like getting to pass on my rag-tag collection of Things I Know. I even like the herding-cats exercise that is teaching preschool music. But here's why I'll never be the best teacher or musical director there is: because there's always going to be this little diva inside of me that is silently yelling Just step aside and let me do it instead, Jesus CHRIST let me because I can do it better than that, because it's all I want to do and I can't, they won't let me they keep hiring me to teach you instead-
Which isn't to say I'm silently hating on you when I work with you or your kids, far from it. (Unless you're really terrible at your job and they hired you instead of me. Then yeah.) It's just... I have this friend who has a doctorate in music education. He's never in his life played in a band, or been in a play, and he's Never. Wanted. To. His passion is teaching music. (He also helped me get my teaching job, for which I'll be eternally grateful.) Mine is performing music.
Today, we make some magic at Royal Arch Masonic Home. Who knows why? I make my way through 21 songs and the seniors are with me every step of the way. Someone (dear god, probably only my parents' age) asks for Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", so I do it, scrolling through the lyrics on my phone with one hand as I stumble through the bass notes on my accordion with the other hand. I am surprised how many voices sing the haunting chorus with me.
I launch into Stan Rogers' "Forty-Five Years" and feel my eyes water a little as I take in the pink and crepe Valentine's Day decorations strung up around the room. The song is Rogers' beautiful tribute to his much-loved wife; how many of the seniors in the room still have their loved ones with them? Too few, I'm thinking. I finish with "Goodnight Irene", which I often close with because I love to hear the old ones sing it with me.
They've handed my money to one of the residents: Ms. Green-Hair. She wheels toward me slowly, a challenge in her eyes. First, she thanks me for bringing some sunshine, because "it can get kind of dreary in here." I bet. Then she says, "But we're not going to give this to you that easily. If you want this, you'll have to do another song for us."
Challenge accepted. It's the first time I've been asked for an encore here. I rifle quickly through my pages: what would be the perfect finisher...
Ah, yes. I put on my accordion and launch into "Folsom Prison Blues", the perfect song for people who are trapped in a seniors home, no matter how nice it is. As I sing, I hear their voices joining me one last time.
I'm stuck in Folsom Prison/And time keeps rolling on/But that train just keeps on moving/On down to San Antoine.
And then I leave, back to the rest of my unfettered life. Breathing that sweet, pure oxygen until my lungs are as full as they can get.