Thursday, November 30, 2017

Why These Christmas Songs Are Perfect For Florida

Ever feel a little awkward singing “The Christmas Song” while sitting in 80-degree weather? I know I have—or at least I’ve chuckled a bit when the line, “Jack Frost nipping at your nose,” comes around. It’s more like, “A/C nipping at your nose.”

Turns out, the song is completely appropriate for our toasty climate. Singer and composer, Mel Torme was in California on the hottest day on record in the mid-40s preparing for a songwriting session with lyricist, Robert Wells. Torme noticed a spiral pad of paper containing four hand-written lines: Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost… Yuletide carols….Folks dressed up like Eskimos.  When Torme asked Wells about the verse, Wells replied that he was just jotting down winter memories of Boston to take his mind off the heat. 

Forty-five minutes later, the songwriting duo finished penning “The Christmas Song,” and it became Nat King Cole’s signature Holiday song and a popular sensation. 


A year later, another composer on the opposite side of the country named Leroy Anderson had a similar experience. Connecticut was undergoing a fierce drought and unseasonal heat wave. While digging for pipes that lead to a spring, Anderson started formulating music with the vision of a 19th century winter scene in his head. He finished composing “Sleigh Ride” a year and a half later after moving to Brooklyn, New York. It was first performed by the Boston Pops Orchestra in May, 1948. The instrumental piece became a huge holiday hit, enjoyed by folks in any clime. In 1950, Mitchell Parish added lyrics: Just hear those sleigh bells ring-a-ling, ting, ting, ting-a-ling, too…

Photo credit – The Leroy Anderson Foundation

And then there’s the obvious pining-for-snow song, “White Christmas.” Truly, few north-eastern transplants are wishing for the white stuff, due to harrowing memories of shoveling it, scraping it and slipping on it for too many years. They’re most likely ecstatic to be miles away from the slush, and probably moved to the Sunshine State to escape it.  But, hailing from snow-deprived Southern California, and being spared the cold’s down side, I still romanticize the sight of whipped cream scenery, and sing every word of Irving Berlin’s verse. The sun is shining, the grass is green. The orange and palm trees sway. There’s never been such a day in Beverly Hills, LA. But, it’s December the 24th, and I am longing to be up north. I’m dreaming of a White Christmas…

So, here are a few South Florida events that will help you forget the temperature and find that Holiday frame of mind:  See the Del Rey Tree Lighting or Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite Ballet” at the Kravis Center December 1st through the 3rd. Take in “A Christmas Carol” at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, playing through December 2nd.  “A Christmas Carol - the Musical” is also offered throughout the month.  And don’t miss the classic, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” at the Kravis Center on December 23rd.

If those productions don’t get you into the Holiday spirit, try singing this Florida-inspired parody of “The Christmas Song.”

Chuck steaks roasting on an open grill
A/C nipping at your nose
Yule tide carols being sung by the pool
That overflows with dangling toes

Everybody knows a turkey and some mojitos
Help to make the spirits bright
Shiny yachts with their decks all aglow
Will twinkle on Palm Beach tonight

We all know Santa’s on his way
He’s bringing high-powered generators on his sleigh
Every adult and child is going to spy
To see his reindeer touching down at PBI

And so I’m offering this simple phrase
To snowbirds 12 to 92
Although we might sweat, we will celebrate yet
Merry Christmas to you!
 (Lyrics © 2017 A. Shaw)

Saturday, September 23, 2017

A Power Never Lost

When this article posts, Hurricane Irma may be a distant memory. But I have a hunch that for most Floridians, the ordeal will not be soon forgotten--especially the prolonged loss of power for 65% of us.

While I was among the fortunate 35% who never lost electricity, I'm quick to remember Hurricanes Jeanne, Francis and Wilma which brought lengthy outages (over 10 days). Our house became a sauna, and 'camping' routines immediately commenced.  We cooked on the grill, hung laundry outside, and took cold tubs to cool down.

There's no question that electricity is a necessity in this hothouse of a state. Not only do our bodies melt, but the interiors of our dwellings are damaged by constant moisture--and this is a fact for eight months out of the year.

Irma reminded us how important power is. How distressing the loss of it can be.

As a musician and art lover, I've noticed another power that is equally essential to our well being--and if lost, would deprive us of a wide spectrum of comfort and relief. The week after the hurricane, I was working at home teaching piano, when I noticed otherwise crabby family members emerge from their rooms with faces appearing transformed. There was a brightness--a look of peace. I observed then and there how the mere sound of melody can soothe jagged nerves and calm agitated tempers. Hence, the power of music.

This is no surprise to most, but bears repeating. An entire field of study is dedicated to this phenomenon. Medical institutions harness Music Therapy regularly in their emotional and psychological recovery regimens. says: “ out the good in everybody. Favorite songs have the power to uplift the spirit, tap into lost memories and foster meaningful relationships.

President and CEO of Cobble Hill Health Center in Brooklyn, New York, Tony Lewis points out that music is much more effective than expensive mood altering medications.   In addition, there's no need for pages of side effect disclaimers.

We've experienced firsthand what life is like without electricity. But what would it be like without music? It would be a beige, treeless desert, a one dimensional existence. There would be no earbuds pumping favorite vibes, nothing to work or dance to. No songs, bands or orchestras. Self-expression would lose its aural creative vehicle.That would be a true disaster and real sustained loss.

Hollywood Bowl - Jams Plus

Besides losing a major mood enhancer, without music our minds would suffer too.

Studies show that musicians have more symmetrical brains than non-musicians. The areas that are responsible for motor control, auditory processing and spatial coordination function better. Musicians also have a more developed corpus callosum, which is the band of nerve fibers that enables the two hemispheres to communicate with each other.

With all those smarts waiting to be had, everyone should go out and take up an instrument. And why not? Now that we have power, a hot shower and cool air, why not get down to the business of living and improving our quality of life; of taking advantage of the opportunity to make music. 

The benefits are as close as a strum on a guitar, a stroke on the piano or a puff into a recorder. The power of music  is--literally--at our fingertips.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Post Irma Disorder

I wake up the day after the hurricane and tell my husband, "Better cancel your gym visit and I'll reschedule my nail appointment. He laughs. After what Irma left behind, today is a day for rakes and chainsaws, not treadmills and pedicures.

Morning light pierces the dark shuttered house as I open the door to survey the outside world. I wade through an obstacle course of poinciana branches and palm fronds. The trees took a whipping from this Category 1 storm. Irma actually landed as a Category 3 on the other side of the state. Here, 200 miles away from the eye, it was more like a  Cat 1. Still, it raked our neighborhood with a fury.

Neighbor's front yard

The shredded trees look like yesterday's nerves when we rode the Irma roller coaster. Cooped up inside, between whistling wind, distant eerie rumbling,  tornado warning buzzes that grated every fifteen minutes, and cranky family members (myself included), the nerves were snapped and dangling just like our ficus branches.

Morning moon the day after.


With every tornado warning, the emergency recording commands to find shelter away from windows. I try to rally the family into the windowless bathroom, but they pay no attention. The 88 year-old mother-in-law can't hear. At one point, she finally understands the TV tornado alerts, so we both go into the bathroom with small chairs, cushions, tea, a Bible and a deck of cards.

"Tim, come give us a Bible study in the bathroom," Grandma hollers.
My husband ignores her. She leaves to go get something. I call out, "Are you coming?"
Annoyed, Tim answers, "No, I'm not coming!"
"I wasn't talking to you. I was talking to your mother. I know you're not coming."
(This is the kind of mis-communication madness that we sank to during the peak of the storm.) Perhaps devastation would have been better, I think more than once.

Mother-in-law comes back to the bathroom. I light a candle, so that in case the power goes out, we aren't in complete darkness.
"Why is that wick lit," she asks, eyebrows furrowed.  There's no explaining to her. She will either argue or not hear. I give up and I blow out the flame.

"Have a seat, " I say pointing to the chair.
"No, I want to sit on the floor," she insists, plopping down on a couch cushion. "We'll see if I can get up, later." My thoughts exactly, of course, kept to myself. She keeps calling for Tim to give us a Bible lesson.

I grab the cards and not the Bible.

"Do you remember how to play poker?" I ask her.
"I don't know," she says. "Let's just play and see."
I deal. We play two rounds. She beats the snot out of me. Her two Jacks beat my two Fours; she creams my flush with a Royal Flush, proving she remembers poker just fine.

Tornado warning is over, and after a great effort to lift herself off the floor, she trots happily off to the TV news. Yet another warning demands we take cover for 15 minutes more. I disregard it and grandma doesn't hear. This goes on for three miserable hours.

Irma over Cuba, the day before her Florida visit.

I vacillate from extreme mental irritation to impromptu dancing in the kitchen. One moment grandma is asking why I fixed the same dinner two nights in a row? Why didn't she get Tim's kale? Why did I serve her so much spaghetti? The next moment, Tim and she are arm wrestling and goofing off. Cabin Fever defined.

Throughout the day, I distract myself by sorting old photos, but am jolted by the reality that a fierce hurricane whirls outside. I better cook lunch before the lights goes out. We should eat dinner before the power fails. Wash each dish after you use it. Check the backyard trees. Did they fall on the neighbor's car? Oh God, not Keith's car! He's so careful about hurricane preparations. He boarded up a week ago--at night--and even removed his mail box off its stand so it wouldn't blow away. I would be mortified if so much as a twig landed on his property. Most of the time it's too windy to dare open a door, much less slosh into the yard to investigate tree conditions.

Florida landfall

Thankfully we never lose power. All that relational chaos in the a candle-lit cave would have been unbearable.

Later, when the howling wind softens, husband and I pour wine. A drink on the patio might end a tumultuous day quite nicely. I set out chairs and stemware, but the wind still whips. So I pull it all into the house. Instead, Tim and I sneak the White Zinfandel into the bedroom (mother-in-law would not approve), and relax. We do a little more than relax. I wonder if couples all over the county are "relaxing" the same way we are after the week's ordeal.

Today, we face several day's worth of clean up.Tim had trimmed trees in advance, but it was little  help. Time to reset our surroundings

and our psyches.

But, better the trees and not the roof. Better our nerves and not our lives. Better on so many levels. Seven days of harrowing preparation and tormenting thoughts of loss, have turned into a welcomed day of peace. Now when I think of my faithful God, his protection and severe mercies, gratitude comes from a deeper place inside, a place that wasn't there before the hurricane.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Hamilton and Hurricane Irma

It's September 2017, and Africa spits them out with the regularity of a pinball machine. Foamy pinwheels ping off her gold coast into the steamy Atlantic, leering like swirling balls of destruction.

Each satellite trail of orange and pink pools strikes terror in every Floridian's heart. Will it go out to sea? Will it gain strength? Will it make it's dreaded northwest voyage and unwelcome visit to the fearful eastern sea board?

We prepare. We despair. We wait. Mostly, we pray.

We pray that this strongest-ever category 5 monster named Irma will go more east or more west or for God's sake settle down to a normal cat 2 strength--one that we're somewhat accustomed to. 

But praying is a tricky thing. If God loves everyone equally and if we are all truly deserving of justice for our sins, why should He pass one over and not the other? We groan. The earth groans.

Mexico 8.3 earthquake. Hurricane Harvey flooding in Texas. Fires in LA. Refugees in Syria.

Why are we any more special than anyone else when we pray? A little suffering might do us lazy, complacent, hedonistic Americans some good. Our souls could use a good sifting.

Here's how Alexander Hamilton put it in his September 6, 1772 letter to his father about the hurricane in St Croix:

Where now, oh! vile worm, is all thy boasted fortitude and resolution? What is become of thine arrogance and self sufficiency? Why dost thou tremble and stand aghast? How humble, how helpless, how contemptible you now appear. And for why? The jarring of elements—the discord of clouds? Oh! impotent presumptuous fool! how durst thou offend that Omnipotence, whose nod alone were sufficient to quell the destruction that hovers over thee, or crush thee into atoms? See thy wretched helpless state, and learn to know thyself. Learn to know thy best support. Despise thyself, and adore thy God. 

It's no wonder that Hamilton's published letter in the Royal Danish American Gazette won him a college grant.  The work of this island adolescent makes my above descriptions look like a second grader's.

It began about dusk, at North, and raged very violently till ten o’clock. Then ensued a sudden and unexpected interval, which lasted about an hour. Meanwhile the wind was shifting round to the South West point, from whence it returned with redoubled fury and continued so ’till near three o’clock in the morning. Good God! what horror and destruction. Its impossible for me to describe or you to form any idea of it. It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place. The roaring of the sea and wind, fiery meteors flying about it in the air, the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning, the crash of the falling houses, and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed, were sufficient to strike astonishment into Angels. A great part of the buildings throughout the Island are levelled to the ground, almost all the rest very much shattered; several persons killed and numbers utterly ruined; whole families running about the streets, unknowing where to find a place of shelter; the sick exposed to the keeness of water and air without a bed to lie upon, or a dry covering to their bodies; and our harbours entirely bare. In a word, misery, in all its most hideous shapes, spread over the whole face of the country. 

Irma is a bully lunging westward, swinging her 185 mph fists ready to pummel anyone in her path.
We are mortal wimps powerless before this 400-mile wide thug.

Some flee the state. But who knows if cavalier Irma will flippantly change her mind? Today's northward traveler could end up in tomorrow's center of the cone. Despite our hurricane hunters and holographic newscasts,  her ways are never certain. She has a mind of her own.

And then there's Hurricane Katia and Jose not far behind...

Thursday, July 20, 2017

A Swig of Sweeney Todd

If musical thrillers are your cup of tea, Palm Beach Dramaworks' "Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is served up hot, black and acidic. Stephen Sondheim's caustic wit and the killer cast stir up a libation that goes down—unlike Mr. Todd’s straight-edge—easy on the throat.

Photo credit - Palm Beach Daily News

Based on the book by Hugh Wheeler, the show plays through August 5th at the theater's 201 Clematis Street location. Palm Beach Dramaworks offers viewers under 40 the chance to "pay their age" for admission. So if they're 18, then tickets cost $18. No matter what the age, attendees will be disturbingly entertained  as they sip this brew of genius wordplay, gritty Dickensian setting and razor-sharp execution.

After serving an ill-deserved 15-year sentence in Australia, Mr. Todd is propelled on a path of revenge. When he is unable to "do in" the shady judge, Sweeney turns on the London commonfolk.

In the song, "The Barber and His Wife," he justifies his barber-ic shaving methods:

There's a hole in the world
Like a great black pit
And the vermin of the world
Inhabit it
And its morals aren't worth 
What a pig could spit,
And it goes by the name of London.

Sondheim's quasi-dissonant, yet ever-hauntingly beautiful melodies are steeped with commentary on the human condition. Under the direction of Clive Cholerton—and with top-notch actors like Ruthie Stephens (Mrs. Lovett), Shane Tanner (Sweeney Todd) and Paul Louis Lessard (Anthony Hope)—“The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" delivers a strong blend of depravity and dark love.

Come take a hearty gulp of Sweeney Todd at Palm Beach Dramaworks. Like me, however, you might pass on the pie at intermission—or at least eye it suspiciously...

Photo Credit - Palm Beach Illustrated

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

When Speaking or Teaching...

...Always prepare, and always be prepared to adapt to the moment.


There's nothing worse than having had the opportunity to speak and then to have missed making the right point.

I was tossing and turning last night because I kept rehearsing the speech I wish I would have made at a city council meeting last week. I was too attached to my pre-written talk. I was afraid to veer off the plan and be impromptu, but wished I had dumped my speech, and instead referenced all those who had so eloquently testified before my turn, and made kind of a closing argument.  That would have been effective!

Prepare?  Yes, absolutely do! But be prepared to switch gears and capitalize on the changes in the room.

That is the key to making a powerful verbal impact.

And the way to avoid spending sleepless nights re-rolling the tape on what you wish you had said.

Another time I prepared for a music camp session for elementary age kids.  What I didn't know was their temperment, age or abilities. I practically threw out the order of activities, but was very glad to have brought pre-planned tools, instruments and videos in for the class.
So I'll say it again,

When speaking and teaching, always prepare, and be prepared to adapt to the moment.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

A Tribute to Tribute Bands

     They’re popping up all over.  And music fans—especially mid-century-born enthusiasts—couldn’t be happier. They can experience their teenage music several times a month here in South Florida.  The music of Billy Joel, the Supremes, Temptations, and Bruce Springsteen are just a ticket and a short drive away.  In fact, in July alone the Wellington Amphitheatre will feature The Beach Boys and Johnny Cash, Jimmy Hendrix and The Beatles.
     Last Sunday I took in a Donna Summer tribute sung by her sister, Mary Gaines Bernard.  Because Mary was Donna’s sibling—and sang back-up for a good part of her career—Mary’s look and sound was spot-on to the Disco Queen’s. 

     Since I was new to the tribute band phenomena, I was struck by the audience’s raucous response. They were up and dancing and singing along for the entire concert. Afterward, I overheard some folks talking. “Yeah, wasn’t this great?  There’s a Rod Stewart band playing in a couple of weeks. We’ll come by and pick you up.” Following your favorite old band has become an area pastime.

     Tribute bands began to gain popularity in the mid-90s. Some say it was a response to rap music, and the market’s inability to embrace the new inner city genre. Tribute bands were a welcomed throw-back.  Others criticize tribute acts because they feel they’re not authentic. The musicians are likened to posers and wannabes who never made their own mark. But for many, the music of the 60s, 70s, and 80s had an integral part of their youth, and the mere sound—even just a few bars of a song’s introduction—can jolt the listener back to the glory days of adolescence. It’s a trip to the past, transporting them to more carefree and footloose times.

     Today, like cover bands, dance bands, etc., tribute bands have been accepted as a legitimate genre.  Documentaries, TV shows and multiple articles have been devoted to the subject. 

     With more than 100 acts playing here in South Florida, audiences have cultivated detailed expectations from their favorite throw-backs. From ABBA to ZZTop, the Beatles to Bon Jovi, there are specific requirements that make up a top-notch tribute band. 


     First and foremost, they must look the part, which includes, hair length and color, hats, glasses (or none), facial hair or not, costumes and shoes.  Casting is as critical as talent.  Imagine Elton John without platform shoes and funky glasses; or Stevie Nicks without a black shawl and a fringed scarf flowing from her tambourine, or Elvis without a collared, bell-bottom suit and ankle boots. The visual personality must replicate the Real McCoy.  Reba McEntire is not Reba without red hair.

     Part of that ‘image’ is mannerisms and gestures.  Sound-alike artists study video upon video to learn how the celebrity comes across on stage.  Do they pace, jump, lean, or dance while performing, like Janis Joplin, Michael Jackson or Tina Turner?  Or do they sit calmly on a stool—acoustic guitar in hand—like James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and Simon and Garfunkel? Hand gestures and singing style are key features that a tribute artist works to imitate. 


      Obviously, the group is expected to play their songs as close to the recording as possible. Vocal timbre is huge.  It wouldn’t be Joe Cocker or Rod Stewart if they didn’t have a gritty voice. Without stacked harmonies, The Beach Boys and Fleetwood Mac would not sound authentic. Garth Brooks imitators better have a twang, and Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond’s vocal range better live in the basement. Song arrangements stay tightly within the reins of their radio or CD likenesses. 


       Rather than replicate the music exactly, some groups have exercised creative liberty and added a twist to their show. In 2009, an all-girl band called Blonde Jovi remixed Bon Jovi’s music (and incidentally, caught a law-suit from the latter and changed their name for a brief life afterward).  Beatallica does a Metallica version of Beatles tunes. (They also got in trouble with Sony Music, but won). And the boys in Dread Zeppelin do Led Zeppelin in a reggae style. Many of these copy-cat groups have developed a following of their own.

     Tribute bands offer music-lovers the chance to relive that unique moment a hit was first heard on the radio or in concert. And audiences are not comprised of just aging rockers who grew up in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.  Plenty of today’s young adults can be found moving and grooving to Elton John, the Doors, James Taylor or Rush.

     Younger concert goers can also hear shows that feature existing artists, like Lady Gaga, Michael Buble, and Dave Matthews.  Rather than bring back the past, some tribute acts are simply riding the wave of current pop successes, and peddling acts such as Adele, One Direction, and Beyonce.
But, whatever your musical taste is, somebody’s playing it at a venue or amphitheatre near you. Take advantage of the Tribute Band trend and go hear yesterday’s favorite Top 40 tunes, today. 

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