Wednesday, November 29, 2006

playing small

This weekend we saw a wall hanging with words that "cut me to the quick," and, in a relatively rare moment of extravagance, we bought it. On the spot. Don't have a permanent place for it yet, but it's hanging now in my little room/studio/creative space where I can see it as I write.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate...
Our deepest fear is that we are all powerful
beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness
that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves: Who am I to be brilliant,
gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are we not to be?
You are a child of God,
your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightening about shrinking
so that other people won't feel insecure
around you.
We are all meant to shine as children do.
It is in everyone and as we let our own light shine
we unconsiously give other people
permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.

- Nelson Mandela


Wednesday, November 22, 2006


It's good to get back into a rhythm of more songwriting again. I'm needing that.

Yesterday I noticed a new pattern that seems to be emerging. Not quite sure what's going on.

On my first CD there were quite a few "story songs" - songs that told a story (or a couple of stories around a theme) in the third person... The next album, for whatever reason, includes a bunch of songs written in the first person and addressed directly to "you" (as listener/audience/fellow singer... addressing the "second person").

And yesterday, for the second time in the last little while, a song I'd begun in the 3rd person moved quickly into the first person from the perspective of somebody else... Yesterday, believe it or not, it was based on Numbers chapter 20 from the perspective of Moses... with the sense of immediacy of Moses' words (and actions) speaking to (and in some ways representing) our fears and lack of trust and search for "security" today...

A while back something similar happened with a song that began addressing God in the first person plural, and ended up being written entirely as a response in the first person singular from the perspective of - gulp - God...

Oh my.

Now these songs are - in all likelihood - still rather far from being "finished," so who knows how they'll end up... but I wonder what's going on here... this isn't a technique or a direction that I've consciously chosen to pursue... but, for whatever reason, it's where my writing seems to have been going lately.



Friday, November 17, 2006

pork for music?

“So if you ever want to exchange pork for music, just let us know…”

That’s what she said as I was leaving the performance, and I found myself mulling it over all week. Finally, I e-mailed her back and said “I don’t know if you were serious when you made that offer of pork for music, but if you were, I’d love to do it!”

Yet another step along the winding road of trying to develop an “alternative economic model” for this music ministry…

…a model that can be sustainable and viable over the long term… a model that is compatible with healthy family and community life… a model built around a different set of assumptions and expectations about what constitutes “success”… a model that is compatible with – and grows out of and gives expression to - my faith…

…a model that is an alternative to the “Tour! Tour! Tour! Sell! Sell! Sell!” that is the standard (and spectacularly unhealthy and unsustainable) model in the mainstream “music business” (including the “Christian” music business)…

That’s the idea, anyway. And last week I took what was, for me, the biggest step so far in that direction…

Essentially, what I’ve done is to work with the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model and adapt it to music.

On a CSA farm, you pay an up-front annual fee (or “membership” or “subscription” or “shares”), and receive regular deliveries (usually weekly) of fresh, locally grown produce throughout the growing season. This is good for consumers because they receive high quality produce that is local, usually organic, picked at the peak of freshness and nutritional value. It’s good for the farmer, because it guarantees a fair price for the produce, enables a small-scale operation to be viable, and shares the risks of farming. It’s also good for the environment, as the land is farmed more sustainably, on a smaller scale and with fewer (if any) chemical inputs, and the produce is not shipped over long distances to reach the consumer.

Another result of all this is the formation and strengthening of relationships, of local community, of local economies… Members of the CSA may volunteer their labour on the farm, may get together for special celebrations at times like spring planting and end-of-season harvest… This kind of model helps to bridge the gap between “producers” and “consumers,” and to create a partnership in the production/consumption of food and in the knowledge and care of the land where it’s grown.

We were part of a CSA called Earthshare in Winnipeg, and loved it. A long-time friend runs a CSA in Iowa (I once chopped down a whole field of his carefully cultivated pasture land in Bolivia by mistake… but that’s another story!). We haven’t yet found a CSA in our neck-of-the-woods here in Stouffville (there is now a Wal-Mart, though…have you heard…?), but we do frequent some local businesses that function in similar ways in the community…

So how have I adapted this “alternative economic model” to the world of music…?

Well, I've set up a system where "becoming a member of SmallTall Music" is like joining a CSA farm... you pay an annual fee and receive regular deliveries of fresh, home-grown, organic music - new "songs of faith for small and tall" - straight from the producer, yours truly.

The songs come as mp3 audio files along with a packet of resources - lyrics, chords and music notation, thoughts and reflections, activity ideas of how you might try using the songs in worship, in the classroom, at home - all available via download from a "Members" page of the SmallTall Music website.

As in the CSA model, the idea is that membership in SmallTall Music is much more than making a "consumer choice" to receive a certain kind of "product"... Becoming a member of smallTall Music is an opportunity to be an active participant and partner in the process of creating, testing, and sharing new music for the church and for families of the church...

Specifically, members are invited to participate in a whole variety of ways, including:

- using and enjoying the songs!
- sharing feedback and ideas ("We used this song for... this one really worked with our group... this one not so much... when we used this song we adapted it this way... added this action... wrote this new verse...")
- giving ideas/suggestions for new songs ("In our family/congregation we really need a song to sing when..."; "We're exploring this Scripture/theme, and could really use a song that would help us to...").
- writing and sharing your own songs, trying them out in your own local community, and sharing them with other SmallTall Music members via the annual "SmallTall Music Members' Jamboree" - a special "bonus delivery" made up entirely of songs written and submitted by the members of SmallTall Music.

Sound like fun? I'm having a blast!

And the most recent innovation in this process is the addition of bartering/exchanging goods or services as another form of "payment"... so there are currently different households exchanging pork, pies, photography services, website assistance, some painting around the house... as their means of "payment" for their membership in SmallTall Music. (For other households and congregations, of course, paying "the old fashioned way" with cash or cheque still makes the most sense...)

A bunch of other parallels with the CSA model are, by now, probably pretty obvious to you (or, perhaps, not so much) - I'll likely post further musings on that as time goes on.

Some people familiar with the CSA model have already taken to talking about this as my "CSM" (Community Supported Music)... And, of course, plenty of others tend to listen politely, with a glazed, far-away look in their eyes, and walk away baffled by all this craziness...

In any case, last week I sent out my first "delivery" of new songs and resources to the members of SmallTall Music. A quiet and modest beginning, but after years of dreaming and scheming and exploring and talking... always lots of talking... it feels like a pretty big milestone to me.

Thanks to those of you who have opted to set out on this voyage and participate in this experiment together. I am deeply grateful that I can live out this vocation with your support, and I look forward to seeing where it will all lead...

Speaking of which, I'd better go and attend to a host of household tasks...I should see about getting our car winterized... I wonder if our mechanic would consider an “oil change for music"...


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

everything happens

A quiet day

     A sleepy sort of day, really...

Then I went to the bathroom

     and the washing machine buzzer went off

     and my son shouted for me

     as did my wife

     and the phone rang

     three times...

Have you ever noticed that

     everything happens

          when you're on the toilet?


Wednesday, November 08, 2006


Today is the Grand Opening of a brand new Wal-Mart store in our town. One of 3 new Wal-Mart "supercentres" opening today which, we are told, represent "a new concept in Canada" and of which the Stouffville store is the "prototype" - 160,000 square feet (I heard on the radio this morning that is the equivalent of 3 - or is it 4? - indoor football fields), featuring more "spacious, upscale buildings" and, at 40,000 square feet, "full-fledged grocery stores" and "one of the first Wal-Marts in Canada with LCD TVs suspended from the ceilings and showing commercials"...

Mario Pilozzi, president and CEO of Wal-Mart Canada Corp., says: "We hope Wal-Mart supercentres will become a one-stop shop that Canadians have been waiting for."

Meanwhile, a couple of fields, one main road, and a wood-lot away from the new Wal-Mart site, there was another "prototype" launched yesterday. Much smaller in scale and intention. Built on an altogether different economic model and set of assumptions. Launched with no ads, no news releases - just an e-mail sent out to a few households and churches that have chosen to participate...

More soon...


Saturday, November 04, 2006

pumpkin tossing

Today we went pumpkin tossing.

It's a post-Hallowe'en tradition (well, this was our first time, but in my opinion it has "tradition" written all over it...), and it was a brilliant parental pre-emptive strike (if I say so myself) against the inevitable Saturday "Can I play on the computer?" session...

The idea came from a neighbouring farmer, who noted that the sheep and donkey enjoy eating the pumpkins even if they're rotting and "too far gone" for our use...

Sure enough. They loved it. It turns out that, to get a less-than-half-rotten pumpkin to really split open, you half to get pretty good elevation - something that I usually managed, but which was pretty tough for our 9 year old son and his younger friend. They had some trouble just getting the pumpkins over the fence and into the pasture - or if they did, they (the pumpkins) tended not to split open very rewardingly ("rewardingly"...? You know what I mean). So we experimented with pumpkins-in-various-stages-of-decomposition, as well as alternative launching mechanisms (the small garden pitchfork proved popular). Next year we may need to rig up a bit of a catapult...

In any case, the sheep and Jenny the donkey seemed quite appreciative of our efforts, and made relatively quick work of the pumpkins.

A caution, though, if you're considering trying this at home: the bright orange half-eaten pumpkin carcasses are visually quite arresting, and can look rather ominous, if your imagination is so inclined... You might want to consult with your neighbours first...


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

music and function, songwriting and art

I am fascinated by the social/political function(s) of music in a community – including “church” music, and including music whose writers and performers loudly claim has no social/political function. I am interested in the “usefulness” of music, and the role it plays (the ways it is “used”) in a community.

I remember a conversation some time ago about songwriting and art. I was speaking of my admiration for Pete Seeger, and the sense of purpose and “agenda” behind his music over the course of more than 60 years. My conversation partner scoffed at the notion that “real art” could have a “purpose” or an “agenda” beyond personal “self-expression.” Or if it does, he suggested, it quickly becomes “bad art” and pedantic, boring, “propaganda” and essentially dishonest.

Sometimes Woody Guthrie is contrasted with Pete Seeger – that Pete was the one with more of a “political agenda” and Woody was more of a “pure songwriter” who was not as “tied down” or “limited” by a particular ideological slant. I don’t think this is true (maybe I’ll write more about it some other time) – in any case, Woody of course also wrote for particular purposes all the time (including specific political/ideological purposes), and what some call the most prolific period of his life – 30 days in 1940 when he wrote 26 songs - was when he was hired as a “temporary laborer” by the Bonneville Power Administration to write a series of songs about the Grand Coulee Dam.

Of course, Woody and Pete wrote their fair share of lyrics that are now positively cringe-inducing (“…a union man has a happy life when he has a union wife…”), along with the many songs of absolute genius.

As a songwriter, I find this very encouraging. How am I to know what is “good” and what isn’t in my songwriting, until I try it out and see what happens – see how it functions – in the context of the community for whom it is written? And who’s to say something isn’t “good” – even if it makes me or others cringe (now or later) – if it serves the purpose for which it was created? (Not to mention, of course, the possibility that it might serve all kinds of purposes of which the writer had no idea…)

In any case, as I said in an earlier post (“inspiration”), my own feelings and need for self-expression are not typically what inspire me to write songs. Maybe I don’t find my own feelings particularly interesting. Or maybe I just find that writing for a particular purpose – a particular cause and a particular community – much more interesting, and compelling, as a motive for songwriting.

And besides, “art” with a particular “ideological slant” – to my knowledge – has never had a corner on the “bad art” market… and I’m more inclined to be convinced by the artist that’s clear enough to be honest (or honest enough not to be clear) about his/her “ideological slant” than by the artist who claims not to have one…