Tag Archives: music and singing

Fall, fantasy football, and a song or two

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Thursday night kicked off the NFL season, which for several million fans also meant the beginning of fantasy football. Somehow I find myself in three fantasy leagues this fall, which means that I’ll be managing the fortunes of three fake football teams: The JP (Jamaica Plain) Storm, the JP Blizzard, and the JP Nor’easters.

Fantasy football offers an added element of fandom. In addition to following your favorite pro team(s) (in my case, primarily the Chicago Bears, and secondarily the New England Patriots), you follow the individual statistical performances of players you’ve drafted for your fake teams.

Sometimes the scoring systems are simple, such as that in the league I organized, where points are awarded almost exclusively on actual scoring. This means that when one of your players scores a touchdown, that six points goes to your team. Easy peasy! Other scoring systems are much more complex, using a longer list of statistical measures.

For me, the start of the NFL season also signifies the “real” start of fall, even if the official seasonal change doesn’t occur until later this month. And here in the Boston area, it just so happened that an early September heat wave cooled off markedly for Thursday’s first Patriots home game in nearby Foxborough.

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But there are healthy limits to this fandom. On Wednesday evening, for example, I missed the real-time player draft for one of my fantasy football leagues in order to sing at an open mic cabaret night at a club here in Boston. (The Yahoo! fantasy football platform made my picks for me, based on a player ranking list I compiled.)

I wrote previously that I’ve been taking a weekly singing class for many years, and more recently I’ve been joining friends from that class at open mic nights. Over the weekend I had practiced a duet number with one of my friends, “Somewhere Out There” from An American Tail. We performed it on Wednesday night and did a fine job! (Actually, she did great with it, but I felt a little shaky in parts.)

Singing is very therapeutic for me, a form of mindfulness that allows me to be in the moment in a very good way. Performing favorite songs and listening to others do the same is a genuine treat. Following my fake football teams online is fun, but live singing with good company is much, much better.

There’s no great song about Boston, but there’s a lot of good music made here

Uh, Sinatra didn't cover this one

Uh, Old Blue Eyes didn’t cover this one

Okay, students of the Great American Songbook, think now: What iconic popular song embodies the historic city of Boston? What tune did Sinatra croon that captures Beantown?

If we’re being honest, no such song exists.

I’m sorry, but while the Standells’ “Dirty Water (Boston You’re My Home)” from the late 60s is a popular number around these parts (listen to a live performance here), it falls short of city theme status. Over 60 years ago, the Kingston Trio did a fun little banjo song, “M.T.A.,” about a man named Charlie who was trapped in the Boston subway system; it was recorded as a protest to a potential fare hike. (Listen/watch here.) Ummm, that’s not exactly a great anthem either.

Last month, in a post about great songs celebrating great cities, I closed with the question of why there’s no iconic Boston song. Apparently I’m not alone. I recently Googled around a bit and found this blog post by the owner of Voltage Coffee & Art, an area cafe, thinking along the same lines:

Frank Sinatra and his buddies made a lot of songs famous, including several selections that seem to endorse these hipper cities as cooler than cool. The theme from “New York, New York”, “I Left my Heart in San Francisco”, “My Kind of Town (Chicago)” … think about it.

So, here’s my opinion on how to begin to solve this issue: what this city needs more than anything is a swanky jazz standard about our awesome city. Consider this a summer project. We’re putting together a contest to see who can write the best song. We’re looking for something super cool, maybe slightly wistful, that shows a completely un-ironic love of Boston. The best entry we receive will get recorded, hopefully with a Frank Sinatra impersonator and full orchestra if we can swing it. Official details to follow soon.

I don’t know if their project ever got off the ground.

My read on it

Great, cosmopolitan cities have playful styles that have expressed themselves in music and song. It’s why, for example, Sinatra could croon unofficial city anthems like “New York, New York” and “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)” in ways that evoke deep, rich feelings about those places.

In my not-so-humble opinion, the core of Boston’s traditional culture has historically lacked a certain joie de vivre. Its essence has been, well, kind of serious, and often uptight and controlling. It has an earned reputation of not being the friendliest place for newcomers. It also has the nastiest, most aggressive, least predictable drivers I’ve ever encountered — and I’m speaking solely as a pedestrian!

As I’ll suggest below, some of these elements are softening. However, during the heart of the century that produced the Great American Songbook, they were fairly baked into the culture of this city. That’s not exactly the makings of a Cole Porter classic.

Boston as music maker

But there’s a twist, and it’s a positive one: There is a lot of music made in Boston! Not only is Greater Boston home to major conservatories, the Boston Symphony, and the Boston Pops, but also it hosts an abundance of amateur and professional venues for playing and singing music of all types.

In his book Greater Boston (2001), urban historian Sam Bass Warner, Jr., opines that among its cultural traditions, Boston’s most notable one may well be “the making of music.” “On any given night,” he observes, “the Boston city region sends more musical sounds towards the heavens than any other American place except such giants as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.” Amateur singers and musicians play a meaningful role in the creation of this musical culture.

And you don’t even have to be a star in the making to find a place to play or sing, as my own experience attests. As I wrote last year, for many years I’ve been taking a weekly voice workshop at an area adult education center, taught by Jane Eichkern, a Juilliard-trained vocalist. Jane has built this class around the idea of a supportive, encouraging, and safe place to learn how to sing. And more recently I’ve been joining fellow voice class students for open mic cabaret nights at a local club.

Infused by newcomers

Here’s an interesting, unscientific trend that I’ve noticed about many folks who take the voice workshop: A good number of them are from other places, even other countries. Their personal backgrounds and occupations vary greatly. But they all have that twinkle in the eye and that dose of fortitude that are pretty much necessary to get up in front of a roomful of strangers (at least at the beginning, for it’s a very friendly group) and sing.

They capture for me a more joyful side of the city, one that helps to transform a place known more for its stiffness into one that has a song in its heart, at least within some circles.

Truly great cities are infused by newcomers. The newbies introduce different perspectives and world views. They offer their special qualities to the metropolitan mix. And they’ve already demonstrated a willingness to take a chance on something new, even if it’s a little scary.

Hmm, that does sound a lot like our weekly singing classes.

The music in me

It took me a while to realize how important this singing class has been to me, and, correspondingly, just how important music is to my life. For insight, I draw upon the work of my late good friend John Ohliger, a pioneering adult educator, public intellectual, and community activist. (Go here for a book chapter I wrote about him.) John’s short unpublished memoir, My Search for Freedom’s Song (1997), was constructed around the theme of music:

I can’t read music, I can’t play an instrument, and I don’t sing very well. But, looking back at my first 70 years, music has graced much of my life. Much of the time I find myself singing, humming, or whistling, softly or silently to music. I almost always associate music with good feelings — feelings of wholeness — in a fragmented personal and political world.

Like John, I can’t read music or play an instrument. (I do think I sing pretty well!) And like John, I now understand how “music has graced much of my life.” Thanks largely to participating in this ongoing, shared experience of singing, I also appreciate how music helps me cope with “a fragmented personal and political world.” For me, singing is a unique form of mindfulness, an invitation to be in the present. That’s a pretty cool way to spend one’s time, and in good company as well.

Old standards about great cities

A wonderful 1980s Book-of-the-Month Club music collection, Songs of New York

A wonderful 1980s Book-of-the-Month Club music collection, Songs of New York

In my not-so-humble opinion, what separates a truly iconic city from many other fine places is that the great 20th century lyricists and composers wrote songs and music about them. They are the stuff of the Great American Songbook (and that of London and Paris, too).

Here are some of my favorite songs about New York, San Francisco, Chicago, London, and Paris. Sinatra versions predominate; he knew how to croon tunes about great cities.

Click, listen, watch, and enjoy.

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When I decided to go to law school at NYU in New York City in 1982, I did so sight unseen. I didn’t have much money, so I evaluated law schools by studying their catalogs and consulting write-ups about them in published guidebooks. (This was pre-Internet, of course!) I finally saved up enough cash to visit New York for the first time, during the summer before starting law school. I came back knowing that I had made the right decision. Sinatra’s “New York, New York” quickly became my personal anthem, and it still gives me goosebumps to listen to it.

“Take Me Back to Manhattan” is a Cole Porter number often included in productions of Anything Goes. This version was performed by Judy Kaye for a 1980s collection, Songs of New York (pictured above).

True, “Rhapsody in Blue” is a musical composition, not a song. But as this video set to George Gershwin’s masterpiece will attest, it is a perfect ode to New York City. I can listen to it over and again.

The “Lullaby of Broadway” was written in 1935 and is now part of stage versions of 42nd Street. This is a great video of the 1980s Broadway production, starring Jerry Orbach (later of Law & Order) in the lead role, which I saw in 1984.

When I opted for law school in New York, it marked one of my early forks in the road. Before deciding to go east, I had looked very, very hard at schools in California and, especially, in the Bay Area. On occasion, but without regrets, I’ll wonder what if. “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” by Tony Bennett gets me nostalgic for a city I’ve only visited.

I grew up in northwest Indiana, right across the state border near Chicago. I took Chicago for granted back then, but today I appreciate it as a big, brawny, quintessential American city. “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)” is my favorite song about the Windy City, and no one does it better than Sinatra.

“My Kind of Town” is Sinatra’s other tribute to Chicago, and it’s a great song too.

“A Foggy Day (in London Town)” is part of the George and Ira Gershwin songbook, and it sounds especially fine with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong doing the honors.

“A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” is a wonderfully evocative song about London during the Second World War era, here performed by the incomparable Vera Lynn. It’s one of my favorites, one that I sing often in my weekly voice class and at open mic nights.

“I Love Paris” is another Cole Porter standard from the early 50s, just years after the end of the war. Sinatra captures the city’s beauty in this rendition.

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What? No song about Boston, the city in which I’ve lived for over 20 years? Sadly, no. Boston has its attractions, but there’s no classic standard to mark it. I’ll have more to say about that in a future post.

The hot mess that is “Glee” is in its final season

Lea Michele and Darren Criss performing "Suddenly Seymour," from Little Shop of Horrors (photo: DY)

Rachel (Lea Michele) and Blaine (Darren Criss) performing “Suddenly Seymour,” from Little Shop of Horrors (photo: DY, 2015)

When Glee (Fox) came onto the scene in 2009, it was all the buzz due to its edgy humor and snappy musical numbers, built around the ongoing fortunes of a high school glee club in small-town Ohio. It quickly gave notice that it would tackle, often in unorthodox fashion, topics such as teenaged angst, sexual orientation, jock culture, bullying, and the dynamics of a dysfunctional American high school.

Glee‘s ensemble cast of emerging stars, including Lea Michele as ingenue Rachel Berry and Broadway veteran Matthew Morrison as glee club director Will Shuester, would be joined regularly by notable guests drawn from stage and screen, some jumping into self-mocking roles.

The show was nominated for a slew of Emmy awards following its first full season. That would prove to be its high water mark, for although Glee would continue to have a core of devoted fans, it would soon lose some of its novelty. It also experienced real-life tragedy when Corey Monteith, a beloved core cast member, lost his battle with drug addiction and died due to an apparent overdose.

When Glee appeared, I found myself comparing it to another TV depiction of high school, the brilliant (and criminally overlooked) Friday Night Lights, a drama about life and football in small town Texas. With a few exceptions, the story lines and dialogue in Friday Night Lights were pitch perfect, even when dealing with sensitive subjects such as race or abortion.

By contrast, Glee has been a hot mess, sometimes nailing its messages, other times eliciting grimaces, but almost always in an entertaining mode. Pushing the envelope via a quirky mix of humor, music, and emotional drama is not an easy thing to do on network TV, but Glee has succeeded more often than not.

I haven’t been a steady Glee viewer. Like others, I was drawn to it at the beginning, and then kind of lost interest. But I’ve decided to tune in for the final season, and it has proven rewarding. On the whole, Glee has been good for television and spoken to a lot of kids (and some adults) who have felt like misfits while navigating the halls of their high schools and life in general.

Audition weeks: My favorite part of “American Idol”

Judges Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez, and Harry Connick, Jr.

Judges Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez, and Harry Connick, Jr. Hey, J Lo’s lookin’ right at me through the screen! (Photo: DY, 2015)

I’ve watched American Idol for about half of the show’s 14-year run, with an increasingly predictable if odd viewing pattern: I enjoy the early audition weeks, and then I steadily lose interest as the contestant group keeps getting winnowed down toward the winner.

Once the judges must give way to the audience vote, my interest wanes considerably. The audience voting patterns are downright bonkers at times, and it appears that the biggest voting bloc is made up of young women and girls who madly stuff the ballot box for their top Idol crushes.

However, the audition weeks, during which the judges go around the country to pick the most promising contestants based on short performances, are easily my favorite part of the show.

Yes, I know that the producers shamelessly create rags-to-riches stories or tales of overcoming huge odds to describe contestants’ paths to Idol, but I fall for them just the same. I enjoy rooting for those folks to get their ticket to the next step — Hollywood Week — and thus move toward becoming potential finalists.

In recent years, Idol has cut down on its practice of making fun of offbeat or untalented auditioners, and I’m glad about that. The real pleasure is in hearing what comes out of the mouths of unknown performers, and sometimes being blown away. And for successful contestants, getting that ticket to Hollywood makes for moments of pure joy.

So here’s to the new season of American Idol, or least the first few weeks of it!

 

 

Picking the worst pop songs of the 70s: Where do I begin!?

When I was younger and went to loud parties more often, one of my frequent contributions to the festivities would be to croon bad songs from the Seventies. Although I’m not a drinker, I managed to fit in well with those who were en route to inebriation (or already there), and we would regale torture fellow partiers with our own versions of some of the worst pop tunes imaginable.

Of course, this may explain why I don’t get many party invitations anymore. Whatever.

Anyway, here’s the dilemma: How does one choose from the Bad Seventies Songbook??? It’s sort of the opposite of trying to pick the best of Sinatra or the Beatles. The choices are endless, in the worst ways.

Now, before anyone gets too cross with me, let me acknowledge that a ton of great groups and performers were part of that decade: Bands like Aerosmith and Queen. Singer-songwriters like Carole King and Billy Joel. It’s a long list.

But for some reason, the 70s also bore witness to some of the most horrible pop music in the history of humanity. For what it’s worth, here are some of my obvious choices, in no particular order, though concededly heavy on treacle:

  • Anything by the Captain & Tennille
  • Paper Lace, “The Night Chicago Died”
  • Starlight Vocal Band, “Afternoon Delight”
  • Paul Anka, “You’re Having My Baby” (perhaps the sequel to above)
  • Anything by the Bay City Rollers
  • Bo Donaldson, “Billy Don’t Be A Hero”
  • Terry Jacks, “Seasons in the Sun”
  • Michael Jackson, “Ben” (I mean c’mon, he’s singing to a rat)
  • Morris Albert, “Feelings” (featured above, if you’re in a masochistic mood)
  • A lot of stuff by Barry Manilow
  • The Carpenters, “Merry Christmas, Darling” (though Karen Carpenter’s voice was a gift)
  • Debby Boone, “You Light Up My Life”

For maximum pain infliction, you’ll find renditions of most of this stuff on YouTube.

And if you want more, Google around to find assorted lists attempting to select the worst of the worst, such as this one by Rolling Stone magazine or this one by RateYourMusic.com. I realize there’s room for disagreement here. For example, the RateYourMusic.com list includes some tunes I actually like, such as “Don’t Pull Your Love” by Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds. (Also, I just can’t bring myself to put anything by Her Lusciousness Olivia Newton-John on my list.)

You may also disagree with the choices. Hey, maybe you’ve got Billy Joel on your “worst of” list! Indeed, if you’re a music company repackaging 70s songs into albums, you can use the same numbers for the “best of” and “worst of” collections! In fact, a couple of my NYU law school classmates had something of that idea in mind when they formed the “Seventies Preservation Society,” which they grew into a major label, Razor & Tie. Apparently there’s still money to be made off of these terrible tunes.

 

Singing the Great American Songbook

 

Some of the sheet music and song books I've used over the years!

Some of the sheet music and song books I’ve used over the years!

As my first year of teaching in Boston was coming to a close during the late spring of 1995, I wanted to do something that was less cerebral and distinctly non-legal. It had been a grueling academic year that started with a move to Boston, followed by a heavy load of new courses. After immersing myself in law school casebooks, I wanted to have some fun.

I picked up a catalog from a local adult education center and spied a listing for a class titled “Beginning Voice.” I had always enjoyed singing, and based on the course listing, I assumed it would be a sort of group chorus experience. So I signed up.

On a Tuesday night in May, I showed up for the first class, and I was in for a surprise. Jane, our conservatory-trained instructor, explained the course format: Each week, every student will perform a song of their choice to piano accompaniment — solo — and then be coached in front of the group. Uh, lady, you must be high, I thought to myself. I thought this was like group chorus. For those of us new to the class (a good number were repeat takers), Jane pointed to a pile of music books and said we could pick out a song for that evening.

I nervously rifled through one of the books and found an old Cole Porter classic, “I Get a Kick Out of You” (featured in the show Anything Goes), and figured it was worth a try. Eventually it was my turn to sing, so I got up and went to front of the room. Bruce, our accompanist, started to play, and I managed to channel Frank Sinatra finish the song. I got some polite applause, Jane gave me a few coaching tips, and I sat down, extremely relieved.

Despite my initial surprise over the class format, I returned for the remaining seven sessions. In fact, I’ve never stopped going! I have registered for just about every session of this class since then. That’s 19 years. My repertoire has revolved around the Great American Songbook, singing old standards made famous by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and other prominent composers and lyricists during the first half of the last century.

Although I’ve reached a point where I’m a pretty decent singer, I don’t have huge ambitions beyond this class. Over the summer I took a workshop in musical theatre, and I’ve done some open mic nights and would like to do more. And there’s always the occasional karaoke gathering.

However, for me it’s about the satisfaction of singing great old songs. I’ve joked that this singing class has saved me thousands of dollars in therapy costs, but there’s actually a large dose of truth in it. Singing is about being in the moment, of having a safe and enjoyable haven from the ups and downs of the day or the week. I’ve made some dear friends in the process. It’s good for my soul, and a lot of fun to boot.

Jonesing for the Eighties

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I’m now into a slightly extended binge viewing of Season 1 of “The Americans,” an FX drama series featuring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as a Soviet couple operating as deep cover spies in Washington D.C. during the early 1980s, the decade leading to the end of the Cold War.

It’s a great series, and a vivid reminder of U.S.-Soviet tensions of the era. But irrespective of its dramatic quality, I was won over by the opening scene, a bar in which Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart” is playing in the background.

Yeah, it pushed my Eighties nostalgia buttons, and I was hooked.

If you’ve followed my posts here, you know that I get nostalgic even for historical eras I am too young to have experienced. But the Eighties are very much my time, and I regard the decade fondly.

Okay, so it may not have been the best years for America. This was the decade of trickle-down economics, “greed is good” (a philosophy popularized by financier Ivan Boesky, who landed in prison for overdoing what he preached), the emergence of the Middle East as a dominant hot spot, and a lot of political corruption. Many of the challenges we face today have their roots in those years.

Personally, however, I think of the Eighties as a comparatively innocent, wide-eyed time of my life. It covered the heart of my 20s, starting with my last year of college at Valparaiso University, then through law school at NYU, and finally post-law school life and work in New York City. Though I was barely masquerading as an adult during that time, I experienced a lot of growth and memorable times during the decade.

Moving to New York was a big deal, for I was a pretty sheltered Midwesterner. (To clarify, not all Midwesterners are sheltered, but I sure was.) I fell for New York completely, and during those years it was possible to explore the city on a tight budget. To be young and broke in New York wasn’t a terrible thing back then; there was a sort of gritty romance about making it on a shoestring.

Anyway, back to the “The Americans”: Season 1 opens in 1981, right after the inauguration of Ronald Reagan. A few episodes into the series, we see American and Soviet intelligence operatives scrambling madly to respond to the March assassination attempt on the President. Although the would-be assassin, John Hinckley, turned out to be a mentally ill man whose actions had nothing to do with Cold War politics, neither side knew that in the immediate aftermath of the shootings.

I recall that time well. We all lived under the nuclear threat. It was part of our existence.

Yesterday it was about the Cold War, the nukes, and the Soviets. Today it’s about terrorism, airport security, and Al-Qaeda. And the economy and jobs, always. The beat goes on.

Beautiful music in the city streets and subways

Harpist Alàis Lucette, playing on a Boston T platform (Photo: DY, 2014)

Harpist Alàis Lucette, playing on a Boston T platform (Photo: DY, 2014)

Nearly every day, I travel from my Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain to the downtown via the “T,” the local shorthand for the subway. During rush hours especially, the Downtown Crossing stop is crowded and loud, and all too often the human vibes throw off major amounts of impatience and stress.

If I’m lucky, however, I’ll step off the train and hear the lovely sounds of classically trained harpist Alàis Lucette, who sometimes sets up there and helps to calm the nerves of frazzled subway travelers going to and fro. (You may listen to samples of her music and order her CD here.) There is something eminently civilizing about soothing music that cuts through the noise of mass transit.

When I lived in New York City and made my daily subway commute from Brooklyn into Manhattan, on occasion there was a violinist who would make his way through the subway. While some interruptions in the subway can be irritating, this fellow was a welcomed distraction and instantly put me in a better mood for the morning.

I’ve been living in cities all my adult life. I should be over the “novelty” of talented musicians playing in the streets and subways. But I can’t help it, it’s often still a treat to me, especially when the music takes me to a better place in my mind.

In fact, I remember well the first time I heard and saw street musicians in full playing mode. After a collegiate semester abroad in England, I met up with some classmates in Paris, and we took the obligatory stroll through the Latin Quarter. It was filled with lively street music on a beautiful May evening. Perhaps this betrays how sheltered I had been in my NW Indiana upbringing, but I was absolutely taken by the idea that folks would just set up on the street and start playing!

So here’s to those gifted makers of music who add joy and civility to metropolitan life. We city dwellers are indebted to them!

 

Music and memories

photo-11Music and memories. We hear an old pop tune on the radio or MP3 player and it quickly summons memories — good, bad, in-between — about a chapter of our life we associate with that music. Are there any stronger connections between popular culture and our life experiences?

The Andrews Sisters or Glenn Miller and The Greatest Generation. The Beatles or Motown and classic Baby Boomers.  Music can be an instant on switch to a personal nostalgia channel.

Gen Jonesers and pop music

For many Generation Jonesers, Billy Joel provides a body of memory-making music. The songs contained in volumes I and II of his Greatest Hits album were especially popular during my college and law school years (late 70s through mid 80s). When I listen to them in the rough order of their release as singles, I’m treated to a year-by-year “mind’s eye” trip down memory lane.

Among the 25 songs in the album, my favorites are “Piano Man,” “New York State of Mind,” “You May Be Right,” “Allentown,” “Tell Her About It,” “Uptown Girl,” and “The Longest Time.”

But they’re not on the list because they’re necessarily the best songs, objectively speaking. No, I include them mainly because I associate memories with each. Overall, they capture a meaningful time in my life when I was finishing college in Indiana and moving to New York for law school. In fact, it’s hard for me to listen to the album for its own sake, because the memories connected with those songs are so sharp.

Given my druthers, I prefer the popular music of the first half of the last century to the stuff that followed. Yup, I’m more likely to listen to Frank Sinatra than to The Clash, though I enjoy both. In any event, I know I’m not alone among my peers when I turn on that 80s “oldies” station and fill with memories.

A song and a smile

Associations between music and memories can run deep, into the recesses of minds otherwise harder to reach. About ten years ago, I was part of a group that gave short vocal concerts at senior homes. At one of our little gigs, I sang a classic from the World War II era, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” Here’s a lovely Vera Lynn rendition:

While I sang, a resident of the home grew the sweetest smile on her face. The way her eyes lit up, I could tell that the song resonated with her, that it touched some part of her experience. After our show was over, I thought I’d say hello and went over to her. But my effort to strike up a friendly chat quickly revealed that she was non-responsive to verbal messages, that she had withdrawn back to the place that likely led to her to be living in a senior home.

It was a quick lesson: Music could reach her in a way that ordinary conversation could not. And it could still cause her to smile.

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