From soprano, Daphne Romanoff:
Our upcoming concert, One Voice, is a collection of fun, uplifting songs about challenge, strength, diversity, and inclusion. This concert is also a fundraiser for Best Buddies, a terrific program for people with disabilities.
We have first hand knowledge about Best Buddies since our son, Ben, an NFS member with autism, participates in Boston College’s Best Buddies program, where BC students do fun social activities with disabled young adults, many of whom work at BC like Ben.
Ben, who sings bass in the group, also just tried out for a solo for this concert, trying really hard to nail those pitches with the lyrics:
"People see me. I’m a challenge to your balance. I’m over your heads how I confound you and astound you.”
I’m not sure if he’ll get the solo, but the process of trying out and practicing is certainly a learning opportunity!
Here’s a link to the essay that I wrote, together with Jack Cheng of NFS, a few years ago. http://www.newtonfamilysingers.org/jacks-blog/category/essays
Any contribution to Best Buddies is valued and, of course, just as important: come to our concert to sing, clap, and smile!
See you there!
Daphne and Ben
Singing His Part
A guest post by Daphne Romanoff about what singing in a choir has meant for her autistic son Ben
Most parents think back on their kids’ childhoods and it feels like a blur -- it goes by so quickly. It’s like that with my daughters, but not so much with my 23 year old son Ben. Ben is autistic - not high functioning, rather somewhere in the middle of the autism spectrum. In his case, this means that he lacks some basic social and communication skills necessary for him to function independently. It’s been a very slow, constant, incremental struggle to teach him how to live in our world, not his own.
Ben is at the tip of the large autistic population which has been more included in society than ever before, first in public education, now increasingly in the workplace. “Special” and “inclusion” have been pendulum points all of Ben’s life. Although some autistic children can be successfully included in regular classes, Ben has needed intensive, specialized training in the nuts and bolts issues of eye contact, attention, behavior management, language, academics, vocational training, and more.
Ben has been trained and now works independently in regular, busy kitchens -- not segregated work enclaves. Working alongside his co-workers, he can fill containers with mayonnaise, chop carrots, follow a simple recipe, and take out the trash. Ben loves music and has always been very attuned to auditory sensations. In fact, music can be distracting to him in some of the food prep jobs he’s worked at -- he’ll start singing and forget to cut the croutons.
Now that he has become an adult and aged out of publically-funded education at age 22, I’ve felt like I can step back and reflect upon Ben’s experience as a whole. Although he has accomplished a lot, poignant questions still loom: How will he progress as an adult? How will he find pleasure in life? Where will he fit in? Where will he find harmony?
He did not have to go far, as it turns out. Ben’s ultimate inclusion activity is singing with our local community choir.
The Newton Family Singers is an intergenerational group of singers whose repertoire spans traditional American folk through more recent pop. The singers range from age 5 to more than 70. They are a neighborhood group, with no auditions to join, yet they took a gamble by admitting Ben into their choir. We had visited a number of choirs in search of a place where Ben was most likely to succeed and to push him to that next step beyond his comfort zone - and mine.
While the Newton Family Singers have made no special accommodations for Ben, he has been welcomed as a member of the choir. Having a deep voice, Ben sings in the bass section and his fellow bass singers help him when he needs it. They support him and he’s learned to respond to their prompts to pay attention and to find his place in the sheet music. I don’t think Ben can form friendships as such but I know he looks forward to seeing the other basses. Furthermore, they’ve come to accept Ben as one of their own.
Things aren’t perfect. I hear Ben’s voice when he comes in too early and I notice when he somewhat subtly flicks his fingers - an old autistic behavior of his. As part of his disability, Ben does not understand that different people have different perspectives. As a result, he used to sing along with soloists, or the sopranos -- whatever part had the melody. He didn’t recognize that people with different vocal ranges sang different parts. Ben has been taught the fundamental skill of imitation, and he knows that applause is expected after performances. That’s why, if you attend one of our concerts, you will see one young man in the choir clapping along with the audience at the end of every song. Maybe one day he won’t clap with the audience, one day he will understand the different perspectives of being a performer versus an audience member.
This past season, however, Ben has learned that he is a bass and sings from that perspective. He listens to the other parts of the choir and understands the harmony that makes beautiful music. Maybe by singing in harmony, Ben is learning perspective taking through song.
I no longer come to rehearsals as Ben’s aide; caught up in the music and friendly faces, I’m now a Soprano singing with the Newton Family Singers. I rehearse at the opposite side of the choir, with an eye on Ben from afar. We have two entirely different parts to sing and Ben learns his lyrics much faster than I do.
Time continues to speed on, and Ben’s progress still moves in slow motion. But slow doesn’t mean standing still.
He’s on stage, and he’s singing his part. In harmony. With his community. And with me.
The Newton Family Singers’ next concert, April 13, 2014, will be a benefit to raise money for the Asperger’s Association of New England and the Autism Alliance of Metrowest
Paul Simon was already headed for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame from his work with Art Garfunkel in the 1960s and 1970s.
In the mid 80s however, he had a record do poorly (Hearts and Bones) and a marriage that wasn't going well (to Carrie Fisher) and a tape of South African music was the only thing that was cheering him up.
He flew to South Africa to learn more about the music he was listening to and to collaborate with South African musicians. Simon brought his longtime engineer and producer Roy Hallee with him and they recorded a lot of jam sessions without having written any songs ahead of time.
Back in the States, Simon wrote lyrics and melodies to lay over the music
This unorthodox method of composition (not unlike what David Byrne and Brian Eno were doing with the Talking Heads) resulted in Simon's most celebrated album to date, Graceland.
The documentary series "Classic Albums" focused an hour on Graceland, and that can be found (for now) in parts on YouTube, starting with part 1:
The recording of Graceland was somewhat controversial, however, as South Africa was still ruled at the time by a white minority under a repressive policy of Apartheid. While students on campuses were protesting and urging divestment from companies that worked in South Africa, Simon went right in and worked with individual artists from that country.
Ultimately, Graceland introduced South African culture and art to the world and arguably helped people see beyond the politics to the people. More recently, a new documentary takes a look back at the album for an assessment of it's cultural impact. The film, originally titled "Under African Skies" and later subtitled "Paul Simon's Graceland Journey" came out in 2012 and aired on PBS, so it may show up again. Meanwhile, the trailer still can be found online:
Perhaps one impact was that at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 25th anniversary concert, Simon sang (before dueting with Garfunkel):
Here's an essay from Newton Family Singers' Jan Gilpin, who's been adding her flute as well as her voice to the sound of our group. Like many of us, she shares her love of music with her family, although -- also like many of us -- she's finding that making music has a lot of competition for her children's attention.
It’s that time of year again – my oldest son Everett, a freshman, must choose electives for next year. The Newton North catalog is full of interesting classes, but his schedule only has room for a few. He tells me TV Production is his first choice, then maybe Robotics.
“What about Band?” I ask him. He’s played saxophone since elementary school. Is he really going to give it up?
This is one of the hardest things about watching your kids grow up – it’s like pruning your garden. If you cut back all the scraggly and wayward branches, the rest of the plant will be stronger and healthier, and the blooms will look better. But which branches to cut, to sacrifice for the rest of the plant? And who gets to decide what to cut?
I have always tried to include music in my children’s lives. I played them Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Taj Majal and They Might Be Giants. I took them to music classes where they learned songs from around the world, banged on drums and shook little eggs filled with sand. I signed my two oldest sons up for piano lessons, and encouraged them to learn an instrument in school. Both chose the saxophone and joined the school band. While my kids learn a great deal, and improve each year, they would rather spend their free time doing other things. So far they haven’t completely rebelled, but I wonder if I’m paddling against the current.
Growing up, music was always part of my life. At church each week the whole congregation would sing hymns a cappella, in four-part harmony, as best we could. As a family we sang around the piano, in the car, and caroled in our neighborhood. My sisters and I all took piano lessons.
One memorable Christmas I received my very own flute under the tree. I was thrilled to get it, and knew it had not been an easy purchase for my mom because money was tight. Maybe I liked the flute because no one else in my family played it. My older sister, who was always better at piano, became my accompanist. We would spend hours practicing together, aiming for that magical moment when we finally mastered a particularly difficult piece.
Music was a part of what drew me to my husband. When I first met him in college, he was working as a DJ at the local dive bar. Later I was impressed to find out he had managed the college radio station the previous summer. He also grew up with music in his life, playing the French horn and trombone in school, and serving as the bugler for his summer camp. He didn’t mind getting up extra early to run to the clock tower to play Reveille; it was fun to wake everyone else up!
Neither of us ended up with a career in music, but we still wanted our three sons to learn to play, just as we wanted them to learn to swim, or ride a bike. In this age of slick commercial radio, iTunes, American Idol and The Voice, it can seem like music making is only for professionals, or people who are amazingly talented. But making music together can be a wonderful way to connect with others – whether it be family, friends, or strangers.
Some of our influence has rubbed off: music has become very important to Everett. He is always talking about his growing Spotify list. The other day he proudly announced it had reached 400 songs. He often walks around the house with his smart phone, bopping around to his latest favorites. Sometimes he offers me one of his ear-buds and insists I listen along.
“Isn’t this a great song?” he says, looking eagerly at my face to see my reaction. I smile and nod my head to the music. Whenever he hears songs that appeal to him – on the radio, in TV ads, You Tube videos or movie trailers – he can’t wait to look them up and add them to his list. My husband and I also offer suggestions from our youth, and some of them are among Everett’s favorites. The other day when we were cleaning the house, he cranked up “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” and everyone stopped bickering and started dancing. He may be more of a music consumer than a creator, but for now I’ll take it.
I recently bought a book of classic pop tunes for the saxophone, with piano accompaniment. The pieces are easy enough to master with just a little practice, but have complex arrangements that are fun to play. Once a week or so, I make the boys play a few with me, and together we tackle “House of the Rising Sun,” or “When the Saints Go Marching In.” They grudgingly agree, and we dive into the piece, trading the melody and harmony back and forth, working out the kinks as we go along, sharing the satisfaction of playing together. Then it’s all over and they’re back doing their own thing. But I’m hopeful that the musical connection we made will linger with them for at least a little while.
Of course there are forces working against me. My sister and I often played because we didn’t have much to occupy us in the afternoons besides homework or Love Boat reruns. My boys have computer games, apps, Facebook, YouTube and hundreds of channels on cable to distract them. But these can also be sources of inspiration. They discovered one of their all-time favorite songs on You Tube: “Star Wars (John Williams is the Man)”.
Recently they’ve figured out how to play the catchy saxophone hook in the song “Thrift Shop.”
And I still have my youngest son, Toby, who hasn’t started any instruments yet, but still shakes little eggs in his music class and sings with me each week in the Newton Family Singers. My hopes and dreams for him are still just buds on branches, no need to prune just yet.
Everett finally decided on his electives: Robotics; TV Production; and two blocks of Symphonic Band. He chose the minimum commitment but he didn’t quit. I guess he’ll be giving that scraggly branch another season in the sun.
Ooh, I just thought of another song I can tell Everett to add to his Spotify list!
Jack Cheng directs the Clemente Course in Dorchester, excavates in the Middle East, and writes in Waban, MA.