Monday, May 2, 2016

Family Museum Adventures

Before our kid started school, weekends were just days to avoid running errands. Like many self-employed people, every day was a work day. And as performers, most weekend nights were also dedicated to work.

Even though we still do work some weekend nights, we've gotten more selective about evening performances and busier with day-time gigs. (My husband's kid music show is a stellar example of adaptability. Matt has really found a way to make high quality music that seems to be engaging for both kid and parents/caregivers, which I think is a tremendous feat and service to humanity.)

So now whenever we can, we grab weekend days for museums! Outside of our bigger field trip to NYC during school vacation where we got to see the recently discovered Titanosaur at the American Museum of Natural History and where we watched our 5-year old's interest in medieval Europe blossom at the Met Cloisters, our local adventures have been a great way to get away, right here at home.
Recent highlights have included the Peabody Essex Museum. We were surprised at how much there is for kids and families. We spent a lot of our time at the Maker Lounge. Then some guy told us that our son would be great with horses and should really start training them ASAP. We decided it was time to go home....

And our last trip to the Museum of Fine Arts was especially inspired. We brought our own paper and markers and spent the whole day looking at art, talking about it, and making some of our own works.

Here's our kid's MFA Top 5 list:
  1. "The glass chair"
    This 1993 creation by England's Danny Lane reminded us of Lego Chima. Made of glass and steel, the blue-green glass led to an episode of sketching on one of the benches in the Contemporary Art wing.
  2. "The dancer with the sharp leg"
    Viktoria Modesta's Prototype video is excepted in an exhibit at the museum. The full video is beautiful and a bit scary/edgy. But the museum has just the last minute cycling as part of the exhibit. It really took our son's breath away and inspired him!
  3. "The Picasso room!"
  4. "The winter/iceberg paintings"
    The Lawren Harris exhibit "Idea of North" consists of bold, icy, geometric images. These paintings inspired another drawing fanstasia, which unfortunately ended in a frustrated meltdown. Ironic...
  5. "The cupcake"
    The cupcake-of-the-day in the cafe just outside the contemporary wing really helped cool the meltdown and eventually rinse all grief away.
After the MFA we went to Slumbrew in Somerville, which is not really a museum. But it's a getaway in itself! A family-friendly brewery, and a post for another day.

Heading to museums has given us adventure-filled, highly affordable days, thanks to establishments that are designed for the whole family... and thanks to library passes. If you get organized, you can get big discounts through local library branches. But you do need to look a few weeks/months into the future, because the free passes get reserved well in advance. Sundays are much less crowded than Saturdays.

For those who haven't planned way ahead for those quickly devoured passes,  the MFA allows free admission after 4pm on Wednesdays (go right at 4, since it gets pretty busy). And kids aged 7-17 get in free on weekdays after 3pm, on weekends, and on Boston Public School holidays.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Matt Heaton's Solution to Good Coffee on the Road

This guest post comes from Matt Heaton, guitarist/singer/recording artist who is a master Irish musician, has played with surf rock bands in Chicago and Boston, and performs his own brand of clever "toddlerbilly" songs for kids as a soloist and with acclaimed trio The Outside Toys (rockabilly, surf, american roots/traditional music):

Many things about traveling have gotten easier over the years. From Trip Tiks to Mapquest to GPS to GPS on my phone; from trying to send emails by tethering a laptop to a cell phone to having it all on the phone. Yeah, many of the tedious aspects of traveling have been much improved by smart phones.

Except one.


The double edged sword of being a coffee addict (can't get through the morning without it) and a coffee snob (gas station coffee?? I'd rather drink turpentine!) has made many a remote rural morning extremely painful. "Let's just get on the road," we'd say. "I"m sure there will be some decent coffee along this underutilized state highway soon…"

For a while, we tried carrying a french press. And a french press does make some fine coffee, but the thing I hate about them is the cleanup. Always stuck with a massive thing of grounds in the bottom of the glass, afraid to put it down the sink for fear of clogging a pipe, unable to fully clean out the bottom of the pitcher--nightmare.

But not anymore.

 Enter the Aerobie Aeropress. Amazingly, this thing was invented by the guy who made the aerobie, a sort of geeky improvement on the frisbee flying disc. It it basically a very fat syringe, so the water is forced through the grounds like an expresso shot. The result is kind of in between a drip coffee and an espresso, quite delicious.

The kicker is cleanup: just pop out the resulting "cake" and wipe the plunger. (of course, wash with soap and water when you can, but still). I use this thing for camping, hotels, relatives who don't love coffee as much as I do--you name it.

If you want to make it more complicated, you can carry a grinder and scale to weigh your grounds. But I find eyeballing it works just fine. And if you really get into it, there is even a world aeropress championship.

There you go. One more travel worry solved by technology. But you can't carry this one on your phone.

Learn more about Matt Heaton's work
  • Duo with Shannon:
  • Kid Music Site:
  • Kid Music Page:
  • Surf Music Page:

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Redesigning a Habitat, Evolving a Blog

My husband and I are musicians. And we’re parents. Our “backstage” experiences with our son (our little frog) deeply affect us and our music. Recent insights:

When nearby Bellevue Pond dried up last fall--and remained dry for much of the winter--I wondered what all the frogs would do. Being displaced is tough; and it's a frighteningly common event for our little amphibial brothers and sisters

The water has finally returned. And with it, I presume, a new crop of frogs. So goes the serious, ongoing business of habitat. Like frogs have done since prehistory, we humans do our best to optimize systems that nurture and protect us during different eras: adapt, settle in, relocate, evolve, leap!
Prehistoric frogs and modern day leapers
at the American Museum of Natural History

I've spent the last year redesigning my habitat, including home adjustments (hello, rebuilt retaining wall; goodbye, box of old paints)... and including an expansion of my creative paradigm. In addition to traveling to play concerts with Matt and Shannon Heaton, I've been publishing sheet music and instructional books... and I've created a great deal of free content, including my 30 Original Tunes for April project and my monthly Tune of the Month video and podcast series.

Oh, and I've been honing the blog here. This season I am generating posts about how I:
* Stay creative (CROAK IT OUT!)
* Travel (LEAP FORTH)
* Design a home/community/outlook (BUILD A HABITAT)

Blogging and creating more recordings/books/videos to share has been a great to connect with creative people around the world. It has felt good to make stuff, just for the sake of making it. When my cellist pal Valerie Thompson sent a note of encouragement for my 30 Original Tunes Project, she reminded me that "life has to be not just the things we 'have to do' but the things we 'don't have to do' as well."

We are like frogs: we rely on community support. We thrive with a network of friends, allies, mentors and neighbors who can help keep the snakes away. That's why I continue to chronicle my evolving concepts and experiences of staying creative, parenting, traveling and creating my habitat. And why I'll be inviting friends to offer their perspectives, too!

Just as frogs adapt, I am impelled to rebuild and deeply inhabit a sustainable, social habitat.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Make and Share Something Every Day

I always wish I had more time to roll up my sleeves and dig into creative projects. Before our son came along, I had a hard enough time finding these opportunities. If only I'd known how much time I really had back then!!

But I didn't, and now I do. So now I use the time I have, in between epic Lego builds, artwork afternoons and walks in the woods with my kid.

In addition to publishing a new piece for flute and string quartet, this month I've given myself the assignment to record and post an original tune every single day, which I'm sharing on my ShannonHeatonMusic Soundcloud page.. No fancy production, no arrangements. Just a good, clean, live recording of an instrumental tune twice around in order to:

  • be creative and share stuff
  • make sure I practice every day
  • be accountable to straight-up melodies (just me without any other sonic bed)
  • connect with peers who compose
  • inspire someone to record or write something, maybe...

13 days in, and I've surprised myself at how much quicker I'm getting at this. On my first few days, I'd do a few takes before I was content... I'd feel thirsty and need some water... I'd lose my focus and forget the turnaround at the end of the tune.

Two weeks in and it's easier and quicker to just go right in and bang out a tune. Also, I've developed habits of exactly where I stand, what I look at when I record. So it's all become a ritual, a routine, a habit. This goes along with my Do It Badly mandate which, of course, is not about doing things without excellence in mind but about just getting going (and risking something NOT being excellent instead of not ever being done).

Time may be short, but creativity is abundant. A moment of making something is better than not making. Here's to seizing moments, great and small.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Facebook App Adds Too Much Baggage

It's a privilege to travel around to play concerts--especially when you get to return to favorite haunts filled with people you've known for years. Playing old chestnuts and introducing new numbers, revisiting shared memories with fellow music lovers and making some new ones... this is the grand payoff for the challenges and depleting aspects of travel (like when the babysitter falls through at the last minute!).

Enter social media: an effective way to extend the connections on the road and to share a slice of road life with friends far and wide. On our recent trip to the Plains States, we got to see and play for longtime pals in Lincoln and Kansas City. It was great to return to Hesston, KS again. And we had an action-packed visit to Arkansas with four appearances in just two days.

We travelled LIGHT. Just one small suitcase for two adults and one kid. A compact carry-on with Legos, art supplies and an ipad kept us busy in transit. The additional merch/sound gear suitcase stayed in the car every night, so hotel load-in was sleek.  And the minimalist mandate meant no laptops--too much bulk.

No worries. We have smart phones. I just reinstalled that Facebook app I'd removed from my phone a few years ago.

Wow: for someone with a track record of strong social media discipline, I was surprised at how difficult it was to stay away from the app. EVERY time I had an idle moment, I'd pull out the phone to check on friends' posts, to "catch up."

 Having the FB app back on the phone was fun for a while. Such a convenient way to share our road adventures! But it was also a great reminder of how seductive social media remains for me. I love my pals... but I also have lots to stay on top of, and little time to do it.

So back at home, the app is off the phone again. I'm doing my best to stay up to date with friends the old fashioned way (while I'm at the computer). But for right now, I'm throwing the phone app back in the bin.. and getting back to all the Lego creations I need to make with my son. The phone app just adds too much baggage!

Monday, February 29, 2016

Leap Year, Little Frog!

It's a Leap Year, little frogs. Imagine being born on February 29, the day that realigns the solar calendar! Imagine marking your actual natal day every four years: what a rich celebration it would be!

Sure, a lot can happen in a year. And of course leap babies celebrate annually, usually on February 28 or March 1. But each time the actual Leap day comes around, even more has transpired.

Gardening wisdom asserts that the first year it sleeps, the second year it creeps and the third year it leaps: it takes time to extend strong roots and summon force and momentum. Several years of successes, setbacks and surprises add up. And upon review, these chapters can offer focus and  insight for the future. Leap babies get to define and celebrate eras.

Here's to all of us leaping into a new creative era of scratching out inspiration. Here's to inspired goal setting, to planting, waiting, instigating, resting, looking back, and planning ahead. Here's to staying organized to meet deadlines--and reimagining them when needed. Here's to being persistent and just doing the work even when it feels dumb and bad and we feel like no one is helping or watching. Here's to spending more time in the little room. Just doing the work in any form possible is a privilege. And it's courageous.

When the MCC awarded me an Artist Fellowship this month, my heart leapt. It did feel amazing to have my work recognized, a reassuring honor and a nudge to continue with my performing, writing, recording, teaching and composing endeavors. Through award years and through quieter eras of being industrious and staying tuned in to all the great work around me, I am grateful that creativity can only grow, the more I go.

Leap, little frogs!

Monday, February 15, 2016

5 Tips for Deep Musical Development

It doesn't matter what the discipline, it can be great to attack projects with purpose! Though these tips are oriented to musicians, and particularly to Irish traditional players, some may resonate with creators of all types.

1. PRACTICE with PURPOSE: When I'm sitting in my little room (White Stripes reference), I am most effective when I choose a specific mission for my practice:
  • If I'm trying to learn something new, I aim to learn it with ease and mindfulness. The way I learn something is usually the way I end up playing/singing it.
  •  If I just feel like playing through some of my old hits, I call it intentional review time and do my best to play one, into the next, into the next. And I try to notice how comfortable and rooted to the ground my feet feel while I'm playing--that's a good cue for me to stay loose and, well, grounded.
  • Sometimes I like to hone a specific aspect of my playing. If I'm working on my tone, I'll really aim to figure out what I need to get I best sound, and just stay with that intent. I try to memorize that feeling so I can call on it again when I'm wanting a more focused sound.
  • When things are going well, I often use that opportunity to work carefully (slowly) on tougher passages in tunes or on techniques (like my B roll) that I DON'T do so well. This is not fun when everything is going poorly. But when things are humming, I hit the hard stuff, from a good place.

2. FIND EASE: When something is difficult, I find a way to make it easy. Usually this means isolating a small phrase and repeating it carefully, until it feels fluent. When I work with a metronome, I'll start with a tempo that makes it super manageable and I gradually inch up the tempo.

3. FOCUS GAZE, SET FOCUS: To set and maintain concentration, I focus on a spot on the wall. This is a literal and metaphorical way for me to enter into intentional practice. Yogis call this a drishti. I call it a dot, because I like circular shapes, like the hole in this organ pipe.  And as I already mentioned, I also tune in to how my feet feel on the floor. Sometimes these extra-musical cues keep me centered on your bigger musical project.

4. SESSION CHEAT SHEET: Irish Students often complain that they can't think of what to play when asked to start a tune at a session. I suggest keeping a list of your very best tunes (the ones you know really well) on a notecard in your case. Jot down the first notes of both A and B parts. When I write things down--notes on a set list, for example--just the process of writing alone helps me solidify what I know, which can be a big memory/confidence booster.

5. SHARE KNOWLEDGE: No matter what our stories or our current levels, we all inspire each other. It's great to share knowledge and tips freely. Explaining and articulating techniques and ideas is one of the ways I learn more about how and why I do things.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Toddlerbilly Riot is a Total Riot!

Running a successful independent creative career involves constant innovation. Artists make things, inspired by/reacting to the world around them. When artists become parents, songs like "Waltzing with Dinosaurs" just happen... at least in our family. Sure, we still play high lonesome murder ballads and driving instrumentals. But there is a new brightness in our home: Matt Heaton's new kid CD Toddlerbilly Riot! And yes, it is a riot!

The new CD features a stellar cast of guests (Laura Cortese, Katie McNally and Jenna Moynihan on fiddle; Zach Hickman on bass; Hanneke Cassel on piano; Jared Seabrook on drums; and Nigel and Shannon Heaton on vocals). It plays like a party from track one:
Reverb-drenched electric guitar and retro-surf drum groove intro. Car race announcer voice: "Welcome to Toddlerbilly Riot! Is everybody ready to dance?"
Whee! Clever, hilarious and expertly performed and arranged, the CD leans much more toward rockabilly and surf sounds than Matt's debut album, Happy You Made It. (Which I blogged about back in late 2013. That's a great CD, too).

As Matt has honed his "playing for kids" style, he discovered that playing on a big orange hollow-body electric guitar was tons of fun for the audience, and for kids. This, in turn, led to writing more in an early rock and roll style.

So, thanks, Matt. And thanks to many other fine musicians who have put together great albums that happen to also be made with kids in mind (vs creating content for kids with "tested" pedagogical concepts above great musicianship). Thank you for harnessing your musical excellence to make something silly, joyous and useful for kids and parents. And thank you fully embracing the vitality of being an indie artist, which is to constantly redefine and expand artistic reach.

(And thank you, laws of creative balance, for instilling perspective--as Matt and I have both diversified our offerings, our DUO has become even stronger! We have never played with such focus before. By performing slightly fewer dates as a duo, we are appreciating them more than ever.)

So, find balance and joy for yourself. Pick up a copy of the new album at Matt's site--or buy it right from itunes or bandcamp. Oh, and if you parent in the Boston area and haven't taken your 6 and under kids to hear Matt at a local singalong, you're in for an engaging hour for your kids, with high quality playing, because kids get to be discerning, too.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Simple is Hardest of All

My husband and I are musicians. And we’re parents. Our “backstage” experiences with our son (our little frog) deeply affect us and our music. Recent insights: 

I just released my new book, First 50, a collection of "simple" Irish tunes for flute and fiddle. (Yes, Download and Hard Copies available here!)

Turns out, "simple" is a tough nut to contemplate. For two years I went deep into high-quality traditional tunes that are also accessible to newer players...

...And after stripping each tune to its essential, non-ornamented elements and notating flute and fiddle versions with detailed style markings...

...And after recording the music with trusted colleagues and revising everything based on our work together...

...And after historical research (with the help of more trusted colleagues)...

...And after writing just a few trad-style tunes I couldn't find in the existing repertoire (when I needed, say, a pretty A waltz that doesn't go above a C#)

...And after testing, reworking, and, yes, scrapping a lot of my first, second, third and fourth drafts of the collection... I "finished" the book and put it out into the world, even though I could continue revising, revisiting, road testing for two more years.

So, this is what a first edition is. You just let go at some point. Of course, a music book can and perhaps should be revisited after some years in the field, as the hearts and minds of its early adopters weigh in and as the author continues to revisit the contents in workshops, lessons and online forums.

But still, the central thrust of any book becomes relatively fixed upon public launch. The main concept of my book here is that Irish traditional music is best approached with minimal and thoughtful attention to basic style before complicated repertoire or ornamentation come into play. This turned out to be a challenging mission to demonstrate! To teach simplicity, and to teach it simply, every single detail has import.

Like the Tiny House movement in which the ruthlessly edited contents and design of the space is what it is ALL about, a good, simple tune (or 50 of them) shines when the best notes and the most  pleasing bowings/breath marks are considered. Simple isn't easy. But it can spark joy, ease and deep inspiration.

Here's to sophisticated simplicity in 2016.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Let's Leap... Together!

My husband and I are musicians. And we’re parents. Our “backstage” experiences with our son (our little frog) deeply affect us and our music. Recent insights: 

It helps to have support. And when you're embarking on a big journey, it really helps to have friends hold your hand. Or let you walk ahead and tell you how much they believe in you.

And above and beyond that, it is a heavenly blessing to have informed, professional assistance when you really need it. Gold stars this week to DJ at Bodhi and Mind Yoga. He and the other Bodhi instructors offer free yoga to women in every stage of breast cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery. What an inspiration. I wish anyone dealing with breast cancer plenty of light and inspiration.

Recently, DJ led a guided meditation to non cancer patients at Medford Square's Borealis Yoga. Once we were all tucked into our breath and full of light and scaling a mountaintop, he asked us to look into the face of the person at the top of the mountain. It was my dad! For the first time in a long time, I got to see him. I  really saw his face, saw him looking at me.

As DJ guided us to do, we then imagined ourselves walking with our partner. My dad and I walked (leaped) from there. It was a wash of bright, happy light, which was a nice vision after just having launched my music book, especially because my dad was a writer.

At the end of the class, DJ suggested we offer our practice to a friend. A flood of faces came into my heart. There are so many of us doing amazing things, and these efforts and accomplishments are only stronger when we share them.

So, I wished easy, inspired moments to just a few a few dear people. It's more fun--and it's easier--when we leap together:
  • To Hud as he heals
  • To Katie as she heads to Cape Breton for a week of recording
  • To Matt as he prepares to launch his new kid CD on Sat, Jan 30, 3pm at Club Passim
  • To Neil as he adds a solo show to his already stellar performance offerings--he'll be doing a solo opening set at Club Passim Sat Feb 20 Duo show at Club Passim
  • To my mom as she gets back on her feet (literally)--go ankle, go!
  • To Laura with her beautiful new video Three Little Words. She performs this co-write with Zach with, you guessed it, a bunch of friends.
  • To Emilie and the enlightened team at Borealis Yoga as they continue to build a generous, vibrant center for well-being in Medford Square
  • To Lindsay as she exceeds personal trainer expectations on the road to recovery