"Don't tase me, bro!"

I am currently composer-in-residence with the Vermont Youth Orchestra Association, from 2009-12, through a Meet the Composer/League of American Orchestra Music Alive residency grant. One of the main components of the grant is that I work with the Vermont Youth Orchestra and associated ensembles and they perform my music and commission me for a new work—in this case, a twenty-minute work for orchestra and chorus—but I also travel around the state as a virtual ambassador for VYOA, and visit schools and other organizations in the process. One of the more interesting schools in Vermont is the Wheeler Integrated Arts Academy—a new, innovative grade school that uses the arts to teach traditional topics such as math and science. At least twice a  year, I visit a third and fifth grade class at this school and help teach them a little about how to compose music, and I also answer questions at the end of each class.

Sometimes the questions are a little odd, like the one student who asked me, if, as a composer, I have ever been tased. On the surface, this is somewhat funny (why would I be tased as a composer? For writing a truly bad piece? Did he think I was a conductor?), but when you dig deeper, why is a fifth grader even talking about tasing? Why does he even know what tasing is? Maybe I am more sensitive to these things now that I have a four-year-old child, but there definitely seems to be a loss of innocence with some of today's children. Certainly, in the age of the internet, it will be more difficult to shield children from topics they really should not be exposed to or thinking about, but I really do think it also falls on parents to keep an eye on their children—and their ears open—so if something like this comes up, they can explain what that is, and how bad it is, and that tasing is very serious—like guns—and is something you really should not joke about.

Perhaps what was a little more disconcerting was that I was asked, multiple times, how much money I make. Not just by these students at this school, but from a few high school students who interviewed me from a different school. Not that I am afraid to answer the question—I basically did, more or less, and gave them a range, from hundreds of dollars to many thousands, depending on the project—but why are they concerned with that, at such a young age? At the Wheeler Arts Academy, these are third and fifth graders. The high school students, I can understand, but even so—would this question have been asked fifty years ago?

I think it is sad that we live in a world where young children are thinking about money—or more accurately, concerned with making a lot of money—when what they should really be doing is having fun, learning, exploring and imaging what they can grow up to be, without serious regard to financial matters. Of course, I would expect this from high school students who are about to enter college or the real world, but not from  such young kids. Yes, even young children should learn how to value what they have, and learn the basics, that we use money to buy things and so on, that everything has value, but is making money really what is most important? Of course, when children hear their parents talk about money, they absorb that, and we are in a recession, so maybe that has something to do with it.

This issue really trickles up to adults.  Many people are too concerned with materials objects and making money—keeping up with the Joneses—and not concerned enough with happiness, giving, and being good citizens. I just think it is important, and our responsibility, to make sure kids grow up being kids, and are loved, as much as possible. Otherwise, many of these soon-to-be adults will just feel the urge to re-live their childhoods as adults, because they did not have true childhoods.

The job of raising children, not just our own, but all children, falls on all of us—parents, teachers and the community alike. It really does take a village.

What I Will Remember

Sometimes I think about what I will remember most—or care about—when I am old. I am pretty certain I won't remember much about FaceBook. I know I won't think about email or text messages, or as much as I love gadgets, my mobile phone.

I won't care what operating system my computer is running, if we even use computers at that point, but I might care if I backed it up, although it probably will not matter unless I print everything. I know I certainly won't want to be holding a Kindle, or a laptop or have a Bluetooth headset on my ear.

I am also certain that I won't think about all the frozen dinners I have eaten, organic or not,  that Sienfeld re-run where they cut up candy bars with a knife and fork—although that was pretty funny—or that great deal I wrangled on a flat screen TV.

Here is what I am pretty sure I will think about.

I will think about my family, both immediate and extended, first and foremost, and wondering how they are, wherever they are, and I will want to be with them as much as possible.

I will think about Victoria and Dylan, and how much I love them, and how much of a gift it is to have them in my life. To see another human being that is genetically half you and half your wife look into your eyes and say I love you is truly euphoric.

I will remember that time my father threw me in the air when I was three to the music of Shostakovich, and I will think about my mother painting on the third floor of the house I grew up in, while I stood by her side finger painting. I will remember molding clay side my side with my father in his studio while he was making his sculptures. I will think about the rice crispy treats with little cinnamon candies my grandmother made me and my brother and sent in care packages while we were growing up.

I will also think about my work and how much I accomplished, the experiences I have had as a composer and performer—both good and bad—and what I am leaving behind. I will certainly hope that my music doesn't die with me. I want to think that by the end of my life, I will have contributed to the world in a positive way.

I will think about the walks I took in Central Park, the mountains I climbed in the Adarondacks and Colorado, homemade chocolate chip cookies and those times I stayed up all night with Dan, one of my best friends while growing up. I will think about friends, present and past. I will think about a few exquisite meals I had in a few fancy vegan restaurants, and my favorite pieces of music and visual art.

I will think about everything in my life that was intensely personal and full of love. I will also regret all that I wanted to do, but didn't.

It is interesting how some of what we do now will not matter that much when we look back, and how important it is to live each day as fully as possible, take chances, and be with the people we care about, in the flesh.

Wind Beneath My Wings

victoria_paterson-large-1 Valentine's Day just passed, and like an idiot, I forgot to get Victoria flowers, or anything else Romantic. Deservedly, I am in the doghouse, at least a little, so this week I am trying to make up for it.

Sometimes it is easy to forget the friends and family in our lives that keep us going, those that make us want to get up every morning and continue working, which is particularly important if you are a self-employed freelance artist, as I am. Victoria witnesses everything I go through and have to deal with.

Few people probably realize how hard Victoria works. She is an amazing wife and a fantastic mother. Anyone with kids knows that being a mom—or at least a good one—is an all-encompassing job. I don't think Dylan will truly realize how wonderful she is until he is much older.

She is the Managing Director for our group, the American Modern Ensemble, which is an incredibly demanding job, especially in this economy. Are there many other jobs that are more stressful? Perhaps being an air traffic controller, which is basically the same thing, when you think about it, but with great pay. (Just kidding, of course, there's really no comparison.)

Victoria also founded and runs Lumiere Records, an indie record company that also encompasses a thriving wedding gig business. Her String Quartet Wedding Music CD does very well on Amazon and iTunes, and she is always coming up with more ideas for new projects.

Every evening, when most people are winding down, she plays in West Side Story on Broadway and gets home at 11:15 PM. She does a ton work on the side, everything from gigs at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center to run-outs to other states, and even other countries.

On top of all this, she helps me with my career and acts as my unofficial manager. She is always talking me up to everyone, and I feel incredibly lucky to be married to someone who actually loves my music.

The whole time, she manages to stay unbelievably healthy, beautiful and high-spirited. We have been together for almost eighteen years and married for almost eleven, and to this day I cannot think of a more amazing women who I would want to spend the rest of my life with.

Dylan, TED and the New Renaissance

Dylan Painting Lately I have been listening to webcasts in the background as I work, particularly if I am correcting scores and parts (which as any composer will attest, is personally fulfilling but mind-numbingly tedious). Damon Lee, a composer friend of mine who lives and teaches in Germany, recently turned me on to TED, an amazing site that contains talks by some of the world's greatest inventors and thinkers, including Dean Kamen, Ray Kurzweil, Al Gore and others. One brilliant, very funny lecture that caught my attention is by Sir Ken Robinson, entitled Do Schools Kill Creativity?

Something Robinson points out and that I have noticed with children—mostly with my  2 1/2 year old son Dylan who is the child I spend most of my time with—is that if they are not hindered by adult preconceptions, they will interactively express themselves in truly unique and organic ways. Dylan synthesizes all sorts of influences and stimuli into his own form of creativity. He sings and dances while he paints, holds two paint brushes like drumsticks, painting and drumming on the paper all at once, and even depicts stories in his paintings that combine all of his diverse stimuli—everything from Itsy Bitsy Spider to the moon and the stars. Interestingly, everything makes perfect sense to him because no one has told him otherwise. Nothing is a mistake. The whole time, he is developing motor skills, exploring and stretching boundaries. His personal expression, without adult-imposed limits or categorization, is a highly entertaining and profoundly beautiful experience to watch.

Back to TED, the summary on the Do Schools Kill Creativity? page states that Robinson makes a "profoundly moving case for creating an education system that nurtures (rather than undermines) creativity." Robinson calls the meeting of passion and skill "The Element" and perfectly summarizes all that is wrong with most modern educational systems. Even some of the most radical schools still treat the arts, sports and "the other intelligences" (anything other than the humanities and languages) as second class citizens. Arts courses are allotted fewer credits, and most schools still structure their degrees and curriculums using outmoded models meant to prepare people for a society centered around industrialization.

I think we are entering—or already experiencing—a New Renaissance. Our life spans are now long enough that we need not have one career, one passion or even one intelligence. We can have multiple facets, either at the same time or one after the other. They can be related or not, and we do not have to choose one over the other. You can be a musician and a corporate CEO, a dentist and a pianist, a photographer and a professional chef. Technology is helping us express ourselves and save time enough to distill the essence of what we desire. Our only limits—other than a lawful society and survival—should be what we place on ourselves.

As I have always said, genius is mostly about connecting disparate elements where there were no connections before, and having the skill and passion to carry out your ideas. I only hope that as parents, we can allow Dylan to be as unique, creative and skilled as possible.

What I Am Grateful For

Glass of Water

Every day, I try to remember to take a moment to reflect on what I am grateful for. I know this may seem almost quaint—reflecting at all in today's Twittering world, right?—but I often feel like we take for granted all that is wonderful, and all that we should cherish and protect.

Living in NYC, I am incredibly grateful to have clean water. As most of us know, this is and will become a bigger and bigger issue as each year passes. Sure, almost all water sources are not as clean as they could be, but what we have is worth protecting.I am grateful for clothes and a safe, warm place to sleep. This is a luxury most Americans take for granted, but there a lot of homeless people without a consistent place to sleep or even warm clothes. Although there are shelters and places where people can go for free clothing, many homeless people are not mentally stable or able to put two and two together, so they need help even finding out where to go. At the very least, when someone who is homeless on the street asks me for money for food, I at least offer something to eat. It's pretty hard to be insensitive to this most basic need.

I am grateful for being able to work and my teaching job. It is such a luxury to have time to compose, time to learn and wonderful students to teach.

I am also grateful for my beautiful family, and Dylan, our newest member. I am especially grateful that he is healthy and happy.I am grateful for so many other aspects of my life, such as living in a safe environment, and to list them all would take an encyclopedic essay, but I think it's so important to take a moment every day, particularly now that Thanksgiving is approaching, to remember that many of us have so much to be grateful for, and to remember to help everyone we can within our means.

If They Can Be Friends, Why Can't We?

This summer Victoria, Dylan and I stayed at Victoria's parent's place and took walks on the beautiful country roads in rural Vermont. One day, we were surprised to see the following: Friendly Birds

If you look closely, you'll see two ducks (a male and female), a turkey, a chicken and a rooster. They all seem to get along just fine. Interestingly, the rooster leads the pack and all of them generally stand behind him.

This reminds me of a recent story about a baby hippo forming a strong bond with a giant male tortoise:

Turtle and Hippo Getting Along

You would think that if these birds can cohabitate, and this baby hippo and turtle can get along, that people could stop killing each other. I know, it's obviously not that simple, but it sure is fascinating how we think of ourselves as an enlightened species.

Why I Love The American Inventor TV Show and Really Hate Graco

What team of geniuses designed Graco Care Seats? Am I the only parent in America that thinks they were designed by monkeys on crack? One afternoon, after Dylan spit up and drooled all over the padded seat cushion of our Graco Car Seat, Victoria decided to remove the seat cushion and run it through the wash. All was fine, until she asked me to put it back on. I am the resident tech support “go to guy” in the family, so it’s always my job to deal with this stuff. Despite my being somewhat highly educated—I have a doctorate, so I guess that should count for something—it took me at least a half hour to put the stupid thing back together. That was with the help of Victoria's father, a retired college president, who also had a difficult time figuring it out. I guess I am lucky that I was not trying to reassemble it right before getting into the car, or that the fate of the world depends on my reassembly skills or lack thereof. I can just imagine: Dylan fidgeting and crying, getting a late start, fussing with this ridiculous contraption. It isn't really the cover itself that's so annoying, mind you, it's how the safety straps weave in and out of the slits in the cover and how they connect to the back of the plastic seat. I guess the secret is to never take off the cover and let it fester with baby drool. Yuck!

What gives? What team of idiots designed this thing?

You would think that of all products, a child’s car seat would not only be designed with the utmost attention to safety, but ease of use. They could have easily pasted clear directions all over the plastic shell (I mean, c’mon—it’s not like you need to make a fashion statement with your baby’s car seat), but no, you either need to have the manual on hand or practice taking it apart and putting it back together—like any parent has a half hour to dedicate to yet another idiotic chore. I wish I had pictures to illustrate how puzzling the underbelly of the seat is, but Victoria’s out of town right now with Dylan and the car seat is with her.

On a related note, I happened to catch the last episode of the American Inventor TV Show on May 18. I usually hate “reality shows”, but this one rocks. It rewards ingenuity and creativity and encourages people to take potentially world-changing ideas to the next level. I was particularly excited when American viewers elected Janusz Liberkowski as the winner. The other inventions were OK—an innovative Double Traction bike, a game called Word Ace and a Receiver’s Training Pole, but this is something that will potentially save lives.

For those who did not see the show, here is a description of Liberkowski's invention:

“Spherical Safety Seat - A new kind of infant car seat where the baby sits inside nested spheres instead of the usual seat. In a collision, the spheres spin and automatically position the child's neck and back so that they are perpendicular to the impact force, thus shielding the baby from the destructive force of the impact.”

This is such a fantastic idea! Liberkowski totally deserved to win, and regardless of how ingenious his design is, how can you not empathize? The man’s daughter died in a car accident because of a poorly designed car seat (a Graco?). I can see it now: millions of parents, just like me, hating their stupid Graco Seats, all of us imagining the ultimate horror: a similar disaster with our own children.

So, what’s the solution? If Liberkowski’s car seat really works well and actually makes it to market, speak with your wallet! Purchase it if you have a small child and show Graco that great design does matter.

Perhaps I’m the only parent who cares or thinks Graco’s are designed poorly, but I would rather speak up than ever have to go through what Liberkowski must relive every day for the rest of his life.

And like James Dyson, “I just think things should work properly.”

My First Entry

Wow—I never thought I would create a blog. For those of you who actually read this (all two of you), don't worry: future postings will most likely not be this long, but hopefully you'll cut me some slack as this is my very first entry. I finally relented and decided to create a blog because I've had a lot of ideas going through my head lately that are somewhat brief, but hopefully interesting, and/or are not appropriate for formal essays on my website. Also, I occasionally feel like writing a diary-like entry, but the thought of pulling a Rorem and writing daily entries, whether it's interesting or not, is just not me. I think it needs to be somewhat spontaneous.

This also took me a while to figure out because I was confused about which software to use. I did a lot of research and finally ended up using WordPress, but I still need to figure out how to integrate this with my site, which I desperately need to update, but I'll get to get to that this fall. I chose this black "skin" for now (it looks so "cool" and composer-like, don't you think?) but I'll change it later on to look integrated with my site.

Currently, my blog is divided into a few different categories:

• Music • Environment • Family • Misc. Ideas

I might add more later, or even remove a couple (or create separate blogs?) but for now, this seems pretty reasonable.

So, why did I choose these topics? Music is obvious: I'm a musician, so of course, I want to write about it, especially since I love what I do. What might not make sense to some is why I have an environment category. For those who don't know me well, I have always been passionate about environmental issues and am vegan, so I want to start jotting down some ideas that have been floating around in my head and see what comments I get back. As for my family, my beautiful wife Victoria just gave birth to Dylan, our wonderful, amazing baby boy, and I have so many comments about him, his toys (what's with that Baby Einstein crap? More on that later...), his children's books, etc. that I just can't hold back anymore—I just have to say something! Check back in a few days for writings on this topic. As for misc. ideas, I have way too many for one lifetime, and hopefully someone out there will see something interesting and take it to the next level.

On a related note, a film I often mention when talking about not having enough time is Multiplicity with Michael Keaton and Andie MacDowell. Not the greatest film of all time, but don't you sometimes wish you were multiple people? One to do the work, another to go to that recital you're dreading, etc.? I know: just like in the film, it would ultimately be more trouble than it's worth, but it's a fascinating thought.

I guess I'm done for now—back to composing. If you've made it this far, thanks! Please feel free to make comments...