The Vienna Boys Choir

They stood in front of me as I sat in the front row – 23 boys from about age 8 to 16, dressed in sailor suits. But all wasn’t as I expected. They sure weren’t all blue-eyed blond Austrians. Their conductor did look Austrian, his long light hair flowing. He wore a tuxedo and moved with a flourish from piano to stage and back. When he got really excited, exhorting the kids onward, he often went up on tip toes (the advantage of having a front row seat).

The leader told us he was going to have each boy introduce himself. As he passed the microphone around, I heard words such as Germany, France, England, the United States, China, South Korea, Thailand, Colombia … and Austria.

Some kids were so “out there”, some seemed shy. Some sang full-throated, mouth wide open. Some voices rose above the others, in great beauty. Five boys had the highest soprano sound that you can imagine, and at one point those kids held a soaring note for many, many seconds. As the conductor kept his baton hand raised and the boys held the tone, we the audience roared our approval.

Most of the songs seemed to be in German but I didn’t need the translation. The energy coming off the kids was staggering. There was a left section and a right one. Two singers, one from each side, often seemed to be looking at each other. It was like they were throwing their passion for the music from one side to the other and back again.

I met their energy with mine. I was pouring myself into every singer, wanting them to be great, drawing forth their sublimity.

At the end of most songs, the final note hung in the air – a pure expression of spirit. And then it faded to silence. There seemed to be a little space between the end and our applause, as if we were all stunned by what we were hearing.

I made eye contact with six or seven of the boys. I looked at every member of the choir and was pleased that some were willing to return the favour. I wondered if they could feel the happiness and love that I was sending their way. As the concert rolled on, I sensed that the boys were being reached by the goodwill flowing from the 1100 of us. They seemed to be leaning forward into the music, and towards us.

I was lifted by the songs in English, especially “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” and “There’s a Place for Us”. The purity of the voices met the purity of the words. With this music, there seemed to be an even longer delay before our clapping started.

The final number was drawing to a close. At the last piano chord, we rose as one, drowning the kids in wild applause. There were shouts of “Bravo!” and “Encore!”. The boys’ faces were smiles. Three more pieces came our way. More standing O’s. The last one rose while the choir was lined up along the front edge of the stage. Their bows and my clapping hands were a foot or two apart. Eye contact up close.

Thank you, young men from around the world. Your eyes and your voices did their job … you and we were together in the song.

Exhausted at the Concert

I was going to a house concert last night in London, to hear an extraordinary fiddler and guitarist. During the day, I was feeling good. Before the concert, I headed to the gym for an hour on the elliptical. Since I hadn’t worked out the previous two days, I wasn’t expecting any problem. I was wrong.

Ten minutes in, something was off. My usual speed was pie in the sky. My head was dull. “Maybe I should quit after thirty.” > “No way!” And so I grunted along.

With the luxury of a day later, I see a factor here: no recent caffeine. But yesterday afternoon, I squirmed within a sea of confusion.

Time to hear Mr. Fiddler. I walked in, made a joke with the host, and then sat on a couch with three other fans, right in front of the fellow performing. I felt myself fading.

In my life, I’ve spent a lot of time reinforcing a very solid identity. “Bruce is this. Bruce isn’t that.” Since entering the world of the Evolutionary Collective, my tightly woven sweater has started loosening, even unravelling. I have many moments of disorientation, where I’m so unclear about what reality I’m swimming in. This may sound like a really bad thing but I sense that it’s not.

I sat there not being particularly friendly to my neighbours. I sat there not enjoying the virtuoso violin solos. I sat there unable to follow the artist’s words as he talked about the tunes he’d created. I was in a fog.

Slowly and unsurely, I fell into a state of being okay with my so-called deficiencies of the moment. This too was a part of Bruce. I didn’t need to be alert, communicative and engaged all the time. It was okay to be pooped, fuzzy and simply blah.

It’s such a waste of energy to get down on myself when I’m not flying high. So I will stop doing that. I will embrace the roller coaster, both the dips and the heights. There’s far bigger fish to fry in this life than analyzing and critiquing my various foibles.

I’m here to serve and it’s time to accept that some days I don’t have much to give. So be it. Then there are those other days!

Sweet and sour … together they make a delicious flavour.

Choir

As a teenager, I sang in the Melrose Park Presbyterian Church Choir in Toronto.  In my 50’s, I sang in the Port Stanley Community Choir.  Throughout the years, we made beautiful music in the blending of sopranos, altos, tenors and basses.  I was a bass … and I still am.  I love singing.

Now I’ve moved to Belmont, Ontario, and there’s a new group on the block – the Belmont Community Singers.  I went to hear them this afternoon at the United Church.  Part of me still wants to sing exquisite songs with others, but I lean towards doing that in a folk music group rather than in a formal choir.  Still … there I was in the front row, only a few feet from a violinist.  Twenty-five singers and an small orchestra.  Lovely.

I was the only one in the front row.  Otherwise the church was pretty packed.  Perhaps I’m odd.  As I sat there, I journeyed back to other Christmas concerts, at the Port Stanley United Church.  How I loved singing O Come All Ye Faithful with the audience, listening to Gord Stacey give us O Holy Night in his deep bass voice, and finish the concert each year with the delightful A Special Night.  As the last note hung in the air, I always wondered if that would be the last time I’d sing this precious song.  One year … it was.

The Belmont Singers walked to the church sanctuary from the back, and soon Break Into Song did exactly that.  Most of the faces were shining.  I only knew one singer but it felt like I knew them all.

A woman strode forward for her solo.  It was Gord’s song – O Holy Night.  She was nervous.  Within the first few notes, her voice cracked.  She apologized.  She coughed.  Amid the beautiful melodic moments, there was more cracking.  I moved my spirit inside her and wished her well.  I stayed inside her the whole time, loving her, willing that her best would emerge.  Near the end of the piece, there’s a very high note.  She nailed it!  Waydago, my unknown friend.

“Brian” was the choir director.  He kept drawing out the beauty of the music from twenty-five mouths.  They were so very much with him.  And so were we.  For one thing, he was a major comedian.  At one point, he was requesting that we leave our e-mail addresses after the concert so the Singers could let us know about future musical events.  “Okay, that’s enough selling!  Back to the songs.”  Perfect.

We the audience got to sing with the choir.  What a blessing.  Armed with our lyrics sheet, we blasted out It Came Upon A Midnight Clear and then (!) O Come All Ye FaithfulJust like the good old days.

As we let the last notes of We Wish You A Merry Christmas fade away, we were a community.  Singers and players stood in response to the standing audience.  Smiles were flying across the room.  Merry Christmas, dear friends.

***

Will I allow the good old days to return?
Will that be me on the stage a year or two from now?
Hmm …

Kids’ Party

It was happening tonight at the St. Thomas Library – performers singing, playing instruments and telling stories. Kids showing their stuff to other kids taking it in. Wide eyes from the little ones.

First up were the “Jingle J’s”, children singing as well as playing guitar, ukulele and drums, along with adults grooving as lead guitarist, bass guitarist and backup singer. Songs ranged from Silent Night to Momma Rock Me – beautifully eclectic! The young’uns were hopping around and warbling their tunes. They urged we the audience to sing along to classics such as Feliz Navidad but very few of us grabbed the golden ring. I, however, grabbed. Life is short … go for the gusto.

Then it was time for a lovely lady storyteller. She sat on the floor, leaning against a chair, with a semi-circle of five-year-olds spread around her. As she recounted the innumerable adventures of Santa and friends, tiny faces watched her every move. One two-year-old decided to bounce on an upholstered chair while checking the traffic outside. All those cool red and white lights! Her smile aimed at mom would melt the grumpiest heart.

The story creator then turned to song, specifically Jingle Bells. She just happened to have enough wrist bells for every child, and they shook, rattled and rolled for all they were worth. Such delight everywhere l looked.

As Gerard took the stage with his acoustic guitar, a little girl and boy professed their love for each other in dance. Around and around they twirled as he sang, oblivious to any idea of “performance”. Let’s just have fun.

Our fearless leader favoured us with Ricky Nelson’s Garden Party and inspiring lyrics from John Lennon:

A very Merry Christmas
and a Happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear

And our mini-couple danced on.

As Gerard started in on Blowin’ in the Wind, one of my favourite singalongs, the woman sitting beside me leaned over and proceeded to tell me all about the children she sponsors in Africa. And in that moment I had a choice: indulge my singing needs or be with her. I decided to look into her eyes and celebrate the kids. It was a good choice.

Now our evening together is over. I spent time with many fine people and I am the better for it. Folks wanted to communicate. I wanted to listen. It works well that way.

We Are the Champions

I went to see Bohemian Rhapsody tonight.  It’s the story of Freddie Mercury and Queen.  We met his loves (female and male), saw his explosive personality (firing anyone who didn’t share his vision) and watched him descend into alcohol and drug abuse.

We also heard Freddie soar.  The grand finale was onstage at Live-Aid, the 1985 concert in Wembley Stadium to raise money for the starving people of Ethiopia.  Closeups showed the passion of the man, his full-throated blasting of the lyrics into the hearts of the 72,000 in attendance, and millions around the world.  The man of the hour jumped, twisted and twirled.  He threw hit fist aloft and spat out the words.  Thousands of fans sang along to Radio Gaga as Freddie strutted his stuff.

The best for me was We Are the Champions.  Freddie’s power tore me apart.  My mouth dropped open:

We are the champions, my friends
And we’ll keep on fighting till the end
We are the champions, we are the champions
No time for losers
‘Cause we are the champions of the world 

Power.  Such intense power, surging through Queen and their adoring devotees.  Oh, if we could harness such joy for the good of the world.  Imagine thousands and millions united in love, not for a celebrity, but for all of us.  We’re all champions.  Love exuded not for someone famous, but just to do good in the world.  To know in the end that we matter.  We give and someone out there is receiving.

Oh, Freddie
You made ’em laugh, you made ’em cry
You made us feel like we could fly

Thanks

Poof!

I was sitting in the Bloor-Gladstone Library in Toronto yesterday afternoon, wanting to write about Thursday evening’s concert with Robert Pilon.  I whipped out my Android phone, went to WordPress and started inputting.  Sadly though, a sentence such as “I don’t know what to say about all this” showed up on the screen as “I don’t know whawhat to say abouabout all thithis.”  Wha?

Not deterred by the mysteries of technology, I went to my e-mail program and began to tell the story.  An hour later, I walked over to Hugh’s Room, where I’d later be enjoying a concert celebrating the music of Leonard Cohen.  Before the songs started up, I finished my blog post.

Perfect.  Now all I had to do was copy and paste the groovy words from Internet Explorer to WordPress.  I highlighted the whole enchilada … and watched in horror as the whole thing disappeared.  Oh my God!  That’s about 500 words of the best I had.

I furrowed my brow and began the rescue attempt:

Work, work, work
Grump, grump, grump
Work, grump, work

Nothing worked.

The despair arose in me, along with the anger, sadness, impotence and any other yucky word you can think of.  Spiritual Bruce was stuck in a poop hole.  “Maybe tomorrow morning when I fire up my laptop, I’ll find that the post has been archived somewhere.”  (‘Fraid not.  It’s now tomorrow morning and Robert is nowhere to be seen.)

As I sat there watching the musicians walk onstage, there was a shift.  There was peace.  There was a quiet voice: “This doesn’t matter, Bruce.  I get that you want your words to touch people, but don’t worry – you do that with or without words.  Tomorrow you’ll do your best to resurrect your thoughts.  It won’t be as good but it will be good.  And today’s vanishing will not diminish the whole of your life.”  Thank you, dear voice.

Well … shall we get to it?

***

Last night’s concert was a fundraiser for the Wounded Warriors organization.  It honoured Canadian veterans of combat, and first responders, who are in the throes of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  It was a privilege to be there.

Our host and entertainer was Robert Pilon.  He was the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera.  He sang in Les Miserables.  And in 2017 he loved the vets in song at the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in France.

I got to sit front row centre and look into the eyes of human beings first, performers second.  Robert strolled onto the stage, and from the first second I knew I was in the presence of greatness.  He had a power about him – not of force or intrusion – but of grace and love.  I couldn’t take my eyes off his face.  The eyes shone.  The smile radiated to us all.  And his spoken words were a melody.  He hadn’t yet sung a note.

Robert melted us with Danny Boy, and in an inspired duet of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah with the woman who directs the Laura Secord Secondary School Concert Choir.  Oh … how their voices blended!  Again and again, Robert let his voice soften as hers soared.  He was the star of the show, but not in his mind.

And the kids!  Choir members often spread throughout the theatre as they backed up the other musicians.  There were young women four feet away, facing me and the audience.  I beamed love at them and said words of thanks after each number.  My neighbour and I briskly applauded the teens as they filed back onto the stage.  Some of them smiled.

Jully Black loomed above me later in the program.  She’s a soulful black singer who had us embrace all citizens of the Earth.  Her eyes also spoke joy.  Then there was Dr. Draw, a young man who has embraced electronic violin music.  His melodies shook us down deep.  Sometimes he knelt close to the floor, eyes closed, lost in his world.  Stunning.

Near the end of the evening, Robert told us that he has a certain signature song.  I had an inkling … “Go, Phantom, go!”  He said that he hadn’t donned the mask since retiring from the role, but tonight was special.  Robert turned away from us and then whirled back, half of his face covered in silver.  He stood above me as a God.  When he opened his mouth, The Music of the Night spilled forth.  Robert snarled at us.  Robert loved us.  Oh my.

The songs were lovely
The voices were transcendent
And that’s fine

But the best?
The hearts were way wide open

***

How about that?  I remembered.  Thanks for listening

Jann

I was in a gorgeous theatre last night in Kitchener, Ontario.  The Centre in the Square hosted Jann Arden, a singer-songwriter from Alberta.  A friend of mine at the Belmont Diner had seen her in London last week.  She and her daughter cried when Jann spoke and sang about her mom, who has Alzheimer’s.

For a long while as her mother waded the murky waters of dementia, Jann tried to convince her that “the orange men on the patio” weren’t really there.  Orienting her to reality seemed like a smart thing to do, but it wasn’t.  Jann had always been competitive but finally decided to let go … the illness wins.  The key moment came one day when Jann walked through the door and mom put up her hands as a shield.  Was she thinking that Jann was about to hit her?  That was it.  Jann changed from shooing the orange men out of her mom’s mind to suggesting that if they’re on the patio, they should at least pick up a broom.

The woman on the stage showed herself to be a full human being.  I enjoyed that even more than the singing and the songs.  A group of women in the front row held up images of Jann’s face in front of their own.  Groupies!  Jann laughed with them … and with us.

At one point she talked about a failed relationship.  “If you’re going to be with a singer-songwriter, and everything starts going to *****, you better expect that you’re going to end up in a ***** song!”  I wouldn’t have chosen some of her words but so what?  Jann was thoroughly herself for 2 1/2 hours.

The woman was transparent.  Her father was an alcoholic and her brother was often beaten up by the man.  The younger one fell into a spiral and ended up murdering someone.  He’s been in jail for many years and every month she visits him, setting aside her judgments again and again and returning to love.

Jann wrote a song for her brother – Hangin’ by a Thread.  It was inspired by something their mom said as mother and daughter walked out of the prison: “I’m so tired of looking at my feet.”  Jann goes inside him and honours what’s there:

When I cry I close my eyes
And every tear falls down inside
And I pray with all my might
That I will find my heart in someone’s arms
When I cry, cry
When I cry, when I am sad
I think of every awful thing I ever did
Oh, when I cry, there is no love
No there is nothing that can comfort me enough
When I cry, cry, cry
All the salt inside my body ruins
Everyone I come close to
My hands are barely holdin’ up my head
I am so tired of lookin’ at my feet
All the secrets that I keep
My heart is barely hangin’ by a thread
Hangin’ by a thread
Oh, look at me, at all I’ve done
I’ve lost so many things that I so dearly loved
I lost my soul, I lost my pride

 

Thank you, Jann, for being with us.  It was a privilege to share the concert hall with you.

The Hip … A Step Forward

It’s intermission time at London’s Aeolian Hall. I’m here to see The Strictly Hip, a tribute band for Canada’s great rock group The Tragically Hip. It’s been decades since I’ve been to a rock concert (other than dancing to Five Alarm Funk at Sunfest) and here I am in the front row.

Straight ahead of me, fifteen feet away, a young man wields an impossibly long bass guitar, his head bobbing and weaving. The lead guitarist plays some incredible licks with a macho flair that has the girls swooning. The drummer is brilliant. Still, the star of the show is the Gord Downie lookalike, complete with cowboy hat. I can barely make out the words but he’s belting out the hits as folks wearing Hip t-shirts move their bods in front of the stage.

Sometimes I close my eyes and feel the pulse of the drum in my heart … it moves right through me. The guitar runs, the deep bass parts and Gord’s strident vocals flood me with the juice of life.

***

And now it’s later. A little girl is jumping up and down by the stage and Gord reaches down to shake her hand. She bounces giddily back to her seat. The way ahead of me is crowded with dancers. A couple slow dances for a slow song. Friends jump straight up and high five for the fast ones.

I don’t know the songs but clearly just about everyone else does. I don’t feel like dancing and I wonder if that’s because of my recent ankle and knee problems. I take a second to poop on myself and then that smallness magically disappears.

I’m loving the energy in the room but then a thought comes: this group surge is nowhere near what I feel when I’m online with members of the Evolutionary Collective global community. That energy bubbles up from within. Tonight’s source is the wild band in front of me and their songs – some raucous and some tender. The truth is that I don’t need rock concerts to expand. Just give me a few open-hearted folks and I’ll bring forth love. A subtle and yet immensely powerful surge.

I continue to change in the world. Old versions of me are honoured and included in what’s emerging. Thanks, Gord and friends, for being on the journey with me.

Tomorrow?
A delightful mystery

Next year?
Perhaps a Bruce I can’t even imagine

Bring it on

Friends of Fiddler’s Green

This is a folk music group which was founded in 1971.  Last night at the Cuckoo’s Nest in London, Ontario, five fellows treated us to accordion, guitars, keyboard and a tiny squeeze box, as well as impassioned singing.  The musicians used to play at the old Fiddler’s Green folk club in Toronto.  They played songs and tunes from wide in the world, some raucous and some tender.

I got the last chair in the place, back and to the left of the keyboard player.  I was immersed in sound.  Closing my eyes and tapping out the rhythms on my thighs came naturally.  And so did watching Jeff’s fingers fly over the keys.  Propped up in front of him was a little notebook, with only a few hen scratches shown for each song … and yet he played such beautiful runs!

Usually there was a chorus where we the audience could sing along.  What joy to reach a harmony or two amid the sweet melodies.  I love the blending of voices – it both sends me away and drops me inside.

Our choir throbbed inside an old Tom Paxton folk song – “The Last Thing On My Mind”:

As I lie in my bed in the morning
Without you, without you
Each song in my breast dies a-borning
Without you, without you

Are you going away with no word of farewell
Will there be not a trace left behind?
I could have loved you better, didn’t mean to be unkind
You know that was the last thing on my mind

Oh my God … we were so fine.  We knew the humanity within the words.  And the instruments soared with us.

Alistair Brown is a very funny guy.  Between his singing and playing, he peppered us with jokes:

(A man and his young son)

Daddy, why is the sky blue?

I don’t know, son.

Daddy, how do birds fly?

I’m really not sure, son.

Daddy, do people live out there in space?

I really don’t know, son.

Daddy, do you mind me asking you all these questions?

No, son.  If you don’t ask questions, how are you ever going to learn things?

It was a delightful evening.  From my angle, I got to look at a lot of glowing faces in the audience.  We stood at the end.

 

Close

I went to hear the Barra MacNeils last night.  They’re a Celtic musical family from Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Canada.  And I got to see them from the middle of the front row.

Often the folks featured in a song stood at the front of the stage, and their faces loomed above me, maybe eight feet away from mine.  It was intense.

When Lucy sang “Caledonia”, I fell deeply into me.  Her eyes were open, and the little white dots at the centre shone.  All was liquid, and her soul reached the words:

Let me tell hou that I love you
That I think about you all the time
Caledonia, you’re calling me, now I’m going home
But if I should become a stranger
Know that it would make me more than sad
Caledonia’s been everything I’ve ever had

All was well

Later Kyle strode to a spot right above me with his fiddle.  He played a soulful Scottish air, with his fingers gliding so sweetly on the strings.  The violin purred into the love song and Kyle would often close his eyes in response.  I would have such beauty linger forever.

Then it was a rousing drinking song, soloed by Stewart.  On the chorus, four brothers were only a breath away from me, blasting out the melody and harmonies.  The whole was greater than the sum of the parts, with the tones vibrating inside my heart.

Towards the end, Lucy did some fancy Irish dancing and I watched her feet fly.  The taps on her soles beat out a brilliant rhythm and her feet twisted this way and that at supersonic speed.

All happened in my very near presence and the immediacy was a huge gift.  Human beings blissing a fellow traveller in the front row.