I placed an order for a CD today. On the face of it, not a particularly compelling event, although increasingly unusual in these days of iTunes and mp3s. This CD is special, however. It includes six songs written, arranged, and performed by Zoë, one of the six-year seniors.
I remember her as a seventh grader, seated on the stage behind an old keyboard, accompanying herself on an original song she had written for that year’s seventh grade play. Lurking in the shadows was a character who would steal that song, present it as her own, and attempt to use her minions to face down any possible challengers. But in my memory, it was one of those moments when you suddenly develop tunnel vision and it is as though a spotlight illuminates one person only and the rest of the world ceases to exist. One of the smallest kids in the class, Zoë nonetheless brought a simplicity and a bravery to that performance that commanded attention.
At tonight’s performance, one of the audience members asked her how long she had been writing songs. “Since elementary school,” she said, “but they weren’t very good.” I think back on that long-ago seventh-grade song, and I do remember it as being simple melodically and harmonically. At the same time, I remember the melody as being beautiful, singable, something that would stick in your mind and keep a smile on your face. Was that song as complex and original as the songs she presented this evening? Not even close. But was it good? I think so, anyway. And even Mozart had to start somewhere.
A lot of good music does get created here. I have a number of CDs going back to the 90’s covering music created at this school. Most of them feature the rock bands and other instrumental groups I’ve taught, but there are also some Octet CDs as well as solo recordings. At this time of year in particular, I well remember all these kids, some of course now grown up with kids of their own. I remember the bond we created and the music we made as if it were yesterday. The other day, the Cranberries song “Zombie” came up on my Pandora stream, and I was shocked and sad not to hear the rat-a-tat of drums that Hilde brought to transitions, or the aggressive hiccups of Cass ’s vocal as she sang “Zombie – ee –ee; what’s in your head?” I had completely forgotten what the original sounded like, and I genuinely believe it pales in comparison. I have similar experiences listening to “Hands” by Jewel (where Kate’s vocal was extra inspired due to the autographed picture of Jewel our bass player had given her), “Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohn (where Mary’s soaring reprise of the chorus was spot-on perfect), and “Venus” by Bananarama (you simply haven’t heard this song until you’ve heard it with Katie’s plastic toy saxophone solo). And so on.
I can envision Zoë’s parents, beaming with pride as they listened to their daughter’s live performance Tuesday night, flowers cradled in her father’s arms. I can envision other audience members, whose broad smiles told me they would have enjoyed the music no matter who was performing it. For those of us (like her parents) who remember her as a seventh grader (and younger), of course there was an element of nostalgia. But bottom line, the songs are genuinely good, complex and sophisticated, and Zoë’s voice more than up to the challenge of performing them. These are the kinds of songs where the more you listen, the more you hear.
During the question-and-answer session, Zoë’s mom asked if she envisioned a long and rich career such as Bob Dylan is celebrating as he turns 70. Knowing that the answer wasn’t necessarily expected of her, Zoë nodded and said she thought she would. So I’ll confess, I’m buying this CD in part as a photograph of a moment in the career of a promising musician. I’m buying this CD in part as a reminder of her personal journey at our School. I’m buying it because I know I will simply enjoy listening to it. And I’m buying it to continue to add to my collection of unparalleled musical memories here.
– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean