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On Song and Music at Riverside

We begin each day at the Riverside Tutorial by singing a ballad. While some lads love this part, others feel it is strange and unfamiliar. Some sing with gusto and others take a while to catch on to the spirit of the thing. But, singing songs is a tradition that reaches far back to ancient times. There is something about doing so that is unifying. It is one of the most powerful media with which to tell stories and build a brotherhood. Over the years, Riverside has built up a great compilation of ballads the boys can sing at any event, and one boy, in particular, is always ready to go with his binder. Putting songs to memory is a wonderful gift for anyone to possess, but a good binder packed full of lyrics is always helpful.

Recently many Riverside families attended an Irish Session at the home of one of our founding families. Irish Sessions are a good example of an informal and familial way to pass on the great tradition of songs to the younger generations. Sessions are an interesting phenomenon for they exemplify in a way the Riverside approach to teaching. At a session, a group of more experienced musicians usually plays tunes and songs, while the novices either listen or play along to the tunes they know. The Irish distinguish between songs and tunes. Songs are for singing together, and tunes are instrumental pieces. But the main idea of a session which I think acts as a metaphor for teaching is that the young can sit side by side with more experienced musicians and learn from them in a joyful atmosphere of song, fellowship, and good cheer. If only more learning experiences could be this way: a mix of fellowship, learning, and true culture!

Though the Irish Session style is a good one to emulate, at Riverside, we sing and play many different types of music. I am not a fan of sticking to one genre. I believe that each expresses an aspect of the human story in a way that is utterly unique. Today, with the Internet and streaming, anyone, anywhere has the opportunity to hear a great diversity of musical styles. But, at one time, this was an experience peculiar to America and it was a uniquely American approach to begin mixing the genres together due to what the Ken Burns documentary Jazz, calls the great Gumbo of music in our country. Americans, with the panoply of peoples and cultures present in our country, began to create new art through music. The voices of all who came here sought to express through song their idea of what it meant to be part of this country. I believe it is our duty to hand down to the younger generation these songs, which communicate memory, story, and identity. If we can continue to create a songbook for our Riverside community that carries on this shared heritage, we will have achieved a noble endeavor.

I began playing music at a young age. My parents had records at home that ranged from the Beatles to the Clancy Brothers, from Motown to Wynton Marsalis’ classical trumpet music. My older brother James brought all the music from the 80s into our home, and we loved singing the beloved songs of Disney and Broadway. I benefited from this rich and diverse musical background and so at Riverside we try to introduce the young lads to a great mix of musical genres. We sing songs from the Great American Songbook, bluegrass, country, gospel/spirituals, Irish, folk-pop, pure pop, rock and roll, Disney, Broadway, and any other song that will enrich the hearts and minds of these young lads.

Songs express a great variety of human emotions, hopes, loves, and longings. It is good for the young to hear many of these expressions, from fun dance tunes that are light and simple, to songs with deeper meanings and poetic lyrics. Putting lyrics to memory is also a great way for these boys to have hundreds of poetic phrases in their heads and hearts. I have learned over many years of playing and writing music that the key to creative songwriting is to have a vast library of melodies, song structures, phrases, and styles in one’s mind.

My hope is that each Journeyman (Riverside Graduate) may retain the gift of song as they journey onward in their lives.

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