growing up, Home

Mamala’s Last Week

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In the early 90s I had a steady gig on the 15th floor atrium lobby of the Merchandise Mart Holiday Inn in Chicago and one evening while I was on a break, (hiding in the Ladies Room reading a book,) the concierge burst in, in tears. She began telling me about her mother’s cancer treatments, and how all of her siblings and their spouses were taking care of her, staying with her every night, cleaning up after her and keeping her as comfortable as possible. And something told me to pay attention! You will need this information later.

The concierge was a lovely woman in her 30s, whose face stayed calm and beautiful as the tears slid down her cheeks. She told me how her brothers and sisters all lived nearby their mom, in a downstairs apartment or 2 doors away down the street. How it wasn’t a sacrifice for any of them to be there, tending to their beloved mother who needed them now so much. How they’d worked out a schedule so that no one was overwhelmed by the burden of being a caregiver. How easy it actually was to clean her up after she’d soiled herself, and how grateful they all were to have one another, and the time to talk to and comfort each other and pull together at this time of crisis.

It wasn’t easy to return to the piano after that break. I didn’t really know the concierge and I felt humbled that she shared so much of herself with me. I treasured the idea of a family who lived that close, who trusted one another so deeply, and who could come together so solidly for their mom and one another.

My only experience with death in the family had happened suddenly a couple years prior to this, and the memory still haunted me; how words had been said and feelings had been hurt, how family members had become estranged. It wasn’t just that we hadn’t had the chance to say “goodbye”, altho that did factor into it. I think it was more that we weren’t prepared and were unable to muster our “best selves” consistently. It didn’t help that the clergy hadn’t brought their A-game, either.

When my mom was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, she seemed almost giddy as she called to tell us; “It’s Sayonara, baby!” She’d made arrangements decades earlier to donate her body for scientific research and she opted for the barest minimum of treatment, in an effort to remain mobile and not become a burden. On one visit to NYC I accompanied her to the hospital for a treatment and since we couldn’t catch a cab back to her apartment in the drizzle, we slowly walked home down 5th Avenue and across 57th Street, stopping to warm up in the Steinway Building, where I commandeered a grand piano and showed her my latest song. In hindsight, it might have been better to wait for a cab, but she’d always seen herself as a very sturdy person, and she didn’t complain. And I had really wanted her to hear that song!

After a few months, it was obvious that her body was failing rapidly, and my sister and I were summoned from California to help our other sisters care for her in her final week.

We stayed in a hotel down the street from mom’s apartment and traded off every 12 hours, so that our mom was never left alone. For the first few days, she was fairly lively, receiving visitors and phone calls, showing interest in conversations, food and music. But as her body began to run out of steam and the pain worsened, she napped more and more of the time. The last few days when she’d wake from a nap, she’d be so pissed off that she was still alive! But then she’d heave a resigned sigh and settle in.

She gave me a profound gift, letting me care for and be there for her and my sisters that final week of her life.

I think of you and miss you every day, lovely Mamala.

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music biz, self-acceptance

Being “In The Room”

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Last week I had occasion to observe an audition for a college band director. My initial impression of the candidate confused me; while he was well-groomed, well-dressed and carried himself in a professional manner, I sensed something slightly “off” about him beyond what might have been attributed to nervousness. His beat patterns were clear and he appeared to have mastered the outward authority of conducting, but his “vibe” somehow didn’t register as authentic – it felt a bit like he was “phoning it in”. After a few moments, I saw what it was: he was so busy trying to look good that he wasn’t actually there in the room!

Bearing in mind that I never studied music education in college and didn’t have the language to clearly articulate what I found troubling, I still knew that something didn’t feel right;  I repeatedly noticed that when he asked the band to go back and replay a certain section, he didn’t say anything about what he thought was wrong nor provide suggestions what the musicians might change to make it better. Consequently, nothing improved. He didn’t bother to stop the band and start again when their entrances were raggedy, and there were other details about the players’ attention and posture to which he seemed oblivious, not to mention musical nuances. While he physically occupied the space on the podium, instead of actually being there in the room with everyone else, he seemed to be projecting an image of what he thought a band director should look like, showing off for the video camera that was recording the rehearsal. I got the sense he was playing the part of Conductor.

I began to feel concern for the students in the band, should this director be chosen for the position; would he be able to get past himself, would there be “room” enough for them to exist, for their problems to be addressed, or would the maintenance of his self-image displace their education?

I know what it’s like to audition for a gig and how nerve-wracking it can be to interview for a new position, so I can empathize with however much anxiety he may have felt that day. But I also know how necessary it is to show up for life, no matter how scared I am.  I have to risk being seen, risk becoming known, and I’ve learned it isn’t any good to sell other people on an idea of who I might be, only to have them become disenchanted when I can’t measure up to that idea. I have to show up and actually be “in the room” to connect with other people.

Ram Dass  wasn’t kidding when he wrote his book “Be Here Now“.  There’s really no other place to be. There’s really no other time than now.

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music biz

Old Dog, New Tricks

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Out of nowhere right before New Year’s, I was invited to play with the Tucson Symphony for a couple of Byron Stripling concerts.  He’s a very talented trumpeter who also sings and was doing a Louis Armstrong/New Orleans type of thing with the TSO in conjunction with the Tucson Jazz Festival. I was a bit hesitant because I’d never played with an orchestra, had no idea who had recommended me for the gig and I thought it might be too much work for not enough money (a trend these days!?) But then I thought, “heck, this is Tucson. How many other piano players could do it better than I could, if I put my mind to it?” and I couldn’t think of too many, so I said yes.

I picked up the music at the orchestra office and felt a bit daunted – LOTS of notes! – I’d have to actually read, and not just chord symbols! LOTS of complicated rhythmic figures and changing tempos and time signatures, due to the medley-nature of the charts. LOTS of empty bars of rests to count! (Being a pianist who usually plays club dates and private parties, I haven’t had to count bars of rests very much in my professional life – I usually just play wall-to-wall! I’m here to tell you, it’s mighty nerve-wracking to count measures of rest if you’re not used to it.)

I researched as much as I could online on Mr. Stripling – looking for YouTube videos so I could hear his patter, how some of the pieces should sound, his bio, etc. And I practiced a couple hours every day for 2 weeks with a metronome!!  Sometimes right before bed, but always at least once through the show, because some of the tunes were burners, and I was afraid I’d mess up if I didn’t have them under my fingers – (these days I don’t usually play anything that fast!!)

I felt pretty well prepared by the time of the rehearsal. That night’s concert went well, and the following day’s matinee went well, too. A couple weeks later the paycheck came in the mail. I feel pretty good that I took on something that was a bit out of my comfort zone, devoted the necessary time to learning it, and then performed pretty well! I even found out who had referred me for the gig – a percussionist I’d hired for a church gig many years ago!? (you never know, do you!?)

Guess you can teach an old dog new tricks, if you’re patient and keep calm, eh?  🙂

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music biz


This gig sounded ideal – I’d get to play electric bass in a rock band!  And earn lots of tips from being a chambermaid all summer at a Lake George resort! Sure – the pay was lousy – 7 days/week at $35/week plus $5 for each performance (plus room and board), but think of those tip$!!  I couldn’t wait to get there!


Unfortunately, UConn was on a slightly different calendar schedule than a lot of other colleges, so by the time my dad dropped off me and my 2 suitcases, electric bass and home-made amp for the summer at Lake George, nearly all the staff had paired up with one another. No matter – I wasn’t there for romance. My plan was to have fun making music and to earn enough money to pay for my first year on campus without resorting to student loans.


Blue Water Manor was every bit as beautiful as depicted in the brochure; rustic and serene.  All the usual vacation-by-the-water activities were available to guests, and every night there was live entertainment in the main lodge:


my rock band 2 nights/week, the other band I played in 2 other nights/week, a variety show night with magicians, country music and standup comedy, a talent show night featuring the guests, and every Saturday was an abbreviated production of WEST SIDE STORY. Every busboy, waiter, lifeguard, sous chef, etc. performed as entertainers, in addition to their “regular” jobs.

Our guitarist-leader was good! The lead singer was charismatic and along with the drummer, they had all decided on the repertoire before I’d arrived: lots of Beatles, Rolling Stones and a few rock groups that were new to me at the time: (Led Zeppelin?) I’d heard Creedence Clearwater Revival and Three Dog Night on the radio but I’d never tried playing anything but their hit singles, and of course, no one had sheet music or even chord charts so I just had to take the band’s word for it on how those songs went; there was a lot of “Born To Be Wild”, “In A Gadda Da Vida”, “White Rabbit” and “Dazed & Confused” on rock-band nights.  The other band provided dance music for the teenagers’ parents; songs like “Volare”, “Strangers In The Night” and “Besame Mucho”. I’d had limited experience playing electric bass with anyone but the records I owned, so it was challenging but also a lot of fun.

A word on wardrobe: I’d brought jeans and tee shirts and had sewn up half a dozen cute cotton dresses for my chambermaid duties –

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kinda like the short sleeve dress on the left here…

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or I think it might even have been THIS EXACT pattern!?

– never considering what DIRTY work cleaning guest rooms might be. My first week was spent readying the cabins down the road from the actual resort – and they were filthy!  Locked up since the previous summer, they hadn’t been touched in many months, they smelled atrocious and there were dead bugs everywhere!  I wanted to be a trouper but I got so grossed out by cabin after cabin of spiderwebs and dead mosquitoes. Still, I hung in for the promise of those huge tip$!  Then I began cleaning up after current guests, some of whom REALLY knew how to “party”!! (You haven’t lived until you’ve scrubbed up after folks who’ve managed to get sick ALL over the place!)  At that point, I was ready to give my notice – even though I was enjoying rehearsing and performing with the bands. Fortunately the guy they’d hired to run the dishwasher had just quit, so they shifted me to the kitchen – no cobwebs there!

The dishwasher position melted my calluses every day and then I’d build them back up playing or rehearsing with the band every night. I felt a little left-out when all the romantic couples were canoodling but I was mostly okay with it, since I’d taught myself to enjoy beer, which was half-price for employees (half of 35¢ per glass of Rheingold meant I could get a little buzz on every afternoon AND every night after work!)  In mid-July a bartender took me for a moonlight canoe trip out on Lake George, but there were so many mosquitoes biting, it put a definite damper on anything romantic. Towards the end of July one of the waiters took an interest in me – I remember necking with him while Neil Armstrong was taking “a giant leap for mankind” on the TV.

But shortly afterward, I had to face the fact that I wasn’t earning nearly enough to pay for college by being a dishwasher/bass player, so I gave my notice and headed back home on the bus. I remember being in tears, feeling like a hopeless failure at age 17, standing at the top of Dauntless Lane with my 2 suitcases, bass and amp, having called my sisters to help me schlep my stuff back to our garden apartment, since I could barely walk 5 steps carrying it all by myself. After 6 weeks at Blue Water Manor, I’d managed to save $150 – there I was, in mid-summer, without a job! What to do?

The next morning I saw a classified ad; the White Tower was looking for a waitress, so I hopped on the bus downtown, applied, got the job, (they supplied the uniform!)

– and… presto!  Tip$!!  For the next 6 weeks I flirted with the cute bus drivers, waited tables full time, sold my electric bass and homemade amp and then went off to college.



learning, music biz, self-acceptance

Gaslit* at the Gaslight

*gaslit = freaked outscaredunnerved into questioning ones own sanity (Oxford).

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While I was hardly “born in a trunk”, both of my parents were theater-folk; they’d met doing shows at Syracuse University and continued to perform in plays and revues throughout my childhood. My sisters and I would “run lines” for them when they prepared for a performance, type copies of my dad’s plays for 10¢/page (pre-Xerox!) and be an enthusiastic audience while they rehearsed and performed at tiny theaters around CT.  My father had a number of his one-act plays published and even had an off-Broadway show produced in NYC in 1965. The Fourth Pig

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My first (unpaid) theater gig was playing for an awards ceremony for the Mark Twain Masquers in Hartford when I was 15, and I later earned a few shekels accompanying dance classes while at UConn. I always liked actors personally but grew impatient with the number of rehearsals they wanted to do. (we jazz musicians like to “wing it” more than some other performers!)  When I participated in the terrific ASCAP, BMI and ASK workshops, I also discovered I wasn’t too thrilled with the degree of compromise required with working in the musical theater – the endless rewrites for non-musical reasons, for example. While it can be exciting to collaborate with other talented people, the old adage of “too many cooks” DOES come into play at a certain point – usually, for me, earlier than anyone else. (Which is ironic, since I truly love musicals – I’m just not crazy about the process of creating them, I guess!?)

So I’ve resisted involvement in many theatrical endeavors, despite my high regard for most thespians. In 2008, however, I agreed to sub for the pianist at a musical melodrama theater – an extremely underpaid gig that extended almost 2 years before I had enough financial wherewithal to walk away… umm, make that RUN away! For years afterwards I told myself that it was the unreasonable demands of the music director, some of the actors and staff that had made me so miserable during that period, when every single day for 7 days a week I would dread the one or two performances I’d have to play each Sunday. It was only after I’d subbed at another musical melodrama theater that I realized that, crabby and unappreciative as the cast might have been, they hadn’t been the problem – for me, it was the job itself! Juggling last-minute changes while responding to what’s happening on the stage and always being “on!” is nerve-rattling and I just don’t have the constitution to sustain that for 2+ hours. When it comes together, you might feel like Superman…

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but when something goes wrong (as it frequently can!), there’s hell to pay, whether it’s actually your fault or not!

Technological advances and shrunken production budgets have had a dreadful impact on the current state of musical theater; to be filed under “Spinning Straw Into Gold”,

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the last gig I was hired to play seemed easy enough when I checked out the songs via YouTube videos; the score was non-challengingly melodious and traditionally orchestrated, like musicals in the 1940s-60s. When I got to the first rehearsal, it was revealed that ALL of that orchestral music, (save a solo cello, solo flute and the music director’s piano) would be MY responsibility, courtesy of a jury-rigged computer-keyboard setup with multiple pedals, sampled sounds and sheet music indicating multiple instrument changes within 2 bars – an impossible scenario for low-tech me.  I knew that there was no way I’d ever be able to perform, let alone master this part, no matter how much I practiced, so I bowed out that afternoon. I later learned that playing this particular show had reduced more than one highly skilled professional pianist to tears.

My cap is off to theater musicians – especially music directors – who are able to run the show AND make superb music doing so. They create unique magic for an audience, and they are more-often-than-not ill-compensated for their alchemy.

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…… after all, fingers take a beating, doing this sort of thing!!

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music biz

Just for the joy of it



I can’t remember a time when I didn’t absolutely LOVE records – although I confess that when I first began hearing the radio as a little kid, I was under the impression that Elvis was actually there in the WROW studio, performing with the Jordanaires. (He always sang each phrase exactly the same, but it hadn’t occurred to me that they were spinning a record. After all, hadn’t the DJ just announced, “and here’s Elvis Presley, singing DON’T BE CRUEL”?)

As I grew into becoming a musician, I came to love records even more; for one thing, I could listen over and over, to learn a song, or just for pure enjoyment (cue The Beatles. Leonard Bernstein and Paul Desmond). For another, I realized that all I had to do was perform and record perfectly once, and then I’d never have to play or sing that song again!  I wanted to follow Steely Dan’s pre-90s paradigm and release albums without having to tour.


But oh, have times changed! According to many in the music biz, live performance is now mandatory; the only way a musician can expect to see a payday –

and yet “…never has music been less about music. Never have audiences cared less about the actual performances. They watch with their phones and it’s more about “look at me at the concert.”

Which leaves us musicians-who-love-to-make-records exactly where? When a superstar as established as Prince is hurting, what is left for those of us who never were superstars?

While it was never an easy career, there’s ample evidence all over the internet that the recorded music business has mutated into something virtually unrecognizable to anyone older than 40. Now, apparently not even mega-hit pop records receive their financial due!   AllAboutThatBass

An old friend emailed me 10 months ago, “Keep composing and playing and singing – It can be very liberating with no goal in mind. You know, just for the joy of it.”  I haven’t been able to respond to him yet because what I WANT to say is so politically incorrect and sounds so ungrateful. Because I was writing songs “just for the joy of it” 50 years ago. Because I made my living in music, and it stopped being “just for the joy of it” a long time ago, and I began to need to be paid for my music (like anyone else who provides a valued service) in order to live with myself.

Dave Tull apparently agrees:  I JUST WANT TO GET PAID

Being primarily a jazz musician, I never expected to get rich, even long before Napster started giving away the store. Since jazz is such a miniscule percentage of the record business, it now surprises me how many websites have bootlegged my records and encourage their visitors to download my music for free.  I’m pretty sure I could deal with the reality of aging-out of pop culture if I wasn’t aware that my music, like Prince’s, is now being stolen all around the world. (Doesn’t that mean there’s value in it, that it’s worth something to someone, if they bother to post it online?)

Well, it is most definitely worth something to ME!  When I listen to the CDs I’ve completed, I’m inordinately pleased with the final results. Sure, there were some compromises, but the pains that were taken in the writing, production, performances – these recordings come as close as possible to expressing what I intended them to convey, and I’m very, very proud of them and all the musicians, engineers and producers who added so much to what I’d envisioned. Since there’s virtually no pay day at this point, I may not be inspired to create a whole lot more music “just for the joy of it”, but I’m extremely glad to have done what I’ve done to date.

Marilyn Harris Music Clips

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music biz

Music for a Joyous Occasion?

After it became apparent that the ad agencies of Michigan Avenue (the Chicago version of Madison Avenue) weren’t going to pull our scorched jingle company from the fire, it was time to make a new plan. Our pastor suggested we use our musical skills to play weddings and funerals, so we did some research, asked friends who had played those types of gigs, got feedback from other clergy, constructed a song list of the most requested religious and secular titles, bought 2 new VERY heavy amplifiers and began marketing ourselves. We made hundreds of cassette demo tapes, took out ads in the Chicago Wedding Guide magazine and sent out thousands of the following pamphlets to every church within 20 miles:BrochureCovers  BrochureBlurb


The wording for this sort of thing can get dicey, (especially with funerals) because we’re talking about providing music for…. death. Grieving people are at their most vulnerable and it’s important to strike the proper note of concern and compassion, while projecting sufficient confidence that the music you’ll be adding to the service will be reverent, inspiring and tender. Interestingly enough, the few funerals we were called to play (all at our own church!?) were relatively easy gigs.

The weddings, on the other hand…. ah, the weddings!!  The term “Bride-zilla” had not been invented but such things did exist!

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We met more than a few GROOM-zillas, too….

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not to mention PARENTS of the happy couple….

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While we had our own ideas, wedding music is generally “chosen by committee” and everyone has input except the musicians! Thus we wound up adding a LOT more titles to our song list.

I know now that even by late 80s’ standards, we were charging way too little for our services – but we really needed to get some gigs, and we hadn’t figured out how much actual WORK was involved in providing music for a half-hour service, let alone a (gulp!) 90 minute Catholic wedding mass, complete with communion for the entire congregation!  We also underestimated the toll schlepping those 2 amplifiers, keyboard, EVI gear and mics, stands, etc. would take on our bodies and our spirits – especially when we got home and still had to carry all that gear up the rickety winding stairs to our 2-flat apartment.


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We DID have a few nice moments playing weddings; there was one where the happy couple wanted “their song” performed during the mass AND during the reception right after AND during dinner. (They had hired a DJ for post-dinner dancing so we actually got to go home and feed and walk our dogs after 5 hours). “Their” song was  ALWAYS by Atlantic Starr – and we sang the played the duet over and over, to their obvious delight! By the end, all of the guests as well as the complete wedding party were singing along with us!

But most of the weddings were grueling – a high-stress situation with no relief until the check finally cleared.  Brides and/or their mothers were always adding MORE special songs we had to perform, and higher choir lofts we had to schlep all our stuff up to… not to mention waiting until everyone was gone before we could break down, pack and head home, where another schlep  awaited us. It got VERY old VERY fast.

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The end came after a June wedding at a Catholic church. We’d agreed to provide an hour’s music, collected 50% down of the $150 fee we were charging and then things got more and more bizarre; MANY midnight phone calls amending this song and substituting that song, micromanaging every detail imaginable. It was hotter than Hades on the wedding day as we schlepped all of our equipment to the choir loft where I was to play on the out-of-tune organ as well as my keyboard.


We were there early, before any of the wedding party had arrived, so we got to really “case the joint” – and this was turning out to be a BIG wedding! Outside the church was parked a huge video truck and inside were no less than 7 cameras, each with its own cameraman.

Of course the wedding didn’t start on time, but we were instructed to entertain the guests until things got going. 45 minutes later we got to play Lohengrin, and then there was the lighting of this candle and that candle, the mother-of-the-bride’s special music, the groom’s family’s music, etc. etc. etc.  The mass went on for almost 2 hours and then we FINALLY got to play the recessional, pack up and head home. As we got to our car, we noticed the arrival of a huge stretch limousine with a hot tub in the back!!!

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That was the final straw. We had just sweated and played and sang for almost 3 hours, (not to mention all those midnight phone calls) for a payday of $150 for both of us, and this couple was going to ride away in a hot tub!?

And what was waiting for us at home? More schlepping up 2 flights of stairs!  And two very sweet schnauzer dogs, thank heavens!