IN SOUND THINKING: Mrs. Butcher

by Keith Johnston 

keith_Mrsbutcher

young Keith

I was born and raised in Brooklyn NY to Cuban-Jamaican parents. We were exposed to a broad range of music during the 60s and 70s. The radio was always playing in our house. We listened and danced to everything from mambo, reggae and calypso to rock, R&B and Jazz. My mother played organ and sang in church. My siblings and I would sing in the youth choir, as I would hide behind choir members during performances. As an introverted visual artist, I spent most of my time drawing on everything. At nine years old my parents enrolled my two sisters and I in Mrs. Ray’s School for Music and Culture in Bedford Stuyvesant. Mrs. Ray was an extremely conservative dark-skinned woman. Her hair would always be in a tight bun and she dressed in navy blue and white old English attire. Her high-pitched operatic voice would really intimidate me as she taught us how to read and play music on the piano. She used a wooden ruler to smack our hands or to tap us on different areas of our back to develop effective posture and technique. It was a traumatizing experience for me. Every week I pleaded with my mother not to go but she insisted on raising “well rounded children”. After about six weeks of lessons every Saturday, and daily practice, I refused, cried and begged not to go anymore. As a way to get out of it I told my father I didn’t like the piano and wanted to play the guitar, so he released me from piano lessons.

For months I listened to my sisters practice and perform recitals playing “Moonlight Sonata” and other classics, as my father would take me to work with him. I couldn’t decide which was worse, Mrs. Ray or cleaning and mopping down a four story brownstone every Saturday. That Christmas my parents gave me a sunburst colored TeleStar electric guitar and amplifier. I was so elated, strumming the out-of-tune strings. Eventually the excitement deflated by the horrible sound and I went back to drawing in my sketchbook. My mother asked my father “How is he going to learn to play that thing?” My father said he found a teacher on Snyder Ave. The following Saturday, my father grabbed the guitar and we drove to East Flatbush. I was so excited, thinking about all those cool guitar players I’ve seen on TV or on my father’s albums, like Jimi Hendricks, Chuck Berry and Wes Montgomery. We pulled up in front of an apartment building with four rough looking teenagers, with headbands and Afros sitting on the stoop. In the window of the first floor apartment was a crooked written sign that read “Mrs. Butchers School of Music”.  The joy of my father taking me for guitar lessons faded into anxiety as we exited the car. Between the neighborhood and the trauma from Mrs. Ray I started to retreat. My father became annoyed, “Come on Boy! Don’t start! Carry this”. He handed me the guitar in a black plastic, vinyl-ish case.

As we moved toward the apartment building the teens moved out of our way. My father rang the bell and a woman with a big smile and round glasses looked out the window. She unlocked and opened the front door wearing a floral housecoat. I remember thinking “she plays the guitar?” She warmly greeted me, much different from Mrs. Ray who was very stern. “Good afternoon young man. I am your teacher Mrs. Butcher. What kind of guitar do you have there?” I proudly said “a TeleStar”. “Oh” she said, obviously not knowing what that was. Knowing my father it was probably the cheapest guitar he could find.

We entered her eclectic living room with shiny wooden floors, dim lamps and floral wallpaper. Her dusty old chandelier, much different than Mrs. Ray’s shiny elaborate one, provided a homey comfort. I was enthralled by the messy artistry; all the instruments around the room. Hanging on the wall was a big 36 inch saw with wooden handles on each end of it. The only furniture in the room was an antique couch with a plastic cover, a glass coffee table, wooden nightstand and two plastic covered dining chairs with a music stand in front of it. My father paid Mrs. Butcher for the lesson and book and said he would be back by 2pm.

After my father left I stood in the midst of the room amazed. Mrs. Butcher asked me to sit in one of the chairs. I sat staring at the different brass and woodwinds on the bookshelf and thinking, “Does she collect all these instruments or does she play them?”  In the right corner was an upright piano, in the left corner an organ; behind me was a series of string instruments, cello, violin, upright bass and a banjo in a corner next to a vacuum cleaner. “Are you ready?” she asked. I asked if she played all these instruments. She said yes, noticing how I stared at the saw on the wall. She asked if I wanted to hear it. I signaled “yes”, not really knowing what she meant by playing it. Noticing my distraction she removed the saw from the wall, sat on the couch, placed it between her thighs, grabbed a bow and began to play. It was the most remarkable thing I had ever heard. The saw sounded like a human voice. She made it sing. In that very moment I fell in love with the infinite possibilities of music. As a result, for the rest of my life, I never stopped studying and digging for the music inside me, living the musician’s endless journey of exploration and discovery through collaborating in this universal love language. From playing in bands at school, jam sessions, block parties and local clubs to recording studios, tours, recording artists and performing at Madison Square Garden, Rockefeller Center, and in front of thousands in venues and stadiums around the world.

Thank you Mrs. Butcher for those inspirational Saturdays of patient instruction, spontaneous jam sessions and a skillset that set me on a musical pathway to self-discovery and creativity.

Keith Johnston
Director, College & Adult Program
CUNY Creative Arts Team

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IN SOUND THINKING: On Listening / We Are Music

by Keith Johnston 

I believe we are all born with gifts, talents and abilities.  On our journey, we engage in the great unifier, “music”, but the question is, are we listening to the ebb and flow of what this life is offering? Regardless of race, gender, culture or nationality, music is central to the human condition. We are sound personified, vibrating at specific frequencies that define who we are as living breathing instruments.

Music is all about listening, affecting and being affected, feeling and experiencing the power of orchestrated sound. Whether we are aware of it or not, we listen with all five senses and then some. At the heart of all music is listening. Whether we are playing music, or even unconsciously exposed, we are transformed by the sound in some way. It doesn’t matter how good of a musician we are as much as how well we listen and respond.

Life is all about making music. In our everyday activities, walking, talking, eating or dancing, we exercise the three elements of music; rhythm, melody and harmony. Take notice of how nature has its own orchestration with a plethora of instrumentation through all life forms. Even when listening to people speak—the tone, rhythm and melodies of their native language create a unique musical exchange, a conversation grounded in rituals that are foundational to their identity.

The power of listening is evident in the most remarkable displays of music; an African drummer’s ability to calculate a dancer’s next move in a split second, a jazz musician’s telepathy or the ability to spontaneously spit rhymes in complex rhythms and melodies is an example of this high science from the cosmos. If we are fearless enough to study, practice and observe we can reach new heights through the sound of music. This universal language is essential to our health and unifies people as nothing else can. It is also an effective way to enhance our academic facilities; math, science, literacy, etc.

Anything that breathes is music, shifting the atmosphere, making a statement or raising a question. Sound is the source of all life. As we venture on our personal path, interacting in various ways, we are making music. Our individual journey is orchestrated by choices, circumstance and relationships composing an original piece.

Music is sacred in whatever way each individual might define that term. So, as we create, let us strive to harmonize or at least find relevance in the dissonance in this improvisational jazzathon called life.