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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Music Inside

Good ol' HBO - they do tackle some interesting topics once in a while. I don't subscribe to the channel(we are basic cable cheapskates), and I regret it now. HBO is broadcsting what sounds like a marvelous show - "The Music In Me," a documetary about children that are passionate about music. Here is the the Wall Street Journal article on the show:

Television networks battle for our attention with an assortment of attractions, but classical music and any other kind of music beyond the commercial mainstream are hard to find outside of public television and the Ovation cable network. A rare exception: HBO Family's documentary, "The Music in Me," which debuts this Saturday (7-7:30 p.m. EDT/6:30-7 p.m. PDT; check listings for other air dates this month).

This compelling film, which maintains the high caliber of HBO's previous "Classical Baby" series of music, dance and art programs for toddlers (now on DVD), focuses welcome light on young amateur musicians around the country who march, as it were, to many different drummers. Ranging in age from 7 to 11, they represent a broad array of musical and cultural traditions -- from classical and jazz to Latin, zydeco, klezmer, good ol' country pickin' and a remarkable diversity in between. Moreover, in a time when it seems that playing CDs and iPods has replaced the invaluable tradition of amateur music-making, this film reassures us that the joy and satisfaction of actually playing and singing music are still important elements of childhood -- at least for these kids.

HBO Family's new documentary introduces us to 7-year-old Guyland, who at 2 could already play the accordion. "The Music in Me" is the brain child of its executive producer, Leslie Stifelman, a pianist and conductor who is currently the music director of the Broadway show "Chicago." She is also the creative intelligence behind her company, Symfunny Toons Inc., which develops television and interactive products for children to learn about music. "It started with a demonstration piece for HBO, for which I went around the country filming musical kids," notes Ms. Stifelman, who has been developing educational and in-school music projects for more than a decade. She says that when she embarked on the actual documentary, "We had 500 applicants from 40 states, and it was breathtaking to discover the range of musical activity going on in this country." She compares these children to blades of grass. "Some of them are nurtured by a parent, neighbor, teacher or friend. Others flourish on their own, like a weed punching through concrete."

And what's noteworthy about this film is that it documents not conservatory prodigies or "professional children" but ordinary kids in neighborhoods around the country. Some, but not all, reveal exceptional abilities. But all of them play their music because it is necessary to their existence: "I even get up extra early just so I can touch my guitar," says 11-year-old TJ of Omaha, Neb. Like many others in this show, TJ is attracted to music much older than he is: His room is plastered with photos of his idols -- Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, the Beatles -- and his own performance hearkens back two and three generations.

Alternating with fascinating vignettes selected from the 500 home-performance videos sent by applicants, the film spotlights six children, each drawn to a distinctive musical genre: First up is Nathan, 11, a classical cellist who looks uncannily like a young Yo-Yo Ma. "I think a good cellist has to feel the music and feel the true meaning," he says. And as good as his word, he not only gives an elegant performance of "The Swan," from Camille Saint-Saƫns's "Carnival of the Animals," but with remarkable acuity he discusses melodic phrases and harmonic progressions that suggest to him dramatic turns in the music's unfolding narrative.

We see tow-headed trumpeter Tyler, 10, playing George M. Cohan chestnuts with his parents, brother and sister at the family band's assorted daytime gigs around their hometown of Virginia Beach, Va. "But most of all," he says with an engaging smile, I love playing jazz, because I can improvise." And he struts his stuff jamming with a jazz combo, heating the nighttime air with some truly stylish riffs. Similarly Elena, 10, is a Puerto Rican-American flutist whose affinity for Latin jazz has made her a celebrity in the Latin music clubs around Berkeley, Calif., where she and her family live. "Jazz is not a little kid's music at all," she says against a backdrop of applause during one of her performances. "My parents say they want me just to be a kid and not play music all the time," she says. "But I am very serious about music."

"I can make music with anything," declares percussionist Qaasim, 8, of Brooklyn, N.Y. He revels in his favorite West African djembe, proudly lugging the heavy drum up a long flight of stairs to play it at the monument in Fort Greene Park with his drummer father and brother. Later, with a set of drumsticks, he sets off through his neighborhood, improvising an infectious solo concerto on everything along his way, from mailboxes and fire hydrants to park benches and storefront security gates.

In a segment in the style of a music video, Una, an 11-year-old rock guitarist from Portland, Ore., embraces the legacy of '60s protest songs with her composition "Global Warming," using minimalist melodic repetition to underscore the serious message of her text: "Global warming, it's not just a prediction anymore. It's real."

Then there is Guyland, 7, of Frilot Cove, La. He received a toy accordion for his first Christmas -- by his second birthday he was able to play it. Now he continues the legacy of his great-grandfather Delton Broussard, a celebrated accordionist. Broussard died before Guyland was born, but Guyland says Broussard taught him in his dreams. Like any little kid, Guyland enjoys fishing and playing with his friends. But the moment he puts the accordion strap around his neck he is transformed into a musical firebrand. "Running with the big dogs" at a Louisiana club where his great-grandfather played in the 1940s, Guyland is all over the stage, his face deadpan, his body pulsing and swaying to his music. Playing in his own unique way -- accordion held upside down, treble and bass keyboards reversed -- he weaves between the adult players towering over him and brings down the house.

What's profoundly heartening about this material is how vividly it reveals what Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentaries and Films, calls a neglected area in television -- namely, "stimulating children's capacity to respond to music, both actively, through their own abilities, and emotionally by hearing it, enjoying it and dancing to it."

Thus, "The Music in Me" illuminates the passion a lot of kids have about making music today. At the same time, it shows those kids who actually play often inspiring their own peers -- if not to play themselves, then at least to admire and value what their talented friends are doing for sheer pleasure. As Qaasim observes, "You gotta find the music inside yourself; it could just come out of you without you knowing it was in you all that time."

Young people playing and singing music give hope for the eventual salvation of the human race.

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