Holiday season -2022 – Let’s Stay Together
To quote the Reverend Al Green, “Let’s Stay Together.” After our sad Christmas tale of 2021, the kids and families stayed with their music lessons and we continued to meet weekly online. A majority of the students are long-term players (3 years or more studying music,) many from the Strings Attached Ferguson project. They stayed with their studies regardless of the silly obstacles created by the Episcopal Church Diocese, St. Stephen’s and its backward community leadership last Christmas. The church took our 2022 project funding, and, to my knowledge, they never returned any of it to the foundations, funders or families who donated it for our music program during the Covid pandemic. The church proved to be untrustworthy and created a sad coda to our 12 year project story in St. Louis and North County St. Louis.
We came through the 2022 year fine despite their 2021 Christmas Episcopal church meanness and countered it with our response, resilience.
I still see between 60 and 70 kids per week for guitar and ukulele lessons. Being free of in-person lesson meetings and focusing efforts with online meetings has enabled me to teach youth locally and nationally, beyond the restrictive grant guidelines of local arts agencies. I now teach kids from the mid-west, west coast and east coast – also a few international students. Working online and living in the Central time zone makes online scheduling usable for both coasts
As planned, it’s been a year of transition and hard work to see some fruits. I’m a few months away from my “full retirement age,” which means staying home and teaching online. I’m ready to try something other than a typical retirement and have been working toward that goal this past year. Most musicians I know never seem to retire. Why retire from something that’s enjoyable? Especially when you have pleasant and happy people to work with every day.
The kids continue to make social progress with their music – joining church bands or performing for their churches and school groups over the holidays. Playing holiday songs with siblings for grandparents and other family celebrations. And that’s what our music study is about for us. I don’t focus on creating rock stars or nightclub entertainers, but creating people who share music with their community and family, just because it’s a friendly thing to do.
Have a great Holiday season! ~ Mr. Steve
Back to School! – August and September
Time to hit the books again, and that includes Mr. Steve! I spent part of August with the Hal Leonard Publications team becoming teaching “certified” in Soundtrap. Soundtrap is the music education DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) that music students can use to record themselves for practice purposes, or as a recording device to record their own songs, and to write and create their own music arrangements.
The the help of the Les Paul Foundation and the Film Music Foundation, I’ve been mixing recording technology instruction with my music lessons for years now, (Strings Attached has produced 5 CD’s of Americana Music Recordings) by taking students in for recording sessions at professional recording studios. But, working with their computers, and a DAW like Soundtrap, students can write their own songs, arrange and record them in the comfort of their own rooms at home. Young people are very naturally creative this way if given the opportunity and tools to experiment with. Generally, they just need a little guidance on how to structure their compositions and how to work the mechanics of a DAW like Soundtrap. The process of songwriting or creating video soundtrack music builds confidence in their own creative abilities.
Student Jadon created this music piece using Soundtrap midi’s:
If you are considering lessons with Mr. Steve, please think about trying lessons in the use of Soundtrap DAW and music creation. It’s a great way to get started in creative thinking!
June and July 2022
Summer is here! Schools are taking a break, summer camps are starting and, well, being lazy around the house is essential.
Mr. Steve’s classes continue through the summer, as always. I’m adding partnerships with partnering organizations at Outschool http://www.outschool.com. Individual and small group summer classes are available with Blue Cat Music Studio and Bell’s Global Academy at Outschool. We’ve added additional 35 students this summer to Mr. Steve’s regular schedule in June and July from Outschool. They come from all over the U.S. to learn ukulele and guitar with lots of happiness & enthusiasm! They’re mostly between the ages of 5 and 9. I’m hoping some of them will stay on into the fall and winter to continue their studies.
Music teacher James Young sent along some photos of the kids in the Ferguson Florissant School District getting in the ukulele spirit this past school year with some of our instrument donations:
Ukuleles are great summer fun instruments and easy to take along on summer trips. They stowaway nicely in airplane overheads bins. You can easily take them along on summer car vacation trips and they don’t take up much space with the auto luggage. Perfect also for camping trips, campfire sing-alongs and serenading grandparents on those stayovers at their house.
Summer word of caution: Don’t leave instruments in hot cars for any length of time!!! Remember, they are held together with glue and glue melts in hot settings. Leaving instruments in hot cars can cause separation to instrument parts and damage to the finishes. Always take care of instruments in extreme weather conditions!
If you read our 2021 Christmas Tale here in this blog, you’ll see there are some people, lawyers, churches, pastors who prefer to work together to try to undo, exploit, destroy and steal from our modest project. But, there is a group of folks who prefer to “Create Together” and this effort makes us much more proud and happy to be associated with! Our various guitar, banjo and mandolin music are used again in a new season of HitRecord’s YouTube production of “Create Together: A Better World is Possible” hosted by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Yes, a better world is possible. Check out the episodes at
A HUGE THANK YOU as well to the Jubilation Foundation Teaching Artists Fund of the Tides Foundation for their giving & grant support for the project and me during this time when the Missouri Episcopal Church Diocese and the St. Stephen’s parish and its management stole our funds for this year.
This month we’re featuring creativity, creating together and separately. I’ll feature student performances, videos and recordings. I’m encouraging students to become familiar with DAWs to experiment with home multitracking, working with microphones and sound editing by recording class material they’ve been working on, or creating their own songs.
An emerging new songwriter/singer in my students, ZanderMae, who has been with Strings Attached from the very beginning of her guitar and singing development, and now demonstrating her creative songwriting abilities. Have a listen!!
I dug into our uncompleted and unreleased recordings that we started before the pandemic shut down our recording sessions in March, 2020. This recording of “Blackberry Blossom” has students Annie, Jadon, Connor, Deirdre and Mr. Steve performing:
How We Learn at Mr. Steve’s
This month is my second anniversary of adjusting to online teaching since the 2020 outbreak of COVID. In many ways, we’re all slowly going back to normal pre-COVID lifestyles. Many people have returned to commuting to office jobs and schools are loosening restrictions. Some people have developed a hybrid work or school life of home/ office or home/school.
I’ve adapted to teaching music from home and I like it.
I think back to the “old days” of parents driving their kids to music lesson each week. Many of them drove for a half hour or more, to have their child/or children visit with me for a short lesson period, sometimes only to be told they need to practice more, and then drive back home for a half hour or more each week. An hour commuting time per week per lesson. 4 hours per month. 48 hours of driving time per year.
And now that seems so wasteful. Seems so Yesterday.
It wastes time, wastes gas. It creates more traffic congestion and contributes to destroying the environment. And it’s not necessary. There’s nothing magical about in-person music lessons. It doesn’t make the student better to have the teacher hovering over them during a half hour lesson. I can’t wave a wand and make them a better ukulele or guitar player due to it being an in-person session. Or recite a Harry Potter incantation to make them play Minuet in G effortlessly because it’s a in-person lesson. I’ve tried, it doesn’t work.
(Here’s a better suggestion for an alternative;
~ Use that hour of commute time saved each week in not driving to the music lesson as PRACTICE TIME. Students often say they’ve been, “too busy” for practice. Here’s an hour that could be used to play your instruments instead of riding around in a car.
~ Use the money saved on automobile petroleum not used for 4 hours each month to help pay for your music lesson. The average cost of a 15 mile trip back and forth to a physical lesson space is about $6 in gas costs. Times 4 trips per month = $24. That’s $24 per month average you can save on the monthly music lesson cost. )
In a lesson, a student is guided with good playing habits, given new skills each week and then 90% of progress made is developed alone during weekly individual practice of the new skills taught. The teacher is not involved in that 90% of the development progress. The student learns that the responsibility is theirs. PRACTICE = PROGRESS.
That process is easily managed online without the wasteful commutes, using communication technologies we have available.
Important note: I do think people should play live music together in ensembles, school bands, church bands or just with friends. That’s essential and important to develop as a musician. I would love to see communities make that type of music education more accessible to young people. I try to encourage my students to seek out opportunities in their schools or churches if it’s available and participate. “If it’s available” is a major obstacle for many young people, because those opportunities are not available in their schools, home school groups or churches. Or just develop a musical buddy with a family member or friend that plays an instrument and – play together!
I no longer assume responsibility for coordinating music togetherness at Mr. Steve’s. It was part of the mission of Strings Attached and that has changed now that Strings Attached has ended.
In my day, we had organic teenage DIY garage bands playing top 40’s rock, but I fear that era has passed forever. Kids are too managed in the present world.
At Mr. Steve’s we meet once a week online via Zoom. Lesson music can be shared and discussed. Lesson music, audio files and links to curated YouTube videos are stored for students to work with during the practice week in Teacherzone, a learning management system. Teacherzone also features a built-in media player for easy playback of lesson audio files, with variable speeds available, that students can use as aids during practice.
Playing along with audio is an important part of skills development that tests the students ability to play along at real life speeds required for ensemble playing. Playing at a steady tempo. It also counters self deception many students develop when they only practice alone. “Gosh, I played that great!” (Well, not really, when I tried to play with the audio)
Some students video record part or all of their weekly lesson with Zoom technology for playback during the practice week to refresh their memories of the previous lesson. They can screenshot useful lesson illustrations or diagrams of scales or other lesson material discussed.
I also use Hal Leonard digital music books for class instruction and for students use at home, in either digital or hard copy. Digital or hard copy versions come with variable speed audio files access built in directly above the lesson piece ~
Or with the Playback Plus media player technology that allows students to play along at variable tempos that match their practice skill level, loop certain difficult sections or passages and adjust pitch if needed.
I marvel at all the technology available to young students that are learning to play music today. I wish that I had all of this, “Yesterday,” when I was learning to play. Also think about all the self-learning videos afforded by YouTube. I don’t think young students quite appreciate it all.
In many ways, I think they are being held back by our current “live” system of teaching and have been brainwashed into thinking that commuting to physical location is a necessity for learning something new. It’s not. Traveling to a in-person lesson tends to make young people believe the time spent with the teacher is all there is to learning to play music. But so much more is available outside of what the teacher focuses on during a brief weekly visit: Artist recordings, music history, YouTube videos, library music songbooks and history books, experimenting with songwriting, repair and building homemade instruments, vast collections of recordings and histories of notable musicians available online that children seldom explore.
Why Mr. Steve’s Guitar and Ukuleles?
Mr. Steve’s is dedicated to the idea that middle income families should not have to sacrifice music education for their children because it doesn’t fit in the family budget. Families who work hard each week, struggle to pay mortgage, rent increases, rising insurance costs, gas prices and school costs will often exclude the idea of music lessons as an unnecessary monthly expense.
In my years of previous nonprofit work, I also witnessed foundations, churches and public arts funding agencies ignore the needs of middle class families because they didn’t appear to be “poor enough” to deserve attention, assistance or subsidies. They appear to be – middle class. Middle class should fend for themselves!
Perhaps in the 1950’s and 60’s. To me, it’s out-of-touch thinking.
For the past two decades, I’ve recognized and served many middle class families who simply couldn’t afford guitar or ukulele lessons for their kids without some help to get started. Many need help with costs associated with weekly lessons, instruments, music books and music accessories. It’s the same for many seniors. Seniors who may have always dreamed of taking up an instrument in retirement, but couldn’t because of money issues.
No one wants, or deserves, to think of themselves as “poor” if they are working 40 to 50 hours a week, making a reasonably good salary, but due to the other bills are forced to delete guitar lessons in the monthly budget. Sometimes families have two or three kids interested in playing an instrument. Parents have to make tough choices about which child should take the lessons if having all children involved becomes unaffordable.
Seniors. No one deserves to work all their lives and not be able to take ukulele lessons in retirement to find comfort. They deserve dignity for their accomplishments.
I hope you’ll take the time to watch, “Why the Middle Class is Shrinking.” 12 minutes of interviews and commentary that summarizes the problems facing many American families.
JANUARY 2022 – Leaving St. Stephen’s, Leaving Ferguson
“Life is What Happens While We’re Busy Making Other Plans” ~ John Lennon & Allen Saunders
In years past, our in-person, live community holiday program was the familiar, “Christmas Guitars” and was always well-attended. Usually around 250 people or so came. It generally consisted of Christmas song performances, ukulele singalongs and awarded instruments given to students for their study persistence.
However, in 2021, life took over the holiday show and began writing a Christmas morality tale. The plot twist found a neighborhood Christian Episcopal church, St. Stephen’s of Ferguson, and its pastor withholding our 2022 financial funding, my healthcare savings, terminating my employment by serving me written notice on Christmas Eve and demanding the program vacate the building before the end of the year. No reason was given at the time. The Church seemed unconcerned and showed no signs of empathy about educational, mental health and financial well-being of the children, teens and families involved in the project during the pandemic with the action taken.
The Diocese, church, church congregation or the new pastor also played no part in securing the funding they made off with, funding that was intended for the program. It is shameful behavior and exploitation of a community endeavor. Almost a year later, they have never been held accountable despite numerous attempts.
According to the parish representative we are, “no longer a good fit for the St. Stephen’s community.”
Does that sound right or wrong? Is this the way we would expect our churches, church pastors, leaders and church congregations to behave? Is this lack of concern and empathy typical of our society in general? So general and typical , perhaps, that it isn’t viewed as wrong any longer? These are the central questions raised by this Christmas story. Research shows that empathy is on the decline.
Despite the dispute, Mr. Steve’s 55 students, ages 5 to 16, stayed focused with their weekly lessons. Their attendance is outstanding and their parents continue to support the project financially and by helping their kids with weekly lessons on Zoom. Many of the students are making rapid progress in jazz guitar studies, creating their own songs, refining practice techniques, exploring more learning material, new technology or additional lessons on YouTube and the smallest kids are overcoming shyness by beginning to sing songs.
Neglecting and abandoning that potential in young people and walking away from it is wrong if we are in the midst of a morality tale. Especially if we are trying to help them recover from two years of a pandemic that has turned their worlds upside-down.
“But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Matthew 18:6
A personal outcome of the tale has started to emerge; I’m happier to be removed from the St. Stephen’s environment. I’m not “a good fit” for the St. Stephen’s community. Their representative is 100% correct.
Separating the wheat and tares.
Each day I also become a little more happy to be out of unhealthy surroundings and happier to notice the people who appreciate my efforts.
” I’ve always thought that human beings are predisposed to make sense of the world (and themselves) by telling stories… this is why a simplistic ‘populist’ narrative is always more seductive than facts. Moreover, psychotherapy can be construed as a process which involves patients presenting chaotic narratives to therapists, who then edit them so that they are more coherent. Coherent self-narratives seem to be associated with improved mental health outcomes. Storytelling is fundamental. It’s how we organize experience: chains of cause and effect divided into beginnings, middles, and ends. An intuitively satisfying way of thinking about identity is as ‘the story that we tell ourselves about ourselves’. The different roles that we ‘perform’ are sewn together by our life story. Therefore, a strong self-narrative prevents divisions opening-up within the self and fragmentations of the self. A coherent self-narrative stops us from ‘losing the plot’.
- Frank Tallis
We still observed our yearly ritual of awarding instruments to a group of our students to keep as their own during the season of giving. Congratulations to Ari (Fender electric guitar) Annie (Deering banjo) Enosh (Fender electric guitar) Gracelyn (Lanikai baritone ukulele) Florence (Lanikai baritone ukulele) Matt (Fender acoustic guitar) Isaak (Fender acoustic guitar) Timothy (Fender acoustic guitar) Kaitlyn (Fender ukulele) Isoria (Fender acoustic/electric guitar) Jadon (Deering banjo)
Beginning Middle End
Starting again as a solo act
I think most people would agree that 2020 and 2021 were not the greatest of times. Strings Attached survived the pandemic of those two years with a full roster of students, uninterrupted teaching and ample funding to start 2022. But St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Ferguson ended our partnership in December, 2021, withholding our accumulated funding, my healthcare savings, and forcing us out of the church building by the end of December under threat of paying storage fees for the project’s belongings.
A truly sad ending for 2021. I couldn’t have imagined a sadder ending to very worthwhile community project.
So I started again as, “Mr. Steve’s Guitars and Ukuleles.”
On December 26, 2021, a group of volunteers and I packed up our guitars, ukuleles and amps and left the church that had been our place of lessons, recitals, Christmas concerts and community fundraisers for 12 years. But from that experience very positive things happened ~
It gave me, as solo act, the opportunity to repay a debt to the Ferguson/Florissant School District.
As we cleared out our musical possessions from St. Stephen’s, I handed a majority of them off as donations to the Missouri Teacher of the Year, James Young – a music teacher & guitarist in the district.
He is also a student parent with Strings Attached/Mr. Steve’s
The donation consisted of 41 ukuleles, 35 guitars, 10 amps, an electric keyboard and a drum set. This donation will help create a pool of instruments that can be used by students in the district for their music studies.
For me, it was a good way to complete a circle of education that began in the 1970’s with Mr. Robert Cliff, a social studies teacher in the district, who created an independent study program that I was encouraged to participate in as a teenager. In that program, I was allowed to pursue my interests and to self-educate, because the school did not, and could not, provide an education in what I was interested in.
My interest was guitar. Mr. Cliff was aware of that. He was also aware that talents I had were not being attended to by the high school study offerings. Guitar was not a school subject matter in those days. It really had no place in any school music education offerings like jazz band, marching band, orchestra or choir either. I couldn’t be trained in the school system to pursue my guitar passion in college. So, he allowed me to use half of my school day to be dedicated to self-education, including working & teaching in a local music store for a salary. (I also joined the St. Louis Musicians Union and played with a rock band by night in bars & taverns – but I didn’t tell the school that was part of my accumulating work experience!!)
At the end of each semester during high school I made a presentation to a teacher panel, including Mr. Cliff, of what I had taught myself and what my accomplishments were for the period of study.
I’m still at it 49 years later.
So on December 26, 2021 as I stood in the parking lot of St. Stephen’s and watched all those instruments drive away, I got a great deal of satisfaction knowing that the guitars, ukuleles and music accessories were going to a school district system that in years past had no place for people like me – with the exception of Mr. Cliff. I also have some satisfaction knowing that guitars and ukuleles are now part of children and teen’s education in public schools.