I brought my ukulele to Washington D.C. with me. In hindsight, I am not sure I had any real reason to bring it except that I just didn’t want to leave it behind. I didn’t want to be without it for even a day. I never really know when inspiration will hit. Sometimes, I make quick recordings using the sound function on my cell phone. I try to have my ipod touch with me at all times, but a song is never completely a song without my ukulele.
I didn’t play my ukulele at all the first night in the hotel. I was so exhausted. I just fell asleep. At the end of the first day of training, I asked one of the instructors if I might be able to lead everyone in song one day that week. I thought it would be fun to sing “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie. It is one that I like to sing with visitors at the end of my canal tours and a wonderful way to think about national parks as belonging to all of us—totally cheesy, I know. But I don’t care! I got the ok, so that night I took out the uke to practice.
After I played through the song a couple of times, I starting twinkling and found a pattern I liked, heard a little melody, and quickly got out my ipod to record it. I wondered what words there might be in those beginning notes, and I remembered the lyrics I had started writing from different interviews about unions on the second floor of the Boott.
I opened the document, did a quick save as with the new date and tried singing the lyrics to the new melody. Many minutes passed and I had written the song. I loved it. It was a happy, bouncy melody that felt good to sing along to, even with the darker experienced being shared through the stories.
Again, in hindsight, I realize that my inner critic was nowhere to be found. Nowhere. I haven’t seen it once in this week of songwriting.
I say week, though I have only been in D.C. for two full days of training. It feels like so much longer.
So, I brought my ukulele to training this morning with the intent of leading everyone in a song written by someone else. In the back of my mind on Monday, I had the thought that maybe I could write a song using STS. I had seen that there would be a field activity component on the afternoon of the second day of training, which seemed like a possible opportunity, but I didn’t yet know what the activity would be and if it would be a good fit.
We had a training about communication and listening all morning. At the beginning, we were asked to share our name, where we worked, our job, and our favorite national park. People went around and gave their job titles, but I really wanted to share the Story-to-Song component. Why was it so important? Was I trying to show off? I don’t think so. I think it just means so much to me to be realizing this new identity that I want to connect myself to it. I didn’t call myself a musician. I didn’t call myself a singer songwriter. I especially do not like the latter descriptive word. When people use it to refer to themselves, it makes me cringe.
Instead, I said:
“My name is Marieke…..ranger m…..I am an interpreter, and I write songs from spoken stories.”
The presenter asked me later that morning how to pronounce my name to make sure she got it right, and she told me I had great energy. She also told me she thought it was so cool that I was a songwriter.
“You’re a songwriter,” she said. “That’s so cool!”
So, she connected those words in her mind and mirrored back to me the word songwriter, which felt fine.
After the morning session, one of the instructors explained the afternoon field activity and called out names to divide us into groups. We would be visiting different sites around the Mall, interviewing someone on staff at the site, and asking at least three questions from a sheet of questions we were given. We could ask question of our own as well, and we were encouraged to make observations.
That was it! I was going to bring my ukulele, write down as much as I could of words verbatim from the person my group would be speaking with, and write a song. Maybe, my group would even want to write the song with me!
Note: There was not even a hint of an inner critic. I was determined. I wanted to write a song.
Plus, I knew we would be giving presentations when we got back, and I imagined that sharing a song and inviting people to sing with the chorus might help lift people’s spirits at the end of a long day. At least, it would lift mine. As much as I want to focus my concentration on each group and be respectful, I get tired and it can be difficult to pay attention.
So, I asked if anyone in the group minded if I brought my ukulele. They were thrilled! I saw one of the instructors before the walk to the Smithsonian National history Museum, and she asked about it.
“Things might get musical!” I replied. “You never know.”
So, I hauled the uke all the way across the Mall. My group was so sweet. They each kept offering to carry it for me.
I thanked my group members for offering to help me carry it and said that my motto was if I couldn’t carry it then I couldn’t take it with me.
We got to the Smithsonian and had to walk through a long line of security. It moved quickly, but I knew they would ask about my ukulele. Sure enough, I set the case on the counter, and the guard asked what was inside.
“A ukulele,” I said.
He asked me to open the case, so I did.
“Wow,” he said. “There really is a ukulele in there.”
I imagine they don’t get too many visitors with a ukulele coming in.
We ate an outrageously expensive lunch and went to try and meet the person we would be interviewing.
One woman walked by and we wondered if she was the one, but she didn’t make eye contact and continued by us without incident.
A few moments later, a woman appeared who was “walking with intent,” someone from the group said.
And she was the one. She wasn’t short. She wasn’t tall. She had short, dark hair, a black sweater vest with no buttons down the front, and a white shirt. Black and white trousers and leather boots with a pointed toe. Her glasses were amazing. Dark red rims with black trim around the eyes.
I made sure I told her how much I loved her glasses.
“You need ruby slippers to go with those glasses as part of your uniform,” one of my group members told her at the end of our time together as we rode the elevator back down to the lobby.
But before the end, let’s get back to the beginning. She pointed to two steel doors and said, “I like to call those the mysterious doors. Follow me through these mysterious doors,” she said.
As we walked through the doors, we entered a dimly lit, long, narrow hallway with lined with storage rooms on either side filled with objects that tell our American story.
“People call and say, can I have a behind the scenes tour? Well, it isn’t that exciting. It isn’t very glamorous.”
We walked down the hallway and around corners, up two small sets of stairs and into a small conference area with a wooden table with chairs set up around it. She sat the head, and we each found a chair.
We asked her our questions, and I took copious notes. In fact, I was taking notes all the way down the hallway. I would set my uke down and put the sheet of paper on the floor to get a hard surface to write on. at one point, Samantha said, “Here. Let me help you,” and before I could say anything she had picked up the uke to carry it for me so I could continue writing.
At the table, I wrote and wrote and wrote. After we went through the three required questions, we asked a few more. I told her I had a three-fold question. I asked her to tell me about a wild, a funny, and a moving moment from her experience, and as she spoke, I wrote. I asked her to pause periodically and to repeat words I hadn’t captured in my notes.
Then, as others asked questions, I began shaping verses and two possible chorus. What was the message of the song? Was it about her career or was it about stories? I decided it was about stories because that was what inspired her to continue working there for eighteen years. So really, it was about both. I chose the chorus:
So many stories.
How can you ask me to choose.
Stories from all over.
They make us who we are.
When she left us at the lobby, we parted ways for a half an hour and planned to meet out front, where I told everyone I would be sitting in the shade writing the song. I offered for anyone to work with me, but everyone expressed that they were fine with me working on it.
So, I did. I went to use the restroom before a quick visit to the gift shop (just in case there were earrings, one of my vices/guilty pleasures when I travel. I love earrings because they are like affordable, portable art). I heard a possible beginning of a melody while I was peeing (I know. TMI), so I kept repeating it.
I can remember this until after I go to the gift shop, I thought. Then, I heard another line, and I thought I should record it just in case because I have lost melodies when I didn’t record them in the past. No need to risk it today.
So, I made a recording using my cell phone.
Then, I bought a ring and a pair of earrings, left the dangerous gift shop, headed up the stairs, past a smiling security guard who seemed entertained by me (was he chuckling to himself?), and outside to a shady spot.
I sat on a flat piece of marble beneath a shrub and tried to work quickly. I listened to the recordings I had made on my cell phone and found the key I was singing in. I tried probable chords and sang through the chorus and beginning verses. I made a few recordings and soon my group members began to appear one by one.
“Let’s hear it,” they said. And it was my moment of truth. Would they like what I played? Would they think it was terrible?
So I played the song.
And they LOVED it! As we walked back, one of the women in the group wanted to learn more about the songwriting process, so I explained my dissertation work and the time I spent learning the STS method from my research partner and friend, Malcolm.
I felt so much love and support from my group. One partner offered to type up the lyrics and work with our trainers to get the document up on the big projection screen so everyone in the audience could see it.
Another wanted to me to practice the chorus with him quietly while we waited to present. He wanted to be sure he could sing it with me.
One person from the group gave the beginning portion of the presentation. He had gone around the museum and taken photographs of the different items our interviewee had mentioned when we were talking with her. These were the very things I mentioned in my song, and now people in the audience would see the photos and hear them in the song! He transitioned to the song with many kind words of the work I did. Another chimed in, saying “this beautiful little lady wrote an entire song all by herself.” And I tried to wave him off because compliments make me uncomfortable. But truly, I was honored by his words.
And then I taught the audience the chorus. I spoke each line first and asked people to repeat each line. Then, I sang each line and asked people to repeat. Finally, I played through the chorus slowly, trying to sing the next line ahead of time and repeat it with everyone.
After our presentation, one of the trainers came up to me and said, “we need to get a recording of that song to share with our partner. We like to keep our partners happy!” to which I replied, “I made a recording of the entire presentation, and later tonight I can make mp3 files to bring in to you tomorrow. I can make a file of the entire presentation and make a separate file with just the song. I have some experience with this.”
The next day, when I handed her the flash drive and explained how to find the files in the folder I had created, she said, “You are awesome!”
I felt awesome, too!
I brought my ukulele the day after because I decided that I would rather haul it around and not use it than wish I had brought it if I left it in my hotel room. Besides, I lugged it down to D.C., I might as well have it with me. Plus, I felt better when I had it with me. I could take it out during breaks and just strum or twinkle a little, and it had an amazing calming effect on my nerves, which seems to always be right on the edge.
So, after I handed her the flash drive, she asked if they would get to hear another song.
“Well,” I said. I do have a song that I wrote with my sister from her story that is all about people with different temperaments and personalities. I thought that might be a fun one to sing since we have been talking about Myers-Briggs and communication these past couple of days.”
“Sounds great,” she said. And she looked over the schedule and suggested that maybe right before lunch I could play the song.
I tried teaching everyone the chorus for the sister song, but I didn’t feel like many people participated. This could either be a result of exhaustion right before lunch or because the chorus was too complicated or didn’t speak to them. The chorus is my sister’s words and maybe the audience just didn’t feel a personal connection to them in the same way as the words of the story song the day before that were personal but more generally about stories than about the person we interviewed. The jury is out on that one.
I also tend to not focus my attention on the audience when I play a song, so I don’t have the opportunity to gauge their level of interest and/or participation. I do remember looking at Matt the day before just as I was starting the story song and seeing how whipped he look and wondering if it was a good idea to try to encourage everyone to sing.
After the performance of the sister song, I was disappointed. I thought I had failed because it didn’t seem like many people had sung the chorus with me. But people made a point of coming up to me after—people I had not yet spoken with during the training—to tell me how much they appreciated the song and that they could tell I put my entire heart into it and they thought I was courageous.
Ok, inner critic. Time to take a little break. They did like the music!
The next day, I left my room without the ukulele and wavering back and forth. As I headed to the elevator with my coworker from Lowell, I told her I felt naked without it, like something was missing.
“You should bring it,” she said. “Maybe there will be time for music!”
It didn’t take much convincing for me to run back and grab it. “I feel better already,” I told her as we got on the elevator.
At lunch, two of the trainers asked me to tell them more about the songwriting I did. The trainer I had come to love so much because she made me feel so valued and supported asked if I was going to play another song.
“Well,” I said. “I would still really love to play ‘This Land Is Your Land’ for everyone to sing.”
“That would be great! She said, and maybe we could even do it at graduation. A lot of important people have spoken in that auditorium, including Obama. It would be pretty special.”
I was so excited and unbelievably honored to possibly be included in the lineup!
And nervous. After taking the elevator up for a unique birds-eye view of D.C., I promptly went outside, sat on a bench, and took out my uke to practice. I took one quick moment to have a fellow participant in the training take my photograph in front of a Benjamin Franklin statue.
By the time graduation arrived, I wondered if they might have forgotten the offer for me to play. But I noticed the trainer had set aside one of the certificates as she was going through the pile and calling out each person’s name.
Could that be my certificate? Are they saving it for last so I can play? I didn’t want to be presumptuous or get my hopes up too high. Maybe, it was a person who wasn’t there and they were saving it.
But when they got to my name, she called out, “Ok cupcake, come on up here. You know this is for you!”
And when I went by each trainer and hugged them, they offered words of love and encouragement.
And as I turned around to face everyone from my group, a woman who had barely spoken all week due to laryngitis leaned forward and waved her right arm, pounding her fist three times on the back of the seat in front of her and calling out in a strangled voice “Song! Song! Song!”
“Can I still sing?” I asked the trainer tentatively.
“Of course! The one we talked about?”
She handed me the mic, and I proceeded to talk about the importance of participation and the strength and hope created by all of our voices joined together in song.
And then I started strumming. When the first line came out, everyone was singing, but something was wrong. I was singing the wrong notes! I was horrified.
“Stop! Stop! This isn’t right,” I called out. And everyone stopped.
And I tried again, with everyone singing, but again the notes were wrong.
I was mortified. I felt this wave of negative energy wash through my body from head to toe, and I thought I might lose my nerve altogether.
“I can’t do this,” I told the trainer. I recalled telling Malcolm the very same thing when he first asked me to sing during this very same month two years ago.
“Yes you can,” she said encouragingly. Her grip on the microphone never wavered for a second.
So, I closed my eyes and started strumming. I played through the strumming pattern a couple of times until I found the rhythm of the song that felt right. And as soon as I found that rhythm, I found the melody again.
“I got it,” I told the audience.
“Phew! The world makes sense again. I’m still standing, and I know:”
“This land was made for you and me…..”
and we all sang.
I know that the love that everyone in that room was sending to me was what helped me to succeed. They wanted to sing with me. They believed in me.
Before I sang, I thanked everyone for supporting me so much that week. I told them I had never felt so valued in my professional life. And it was true. This was the epitome of being celebrated for who I am and what I have to offer the world. And it would not be possible if that support hadn’t started with the enthusiasm and encouragement for the music I started writing during my time in Lowell.
It also would not be possible without the time I have spent in the Prescott PhD program. From the moment I arrived on campus that very first day of the August colloquium in 2009, I felt valued. It was like I was loved and supported and considered exceptional by virtue of being in the program. “There is a reason you are all here,” the faculty told us. “It is no accident that we chose you to be in this program.” I didn’t believe it then, but I am beginning to believe. Maybe, I really am an artist. Maybe, the work I do has value. Maybe, I can make a difference in the world. And maybe, just maybe, I already have.