I encountered Nick Page recently when he was a guest performer (and featured composer and arranger) for a local children’s choir concert. The theater was full of energy, from the students on stage (from fourth grade through their senior year of high school) to the proud family members in the audience. And we weren’t allowed to be a passive audience, either; Nick Page got us all to sing, and to sing enthusiastically. Being curious to learn more, I got in touch via email and he was kind enough to spend some time with me on the telephone. Here’s what he had to say.
The NewsWhistle Q&A with Nick Page
Date: May 29, 2018
Occupation: musician, song leader, composer, conductor
Hometown: Lexington, MA, spending summers in Vermont (and I lived in Chicago for three years, went to Ithaca college, and lived in South Dakota for two years…my bluegrass name is Nick Dakota)
Current town: Melrose, MA
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today, I really appreciate it. So, when I saw you perform a few weeks ago I wasn’t familiar with your music at all. But it was really a delightful show, and I think the whole audience enjoyed participating along with you and the young people on stage. For those who haven’t had the benefit of seeing you in action, how would you describe what you do?
It’s community. It’s about the power of community and about giving people permission (as I do in my song “Do You Shine”) to let the light in, and let the light out. Singing is an act of compassion and that community is part of it.
TheNickpage / YouTube.com
When you were introduced, you were compared by the choir director to Pete Seeger. Is he one of your influences? What other musicians have inspired you?
I’ve been inspired by song leaders like Pete Seeger, and Ysaye Barnwell from Sweet Honey in the Rock, and Alice Parker (now celebrating 95 years). If between 1950 and now you’ve sung in any choral group, you’ve probably sung an arrangement by her. She’s a beloved figure. She had a huge influence on me. When I did my graduate degree at Lesley in Cambridge, I synthesized my ideas about song leading into a book called Sing and Shine On. It begins with my philosophy of combining multicultural and multi-sensory education into a unified theory of music–how it affects our hearts, our brains, our bodies, communities, the science of it, and also the culture of it. There are many universal principles of music that are common to all people, and there are also some huge differences and that’s something I love.
From Ysaye Barnwell, I learned the importance of stories. When you connect a song with a story, you get something quite powerful. And it is partly the story that gives it the power. So when she teaches a spiritual as an African American, she explains all about slavery, auction blocks, slave ships, and slave life, and how Christianity was brought in and taught, and how they turned that message into these gorgeous hymns they created, that were very rich freedom songs. The songs would say, “we’re going to heaven,” but they were really saying, “we’re going to freedom.” Or, they were saying both. But I learned the power of story from her. Let’s say I’m doing a West African song: I have to tell the story, I have to explain, it was not created for entertainment. It has a purpose. Part of this is the gift of the music itself. You don’t perform, you give…it’s an act of sharing and understanding. The difference is very important.
So, when you approach things in this way, have you not then been accused of cultural appropriation?
That’s a hard question to answer. I’m very aware of what I’m doing. I don’t change the words. A lot of people change the words, when doing a gospel song, they change “lord” to “love,” and that is treating a song as universal, and belonging to the person leading the song. The message is universal, but the song belongs to a culture, and should not be changed. And it’s also a bit of a white entitlement to change the song, because, as a white person I’d be saying I can do with the song as I wish, and that’s an inappropriate thing to do and to think. But that’s my opinion. There are different opinions, there are people who think nothing of changing a spiritual and making it something different, and having fun. But they are missing the point. These aren’t performance songs and one has to be careful about turning them into entertainment.
That’s a hard question to answer about appropriation. I’m going to give you a big thought here.
The big thought is a spectrum of authenticity. Total authenticity would be black South Africans marching and chanting an anti-apartheid song in 1976. Complete inauthenticity would be a children’s choir in the US singing “we are marching in the light of God,” with no understanding of what that song means. That’s the opposite on the spectrum.
But when I as a white person perform a black South African song, I have to celebrate the story and the style of the song, the a cappella harmonies, the rhythms, and I have to be honest and say that I am not completely authentic. I am in the US performing a song from South Africa. I need to treat it with respect, but I know that I am not being completely authentic.
Part of song leading is being honest about who you are and not pretending to be something you are not. You can’t be 100 percent authentic, if you are not of that culture, but you have to honor the story.
Thank you for your very thoughtful answer; I think those complicated questions are often oversimplified and misunderstood.
Yes, great debates get oversimplified.
Oversimplification is okay when you are working with children. That’s what they do in every culture of the world. There will be a complicated rhythm which children will imitate, and they’ll do a simple version of what the adults do. That’s true in every culture of the world.
That being said, a lot of what people call West African drumming is a very Americanized form of drumming, with very little resemblance to West African classical drumming, which is passed down from generation to generation, taught by masters, and is as complicated as anything Johann Sebastian Bach ever wrote. Most Americans think that they are doing West African drumming, but they are doing a simplified version, and not being honest with themselves.
Morgan Nooney / YouTube.com
On a more positive note, what is the best part of being a song leader?
The best is just the energy. Being in front of people, hearing people, hearing that echo, feeling that energy. It’s not coming from me. If you noticed at that show in Bridgeport, the first thing I did was bring up a man from the audience. I do that everywhere. Usually, it’s a child, but he had a special sparkle. I want to break down the hierarchy, not be someone above teaching those below– it has to be a community event. The power comes not from the leader, but from the community. Once there’s a volunteer (well, I was the one who volunteered him!) the dynamic changes. I do corporate groups on retreats, and I bring members of the group up to help me. What that does is, it gives everyone permission to let the light in and let the light out. I can be in front of non-singers. I don’t have the power to make non-singers sing, but when one of their group gets up there and gives permission, it is community event. There’s someone named Starhawk—she’s a pagan, new age person, and she talks about power-over (which is hierarchical), and power-within (that’s more eastern, Buddhist), and power-with, which is the community itself. I go for that middle ground.
That’s really very inspiring that you think so deeply about these issues when you perform and when you work with kids.
Even that little song has deeply philosophical words: “Well you gotta’ know the dark if you’re gonna’ know the light / ‘Cause the dark and light, they sort a’ go together./ Find the joy in all you do – even when you’re feeling blue / ‘Cause the pain and joy are part of life’s great blessings.”
We are blessed to be here.
So what are the challenges when it comes to song leading? Does it sometimes just not work?
Challenges–yes, there are people who won’t sing no matter what. And that’s something you have to come to terms with. So that would be the challenge. When I’m working with a corporate group, they work together and they usually feel safe enough to sing, even out of tune. I don’t criticize anyone for singing out of tune. The purpose is not to sing well, but to let the light out and really express yourself and become more alive. We live in a world where people hide behind walls, they’re hiding their feelings. They aren’t aware of things. When I have them repeat after me. “Freedom is sweet…” and it comes back tuneless…they aren’t aware and they aren’t really listening. And that is indicative of how they live their lives. They are just not aware. Part of what I do is teach awareness, particularly with children.
“Freedom is sweet!” And when they get it right, they get that T sound at the end of the phrase, and they learn to listen. I once had a teacher tell me about a group of kids and how many of them had attention deficit disorder, and that I shouldn’t expect much. They started out, they sang it poorly, and I forced them to listen. And they did, and then they had no trouble paying attention at all, once they were challenged to listen and to be aware. And I am challenging them to be alive.
That’s a very big goal. Who are the musicians you feel the most privileged to have had the chance to work with, and what are some of your musical career highlights?
Well, I took a workshop with Bobby McFerrin.
Oh, that must have been great!
And Ysaye Barnwell, I studied with her. Alice Parker, I studied with her. Pete Seeger came to a sing I did, and gave me some good advice. I’m also classically trained. (And I’m folk schooled—what that means is I am equally comfortable with the folk song Shenandoah and the Bach Magnificat.)
I know in times of budget cuts schools often want to reduce or eliminate music programs (which I think is tremendously short sighted). Why do you think music education is important?
Well, that’s a huge question. I will just say that there is so much more to music than just pretty sounds. And here’s a list:
It teaches awareness. It teaches self-discipline. It teaches self-expression. It teaches beauty. It teaches creativity. It teaches the ability to work with others. It teaches community. It teaches to children how to listen. How to be able to correct their own mistakes. It teaches them to be creative. To be compassionate. To make music as a gift, not as showing off. It teaches them to be connected to the past, and committed to the future. It teaches them that there is a purpose to singing. And ultimately there’s a purpose to everything we do.
Those are some of the reasons. My book has a chapter about 65 reasons why music should be central to education. That’s a chapter near the end of the book.
I think I have to read your book.
Read that chapter in particular.
And it teaches so many other things…It teachers you about culture, and about history, and about tradition.
TheNickpage / YouTube.com
You mentioned when I saw you perform that you believe there is a spiritual quality in performing music…can you speak to that a bit?
Well, for example, when I say “do you let the light in?” one can look at that from a physical perspective, we absorb the photons of the sun in our skin, the way a leaf on a tree does. But there’s a spiritual part of it, too. My whole view of spirituality—believe it or not, I’m not a Christian– but my belief is based on something St. Paul said, “Faith is the belief in things unseen.” No one can prove the existence of God. But no one can prove the existence of love either. If you go to a hardcore atheist and ask if they believe in love, most will say yes. (Some will say no, that emotions are only chemical reactions in the brain, but most will say yes.) For me, that’s a belief in things unseen. The least of the connection that we make is love, and that is huge! When we make the next leap, which isn’t all that far, to spirit itself and to God, we are entering into a whole different realm, a now that is eternal. Which is why, when I lead a sing, I work hard at being present. Now. Being there now, not thinking bout the next thing.
That sounds like what some traditions would call mindfulness, or living in the moment.
I wish there were more opportunities in our culture for art, not just to experience it, but to create it and enjoy it. I don’t think we dance enough (mostly these days I dance at weddings, and at my age there are fewer weddings to attend than there used to be) or sing enough, or draw enough. I love going to concerts and plays and museums of course, but I think the arts should also be about the day to day. What are your thoughts on that?
Yes, again it’s the hierarchy. The Beethovens and Bachs should compose, the DaVincis should paint, Mary Oliver and Robert Frost should write poems. When you get out of the hierarchy, it’s what art is all about, taking anything that’s visual that’s giving it meaning. I’m reading a book of graduation speeches by Kurt Vonnegut. There’s a quote in there, “Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories.”
I read that book. I liked it, although I thought it needed some more editing; as it was a collection of graduation speeches it was somewhat unnecessarily repetitive.
Then you should read his book, Palm Sunday. That one he put together himself, a lot of the same ideas.
I did read that one, but it was a long time ago…I think I was a teenager. I should pick it up again. But I am very impressed with Kurt Vonnegut and the ability he had to communicate simple and profound concepts. And with a lot of humor.
Where do you get your ideas and inspiration from as a musician and composer?
From my fellow people. And I get inspiration from swimming, being in water, being connected with the molecules of the water…It’s a reunion of water that has been around since the beginning of matter. The water in us is eternal, the water in our bodies has been everywhere, clouds, glaciers, oceans. When you drink a glass of water, you drink a molecule that has been in the body of Jesus. Everything is communal and I draw my energy from a living universe.
I also like bad jokes. But I won’t tell you one! Well, here’s one by Kurt Vonnegut: “Everyone who believes in telekinesis, raise my hand!”
That’s a good one! I wonder if it ever worked!
Who are your favorite working musicians now?
Hard to say. I mean, I have on my iPod 22,000 songs and I have a very wide taste in music. If I were to name individuals who are alive, well, Joni Mitchell is alive but no longer composing. She’s been very ill.
There’s a whole bunch of songwriters I love. I have a very wide taste in music, and I’m always expanding the taste and what the world of music is. I grew up in a white suburb, and in Chicago, my world expanded, with African-American and Jewish music, and in Cambridge, my world expanded again with gays and lesbians. Then I worked with kindergarten students and senior citizens, and my world kept expanding. Working with a chorus called Joyful Noise, people with disabilities, with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism…it was a life-changing experience. They sang at a third grade level, but with more emotion than I have ever felt in my life. They cried, they felt it. I wrote a song for them, “You have a heart–use it, let it out,” and the song is about what they taught me. I had a disability because I wasn’t feeling it as they were feeling it.
I was going to ask you for a book recommendation, but you’ve already given me your book and Palm Sunday.
I love to read biographies, and about new paradigms in science. Right now I’m rereading The Universe is a Green Dragon, by Brian Swimme. It’s looking at basic stuff like how water absorbs salt, and the deeper meaning of that in our lives. The second law of thermodynamics, and how atoms behave in ways science cannot predict, and looking at deeper meanings, science and what it means.
I’m a Unitarian Universalist, but I don’t beat anyone over the head with that.
Okay, so Sing and Shine On, Palm Sunday, and The Universe is a Green Dragon. I have a reading list! Thank you very much for your time! Last but not least, is there anything you want to pitch, promote, or discuss?
I would encourage people to become part of communities. If possible, make these creative communities, communities that make us more aware, more compassionate, and more alive.
For those interested, my website is www.nickmusic.com. It has info on bringing me to communities, from schools, places of worship, to corporate retreats.
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NICK PAGE! Video Courtesy of Morgan Nooney / YouTube.com; All Other Images Courtesy of Nick Page
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